“The intuitive connection children feel with animals can be a tremendous source of joy. The unconditional love received from pets, and the lack of artifice in the relationship, contrast sharply with the much trickier dealings with members of their own species.” - Frans de Waal
“Buttercup will be fine, sweetheart. When you get home from school, you’re going to see him, and he will be just fine. You just need to be careful with him. He's going to have some cuts on his belly, and he’s going to need all your love.”
That was one of the last things I said to my daughter before she left for school last Wednesday morning. And she believed me. Like she always does. Her faith in me is unwavering.
But that’s not what happened.
It was a big day for Buttercup. He was going to the vet to be neutered. And while it is a common, routine procedure, if you’ve been reading my newsletter, you know how I feel about anesthesia and my belief that there is no such thing as a “routine” procedure.
Inside, I was as nervous as my daughter, but she didn’t see that nervousness. Instead, she got the “everything will be fine” speech.
After my daughter and wife left, I loaded up Buttercup and took him to the vet. I signed all the usual paperwork, including the Anesthesia Consent Form and the Pre-Anesthetic Test form (which says I want as much testing as possible done before administering anesthesia to be sure the animal is healthy enough to have it), and then headed to work.
I was five minutes into a Zoom call, a preparatory meeting for a business review presentation to our board and senior management the next day, when my phone rang.
It was the vet.
I excused myself and muted my mic.
I know our vet exceptionally well. We spent nine years volunteering together for a local animal rescue organization, and she has been the only vet I have used for twenty years. When I answered the phone, the tremble in her voice as she said my name told me everything I needed to know.
She didn’t have an explanation for what had happened. They ran all the pre-tests. They checked his heart, did bloodwork, took a urine sample, and checked his kidney function. Everything looked fine. But within seconds of administering anesthesia, Buttercup went into cardiac arrest. They spent thirty minutes doing everything they could to get him back, but with no success.
As tears began to roll down my cheeks, I turned off my camera on the Zoom call.
I am a forty-four-year-old man. And yes, I was crying. But not just because Buttercup had died. Yes, he was gone, but I feared that part of my daughter’s faith in me may have gone with him.
Just hours earlier, I had looked into her innocent, sky-blue eyes and told her Buttercup would be fine. I was now hours away from having to look into those same eyes and tell her that Daddy was wrong. Not a little wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong.
As parents, our kids turn to us to feel assured, safe, and as though everything will be ok. I know this because I still do it. Within minutes of finding out what happened to Buttercup, I called my Mom. If anyone knows anything about raising a tender-hearted child who LOVES animals, it’s her. I was looking for some secret advice to make everything better.
It turns out that doesn’t exist in this situation. “I don’t envy you,” she said. “It’s going to be a rough couple of days. For all of you. When your child is in pain, you feel it as a parent, except at a magnitude of 10.”
The manner and voice in which she spoke told me she was already feeling my pain. And while it wasn’t what I had hoped to hear, I appreciated the honesty, and it reaffirmed what I already knew. This would be the hardest thing I had dealt with as a parent.
Every day I go to work, I can’t wait to come home and see my daughter. I’m always excited to hear about her day, what she learned, who she played with, and all the other details. My workday can never end fast enough.
But not that day. I begged the clock to stop. I longed for the day to continue indefinitely. I wanted my daughter to remain at school, playing with her friends, unaware of the pain that awaited her.
I cut my day and meetings short to get home before my wife and daughter. I was the one who told her Buttercup would be fine, and I wanted to be the one to tell her otherwise. I paced back and forth as I waited for them to arrive. My hands were sweaty. I felt nauseous.
I heard the garage door opening and walked to the back door. My daughter busted through with a smile on her face.
“Dad, what are you doing home? You never beat us home.”
Before I could answer, her attention quickly turned to the same thing it does every time she walks through that door.
“Where’s Buttercup? Dad, did you get Buttercup? Where is he?”
My heart sank.
I picked up my daughter and squeezed her as though someone was trying to take her from me. I looked into her eyes and did my best to explain what had happened. Between the shock of losing her best friend and the betrayal of feeling as though her Dad lied to her, she was inconsolable.
She retreated to her room, buried her head in her pillows, and cried herself to sleep.
When she awoke from her grief-induced nap, there were lots of questions.
“Dad, why didn’t you die when they cut your belly, but Buttercup did?” she asked, referring to my recent surgery.
“Why did they have to cut Buttercup’s belly? He wasn’t even sick.”
