We followed a path yesterday that we've followed twice before, but it never gets any easier: we put one of our cats to sleep.
Middle Cat, who was born sometime in May 1992, has been suffering from a number of chronic illnesses for some years now. First it was hyperthyroidism, then renal failure, then last January she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and this fall the vets discovered a multi-lobe mass on her liver. Any one of these would have finished off a lesser cat, but as our vet put it, Middle Cat was too stubborn to die, and so she hung around, getting skinnier and skinnier but still enjoying life. She slept 90% of the time, but she was always eager for her food and slept on the bed with us at night. She was particularly fond of sitting on LDH's chest and breathing in his face.
But Friday night she vomited a few times, clear liquid flecked with blood. She wasn't interested in her favorite treats, freeze-dried chicken. She just seemed tired.
So we took her to the vet on Saturday morning and after consultation decided that now was the time.
It's such a hard decision. On the one hand, I always wish that they would take the choice out of our hands, that we'd wake up one morning and find the still, cool little body of a creature that had passed peacefully in her sleep. On the other hand, as the vet put it, this is the one thing we can do for her - give her an end without pain, surrounded by the people who loved her.
There are always things to second-guess - for instance, in this case, our vets would be closed Sunday through Tuesday. And I go back to clerkship town on Tuesday. You don't want to arrange something like this around a holiday and the convenience that I'm here right now. But we love our vets, who have never displayed anything less than the highest levels of kindness and compassion, and if we waited but needed to take action before Wednesday, we would have hated to go to strangers. And I would hate for Middle Cat to have left on this final journey without being there to say goodbye.
It was so helpful, too, that our lovely lovely vet said, "I would rather do it a week too early than one day too late."
So we sent off Middle Cat, sitting in our vets' "comfort room," decorated in warm colors with a cozy couch and a pretty rug. I sat next to her and stroked her soft head the entire time. She lay on a rich red chenille blanket. One of the vets who's treated her in the past came in to say goodbye, and we talked about how I had chosen Middle Cat out of the cage full of kittens at the shelter because she'd been beating up the other cats. The vet who administered the euthanasia keeps the supplies in a pretty little tool box, covered with antique maps and accented by bronzed hardware, something that looks anything but clinical or medical, like something you'd find holding treasured keepsakes in someone's study.
When it was done I felt sadness, but I also felt relief. Middle Cat is a tough, stubborn little creature - typical (dilute) tortie. She was never one to sit on our laps and cuddle and demand to be petted, but she was always there - by our side, watching, wanting to be part of what we were doing. She would have dragged herself along with us to the bitter end, never leaving us till she had to. I'm sure we could have continued treating her ailments - upped the fluids we were giving her, put her on antibiotics, more pills, more painkillers. But nothing was going to cure her, or even make her feel that much better, and you can't explain to a cat that there's a reason you're poking her with a needle and shoving pills down her throat (which she hated. Eldest Cat, of blessed memory, was such a needy attention hog who loved being held that he was pretty easy to pill. But Middle Cat hated ever being confined in any way, even for the 30 seconds necessary to give her medication). Now she doesn't have to be interfered with anymore.
When we put Youngest Cat to sleep, there was a different kind of sadness. Because he was FeLV positive (feline leukemia), we knew he wasn't likely to live very long (he made it seven years, which was pretty good). But he went downhill very quickly at the end (developing pernicious anemia, which sounds so Victorian), so we had only a few days to prepare ourselves for his loss.
When we put Oldest Cat to sleep, I felt guilty that I wasn't able to keep him alive forever. Obviously no one can do that, but he had been my first pet, and I felt so responsible for him - like there was something I could do to cure him and keep him with me always. (There wasn't, of course - he was eighteen and had hyperthyroidism, and it had affected his neurological system, so his back legs were weak and he couldn't walk in a straight line. He'd navigate a room by following the perimeter, leaning on the walls. We took him in the morning after the night when he cried the whole time because he was hungry but he couldn't eat.) Like I said, he was a needy attention hog who loved his mummy (me) and couldn't bear being separated from me - it used to be that when I took a shower, he'd sit on the covered toilet and cry - we always said he was worried I'd wash down the drain. When they took his body away there was a small incredible part of me that cried out, "Wait, I made a mistake, I want to take it back!"
For whatever reason, I didn't have that kind of sadness this time. Mostly because I had known for a long time that Middle Cat, like Youngest Cat, was going to leave us. (Of course all pets ultimately leave us, but both Middle Cat and Youngest Cat had specific terminal diagnoses that Eldest Cat never did.) Our concern had always been whether we would know when we should let her go. I think the relief was because we finally realized that she would never let us go, and that we had to let her go instead.
And so an era has ended. I got Eldest Cat right before I graduated from college, and Middle Cat a year later; I had them before I met LDH. LDH and I found Youngest Cat nine years later (he was born right around 9/11). When Youngest Cat left us, we were back to my original two; when Eldest Cat left us, I lost my first companion; now that Middle Cat has left us, there is no one left who knew me when I was a terrified grad student, living on my own for the first time, wondering if I would ever succeed at this academic stuff, get a tenure-track job, make something of myself. She saw me through a master's degree, prelims, a dissertation, two tenure-track jobs, the LSAT, applying to and attending law school, the bar exam, a first clerkship, part of a second, and acquiring a permanent post-clerkship job. She saw LDH and me through living together, living apart, breaking up, getting back together, getting married, and various stints of living apart again. He was her devoted Special Friend and she loved him as much as she loved me.
We are not alone - we have our funny little blind bobtail cat, who loves company, and for whom we will adopt another cat sometime in the near future. But I feel old, to have outlived all my previous cats. And sometimes I'm bewildered at how I've ended up somewhere entirely different from what I imagined when I was that lonely person adopting a little kitten, mottled gray and silver and white and buff, on a hot July 3, in a Twin Cities suburb. It's not a bad place to be, just a little unexpected.