Cat Daze

This past Saturday, our typical routine of a morning walk was disrupted by a sobering experience with my Mothers’ cat. While it is an extraordinarily ordinary experience to usher any living being into “infinity and beyond,” even my background as a hospice social worker doesn’t give me much of an emotional edge when the Grim Reaper comes calling so close to home. The simple fact of the matter is that when you love someone or an animal, it hurts like hell when it dies. Death happens. And even when you see it coming–you know that the THIS IS IT moment is immanent–it always comes as such a surprise and shock, the end of a life. I didn’t know it would be this particular morning we would be summoned to my Mothers’ side, at the South Lamar Animal Emergency hospital, to support her in making a decision about what to do with her 18 year old Black cat who appeared to be catastrophically ill.

I have always disliked this mangy, thin-as-a-whippet, poor excuse for an animal whose screechy yowl was like nails on a chalkboard, and who should have met his end long ago in a dog or raccoon entanglement, or other form of natural selection. Black, wiry, thin and ugly, this cat was not the cuddly kind who purred or warmed your legs with gentle nudges; he was all stealth, sleek, a ruthless hunter who in his prime had killed his share of groundhogs, squirrels and other small creatures in his many hunting forays near my Mothers’home. Chief among his disturbing habits was to drag half-dead critters into the house, let them go, play with them, then eat them. It was not unusual for my Mother to find the remains of the cat’s prey in the bathtub, a few tufts of fur and some blood and bones provoking many a scream on her part. Oddly (to me) she didn’t hold these disgusting habits against this animal, but forgave him his sinister exploits, and looked upon him as some noble creature of Egyptian Royalty “Bast” descent.

Lately, however, the cat’s sheer age and tenacity had worn me down, as well as the fact that this mongrel beast owned my Mothers’ heart. How could I help but admire this feisty cat who had successfully burned through all his nine lives, only to be uprooted recently from his woodsy Northern Calif Home and relocated to the urban Austin landscape across the street from our family? My Mother, whose eyesight has deteriorated dramatically, was forced to make this move, and her one consolation throughout the whole ordeal has been the company of “Monster” on whom she doted. Not only did this cat adjust remarkably well to this major upheaval, he seemed to be right at home in the neighborhood, terrorizing my own cats, yowling at my door from time to time, investigating my neighbors’ yards. I took him for granted as a seeming permanent fixture in my Mothers’ life, and was caught by surprise when his activity came to a halt on Friday. 24 hours later, he showed no improvement, and it was our unspoken understanding that he was in decline, and that his days were numbered.

So there we were Saturday morning, dogs barking in the waiting room, Mom crying, cat gasping for breath, the kindly veterinarian giving my husband and me all the options, a young technician coming in and out with various estimates of what any choice was going to cost. Was I too harsh to ask for a straight up answer to the question, “Is this IT? Is the cat dying?” No such definitive answer was forthcoming, just hushed voices and the vet leaving the room for us to ponder our financial and/or ethical choices. Steroids or no? Fluid injections–or how about some kitty morphine? Cremation or burial? If cremation, did we want a special (it cost a lot) urn for storing kitty’s ashes? Or did we want a kitty coffin in which to put the cat until he could be buried? It all came down to “to be or not to be,” kitty Hospice or The Shot.

I have to admire my Mother, because she made the same decision I would have in this situation: Cat Euthanasia. Cost and inconvenience aside, the real question was, “whom would it really serve to haul the suffering cat back home, keep a death vigil for what probably amounted to a few days, only to have to come back to the vet for the same decision?” It was clear to us that his end was near, and it seemed the more compassionate alternative to help the cat along into the Happy Hunting Ground without delay. And so with Monster in my Mothers’ arms, she chose to give him what in our eyes seemed to be a dignified end. While the vet administered enough propofol (we know what that is thanks to Michael Jackson) to first knock him out, I reflected upon his wild cat-life escapades, his demonic countenance and vampire-like fangs, his voracious appetite, his years of hunting, the countless hours he spent in the evenings on my Mothers’ lap.

As cat’s lives go, this one had had a good one. My Mother knew that, and though devastated, was clear and unwavering in her decision. It was time. Thus, with a nod from Mom, the vet gave Monster the fatal dose of the stuff of Euthanasia that kills cats, dogs, horses and people on death row. It wasn’t terrible, just sad, and remarkably upsetting.

I have always marveled at the difference between life and death, particularly the moment after death has occurred. While Monster lay there newly dead, I thought of how miraculous it is–more mysterious than scary–to see a being who was moving, breathing, living just moments ago, so still, not moving. Having been in the presence of both dying animals and people often enough in my life, it is always a profound and humbling experience, provoking a feeling of quiet reverence. Did we really say, “He looks so peaceful!”? Yes, however trite we sounded, it was true. Small consolation for us, though, as we stumbled numbly out the door with carrier and blanket sans cat, my Mothers’ grief (and our own) coming on in waves.

1 Comment

  1. Hey Sharon… I have had my share of death and dying in my lifetime….as you have.. of pets and people. You are so right to make that observation. To see someone take their last breath is so hard. But, then, when you know they are “at peace” and not fighting, struggling or in pain anymore….it’s so comforting. When we took my dog, Fluffy, to the vet after having seizures several times throughout the night, the vet said she’d probably have more and had a brain tumor. He couldn’t tell me when or how it would happen, but the end of her life was nearing. He asked that extremely hard question: “Do you want to take her home or not?” I had to think long and hard on that one, remembering how difficult it was for her in the last 24 hours AND the fact that her brain seemed so fried at that time I just wanted her to be pain free and not have to go through anymore seizures. She wasn’t herself anymore and the future was dim for quality of life for her. So, I made that decision with such pain and remorse..for my loss. When the vet finally gave her the shot, in tears I asked him ‘when it was my time could I come to him?’ Of course, he looked at me like I was crazy, but OH how I wish that some of us could go with dignity when it was time and the suffering wouldn’t be prolonged. I think of that so often and have seen CF friends hanging on for what I think is so unnecessary. Thank you for your posting. It made me realize again how hard it is to “help someone over”, but how wonderful it is to “be able” to do that. I just found out that in Texas, even if you have a living will, your family has the final say whether to end your life or not. That is just not right. I wish there was something that could be done so “one’s last wishes truly are their own”.

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