Life and Death … and a Friend of the Feline Persuasion

by Daniel Brenton on March 4, 2009

in Healing

    A little bit of reflection on the passing of a member of the family.

Tink, our Cat.
Definitely not Morris the Cat.

Start: The stereotype we as writers have inherited is that we are all alcoholics, and we all have cats (and will regale any hapless cornered listener into stories about them).

In my case, I will not only plead not guilty for being an alcoholic, but will move for dismissal: I rarely drink, not out of any moral consideration, but that I really don’t care for what it does to me.

As for having a cat — well, it was really more of my wife’s cat, but until last Tuesday I would have had to throw myself on the mercy of the court.

Two weeks ago, I had to put my cat to sleep.

Above and elsewhere I promised I wouldn’t bore you with stories about my cat. So, yes, I am breaking this promise because this story is about our cat, Tink. But it’s about more than that, too.

(We got her when she was two, through a pet shelter “outreach” hosted by a pet store chain. We didn’t name her. Honest.)

Tink was our “psychokitty” – she would growl for no obvious reason and chase things that weren’t there, which suited us perfectly.

If cat years, like dog years, translate at seven to one, she lived to be 14 times 7 — equals 98.

(My wife’s family had a cat that lived to be 22, which would be 154 people years. I’m imagining lots of little liver-flavored cupcakes with candles that a cat would have to bat out. Lots of them.)

Mortality in Miniature

Toward the end of her fourteen years she began to exhibit signs of feline arthritis, and after a checkup when we boarded her for a week, we confirmed this and also discovered she had kidney failure. I was taken aback when I discovered the level that veterinary practice has reached. They did a kidney flush which brought her kidney function back up to 40% from about 30%, and then instructed us on how we could give her saline subcutaneously two or three times a week, which she would need for the remainder of her life.

Now, not being an adult when I had my first cat, I didn’t think about veterinary costs, nor was really aware of what medical care was available to pet owners. Naturally we had gotten Tink her normal immunizations, but here, though, we looking at several hundred dollars for bloodwork, the not insignificant costs of special kidney formula food, saline, and supplies to treat Tink. I had to step back a bit. Yes, we loved our cat, but how much should I throw at a pet that would require ongoing medical intervention to survive?

As crazy as this sounds, in a sense I owed our cat quite a bit. For the duration my wife Gayle has been disabled, Tink was constant companionship, and probably helped my wife keep her sanity in times when I was working and she was otherwise alone. So I assented when the prospect of hanging up an intravenous (IV) bag twice a week and giving her 200 milliliters of saline came up, and for paying vets to do the same whenever we needed to board her.

When the first IV session went poorly (Gayle attempted to do alone, which as it turned out was not recommended), Gayle pushed back whenever I offered to help with the next attempt. As it turned out, my wife needed time to consider what we should really do.

Her decision surprised me: she understood that, in time, Tink would begin to hate us for putting her through the IV sessions, and would start hiding from us and become unmanageable, and that in the best interests of the animal we were going to have to put her down.

Use the Needle

Back in the 1970s, science speculative fiction author Harlan Ellison managed to raise himself up out of the downbeat, misanthropic, and empty short fiction he would usually write (yes, it’s my blog and I’ll editorialize if I want to) and penned “The Deathbird,” a mesmerizing, award-winning masterpiece.

This story is a patchwork of diverse elements sewn into an otherwise continuous fabric of narrative that enhance the story immensely. One of these added pieces is a short, and apparently factual essay about his dog, Ahbhu, named for the character in the movie The Thief of Baghdad played by the Asian Indian actor Sabu.

(Hey, Daniel?!)

(Yeah?)

(What does this have to do with your cat?)

(Chill. I’m getting there.)

Ahbhu has a nearly telepathic quality (which was in fact inspiration for the character of Blood, the telepathic dog in Ellison’s novelette and later movie “A Boy and His Dog”) that makes communication possible with the dog to a level rarely seen. When the dog is in the final stages of a terminal illness, he communicates wordlessly to the viewpoint character Ellison to grant him a final act of love, and use the needle.

Tink, I’m afraid, probably didn’t understand this, but my wife had understood the time had come to show the greater love, and do just that.

One Last Ride

When the day had come we had chosen to get her to the vet and put her to sleep, Gayle was a mess. She felt the need to be there for this final act, but the idea tore her apart.

I flashed on something my father had done long ago for me, when my first cat, paralyzed probably by a passing car, had reached a point where it had finally become obvious emotionally to the fourteen year old me that the situation wasn’t going to get any better.

He asked me if I wanted him to do it for me. I did, and he did.

So I asked Gayle if she wanted me to handle it alone, and shortly after, grateful, she agreed.

Naturally, for Tink to travel we had to put her in her carrier, something about which she was always terrified. Tink had come to us damaged emotionally somehow — she hated other cats, usually hid when visitors would come, and was terrified of seeing Gayle or me walking around outside the home (something that never made any sense to us at all).

In taking her to the vet, there was always the issue of getting her in the cage, and then soothing her as we drove, to attempt to reassure her, as frightened as she was, that everything would be all right.

On this drive, I couldn’t soothe her, because I would be lying to her. It wasn’t going to be all right.

Somehow, on some level, I think she understood this, and seemed to accept what was coming.

The vet staff was very supportive, and did an excellent job explaining the options and answering my endless questions. One option was to keep Tink with us until her health failed to the point where she could not manage, but the thought of putting my wife through the same heartbreak a second time she was enduring that day, after an indeterminate amount of waiting and watching, was simply more than I wanted to subject Gayle to. Thankfully, when the doctor actually examined Tink, she assured me that her health had degenerated seriously in the three weeks since they had last seen her and that I had made the right choice.

Euthanasia in this case was done, as I suspect it has long been done, by an overdose of an anesthetic, which would literally put Tink into a sleep from which she would not awaken.

With a catheter in one leg and a towel wrapped around her hindquarters in the event she voided with her passing, Tink rested in my lap as the anesthetic was injected. I felt her relax as the drug took effect, and then felt her sink to rest on me. The doctor checked for the heartbeat and eventually found none, which apparently defines the moment of death in these circumstances.

“May we all die this peacefully when the time comes,” the doctor said.

Call me a wuss if you like, but there were tears, and more tears when I called my wife from the parking lot to let her know it was over, before I started home with an empty carrier for company.

Lines on the Palm

I write this as a way of sharing with others the quandary that pet owners face in dealing with their pet’s mortality. Pets can’t be put on a similar footing as human beings, yet the love they give us is every bit as valid.

Many years ago I did a retreat at Unity Village, the center of the Unity School of Christianity, and at this retreat I met a woman with some skill in palmistry. I feel, like Astrology, Numerology, and the I Ching, that Palmistry is probably a tool that focuses intuitive abilities and has some value to those who are attracted to learn these arts.

Reading one line (I don’t recall which), she found a significant event when I was in my early teen years, and asked me outright if I had lost someone close to me. I drew a blank. I wondered if my reader had misinterpreted something.

Then she asked, “Did you lose a pet?”

I was in my early thirties at the time, and had thought little of my first cat for many years, who had been put to sleep when I was … fourteen.

I am convinced that my relationship with my first cat was written in my hands.

Perhaps my love for Tink is written in my hands as well.

May we all die this peacefully when the time comes.

Yes. May we all.

 

Copyright © 2009, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.

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