I don’t think anyone else calls it the Long Drive, but any adult pet owner recognizes the term whenever I use it. It’s the drive you take to the vet when your elderly, sick pet is almost certainly not going to recover, and you know it. You know it in the back of your mind, even if the front of your mind fails to accept it. Denial, they say, isn’t just a river in Egypt. But it’s not all powerful. We know. That’s what explains the tears that show up for no reason to which you will admit and the hot pressure inside your sinuses that is the tears you won’t let out. Other people may try to tell you the facts, and you deny them. Tell me, then, would you say “no!” so vigorously if you didn’t actually already know?
It was almost twenty years ago that my godson, then three, walked up our back steps with an adolescent orange tabby and said “White kitty wants to come in!” And in they came. White kitty (who was orange) was friendly, practically boneless, and had no reservations whatsoever about a three-year-old grabbing him about his middle and hauling him around like a sack of wheat. He was wearing a badly – expired flea collar, so he must have belonged to somebody. But he was also eaten up with fleas. Not wanting a passel of flea eggs laid in my shag carpet (long story – I know better now), I immediately tossed him back out on the porch. He was wearing a flea collar and and clearly belonged to someone.
Herself sneaked him back into the house very shortly thereafter. We have an odd relationship, she and I. She thinks she’s Ellie Mae Clampett and I try to keep the house from begin buried in pet hair. So – one flea bath later, we had another cat. This put us at a count of two, which is my max. It’s a rule that cats should not outnumber people in the house.
Our other cat at the same time was named Agatha, and for some reason, this new orange fellow was named Sebastian. It was only much later we realized that St. Agatha is the patron saint of nurses, and St. Sebastian is the patron saint of archers. Herself is a nurse. I am an archer. Coincidence? Probably. I would like to say that Sebastian was very, very fond of us. I certainly took his purring and rubbing to heart. But I have to admit, it might not have been personal. You see, Sebastian was into PEEEPLE! (You have to spell it that way to convey his enthusiasm.) He just loved peeeple.
He loved rubbing up against legs. He loved sitting in laps. He loved sneaking up on you and cramming his head up under your hand to sneak extra pats in. When he was young and energetic, you could hold your hand out and he would whip himself around in figure-eights under your hand, doing all the work of patting, just for your convenience. I used to tell folks he was aggressively submissive. When someone new came into the house he would walk in front of them, flop down, and expose his throat and belly. He wanted to be utterly clear that he was not the alpha, and if you could drop off a belly rub on your way by, that was fine with him.
He was the happiest individual I ever met. He could find a reason to purr simply by sitting in a shaft of sunlight. He responded positively to any attention at all. Petting, noogies, gentle tugs at his tail . . . he didn’t care. It was all good, as long as there were peeeple and and they were paying attention to him. He was low-maintenance, too. He liked anything we fed him. He never got sick, and aside from when we got him snipped, only went to the vet for sporadic checkups most of the time. We had two rough years out of the twenty we had with him.
One year we noticed he was loosing weight and there was a minor panic. Feline leukemia? Something worse? Were we going to lose the buddy? It was a bad-news/good-news thing. He had developed periodontal disease. We, of course, didn’t notice until it was too late, and his gums were rotten. It broke my heart to have all of those perfectly good teeth extracted, but the vet said that his gums were so bad that the teeth couldn’t be saved. By removing the tooth beds, they got all of the rotten tissue and he was able to heal. The good news? Turns out cats don’t use their teeth to chew. Who knew, right? Turns out that in the wild they use their fangs to strip flesh from bones, but then they just sort of gulp it down. Once his gums healed up, he was able to return to nomming kibble like a champion. He plumped right back up again. The surgeon was very pleased with his recovery and told me that she’d seen cats return to mousing again, toothless, after they were no longer in pain.
Then there was the year of the eye. The poor fellow got into a fight and suffered a minor eye injury that led to an infection, and we were forced to have an eye removed to prevent the infection from spreading.
