The menagerie


Crash in afternoon light

Earlier today, in the middle of a perfectly beautiful spring afternoon, we put Crash the cat to sleep. Like Bunny, whom we’d euthanized in January, Crash was 17 years old–a ripe age in cat years–and had been hale and healthy until he noticeably wasn’t. Whereas we’d tried to slow Bunny’s decline from kidney disease with a several-day-long hospitalization in the veterinary critical care unit that bought her only a few more weeks of quality time, we opted to keep Crash at home until the end, recognizing the signs of terminal kidney failure and opting for palliative care instead of extraordinary measures.

King of the refrigerator

Each of our cats has his or her own personality, and Crash’s was the most irrepressible. He should have been named “Houdini” for his proclivity for squeezing into places he didn’t belong: if there was a door ajar anywhere in the house, Crash was there in a flash to squeeze his way through it, perpetually curious about life on the other side.

Crash grooms Snowflake

Crash was never much of a lap-cat; he was too active and athletic for that. Although he wasn’t one to sit in your lap and allow himself to be petted, he did enjoy grooming the other cats, licking their heads and necks–the spots they couldn’t easily clean themselves–with an attention that suggested he’d been a hairdresser in a previous life.

Proof that cats and dogs can get along

Crash had an impish personality: he was a perpetual teenager, long in leg and mischievous in attitude. When Reggie started to struggle with stairs, Crash would torment him at every step, pouncing on Reggie’s tail and batting the fur on his hind legs, a playful brat who loved to harass his elders. After I took to carrying Reggie up the stairs, Crash mellowed and began hanging out with Reggie as he lay in whatever spot I’d arranged him, too feeble to stand. One of my favorite pictures of the two of them shows Crash keeping Reggie company as he rested in a square of morning light, their similarly colored fur aglow.

Crash on windowsill

There is, I’ve found, a strange sort of quiet calm that descends upon the house after one of the pets has died: Crash is the seventh pet we’ve lost since March, 2015, so I’ve come to know the drill. When you arrive home after euthanizing a pet, the house seems large and unnaturally quiet. Regardless of how large the animal was in life, in death his absence looms huge: an elephant that has left the room.

I think this oversized sense of emptiness arises because of how much care a dying pet requires. When a pet is dying, part of your mind is always devoted to him: is he fed, watered, and otherwise well-tended, and is there anything else (anything!) you can do to make him comfortable? When you come home after euthanizing a pet, there is a brief sense of shock when you realize there’s no longer anyone to fret over. You can put the IV stand with its bag of intravenous fluids away, wash the dish that had held the syringes full of medicine, and tidy up the sloven corners where your now-dead pet had been accustomed to nap.

Chilling out on a hot day

The pillows upon which Crash had rested these past few days are in the wash now; soon enough, after the initial novelty has subsided, the remaining pets will reclaim them. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a house full of pets doesn’t stay calm and quiet for long, the remaining pets with their remaining lives expanding to fill the emptiness left by one of their own reaching the end of his ninth.

Bunny enjoys her lap-time

Yesterday morning, we put Bunny the cat to sleep. Earlier this month, after losing an alarming amount of weight, Bunny was diagnosed with kidney failure and spent a few days in the veterinary critical care unit, where our main goal was to get her healthy enough to come home. At home, we plied Bunny with food and an abundance of petting, committed to making her final days as comfortable and love-filled as possible.

Cubby-cat

This is, we’ve learned, how old cats often die. There’s the initial diagnosis, and veterinary care can extend their life long enough you can intentionally shower then with attention, making a conscious decision to (literally) love them to death. But inevitably, the disease wins: the disease always wins. You write the final chapter of a pet’s life knowing how the story ends but nevertheless fighting for every additional page, intent on cramming as much love and mercy as possible into a too-short narrative.

