Aunt Acid: Advice on Pet Custody and Private Grief -The Toast

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Programming Note: Thank you so much to everyone who commented and emailed and entrusted me with your secrets over the duration of my time as Aunt Acid. I had many more good questions than I could answer, especially for this last column. I will miss you.

Dear Aunty Acid,

A year ago My Former Roommate asked me to look after her cat as a temporary situation because she was depressed, recently diagnosed with skin cancer, and living with her mom who hates Kitty. As time went by with zero input from her and only one visit to see Kitty, I ended up getting very attached. Since I’ve had her I’ve been taking care of everything, from taking her on her first vet visit to finally getting her the worm medication she needed. 

When we got into a fight about my attachment and her seemingly complete lack of care for Kitty, My Former Roommate told me her life was spiraling and that I should officially adopt Kitty, and if she were to get a place and a job it would be my choice to give Kitty up or not. I told her when the time came I would do what was best for Kitty and My Former Roommate. A week ago, MFR messaged me telling me that she wants Kitty back, that this was always a temporary situation, and that I don’t really have a choice. She’s telling me she has a job and her mom will be moving to Vietnam for two or three years.

I feel like I take better care of Kitty. MFR holds her until she growls and picks up and tosses her. I love Kitty so much it breaks my heart to give her back, but how am I supposed to say no when MFR has a house, a job, and says Kitty helps her deal with her depression? I’ve been crying at work and at home over this, and the idea of MFR feeling the same way makes me feel so guilty for even considering saying no. Where should I be putting the priority — with Kitty or My Former Roommate?

–Miss Moral Compass

Dear Compass,

You’ve found yourself in a sticky-sad situation as an unexpected byproduct of being a good friend and responsible person. That’s unfair. And now I’m going to ask you to do yet another hard thing. Although you are within your rights to keep Kitty—“possession is nine points of the law” and all that, plus YFR originally told you it was up to you—I think you should swallow hard, cry as much as you need to privately, and then give Kitty back with as much good grace as you can scrape together.

If you keep Kitty, that will hurt your former roommate, and it sounds like she has been having a tough enough time already. Telling her that you don’t trust her with her own cat would be a vote of No Confidence in her as a human being. Your friendship would almost certainly be over.

If you return Kitty, it will hurt you. But if you have to choose between hurting yourself and someone else, you choose hurting yourself. That’s what it means to be a grown-up. In this case it’s especially true, since you seem to be in a better position to cope with setbacks. Disappointment might not crush you, whereas it seems likely to make her start spiraling again.

Kitty’s welfare matters too, but although she seems like she’s more comfortable with you, none of the examples you mentioned—including some I had to edit out for length—made it clear she would be in actual danger in YFR’s care. Maybe YFR really has learned and grown, in part thanks to you. Maybe she will do better. She deserves that chance.

You could see this as your being punished for having your shit together. But you could also see it another way: you were rewarded for having your shit together by getting to form a deep and unexpected connection with an animal. Maybe the relationship with Kitty wasn’t Permanent Forever, but it mattered, to both of you. It made a difference. You discovered something about yourself, the real-life equivalent of that dream where you walk into a whole wing of your apartment you didn’t know was there. And if you keep lines of communication open with YFR, perhaps YFR will realize her own limitations and give Kitty back to you, for real this time.

Regardless, appreciate what you had, even if it was temporary. Indulge in self-care while you let yourself grieve. Praise yourself for being able to be there for both a person and an animal that needed you. And get yourself a pet. Not to be a stand-in for Kitty or as a band-aid for the Kitty-sized hole in your heart, but because you’ve shown yourself worthy, and you deserve the kind of devoted, unconditional love an animal can provide.

For the last couple of years we’ve known that my husband is low-key dying. His condition has an average life expectancy of 3-5 years, but there’s a long tail so it could be more like 10. He has intermittent crises (about one a year), any one of which could kill him, but assuming they don’t we’re looking a gradual decline over no more than a decade. In the meantime, he looks and feels pretty good. He’s working part-time in a great, flexible, supportive job; he’s even working out. He’s the primary caregiver for our kid (who’s in a great full-time preschool) due to my work schedule. We’ve made financial arrangements and moved to be closer to family so that we will have support now and after, and I know we will be fine. We’d like him to be around to see our kid grow up, but we have some time to make memories, take photos, etc. Our affairs are in order, and I realize that in that we are TREMENDOUSLY LUCKY.