“Is Buttercup in our hearts now? The way Jesus is in all of our hearts?”
All of these were asked through tears and periods of breathlessness. Her little mind raced as she simultaneously sobbed.
It was a rough night. My daughter eventually calmed down enough to fall asleep, and my wife wasn’t far behind. However, I’m not sure I slept at all. My propensity for overthinking was in high gear.
What the fuck could I have done to prevent this?
What if I hadn’t made the appointment when I did? Was this a case where everything had to be just right for this horrible result, and maybe on another day, Buttercup would have been fine with the anesthesia?
Should I have been more open with her about the risks and not given her the “everything will be fine” speech? Would that have made this less confusing for her?
I repeatedly replayed the previous two and a half days in my head, going back to Monday when I called the vet just before closing time on my way home from work. They had just had a cancellation for Wednesday and were able to get Buttercup in. What if I hadn’t made the call? If I had waited until the following day? Would everything be different?
While I knew the answers to those questions were irrelevant at that point, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering. A week later, I still can’t.
The next morning everyone awoke to a new world. A quieter world. Buttercup wasn’t terrorizing anyone in the bathroom. He wasn’t sitting on my lap at my desk, trying to rip my earbuds out of my ears as I worked. And he wasn’t running to jump in bed with my daughter at the sound of her waking up.
My daughter was quiet as well. Typically, the first thing out of her mouth in the morning is “where’s Buttercup?” assuming he’s not already in bed with her. Thursday morning, she didn’t say much of anything.
That is until we were walking out the back door to catch the bus, and she saw the bag of treats she would give him each morning before she left. At the sight of the bag, she broke down.
My wife and I did our best to calm her before the bus pulled up. I told her to be brave and think good thoughts at school that day. This was as much advice to myself as it was to her.
Advice that I had a hard time following. All I could think about at work that day was what my daughter was doing, how she was feeling, and if she was ok.
I had my business review meeting with the board and senior management. And while I presented a lot of information and answered a lot of questions, I have no idea what the fuck I said. My mind was elsewhere.
My Mom’s words were ringing in my ears.
“When your child is in pain, you feel it as a parent, except at a magnitude of 10.”
She was only partially correct. By my estimation, it’s closer to a magnitude of 100.
I left work early again to go home and be with my daughter. We snuggled on the couch and watched cartoons. She wrote letters to Buttercup, drew pictures of him, and put them in his cat house in her bedroom. She asked more questions, which my wife and I did our best to answer. And she cried—lots and lots of tears.
Each day since has gotten a little better. She still has moments where she suddenly breaks down, but she’s getting there.
This has been, without a doubt, the most difficult thing my wife and I have had to deal with as parents.
The fact that I can say that is a testament to how fortunate we are. This is a first-world problem. I understand that. The fact that my daughter has it better than 99% of children in this world is not lost on me. The unfairness of that is something I think about often, nearly every day.
She has not experienced the loss of a parent. She is healthy and does not have to deal with a life-long disease like some children. She is not starving as many across this planet are. She has a home, a comfortable place to sleep, and a family that loves and supports her.
By all measures, she is extremely fortunate.
But none of that lessens the pain she has been feeling. Her heart hurts. She is grieving and feeling loss for the first time.
Buttercup was her cat. She picked him out and named him. She played with him daily, read books to him, and took naps with him. He ran to greet her in the mornings. They were friends. Best friends. And she misses her friend.
Watching her go through this is gut-wrenching. I would give anything to be able to change the situation. But, as always, she has made me incredibly proud. Watching her little mind work and process these emotions is incredible. She is such a caring individual with a heart of gold who loves with everything she has.
As hard as it can be to be a parent, I am blessed to have the opportunity. Sometimes it’s painful. At times the pain is almost unbearable. The past week has been one of those times.
Despite all this, I can’t think of anything in this world I would rather be.
Randy. This is so hard - hard to read and harder to experience. Maybe a little wisdom from my mom will help. Once in my twenties I was tearfully recounting the end of what was surely a heartbreaking relationship. She was a fourth generation Nashville native and a southern lady. She said. “You know what will help you get over her?” I sobbed a little and said “no - is it just time?” She said, “No - another girl.”
From laughter to tears jumping from one issue to the next.
Dammit Randy. I'm so sorry about Buttercup. Hope you're all hanging in there okay.
(Your writing felt so alive in this one, by the way.)