Those were too expensive years, but in both cases the decision to treat Sebs was easy. The rest of the time, he’d eaten cheap kibble and sat in my lap and purred. He purred me through sad times. He purred me through our best friends’ divorce and his subsequent move out of town. He purred me through my parent’s deaths. For two decades that amazingly loud purrbox could be heard from four feet away. No matter what happened, he loved to be with us, and served as an example that, even in the darkest times, even when you are feeling your saddest, even if your balls have been cut off, life can still be good!
As I’ve said, he was with us for around twenty years. He had a long, healthy, good life. Last month he was still able to get up onto the kitchen counter (a forbidden place) stalking the cooked chicken. But still, for the past couple of years, he’d been getting a little slower every day, jumping with a little less confidence, and just seeming more . . . frail.
I should have realized something was happening about ten days ago. You see, the Old Man had always had a delicate tummy. Cleaning up “cat yack” was one of the prices of having a roommate that was always, always glad to see you. But about ten days ago, he quit getting sick. Stupid me, I thought this was good news. When we went to the vet this morning, the poor bastard had lost half his body weight. I had actually made an appointment for him because of an eye infection. He’s been expressing a little fluid for a few days. I didn’t think it was anything serious, but when you’re down to one eye, you don’t want to take chances.
But last night, when we got home from dinner, he was staggering around the house. He just wasn’t walking right. We had a vet appointment the next day, so I tried not to sweat it. He had an infection in his head. That’ll make anybody woozy, right? I went to my study and started to write. Then, from the kitchen, I heard the harsh, hacking, gasping sounds.
You have to understand, my other housemate’s day job is hand-to-hand combat with the Angel of Death. She’s a fifteen year veteran of the emergency department in a level one trauma center. Her spine is made of tungsten carbide, an alloy that considers steel to be “flimsy” and iron to be “mushy.” I’ve known her for a quarter-century, through the toughest times in her life, and I can count the times I’ve heard her cry on the fingers of one hand. And there she sat, in the middle of the kitchen floor, petting the cat and crying.
She can smell Death, you see. I think that working so closely with the bastard day in and day out all these years, she can recognized his footsteps in the hallway outside. She smelled him on my parents not too many years ago. She never says anything at the time. She doesn’t like to crush hope. And she generally has no evidence. She just knows.
That night he sat on her chest for a couple of hours while we watched TV. He didn’t move around much, and eventually she took him to the big bed, where he spent the night with us. She work up about nine times, she said, to make sure he was still breathing. Eventually dawn came, and she headed for the bathroom. I was, I confess, entertained. As soon as the door closed, his ears perked up. Somewhere in the house, a door was closed, and that was not to be tolerated. He could barely stand, but stand he did, and he dragged himself to the edge of the bed. He stared down at the floor and waited. I caved shortly and lifted him down to the floor where, with a dedication to duty and a iron will, he stalked the closed door to the bathroom and poked at it until someone (me) opened it. Please note that he did not actually want to go into said room. But a door was not to be closed. Not on his watch.
Herself stalled, piddled around, and lollygagged, but eventually the relentless march of the clock forced The Nurse out the door and off to work, leaving Sebs and I to await his appointment. She put him on the futon in my study where I tried to write while I waited for the clock to tick down. Eventually, he got ambitious and started eying the floor again, so I lifted him down and followed him back into the bathroom, where he tried to jump into the tub. He was able to do it yesterday. But today he couldn’t get his hind legs up on to the rim. He’d been sleeping on the tub floor for a couple of months now. I think he liked the cool, but I was alarmed when I saw that he lay down partially in puddle of water. He’s a pretty easy going cat, but lying down in a puddle of water? That’s not right. But he was content, so I left him alone and continued at my keyboard for a little while. I made breakfast and I gave him an hour nap, then got him back out of the tub. He went to his food and water dishes, stared at them for a few minutes, but did not eat or drink, and then lay down on the kitchen floor and took another nap.
