The Undead Within Us

19 10 2012

The most chilling stories of hauntings and horrors come out of the demons that chew on us from inside.   So here’s a case study from life — mine.

If you’ve had a pet you’ve probably faced it, that awful time at the end of its life.  If only they all just died quietly in their sleep.  But they don’t.  They get cancers and liver failure, go blind and deaf, start falling down the stairs and lose control of bladder function.  You try to accommodate.   If you can afford it, you operate and medicate, trying to put off the inevitable as long as possible.  But you reach the point where you wonder, Is it worth it?

Euthanasia.  Putting them to sleep; the Big Sleep.  We have no laws against making this decision for a creature who can’t speak for itself, who can’t protest or affirm.  Society in its dubious wisdom instead prohibits granting release for people who can clearly articulate what they want and when they want it.  There is something bizarre in that.  But there it is.  We as the human caretakers for these mute beasts get to decide.  We have the awesome responsibility to judge when the suffering outweighs the blessing of life.  The more we care about the beast, the harder that is.

I’ve had to make that decision twice in the past few months, as my two eldest cats reached that stage.   The first was fairly straightforward.  She was 20 years old and had a series of strokes that left her delirious and crippled.  Yet she lingered, unable to eat or drink, occasionally getting up to twitch and lurch.  When it became clear that she wasn’t going to die quietly, I took her to the vet for help in finishing the job.  One shot, and it was over.  Peace at last.  I cried, but I had no doubt that I’d done the right thing.

With Amelia it was different.

She was nearly 20, mostly blind and deaf.  She had been losing weight, wouldn’t eat more than a tablespoon at a time and so demanded (very loudly) to be fed often, including in the middle of the night.  She drank huge quantities of water and wandered around the house looking for a place to pee.  It might be the catbox; it might be the dog’s bed; it might be one of the newspapers we started leaving everywhere to try to keep her from just flooding on the floor.  Often there were spots of blood in her urine.  She stopped grooming herself and smelled terrible.  But she still seemed to enjoy going out and lying in the sun on the deck.  She’d sit in your lap for long as you’d accommodate her, purring and nudging your hand for pets.  She seemed to still get some pleasure out of life.  And yet at times she would stand in one spot and stare at nothing, yowling as if in terrible pain.

Then she developed an abscess on the side of her face that pushed her eye shut.  It happened on a weekend when the vet was closed.  So I sat with her, putting warm compresses on her face, getting the abscess to drain.  This is nuts, I thought.  Even if she recovers from this, she’s got a host of other issues.   We can’t afford to try to address them, even if treatment were possible.  She’s 19 blessed years old, had a grand life, and dammit, it’s time.  She can’t be comfortable or happy.   We have four other cats and two dogs to worry about.

On and on, justifying my decision.  My decision for her.  To end her life.

On Monday morning we went to the vet.   The doctor’s assistants were very kind and understanding.  The doctor was running late, so I sat with Amelia on my lap, waiting.  Stroking her head.  She was quiet, calm, content.  Trusting me to take care of her.

The vet arrived and apologized for keeping me waiting.  There were papers to sign: yes I wanted to be with her; yes, I was taking the body home to bury.  So sorry, they said, so sad this had to happen so soon after my previous loss.  She’s been sick, I explained, again justifying my decision, for myself as much as for them.  Of course, of course.

They offered her a little dish of fancy food, which she nibbled at happily while they gave her a shot to relax her.  I held her as she lay down and dozed.  Then the vet administered the last dose, the one that would end her life.  I held her and soothed her.  With my other cat, Peppercorn, it had come quickly.

Not so with Amelia.  Amelia kept breathing.  Her heart kept beating.

So the vet had her assistant get a second dose.  She apologized, the veins in such an old, thin animal were small.  Sometimes this sort of thing happened.  The doctor carefully chose a spot and administered the next shot.

I held Amelia.  I stroked her head.  I told her it was all right, she could let go.  But Amelia didn’t want to let go.  She clung to life.

I began to break down, weeping, apologizing, I’d been wrong, she wasn’t ready to die and I’d had the arrogance to try to take what little life she had left away from her.  She had trusted me to look after her and I had betrayed her.  They were trying to kill her and she did not want to die.

