Part 1 of Putting a Neighborhood Cat to Sleep posted yesterday. Recap: very, very sick stray cat and early morning veterinarian appointment.
If you need a palate cleanser at any time, try this gorgeous photo series of “Cat Heaven Island” in Fukuoka, Japan. I’m going to pretend this island has an aggressive spay/neuter program and I don’t want anyone telling me otherwise please.
About 7:00 AM I put on a fresh pair of nitrile gloves and pulled Gus’s carrier out of the garage and stuffed in a crappy beach towel and went to the backyard.
The cat was gone.
I did not foresee that turn of events. The gate was closed. The cat had not been very mobile. I said aloud, “I did not foresee that turn of events.”
She was not in the laundry room. She was not wedged behind the dryer in a bid for warmth. She was not in the dirt area behind the garage. She was not hidden in the ivy. She was not, I hoped, under the house.
I checked all these places thoroughly, as no one wants to be surprised by a deceased cat later.
After a few minutes I got the notion that she might have gone back to Fountain Neighbor’s house.
Carrier in hand I walked down the block, not holding out much hope, and lo, drinking out of the neighbor’s fountain, there she was.
I was faced with the proposition of going onto someone else’s property to pick up a cat they knew much better than I did and take her far away, likely never to return. If Fountain Neighbor happened to appear at that moment, there could be a very awkward conversation. “Oh, I’m just taking her to be killed. No, no, it’s no trouble. As you can see I’m quite bent on it.”
The neighbor did not appear. I approached the cat, and she looked at me and meowed. Still dribble on her chin. Still a line of mucus in her eye. She didn’t resist being picked up, and she walked into the carrier under her own power.
We drove to the vet. Gus is normally very vocal about this trip. This cat had nothing to say at all.
We arrived and the clinician gave me a form to fill out. I wrote the name “Smoky,” as it seemed like an appropriate name. I explained that yesterday had been the first time I’d seen her, and she was very sick, and I wanted to see “what the kindest thing to do is.” I wanted to emphasize that I had no delusions about saving her. I just had no qualifications to do it myself. I can’t even kill all the fruit flies in my kitchen.
I met with Dr. H, who has seen Gus and Jake multiple times. Dr. H looks like a fiftyish ceramics class teacher who surfs. She has a good, frank, gentle way about her. She does a good job of not making you feel guilty when you bring in a cat with, oh, say, an anal abscess, but firmly mentioning at the follow-up appointment that you need to put some wet food in his life.
Dr. H had the overview before she came in the room. She said, “Hi, Smoky!” in a chipper voice as she handed me a paper towel for my steady-leaking face situation. I reiterated my desire to see “what the kindest thing to do would be.” I described Smoky’s driveway collapse and the excessive water-drinking.
She asked if Smoky could come out of the box. I said she was “very gentle and tired” and demonstrated how easy it was to take Smoky out.
Dr. H said, “Oh, that’s a sick kitty.” She examined Smoky and it didn’t take long for her to decide. “It looks like she has kidney failure. She’s so dehydrated. Feel her, she feels like bread dough. When I do this,” she said, pulling the skin on Smoky’s back, “it should spring right back. And look at her gums, that’s anemia. They should be good and red, but look how white they are. And from what you say, she’s got some years on her. In some cases you can give subcutaneous injections for kidney failure, but since she’s a stray, I’d say the kindest thing to do would be to put her to sleep.”
So I started crying a lot, which was kind of dumb, because it was what I was hoping for. I said, “I agree. I completely agree.”
Dr. H put her hand on mine and said, “I know how easy it is to get attached, even to just a neighborhood cat,” and she told a tangential story. I wasn’t even attached to Smoky, it was just the absurdity and tragedy of the whole thing, that people and Nature had failed this cat equally, and now instead of a proper owner loving her for ten-plus years she had a dumb stranger crying over her in her last five minutes. But it was a lot to explain and there was really no need to explain it.
Then Dr. H suggested they could take her in the back to put her down. All I articulated was “could…?” and she offered, “Or I can sedate her here and you can be with her, then we can take her in the back for the rest.”
So I said, “Yes, let’s do that.” I don’t imagine Smoky would have cared too much whether it was me holding her or a clinician, but it didn’t seem right just to hand her off and go.
Plus I had delusions that it would be beautiful, in its way. Peace would replace suffering. Order would be restored. I would pet her and she would simply slip away. I had lines from Corinthians and John Donne and Dylan Thomas in my head.
But her death was not beautiful.
Dr. H administered the sedative, she said, “This will burn a little.” And Smoky tensed under my hands and, for the first time, tried to get away. Dr. H said, “It seems unfair that the last thing we do hurts them, but she’ll feel better in a moment. She’s so depressed that this may be all it takes.” I petted Smoky to soothe her. Already she was going inert.
I am disappointed in us as a species that we aren’t better at painless death by now.
Dr. H said she would be back in five minutes, and someone would be in with a euthanasia order for me to sign. “Just pet her and talk to her,” she said.
So I adjusted Smoky on the crappy beach towel and tried to bundle her so she would at least be warmer. Already she was sort of gone. But her eyes were open, and she was still breathing, so I kept petting her. I told her, “It’s all right. You’re on the home stretch now.” But after that I couldn’t really say anything.
A clinician brought the euthanasia form in. I’m going to say signatures on those forms are probably uniformly pretty bad.
Smoky’s eyes were still open. It seemed like that couldn’t be comfortable, so I tried to close them for her. They wouldn’t stay. I tried again.
Then she gasped, and it scared the living shit out of me.
It was a wet, reflex gasp, like something in her mouth or throat had relaxed too much, and her lungs were still demanding air. She didn’t “wake up” or move or anything else.
Should I tell someone? There didn’t seem like a reason to. Smoky couldn’t feel it. The clinicians and Dr. H were busy with other pets. It was my job to be patient.
She gasped again.
I tried to angle her head so her breathing might be better.
Another minute. Another gasp.
She gasped about seven times before Dr. H came in to collect her.
“She’s gasping,” I told her.
“Yes,” said Dr. H. “But she doesn’t know. We’ll take her in the back. We’ll take good care of her. And since she’s a stray, there’s no charge.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Do you want to keep the towel?”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll use it for the next one.”
That was a strange thing to say, but Dr. H seemed to take it in the spirit intended.
Dr. H took Smoky in the back.
I took my empty carrier and my swollen eyes and wandered out to the lobby and tried not to freak out the other pet owners, who surely don’t want to see anyone with an empty carrier and swollen eyes.
There was no bill to pay, but I caught the eye of the clinician to wave goodbye. It seemed rude to have someone kill a cat for you and not say goodbye.
I let the Duplex Neighbors and Amy know.
I left a note on Fountain Neighbor’s door, too, and told her I was with the cat until the end, and I was sorry for her loss.
Gus got some extra wet food. Jake got a chewie. (Jake doesn’t need more wet food. Jake sneaks burger buns when no one is looking.)
Fortunately Jake and Gus are immortal, so I don’t have to worry about someday taking one of them to the vet and leaving with an empty collar or carrier. But if they were gonna go, I’m grateful Smoky taught me what to be prepared for. And I hope Smoky is there on the other side to give them a high five and show them which way to the fountain.
That’s all I know.