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Questioning Death and Dying

Coping with a Pet's Death

 “I believe cats to be spirits come to Earth. A cat, I am sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through.”  —Jules Verne, Author

Watching someone you love die is never easy.

Recently, I faced the uncomfortable dilemma of deciding the fate of a family member. Tweed only weighed a scant four pounds, but she possessed the same status as all of the rest of the family, often with a more pleasant attitude and disposition. A seventeen-year-old orange and white cat rescued from Doris Ranch, an outdoor park in Springfield, Oregon, she would tell a poignant and harrowing tale if only she could express herself in the fluid language of humans. Originally belonging to my partner, she eventually ended up in the loving care of her mother, enjoying the luxury of being able to lounge outdoors in the day and receive affection indoors in the evening. She was happy and loved.

Until Tweed, whom I had affectionately nicknamed Susan Sarandon for her peppiness in old age, began to show signs of rapid deterioration. Her brother, a fat cat that meowed incessantly and pawed at you when you stopped rubbing his belly, had died about a month earlier, and we noticed signs of change almost immediately. At first, the family thought it may be grief. She still jumped up on my lap to receive back scratches and ran from the grandkids. We dismissed the signs as temporary nuisances attributed to grief.

But they became progressively worse and more evident, causing increased concern and anxiety. Tweed lost weight at a consistently alarming rate, and stopped eating scraps off of our plates. She became lethargic. It troubled us to see this decline, but we felt helpless.

To a degree, we all, my partner, her parents, her siblings, and myself, wanted to avoid the ugly and harsh reality that we die. And that we often exist in a state of near-death for a period before finally departing this world. But there was and remains the unfortunate issue of cost.

We are not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, we have sources of income, but we also have too many bills and not enough hours in the day. Neither I nor anyone else in the family felt confident in sacrificing several hundred or more dollars we didn’t have for a geriatric animal that could just be displaying her own version of mourning.

But was she just an old cat, or did she warrant the status of a full-fledged member of the family?

Becoming the arbiter of another living presence’s fate and well-being is a monumental decision. As we approached the realization that Tweed was falling into a real, tangible sickness, we as a family began to examine not just options for this sweet animal, but also ourselves. Would it be okay to allow nature to take its course? Would it be greedy to introduce the possibility of suffering to alleviate our own financial burdens?

Watching Tweed die, both in the figurative and literal sense, transformed itself in my mind and heart into an ethical and moral paradox. I grew up around animals, and have always had pets when I could. My best friend growing up as a child in Indianapolis, Indiana was a cat. My partner often comments on what seems my special ability to connect with animals. Pets, while different animals, are not inferior and do not deserve lesser treatment in my eyes. But I was forced for the first time with Tweed to participate in the difficult decision to terminate the life of a beloved family member. And it seemed wrong.

When poor Tweed’s ribs began to show, we cast aside any thoughts of self and took her to the vet. Preliminary exams showed little wrong, but these palpations and measurements didn’t seem to tell the whole story. Looking in the cat’s eyes, I saw suffering. Modern science has done so much for all lifeforms on this planet, but it still struggles with the core of who and what we are. Modern science doesn’t account for the very human emotions residing in this small animal clinging to life. But it did provide a scapegoat for complacency.

To step back, when I was ten, I vividly recall waking up to my dad’s decrepit calico cat meowing so loudly and ferociously, I felt frightened. She had never done this before. Within minutes, I heard the phone ring in my parent’s bedroom, then my mom crying, then footsteps, followed finally by the distressing news that my father had died. My dad had been in the hospital for months with terminal cancer. His cat knew that he had died before we did. Sometimes there is a world co-existing like parallel realities with science that can’t be fully explained.

Sure enough, after we had accepted that the professionals found nothing significantly wrong, Tweed began to urinate all over the place, show signs of severe dehydration despite drinking a lot of water, to vomit and otherwise become demonstrably in the latter stages of dying. This happened a week after being probed and prodded by a veterinarian. No one is saying that this vet did anything wrong. I am saying that sometimes it may be best to get a second opinion from the soul.

It was only then that we made the decision to have Tweed euthanized. Even as we confronted a dying family member in the throes of dire pain, we struggled over the financial cost. While I was part of this process and cast no blame, I find it significant that we chose to terminate the life of this precious animal, who offered the invaluable commodity of loyal companionship and love, only after she became a burden on us as humans. Her pain was disheartening. We sympathized with the pain, and offered low baby voices as we pet her. But when she peed on stuff we had to have her killed.

In human affairs, what often decides the fine line between murder and bravery is intent. Somehow this is different with our pets, which leads me back to the question: if something is family while it is convenient but dead when it is a burden, what is it?

Comforting my partner as we sat in the operating room, we went through various discussions with various professionals. Meanwhile, the once vibrant, feisty cat now lay on the table, breathing heavily and unable to muster more than a limp. She was so sick, she could barely even protest the fact she had been imprisoned in a carrier and taken for a car ride. She exhibited no curiosity in the new surroundings.

Talking in soothing tones and using buzzwords as analgesics, the veterinarian licensed to be our hit man made sure we knew we had to pay before obtaining services. Of course we also had to sign a waiver, as if we had not repeatedly been reassured by the animal doctor that death was the best option. As soon as money was in hand, the patient was carried into another room for a catheter, through which the lethal injection would be performed.

When the nasty business of repeatedly stabbing the poor disgraced lady was carried out, the patient was returned to our presence, where we cooed and petted her and then gave the final okay to off her. Death swooped down and took her quickly, a small mercy in a cesspool of cruelties.

Once the deed was done, we were offered paw prints, taken from the corpse’s limp body. The vet remarked on her satisfaction that the thing had not released its bowels upon death.

When the veterinarian left the room and quiet surrounded us, we were left with a dead cat and guilt. My partner whispered apologies to this wonderful feline friend, using two words to succinctly say what is presented in this three-plus page essay. We knew she needed to go, but we also were aware we should’ve acted so much sooner. The duality of our relationship with Tweed hung over us as we got a free cardboard box for the physical remains of our companion.

We buried Tweed and held a small ceremony to mark her passing. And then bought flowers for my partner’s mom. Consoling the living humans now took precedence over philosophical ruminations on our guilt or the pain we had perhaps unintentionally caused.

I still can’t help wondering what people will do if I ever have a terminal disease and effectively become arbiters of my fate. Because Tweed WAS family… until it became too costly.

Watching someone you love die is never easy.

Perhaps that is because you must continue living after they are gone.


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