Bilbo the Cat: Bearer of Compassion and Soother of Souls, Before I Realized I Needed Those Things
Have you ever loved a pet -- and had that pet love you in return? I surely have. The photo above is of Bilbo, who was my loving companion in medical school, residency, and beyond.
My then-boyfriend gave him to me as an early Valentine's gift. At least that was the story he told.
More truthfully, we rescued him from Zayre's Discount Store one snowy afternoon, when we were shopping for a few other things. Bilbo was a scrawny kitten sitting all by himself in a much-too-big cage, yelling his head off as I walked by. A sign said he was "free to a good home." I knelt down to his level on the floor, and was smitten from the first eye contact. The little fluff-ball knew it, too. Reaching his paw out through the bars of his prison, he fully claimed my heart with one tender touch. That was it. D's objections were futile.
Our shopping list expanded to include kitten supplies and toys, along with food for his hungry belly. (Zayre's profited by giving him away that day!) Home he came, sitting on me and purring the whole way. Of course his name was "Bilbo," after the Hobbit in Lord of the Rings (my then favorite book). I fancied that his feet were furry like the Hobbits' were, plus his expressive ears registered all manner of emotion. His perky pink nose added to the sweetness of his face.
Although he wouldn't admit it openly, D loved him in his own way. This gruff, macho-behaving guy ended up sewing a furry "snug sack" that echoed Bilbo's black and white fur. Zipped up, it was big enough to fit one human; unzipped and laid across laps and legs, it was perfect for two. Its warmth was essential, since our multi-windowed apartment was very drafty. Bilbo would stretch out over us like a purring Superman, laying claim to us both.
Being on a Navy scholarship for medical school, D had many clinical rotations away in other towns. I made sure I could walk to most of mine locally, since I didn't have a car. I also wanted to be home each night to care for Bilbo. It was somewhat like looking after a child, watching him grow -- minus the need for day care while I was at school. There were happy times making a snow elephant one winter, and vigorous gardens in the springs and summers. Bilbo would pad along beside us as we worked in the yard; he never tried to run away. Sometimes he even helped us dig, but he didn't poop in the garden. He knew we were his family.
In spring of our 4th year, we married. Fearing my alcoholic mother's probable shenanigans at a traditional wedding, we chose a small private ceremony with only the pastor and 2 of our medical school classmates as witnesses. I made my dress and embroidered D's shirt, with Bilbo supervising the process. I am sure there were cat hairs woven into both of our garments! We announced our marriage after the fact.
D's parents and grandmother Mimi were kind enough to care for Bilbo while we interviewed all over the nation for residencies. This was especially gracious of them, since his mother was allergic to cats! Mimi loved him dearly, and she enjoyed having him in her downstairs apartment (where his dander wouldn't cause reactions for Georga, either). By the end of our travels, Bilbo had Mimi heating his canned food. "Oh, he doesn't want that old cold stuff!" she told us. She was reluctant to let him go when we returned, but we somehow prevailed.
Bilbo was my ongoing companion through the perils of internship, psychiatric residency, multiple moves, and eventual marital distress and dissolution. He was patient while I cried, and he would lick my teary face. I nurtured him through several illnesses, including lymphoma and occult abscesses from cat fights I hadn't known he'd been in. I was suicidal and in treatment myself; I knew I could not kill myself though, because no one would be left to look after him. So in his gentle feline way, Bilbo's presence helped me hold on to life when it might have been otherwise.
After the divorce, Bilbo and I lived out in the country. I was full-time faculty at the medical school, developing and running a busy mental health service for medical students and residents. Between working, playing with Bilbo, writing papers, and playing music, I somehow took up birding as a hobby. He loved to watch all the colorful visitors come to the feeders, and there were so many! He and I were quite a pair -- huddled down a dirt road by the river, listening to the calls of barred owls and foxes. I continued in my own psychotherapy, and some feeling of aliveness started to return.
One day I came home from work, to find blood all over the kitchen. Sweet Bilbo was laying on his side in a closet, doing what cats do when feeling poorly. I quickly got him to an emergency vet, who determined that a tumor under his tongue was the bleeding source. One day he'd been fine, eating and playing; the next day, he was not. He'd had regular checkups every six months since his lymphoma 5 years before, and this tumor had not shown up until it erupted in its current form.
Bilbo lost weight quickly; he could not eat, drink, or groom himself. He was clearly miserable. The vet allowed me to bring him home for one last night together; he slept on my head the whole time. I imagine a lot of heat was coming off that part of me, for him -- but he was still shivering. I added a blanket for him there, and he purred softly. I couldn't imagine him not being a part of my daily life anymore, but I knew it was time to let him go.
The next day we drove back to the vet's office, and I held him gently in my lap as his Rainbow Bridge IV was given. I didn't want him to be alone or frightened, so I stayed with him to the end. He was "with" me one instant, looking up at me. Then suddenly he went limp. All the years of love and compassion between us were right there, in the room. The vet left me alone with him. We had decided he'd be buried on some land the vet had, which would never be disturbed. I was grateful for that kindness, during such a sad situation. That vet had many other ill pets to attend to that day, but he took time to speak of these things with me. He said many people just leave their pets to be euthanized, and he was glad I stayed with mine. I couldn't imagine just dropping him off alone like that, so there was no question at all about what I'd do. I sat with Bilbo's body in my lap for about an hour after that, silently thanking him for his presence in my life. I prayed he would know peace, wherever he had gone. He'd seemed peaceful in this process, but what did I really know? This was long before I'd had my own near-death experience, so I was even more clueless than now.
When I think of those years of severe trauma and grief in losing my marriage, it is Bilbo who was my main comfort and companion. Not even the psychiatrist I was working with matched what "Little Bill" (as some called him) provided for me. Bilbo was simply always present for me, in the wordless places of my soul. It didn't matter how I looked, smelled, or what I was feeling. He seemed to understand suffering, and his eyes seemed soft and gentle with wisdom. He communicated care with his whole body, rubbing up against me. It was a language and comfort beyond the verbal. He also witnessed my evolution from medical student, to resident, to faculty member. It was a long and harrowing road, and I am filled with wonder that I survived. As above, he's a big reason I did.
I could tell you more -- but I won't, just now. What I do know for sure: our pets are compassion embodied in flesh. Loving them is a 2-way street. I hope everyone gets a chance to experience this with some creature in life.