Note: This blog entry was written on March 2, 2013 but was not posted immediately due reasons I hope are obvious to the reader. Its emotional; time was necessary before it could be posted.
“Don’t you even wonder sometimes if its worth it?” popped up the iMessage from my sister.
I knew the right answer, I just couldn’t answer it due to the pain rolling inside me.
This is the wrong end of the story. Some background is needed for this to really make sense. Even with that background, it’s probably going to sound as if I’m being overly dramatic. I remember a classmate from college once asking us all to pray for her ill dog, something I thought absurd beyond words, yet 18 years later, I begin to understand why she asked.
It all starts with a cat; a cat I saw only once but whose size and demeanor left such an impression on me that, once I had a house of my own, I knew I would have one for a pet or, given its size, it would have me as one. The cat was a Maine Coon, the gentle giants who routinely dwarf all other domesticated cat breeds yet have a genial nature that make them ideal housecats. But that first Maine Coon I saw was so well respected by its fellow housemates, that the aggressive boxer with whom it shared a sunroom wouldn’t go within 5 feet of it. Gentle they may be yet any creature with that much size is not to be trifled with.
From that first visit, I knew maine coons were the animal for me. Days after I signed the paperwork to purchase my first house in 2000, I began my search on petfinder.com for a maine coon to adopt. Purebred maine coons from a breeder were far beyond my tech support paycheck, so adoption was the only option available to me. Sometimes in life, it pays to be essentially dead broke. Four months after my search began, a maine coon named Precious showed up for adoption at the shelter the next county over from mine. Her name may have been hideous but she most definitely was not. After one minute with her, before I ever even picked her up, I knew this was the right cat.
“The vet called back.”
My wife started crying. I knew that to be a bad sign. Of course, I already knew it was bad; sores that had been open for months that continued to grow larger instead of shrinking and closing as they should, could not be good. Vet visit after vet visit, treatment after drug, yet she kept gradually getting worse and not better.
Her playful kitten-like nature, something you don’t regularly see in a 15+ year old cat, had been gradually replaced in the last few months with a bone-weary lethargy. She had always been a comfort eater and now the only thing that could get her off her resting spot was to hear the can of wet cat food being opened for her. We had joked for years about how she was ruled by her belly, yet no matter how much we fed her, the once poochy belly underneath all that fur was wasting away to nothingness.
“There’s no cure.”
And now its my turn to cry. We stand in the kitchen, dinner left on the burner, holding each other, knowing that Haydn’s days are numbered in weeks if not days, and that very soon our furry good friend would be taken from us.
Yes, she’s a cat. A pet. An animal. But it doesn’t matter. For those of us who are pet people, who open up our lives and our homes to our four-legged friends, they really do become family, often times more so than the humans who have helped shaped us into the animal lovers we are. We wake up to them, they greet us when we come home from work, they are playtime companions to our children and they wake us in the night with their romping through the hallways. Our children move out, but our pets are dependent on us for their entire lives, needing us in ways even our biological offspring do not.
Just like our children, we teach them proper manners and they teach us what it means to need and be needed. We ache when they hurt, we rejoice when they triumph and we laugh at their antics.
I sat the cat carrier down in the kitchen, facing away from the rest of the house. Two quick twists of the latches, a wafting smell of food sitting just outside the plastic box which contained her and out she popped. A swivel of the head 180 degrees and off she launched through the house, trying to get away from the one who just freed her from a cage. Into the darkest part of the house she flew, my bedroom, and promptly made her way underneath my bed.
“Aw, are you hidin?” My slight country twang was more pronounced back then, but it turned out to be a fortunate turn of phrase. Those two years as a music major in college came back to me at that point, merging with that country phrasing, to provide a perfect release from the ‘precious’ name that the rescue center had bestowed on my new housemate.
Friends who came over to visit at my house always wondered why I, a never-married bachelor with no children, had safety locks on all my kitchen cabinets. When your cat is smart, ruled by her stomach and the cat food is kept in an open bag inside those cabinets, she finds ways to satiate her cravings, regardless of how stiff of a hinge or pressure latch you install.
While I was away on a three-week long trip for work, a coworker dropped by to check in on Haydn and make sure she had all the comforts she needed. I was later told that my house had looked like the wild west as balls of fluffy fur blew across the hardwood like tumbleweeds over a dessert.