Bunny

Bunny is the fifth cat we’ve lost since last March, the litany of grief counting out like rosary beads: Scooby, Louie, Snowflake, Groucho, Bunny. Grief doesn’t get any easier with repetition, but it does grow more familiar: an unwelcome but well-known guest who keeps returning. Although Scooby died suddenly, we euthanized the others after long, debilitating illnesses that afforded ample opportunity for anticipatory grieving. When you euthanize a pet after a long illness, you experience a dizzying array of contradictory emotions. On the one hand, you’re relieved your pet is no longer suffering; on the other, you’re stunned when an all-consuming struggle ends so suddenly, with no more need for the constant care and concern you’d lavished on this small, suffering creature.

Bunny basks

Ever since Bunny came home from the critical care unit, she and I had settled upon a new routine. In the middle of the night, after I’d taken Melony the beagle out and in, I’d spend a half hour sitting cross-legged on the floor with Bunny nestled in my lap. At first, the goal of these vigils was to coax Bunny into eating: before getting down to the serious business of petting, I’d plop Bunny in front of a bowl of fresh food and watch her eat. Her final few nights, however, Bunny showed no interest in food or even water, so I’d gather her into my lap and clean her mucus-clogged eyes with a paper towel soaked in warm water. With one hand, I’d pet Bunny, who always loved to be cuddled, and with the other, I’d turn the pages of Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, which seemed an appropriate choice of reading material while tending a dying animal.

One eye open

I lost a lot of sleep these past few weeks sitting up with Bunny this way; last night, with no Bunny to fret over, I crawled right back into bed after taking Melony out. But I don’t regret the hours I spent petting Bunny in my lap while I read, wept, and prayed for just a little while longer. For the past few weeks, these midnight vigils spent cross-legged in my kitchen were my spiritual practice, the time I took to contemplate face-to-face the inevitable predicaments of old age, sickness, and death.

Bunny snuggles

Bunny was 17 years old when she died, and she had been remarkably healthy during that time: as so often happens with old pets and old people alike, Bunny was healthy until she wasn’t. And until the very end, Bunny retained her essential sweetness, finding the energy to climb into my lap as soon as I’d settled on the floor, wanting nothing more than to be petted even when so many other physical discomforts threatened to overcome her.

Bunny keeps warm

During these late-night vigils, presumably influenced by Anne Lamott and her stories of spiritual seeking, I came to a heart-felt conclusion. God isn’t, I think, a bearded man on a throne but a being who sits cross-legged in the heavens, weeping and praying over the small, suffering world she holds tenderly in her lap.

Head to head

There’s a scene in the movie Stranger Than Fiction that chokes me up no matter how many times I see it. Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS agent whose boring existence is turned upside down when he discovers his life is being narrated by best-selling author Karen Eiffel, played to perfection by Emma Thompson. Because Eiffel lets Crick read the manuscript of his (doomed) life, Crick knows exactly how his story ends: he’ll die on his way to work, jumping in front of a bus to save the life of a young boy.

Meshed

The scene that inevitably gets me teary eyed shows Crick enjoying his last night on earth. Instead of sharing his ominous knowledge of what will happen the next day, Crick enjoys an otherwise ordinary night eating dinner and watching TV with his girlfriend, Ana Pascal (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). Instead of causing Pascal to worry about the inevitable, Crick quietly savors the simple pleasures he learned to appreciate only after he learned his days are numbered.

Trio

This morning I made a euthanasia appointment for Groucho the cat: tomorrow morning, J and I will hold Groucho in our lap while our vet puts him quietly to sleep. Monday’s trip to the vet didn’t reveal anything clearly treatable, and Groucho continues to lose weight at an alarming rate, his bones jutting this way and that out of his thinning fur. Like Harold Crick, J and I know how Groucho’s story ends, and we see no need to delay the inevitable.

Brunette

Tonight is Groucho’s last night on earth, and I’ll follow our usual Tuesday routine, cleaning his and Nina’s litter box and then sitting on the loveseat to give Groucho his daily petting and head-scratches. Groucho has learned to jump onto my lap after I’ve cleaned his litter box, but he won’t know why tonight I’ll be weeping. Instead, he’ll purr under my caresses as he always does, without the burden of knowing what tomorrow brings.

