Every pet owner can recall the surge of excitement that comes with bringing home a new puppy or kitten. You spend days animal-proofing your house, looking for every way your new fur baby could get into trouble. You throw away questionable plants and move delicate decor into storage. You spend an hour scrutinizing the items in the pet store, comparing food brands and over-spending on toys, ready to spoil your new friend rotten.
The first few days of owning a new pet are undoubtedly filled with an abundance of playtime and joy. Your pet will be all over your Instagram; you are certain that your 300 followers can’t go 24 hours without seeing what your buddy has been up to. You will worry about him or her when you’re at work, and you’ll be relieved to see such a happy face when you return at the end of the day.
You’ll understand the meaning of love a little better when you see how much he or she appreciates your attention. You’ll feel a sense of satisfaction at the fact that you’ve given this animal a warm place to call home.
There’s a lot on your mind. What will you name him or her? Will they ever fully learn their name when you call them a variety of nicknames? When should you schedule the first vet appointment? Will your new pal destroy your couch?
But there’s one thing that’s definitely not on your mind: saying goodbye. You haven’t even fully said hello yet! Your final moments together are completely not on your radar, and understandably so.
This is the unspoken agreement that comes with adopting a pet – the part that you don’t want to think about, that your brain can’t fully comprehend in the beginning. When you pay that adoption fee and leave the shelter with your new friend, you are signing a bigger contract than the one on the adoption papers, on which you enthusiastically signed your name.
You are bargaining your own heart; you are silently agreeing to let it break one day. You are consenting to eventually saying goodbye before you are ready. You are, in effect, accepting a future hole in your life, one that never will be filled in quite the same way again.
This ultimate sadness, the pain that you will inevitably feel, comes from the most selfless place in your soul. All humans who are able to make this deal are filled with a certain gentle strength. One day, you will be forced to make the decision to end your pet’s suffering. This is unavoidable, though we don’t want to recognize it during the first chapter. You will nod your head in agreement, just as you nodded your head in agreement the day you adopted your pet. You will whisper final goodbyes and stroke your pal’s fur one last time.
However, to this animal, his life begins and ends with you. Your pet won’t experience the loss that comes with his passing; you are electing to take that on yourself. You are trading your sadness for his happiness; you have given him a life of bright color, at the expense of your heart.
It is unfair, in a sense, that a dog or cat’s life makes up a fraction of your own. You will find yourself wishing that your pet could live as long as you; you will find yourself wondering why that isn’t the case.
If you grew up with a pet, you will understand the way that your life can be marked by the animals you’ve loved at different stages in your childhood. You can remember the first time you had to say goodbye to an animal, perhaps without fully understanding death just yet, but embracing the idea that you are helping them find peace.
You can remember the drive away from the animal hospital, staring out the window, fighting back tears. You can remember thinking “I’ll never love another animal again as much.”
But somehow, you find yourself at a shelter in the future. You find yourself looking through the clear windowpanes, staring into the faces of animals without homes. You lock eyes with one in particular, and you know instantly. Your heart makes the bargain for you.
You start the cycle over again with your new companion, and you learn that saying goodbye never gets easier; that you will never be fully prepared for it. However, you now understand the trade-off, and you know that it is worth every teardrop to provide this animal with a decade of happiness.
Eventually, you learn that while it’s hard to love in the exact same manner, there is always room in your heart to begin another chapter. You understand that hello will someday turn into goodbye, but you do it anyway. You sign the papers, and sign away another hole in your heart in exchange for all the good that comes in between.