I had to put my cat down this weekend. After 19 years of almost perfect health, she had a terrible weekend: she became dehydrated and her sodium and phosphate levels were so high, essentially her body was simply shutting down. On Thursday evening, she wandered around the apartment, loudly meowing and not touching her food. Also, she was weirdly clingly and would sit at my feet – something she never did up until then, because her friendly personality was marked by a healthy independence (that bordered on indifference). We took her to the vet on Friday, and all didn’t look lost. Her kidneys were okay, her heart rate was good – but it was her sodium and phosphate levels that were bad. The doctor injected a bubble of liquid to hydrate her and suggested hospitalization. We were hoping that we could avoid leaving her alone, so we took her home with some medication, hoping for better results. Saturday came along and nothing changed, so we checked her in and the doctor hooked her up to an IV. Sunday passed and we found out on Monday that her sodium level had actually gotten higher over the weekend, and there was really nothing that could be done.
Saying goodbye to my cat is a strange experience because I have lots of conflicting emotions. On the one hand, she is my cat – my buddy – I called her “the little one” and she was with me for the majority of my life. On the other hand, I’m not an animal person per se, so the fact that she and I were close is surprising. To be honest before I had Miss Thing (another nickname for her), I was more of a dog person. But saying goodbye was rough because she was a presence in my apartment.
The animal hospital I visited was great, and when something sad happens, one always looks for silver linings. And I was luckier than most cat owners because my cloud didn’t just have a silver lining, it had a silver core. My cat was healthy for the whole of her 19 years on this planet. She was hardy and good-natured (if a bit standoffish) and retained her kittenish appearance and behavior for most of her 19 years. Other cat owners I know tell horror tales of aged and emaciated cats dragging themselves, incontinent and unaware. Though she wasn’t as sprightly and or zaftig as she was in her peak, in the last year, she still maintained a remarkable amount of her personality. I know I’m lucky in that I enjoyed having a healthy and happy cat for almost 19 years.
When thinking about sad events, I often go to weird/strange details. The day that I had to take her in to be put down, I was a bit of a wreck. I wanted to get the deed over with, I rushed out of the house in my uniform for rushing out of the house: oversize jogging pants, a crazy huge pink hoodie (with a campy silkscreen of a Life magazine cover on the front), a knitted hat to cover my undid hair, and my mangy pea coat that I bought from Old Navy in New York over ten years ago. Because the weather is shit at the moment, I wore snow boots, tracking in snow and mud into the waiting room. As I sat and waiting, a beautiful blond woman walked in with a massive white dog. The thing looked like a barrel. It was gorgeous and snow white – almost cartoon-like in its whiteness. I asked the woman what she named her dog and she said “Penny.” Penny was a husky-lab mix. She was passively friendly and slightly bored. She would wander as far as her leash allowed, but never seemed to settle on what focal point. She came up to me a few times, I gave her a pat on the head, she barely registered the pat, and walked away. I was sitting cross-legged on the bench, and in another circuit, Penny accidentally bumped into my food, gently hitting it with her head. On this pristine blanket of white fur I saw a smudgy black stain – it looked like I kicked her in the head (or that she went to church on Ash Wednesday). I quickly scooted over to Penny and started vigorously wiping her head, at the same time, squealing out affectionate baby talk, so that the owner didn’t see that I was basically cleaning her dog.
Her dog was fine and clean, and I struck up a conversation with the lady. It’s a bit awkward in waiting rooms because the small talk is confined to certain subject, but one can never discuss the reason for being in the waiting room. Her dog looked healthy, so I’m sure it was merely a checkup, but I didn’t want to pry. The woman asked if I had a dog or a cat, and I told her I had a cat. She asked me her name – I gave it to her, and she complimented me. She then asked what kind of cat was she – all this was happening while my cat was peacefully being put to sleep. My mind panicked because I felt her line of questioning would inevitably lead to “So why are you here?” Not only was I still raw from grief over losing my cat, but the last thing another pet owner wants to hear right before taking her dog in to see a doctor, is about euthanasia. I kept it very vague with my answers, making sure that I didn’t betray any sadness, and made sure to use only present-tense verbs. I changed the subject by commenting loudly on how rough it must be to keep a white dog so clean – especially in muddy weather. Thankfully, the woman was distracted by my comment and we started talking about that.
When it was time to leave, I left about 25 cans of cat food with the hospital, hoping that some non-profit may benefit from them (I bought them in bulk because they were really cheap). The receptionist was very sweet – she looked as grieved as I. In fact, when I spoke to the doctor in the morning, she sounded very upset. At that moment, I was glad because I found space for compassion for them. I’ll go home and grieve and it’ll be over until the next sad thing happens. For the two of them, grief is a normal part of the day, and a crappy part of their job description. I would hate to work with sick people, but I would also hate to work with sick animals because not only do you have to deal with the patients, but you also have to deal with the loved ones. I imagine that the poor doctor who had to share the bad news with me, had to repeat that message a few more times during the week. I’d find it draining. Yet, she was always compassionate, professional, and honest.
I loved my cat. I’m glad that she’s not suffering and I’m glad she was only sick for a short while. I’m glad I have almost two decades of memories of her because they’re good memories. I’m also glad I met the people who worked at the animal hospital. It’s great to see folks who are committed to their work and to their clients. A few years back I worked in a foreign mission, and part of my job – an unsavory part – was visiting morgues. I visited a city morgue once and was struck by how clean and organized the place was – but more importantly, the employees – all of them – were dedicated professionals, who loved and cared about every person that came into their office. Some of that resonated with me at the animal hospital because it’s not an easy job to tell a little kid that his best buddy’s going to die, or an elderly retiree that his only companion is going to die. But the folks at the animal hospital do that awful, unenviable job every day, and somehow manage to remain humane. I don’t believe in god or angels, but I do believe that there are people on this earth who are “special” – touched by a grace or goodness – doctors, teachers, clergy, social workers. I met a few of those touched people this past weekend.