Groucho

Groucho the cat is dying. He was diagnosed with small cell lymphoma in July of 2013, and for more than two years he responded well to chemotherapy. (The picture above is from January, 2013, six months before his diagnosis.) Recently, though, Groucho has been losing weight for no reason, and J and I are bracing ourselves for the worst. We know from past experience with other pets how this story ends.

Groucho closeup

Last week J and I took Groucho for his usual oncology checkup, and tomorrow I’m taking him for a follow-up ultrasound and X-ray. If his cancer is no longer controlled by the chemotherapy we’ve been giving him, there are other, stronger drugs we can try…but if there is something else causing his weight loss–something that hasn’t shown up at his previous ultrasounds and checkups–there isn’t much more we can do.

I’ve written before about the lessons you learn when you live with an old dog, but I’ve never written about the experience of living with a dying pet. When you live with an animal you know is dying, you constantly monitor that animal’s behavior and demeanor in an attempt to judge their quality of life. When faced with the Big Decision of whether and when to euthanize, you have two opposing factors to consider. On the one hand, how great is the animal’s suffering; on the other, what (simple) pleasures does the pet still seem to enjoy?

Groucho in morning light

Last week, we were heartened that Groucho was still eating, still basking on a sunny windowsill, and still looking forward to his morning petting, trotting over and hopping into my lap when I sat down after cleaning his and Nina's litter box. This morning, however, Groucho was noticeably listless and indifferent, getting up and walking around when I came into the room with fresh food, but not hopping into my lap. Instead, he walked around aimlessly for a bit before settling himself to meditate on his paws, marshaling his energy for a long day of napping.

Groucho in the window

Tomorrow’s vet visit will be momentous, as J and I will learn from the ultrasound and X-ray results whether there is anything more we can do to improve the quality of Groucho’s remaining days. J and I know from past experience that there’s no sense prolonging a pet’s life if that lengthened life isn’t a comfortable, dignified one. But before you make the final decision to say goodbye, first you want to be sure you’ve explored all possible options.

It's a dog's life

Because of today’s Veterans’ Day holiday, I’ve spent the day at home commenting on papers and prepping tomorrow’s classes: the kind of thing you do on a gray, drizzly day when you’re up to your eyeballs in essay drafts.

Morning fluffiness

Gray, drizzly days are perfect for napping, towering piles of student papers are unbelievably soporific, and staying awake on a stay-at-home grading day isn’t any easier when you’re surrounding by sleeping pets who have perfected the fine art of rainy-day snoozing. When I used to teach online, I’d sometimes refer to our menagerie of pets as my “teaching assistants,” but today, my so-called assistants have done nothing more taxing than snore.

Welcome home, Frankie

J and I have said goodbye to three cats this year–Scooby in March, Louie in May, and Snowflake in September–and during this same time, we’ve adopted three new cats. It might seem insensitive or even crass to replace pets in this fashion, as if animal souls were interchangeable, but this isn’t how J and I see it. We know more than anyone that each animal has its own unique personality that can’t be swapped out like replacement parts, but for each pet that dies, a place opens up. In a home accustomed to caring for eight cats, it seems heartless or even cruel to keep our heart shut against any newcomers, each passing pet freeing up a place in the lifeboat that is our house.

Nina in all her fluffy glory

Our new pets aren’t replacements for our old pets; instead, they are their legacy. I suppose when a grieving family donates their loved one’s organs to a needy recipient, they feel a similar sort of comfort: another life can be saved because of the one we’ve let go. When Scooby died, we needed a roommate for Groucho, who was isolated his own part of the house because he couldn’t get along with Snowflake; when Louie died, we adopted Bobbi because Snowflake had taught us we can indeed take care of a diabetic cat. When Snowflake died, we adopted Frankie because Bobbi taught us that we can handle (and even give insulin injections to) a cat who would rather scratch than be petted, and who else but an experienced hand could handle that? With each pet we adopt, care for, then ultimately lose, we stretch our understanding of what we can handle, the limits of human patience being infinitely expandable.