It took four shots.  The vet assured me that Amelia was gone, and apologized again.  I remember her telling me about her own dog who was dying of cancer and had hung on the same way; she knew how I felt and sympathized.  They were all very kind.  It didn’t help.

I had brought an old nightshirt of mine for a shroud.  I wrapped Amelia up in it and brought her home.  Nobody else in the family was there.  I went out back and chose a spot, a sunny slope, thinking with the irrationality of sentiment, This is a good spot where she can warm her old bones, like she used to on the deck in the sun, or by the wood stove.  And I began to dig.  I wanted to get it over with, be finished, have closure.  I shoveled out gravel, pried out rocks, cut roots.  Kept going until it seemed deep enough, sweating even in the chill October air.  Then I put the shovel down and turned to pick her up.

Her body still felt warm and pliant.  I was seized with the conviction that she wasn’t dead yet, still clinging stubbornly to life in spite of what we had done to her.  I pushed my fingers inside the shroud, through the soft fur, feeling desperately to be sure there was no heartbeat, no draw of breath.  The cloth fell back and she stared at me with one eye, the other squinted shut by the abscess.

I sat there next to a hole in the ground, sobbing, cradling a dead cat in my arms.

I took her back to the house and put her in a cardboard box in the back entryway.  I went to work cleaning house with the kind of furious focus that comes of desperation.  Every now and then I would stop and listen.

Was she moving?  Had she come back to life?

My husband came home and I babbled the whole story out, just shy of hysteria, and he took charge of the situation.  We went back out to the grave with the body.  I touched it, afraid that it would still be warm, afraid that it would be cold and stiff.

Rigor mortis had set in.  There could be no doubt that she was dead.

So we buried her.  We decided that in the spring we would use some of the wood left from cutting this year to build a little bench on the spot.  My husband said all the right things, assuring me that I’d made the correct decision.  Had to be done.  So sorry it was so painful for me.

But all the rest of the day, I kept hearing her.   A faint mew from the direction of the hill where she was buried.  She hadn’t been ready.

That night I couldn’t sleep.  I went downstairs and lay on the couch to try to read.  To get my mind off of it.  I was being foolish, irrational.  There had been no selfishness or malice in what I’d done.  She was old and sick.  Life goes on.  Death is inevitable and not to be feared.  I had all the others to think about.  It was all right.  The pain would pass.  Grieve and move on.

Outside the window, a cat began to cry.  Long, loud, piercing, the way Amelia used to do in the middle of the night when she wanted to be fed.  I lay there, listening, chilled.  Amelia.

No, it was Becker, the big Maine coon cat, wet and hungry because he hadn’t come in at feeding time.  Becker, yowling at the door, very much alive and with a very healthy appetite.  Not Amelia.  Amelia is gone.  Amelia is dead.

But I still wake up in the dark hours of the night, thinking I hear her yowling.

There are no such things as ghosts.   Except the ones that haunt from the inside.  They can’t be exorcised by waving Bibles or crosses or burning incense.  They can’t always be cast out with logic, argument, or the bright light of day.  That is what makes them so fearful.

They are truly that which should be dead but will not die.




7 responses

5 11 2012

This really hit home for me. I just had my cat William put to sleep today. He was 18 years old.

Like Amelia, he still ate but only small amounts at a time and was constantly hungry. He would vomit a lot, 4-5 times a day. Sometimes he would cry as if in pain but other times he would cuddle and purr. He was arthritic and couldn’t jump up any more, and walked slowly. Sometimes his legs would wobble, sometimes he’d slip. But sometimes he’d be lively. Sometimes his breathing would rattle and he would wheeze and cough. Sometimes it wouldn’t. Often he seemed sad and suffering. But other times he seemed happy and more lively.

Do I know I made the right decision? Deep inside, I do. I know that death would have come for him eventually, sooner rather than later, and that I did him a kindness by ending his suffering now, rather than letting it continue and cause him more pain than it already was.

But it doesn’t make it any easier. I can’t stop picturing him lying on that vet’s table, putting up a fight when we took his life. He roared and pulled away when the injection went in; he was growling until he took his very last breath. I know it was just instinctive, and it was the right time for him really, but it doesn’t stop this nagging, harrowing guilt.