Time passed. And the time came to head out to the vet. He’s always hated the carrier, which is normally a strict rule with me. No loose cats wandering around in the car. But today – I made an exception. I guess because I knew. He loved cardboard boxes. So much so that we’d started calling the loose Amazon.com boxes that seem to accumulate around our house “cat traps.” And he loved them so much that he’d cram himself into grossly under-sized boxes. And the only thing better than a box to sit in was a stack of clean laundry. So I took a clean towel and lined a cardboard box. Then I picked up my friend and put him in the box.
We stepped outside into the brisk morning air. It was a crisp winter day, but the sky was clear and the sun was warm. He sat up right away. There was a bird, returned to East Tennessee early, singing. And his head whipped around. I put the box on the floor between the seats. The view wasn’t so hot from down there, but if I had to slam on the breaks, he wouldn’t go flying. Whatever was going on with my friend did not need to be complicated by flying off of the seat. He perked up on the trip, active and interested in everything around him. He was so – himself, a part of me key saying “hey: false alarm.” When we crossed the parking lot I had to stop for a second. He was sitting up and looking around. I’d developed a huge, hot burning pressure in my lower sinuses. Had to stop for a second for it to clear.
We went in and I got immediately put into an exam room. We waited just a few minutes and then the vet came in. She said, “So, let’s take a look at that – oh dear.” She took my old friend away and weighed him. He’s lost half of his body weight. She was very kind, but she said that while she could treat his eye and give him some meds to stimulate his appetite. But his body was trying to shut down. How does your friend stop eating for seven days and you not notice? The reason my old friend was staggering, the reason he couldn’t jump up into the tube, was that he had almost no muscles left. Without food, his little body had been consuming his own muscles to keep him alive. The vet worked very hard not to influence my decision. At every stage she gave me the facts, answered my questions, and left me to my own thoughts.
Did you know that, compared to dogs or sheep, cats are barely domesticated? Unless your cat has a broken bone or other sharp pain, they are unlikely to let you know they are hurting. Because showing weakness like that in the wild can get you killed. So I wasn’t in a position to say that he wasn’t in any pain. First – he wasn’t going to get any better, because there really wasn’t anything wrong with him. His little body was just worn out. Second – his quality of life was non-existent.
There was only one call to make, and the decision was easy. Getting the words out of my mouth was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. Herself was working a short shift that day. I should have waited for her. But I found that I lacked the courage. Forty four years ago, I stood on a three meter diving board, looking down at a diving well so deep that the water seemed almost black. I knew then that if I waited, I wouldn’t have the nerve to jump. If I waited, I wasn’t going to have what it took to make this call.
You see, I saw my father’s last year. I saw my wife’s grandmother’s last year. I do not want either of those years for myself. If that’s the case, what right or business do I have making my friend go through another two or three weeks of this because I can’t let go?
The process is both swift and simple. The patient is given an intro-muscular injection of a sedative that literally puts him to sleep. He was a good kitty, just like he’d always been. He took his injection without hissing or biting. Then I took him out of his box and held him in my lap and talked to him as he went to sleep. I hadn’t actually heard him purr in a very long time, but some nights I could pet him and feel it under my fingers. I’m probably projecting, but I’ll always believe that I felt that small vibration under my fingers one last time. Once he was fully asleep, the vet shaved his leg and revealed a tiny vein in his leg. He was so dehydrated that she was afraid she’d have to do an abdominal injection, which takes a little longer, but she had no trouble hitting the vein. I kept petting his head and flank until she told me that she couldn’t hear a heartbeat any more. She cautioned me that I might see a reflex breath, but that my friend was gone.
She stayed with me as long as I wanted her, never hurrying or rushing. She explained that he was so worn out that had we let him out of the house, he would mostly likely have found a thicket up on the ridge behind the house and gone to sleep and never woken up. Weeks ago. We were keeping him inside because it was so cold. And I was so hoping he would make to one more spring. He really liked lying on the front porch in the sunlight and warm breezes. All of the scents and sounds of spring made it his favorite time of year.
I’m going to miss my friend.