Regal

Nina was toothless and scrawny when we adopted her, Bobbi had diabetes and no tail, and Frankie comes to us with one eye and the chance that she still has cancer. Looking at a shelter full of pets, J and I invariably are drawn to the ones with the saddest stories: who other than a family with lots of experience with veterinary and behavioral issues would have hearts huge enough for such a challenge?

Frankie says relax

I don’t believe in ghosts, but there are times when I see our dead pets living in the bodies of their replacements: not a transmigration of souls, exactly, but a kind of transmogrification. Now that she’s overcome her initial shyness, Nina sometimes rushes toward me for petting when I enter the room, just as Scooby did, and if I squint my eyes just right, I can see Louie’s ginger and white fur beneath Bobbi’s black blotches. Mere days after we’d brought skittish little Frankie home with dire warnings about her antisocial temperament, she ventured timidly into my lap, gingerly stepping onto my thighs and then settling herself down to be petted, just as Snowflake did. What better way to commemorate the lives we’ve lost not with replacements but with proteges–a legacy of love passed from one generation to another?

Scooby and Groucho

Last week, one of our cats died suddenly. Scooby was the youngest and healthiest of our eight cats, and he’d shown no outward signs of sickness. Last Monday afternoon, when I left to take Groucho, one of our other cats, to the Angell Animal Medical Center for his monthly oncology check, Scooby seemed fine, but a few hours later, J found Scooby yowling, gasping for breath, and slobbering profusely in a hiding spot under the bed.

Ready to spring

J immediately rushed Scooby to Angell: we must have passed one another on the road, with me bringing Groucho home as J took Scooby on what would be his final car ride. Scooby’s symptoms suggested sudden heart failure, but he didn’t respond to any of the treatments the emergency vets tried. J left Scooby in the intensive care unit at Angell, where we’ve taken so many other pets in the past. Later that night, after both J and I were home, the emergency vet called with the news: Scooby was gone.

So much for being finicky

During the years we’ve been together, J and I have lost six pets: our cats Boomer, Tony, Shadow, and now Scooby, and our dogs Reggie and MAD. Except for Scooby, all our pets were old and in obvious decline when they died: Boomer and Shadow died at home after long illnesses, and we chose to euthanize Tony, Reggie, and MAD. When an old or sickly pet dies, you’re stunned but not shocked: a long decline provides ample opportunities for anticipatory grieving, and when your pet finally passes, your shock is mingled with relief. After a long and exhausting decline, death is ultimately easy: just stop struggling and let yourself go.

Scooby keeps warm

What was shocking about Scooby’s death, however, was its irony: in a household full of elderly pets, why was it Scooby who died? Groucho has cancer, Snowflake has diabetes, Crash has an overactive thyroid gland, and Louie has a chronic heart condition: so how is it that Scooby, our youngest and healthiest cat, just up and died? Scooby was energetic and outgoing: when I entered the bedroom he used to share with Groucho, he’d often run toward me, dog-like, to see if I had food. When I’d kneel to clean his and Groucho’s litter box, Scooby would perch on the bedside table, batting and tugging mouthfuls of my hair.

Scooby closeup

Now that it’s been just over a week since we lost Scooby, I know not to look for him when I enter his old bedroom: Groucho now shares a room with Louie, who prefers to play hide-and-seek. When I clean Groucho’s and Louie’s litter box, there’s nobody on the bedside table to paw at my hair, and when I sit on the loveseat to wait for the newly-scrubbed floor to dry, it’s no longer Scooby who climbs on my empty lap. The shocking thing about a sudden death is the unsettling absence it leaves behind.

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