And it doesn’t stop me missing my best friend.

5 11 2012

I’m glad the story resonated with you. Too often in fiction pets die quietly and peacefully in their sleep of old age. The reality is often much more difficult and heartbreaking. But dealing with it is part of the responsibility of loving and caring for a pet. Too often I see pet owners spending huge amounts of money and going to great lengths to keep animals alive that are clearly beyond any quality of life. Are they doing it for the animal’s sake? Or because they haven’t the courage to let go? You did what you had to do. That doesn’t make it any easier. But who said doing the right thing was necessarily easy? William was fortunate he had you to make that tough choice. 18 years is a good long life. I hope you give another cat such a life with you, as soon as you feel able. There are so many out there literally dying for want of a good home.

5 11 2012
Anna Ash

Something like that with one of my cats, Merlin. He stopped eating anything but a bite or two of baby food. He started living under the bed, only coming out to pee in the corner of the bedroom. We were going away for a week in a few days and didn’t feel we could foist his care on the super of our building. So, we took him in to the vet.

Our previous cat was like your Peppercorn, dying peacefully in my arms. Not Merlin. The shot that was supposed to relax him did nothing. He howled with rage when the next shot was given. He fought and hissed through the whole thing.

I’m both thankful and saddened by the fact that we live in an apartment and can’t bury our pets like I did in childhood. We paid to have Merlin cremated and his ashes sit, 6 years later, in a cheap little tin box, hidden behind a book on our desk. We still aren’t sure what to do with him.

I still feel like I failed him somehow, even though I know we loved him dearly and gave him the best life we could. Would we have chosen that day if we didn’t have carved-in-stone, no-refund-allowed vacation plans a week later? I don’t know. We knew the decision had to be made soon. It had been looming over us for weeks, as he got thinner and thinner. I like to think he knew he was loved.

I’m so sorry you had to go through that with your Amelia. The dark side of loving our pets.

5 11 2012

Thank you so much for sharing your story. It is so hard sometimes to know what is right, and guilt follows us if we have doubts. But all we poor fallible humans can do is try always to act out of love and with the best intentions. I hope someday that you find just the right place for Merlin. Be patient. Keep his little box safe. I’ll bet someday it will come. May it bring the closure you seek.

10 11 2012

I once put a stray pup to sleep. I had to fight its stray mother to get it to a vet. It had reached a serious stage of canine distemper. The doc told me that the pup can’t be cured and needs to be mercy-killed. I took the decision quickly. A friend was with me all along. After everything, he blamed me of having taken such a serious decision so quickly. He said – had it been a human baby, would you have taken the decision in such a split-second? I was guilt-ridden, cursing myself. But later I realized, I had taken the right decision. To end the misery of a pup, which people told me was lying in that state for around two days. I just trusted the doc’s decision. May be I would have taken some more time to decide, had it been a human, but the decision would’ve been no different.

Death is not a bad thing. Living miserably definitely is.

10 11 2012

I am sorry that your friend felt he had to lay that guilt trip on you. It is a pity that he didn’t realize the harm in it. The deed was done. How could it help to question your judgement and darken your difficulty with doubt? I hope you can forgive him for that, and learn from the experience not to do that to another person, should the roles be reversed. I’m sure he meant well, but it was certainly the wrong thing to do.

What you did for the pup was, on the other hand, unquestionably the right thing. If the doctor thought there was some other better choice, he/she would have said so. But with an animal this sick, with no hope of recovery, ending the suffering is the moral thing to do. I would do the same for a human baby. Indeed, sometimes we are so prejudiced by the sanctity of human life that we subject people to misery we would never inflict on an animal. If a dog is at the end of a long life and struggling with a terminal disease, we don’t force it to suffer until the bitter end. However, a doctor who takes pity on a patient pleading for a dignified end is considered a criminal.

Thank you for sharing this. You are so very right; death is not necessarily the enemy. Sometimes it is a gentle friend.

11 11 2012

Thanks for sharing your story, which reminded me of mine and share it. My friend meant well, and has always criticized me when all others had good things to say. He has always forced me to think and I am happy he said something like this that day. It did force me to think 🙂

Thanks Justine.

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