My husband wants to live as normal a life, with as few people as possible knowing, for as long as possible. He’s private. He doesn’t want pity, or for people to feel weird around him. I understand.  It’s really hard to ignore, though. The few people he’s okay with me discussing this with are…not super helpful. I feel stressed all the time when I think we’re not “making the most of our time left.” I get annoyed at him for not taking things easy, as he gets tired and then he gets crabby with our kid. I don’t want her to remember him that way. Basically, I don’t think we’re doing this the right way and he does. I guess it is his call, but I’m finding the uncertainty and secrecy really tough to deal with. And this could go on for a while! Years, potentially! Hopefully! I’d love to lean more on my family and our friends. 

Does he need more therapy? Do I? We don’t really want to spend more of our finite time in yet more appointments. I don’t think we’re having a hard time coming to terms with the diagnosis or communicating, we just have different attitudes about sharing private information publicly. Any advice on encouraging people to be more open? On living in the moment without stressing about the future? On being more zen about shitty situations and stubborn men in general?

Let’s let Lin-Manuel Miranda speak first: “Let me tell you what I wish I’d known, when I was young and dreamed of glory: you have no control, who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” That refrain in Hamilton resonates because we want control. We’re desperate for it. The chronic, chaotic unfairness of life drives us to exert control over whatever we can, because the opposite, surrendering the illusion of control—what you may mean when you say “being more Zen”—means acknowledging that the universe is probably either a meaningless void or it’s working on a story whose arc is so long and complicated we can’t begin to fathom it, and many people find either prospect terrifying. Surrendering means leaning into the ambiguities and the contradictions. It means accepting mortality as the price we pay for getting to spend some time eating Pop-Tarts and listening to Prince.

It sounds like your husband’s not ready to give up his illusion of control. You say he’s private. He’s also probably scared and angry and sad and lots of other things it’s understandable to be when you’ve been told your life has an expiration date. (We all have expiration dates, but most of us are lucky enough not to know what ours are.) He wants to act like he’s the master of his fate, the captain of his soul, so that it will seem true, at least for a while longer.

What he doesn’t seem to get yet, though, is that this is not solely his tragedy. Once he bound his fate up with yours and your kid’s, he agreed that you three would pool your blessings and your misfortunes, your joy and your pain. His death will affect all of you. It’s affecting all of you already. And you need more support.

Tell him that. Tell him you understand his need to try to maintain a sense of normalcy for as long as possible but that you need more of an outlet, because the knowledge that he could die as soon as tomorrow or as late as when your child is in middle school is hard on you. Can you agree on a couple more people in whom you can confide, people who can be of more help to you, now and later on? Can he do that much for you, release his grip to that degree?

The larger issue is that you wish he weren’t gripping so tightly in general, and I’m afraid there’s nothing you can do about that. It is his nature to grip tightly. And this is, mostly, his party. He gets to cry if he wants to, or rather, do his damnedest to keep everyone else from crying.

Focus on you. You’ve shown remarkable fortitude and practicality thus far. What can you do to make the next years easier on yourself? Can you see his strength in his stubbornness, courage in his desire to ignore the sword of Damocles dangling over his head? Can you respect his decisions even when you don’t agree with them?

And: can you release your own tight grip? You want to make the most of your limited time and also live in the moment. That’s a recipe for Failure Soufflé. (Take three heaping cups Expectations, two cups Pressure, two teaspoons Uncertainty, three tablespoons of Preschooler; fold in the wet ingredients [tears], and stir; then bake under Extreme Conditions for 1-10 years.) I’ve always thought “live every day as though it might be your last” is wretched advice; it makes a person desperate, shot through with adrenaline, and unlikely to contribute to their retirement accounts.

If it’s possible, try to act as though your husband has the full decade he might well have. That gives you a lot of time—not enough, but a lot. It enables your little family to breathe a little, to relax, to make decisions based on not scarcity but on abundance and appreciation. Even if you don’t then get the full complement of years, you’ll have enjoyed your days. Besides, you’re far less likely to regret decisions that come from a place of gratitude rather than fear. Eat some Pop-Tarts. Dance with your preschooler to Prince. Stop trying to make every moment count, and listen to what story the moments may have to tell.

Good luck to you, and to everyone.

Confidential to Lost in Space: Believe it or not, you’re doing everything right. (Just because something hurts doesn’t mean it’s wrong or not worth trying!) People talk about hearts being broken, but it can be more useful to think of your heart as a phoenix. In terrible moments, like the one you survived, your heart can burst into flames; but then, always, it’s born again from the ashes. Be patient with yourself, and be gentle with the scrawny, squawky baby bird in your chest. It will be strong again. It just needs time.

Note: Letters have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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