After an intense fight with my other cat, Brahms, a bite had become infected, requiring multiple surgeries for Haydn. After the second round of infection, which my girlfriend (now wife) had taken care of as I was again out of town on a business trip, Haydn came home drugged and in an e-collar. Being a comfort eater, the first thing she did was stagger her way over to the food bowl, drop her face in it and make the entire bowl disappear under that collar. Thankfully, we have video of that one.
Its two days after our son is born and we’re bringing him home. He’s still in his car seat, sleeping. We place him in the middle of the living room floor to let the cats see their doom up close and personal. They approach warily and give him a few good sniffs. Haydn, the oldest of our three cats and first to enter the house, gives me a look which seems to say, “Really? You brought another one into the house… and this one doesn’t even have fur on it!”
“Did the nurse explain to you how we do this?”
“Ok, let me go over it again, just in case.”
His voice is quiet, barely above a whisper. He walks us through the two step process, how he’ll first give Haydn a sedative and once she’s completely out, then he’ll administer the lethal.
“The sedative is strong enough to knock out a 100 pound pony. I do it this way because the first few years of after vet school, I spent much of my time euthanizing animals that were not adopted at the local shelter. After spending three years doing multiples of those each week without the sedative, I decided I wasn’t going to do that to an animal again. She’ll be completely unconscious and will not feel a thing. You may see her react, but its a neurological response. Her higher functions will be shut down completely, so she won’t feel it.”
I had lots of pets as a kid. People used the field below our house as a place to discard unwanted pets, so I grew up with animals that would last for months or maybe a year before being hit by fast moving vehicles on the road next to the field. I even witnessed one of my dogs run over in front of me, at the tender age of 7, followed by a horrendous car ride with the dog to the vet.
I’m not a stranger to having to say good-bye, but this one was different. This was my first adult pet and she had been with me for nearly all my adult life. Special does not begin to describe her.
It took about 5 minutes, from when the sedative was given until she was pronounced dead. I watched it all, except for the lethal injection itself, a difficult feat for someone as squeamish around blood and guts as I. My wife and I held each other, with our three-year old son by our side. He didn’t quite understand what was going on, only that Haydn was sick and we couldn’t make his friend well again.
As the vet ushered us out of the procedure room, I shook the man’s hand and thanked him for his kindness to my friend in her final moments. A look in his eye made me realize this vet knew more about compassion than most ministers I knew. He did this countless times every week, helping families make these decisions and then watched as a family member was taken from them with his own hands. Despite the obvious routine in his steps, he was not unmoved by our tears.
In the end, he didn’t even charge us for his services. If any man deserves sainthood, it was he.
The shovel made a quiet thump as I patted down the last clump of dirt over top of my beloved Haydn’s grave. My wife and son had dropped in the first handfuls of dirt on top of her wrapped body that I had gently placed inside the 2’ deep hole; a hole that I had prepared that morning in our back yard. Instead of spending the entirety of that last morning with my wonderful cat, I had fled the house to dig a hole in the wet, winter dirt.
The entire last week of her life was spent with the knowledge that on Saturday morning at noon, we would be inside the vet’s office. We would pack her in a crate, which she hated, driver her in a car, which she hated, to a vet’s office, which she hated. Even knowing that she was suffering did not make this decision any easier on us. Looking her in the eye, knowing it was only days, hours or minutes before I would never look her in the eye again, was excruciating.
As the vet removed the cap from the first needle, I had to restrain myself from ordering him to stop. Bringing this to a halt would prolong her suffering and mine, not make it less. Stopping now would only delay this moment; it would not make it go away. She would not thank me for making her go through this again just to spend a little more time looking into her eyes.
The dirt packed down, we three huddled together for a few minutes in the cold, snow falling gently around us, before packing ourselves back inside the house. Its now evening and seven hours have passed. There are three humans and one cat left in this house, just one less being than than was here this morning, and yet the difference is palpable. Haydn will never roam these halls again, will never beg for more food, will never cuddle up next to me, yet her presence still lingers, if only in our minds.
In the end, my wife and I celebrated her life in a way Haydn would completely approve of… we comfort ate. Instead of wet, delicious cat food, we substituted brownies.
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