Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Best choice, worst feeling

Our oldest cat had been in declining health, a decline which became markedly steeper over the past few days. Because my wife is a veterinarian, we do have a few (theoretical) built-in advantages as pet owners. My wife has the clinical evaluation skills to ascertain when an animal has reached minimal levels of quality of life, and once that determination has been made, she also has direct access to the facilities to make that end-of-life transition possible.

Of course, it’s one thing to say that my wife can diagnose exactly how bad the kidney failure has gotten just by smelling a cat’s breath, and it’s quite another to come to grips with reaching the end of the road for a beloved pet. I led off this post talking about “our cat” and I honestly do, at this point, feel that the cat was jointly ours, but in reality she was always very much my wife’s cat. My wife and I tease each other about being sole custodians of various pets depending on how much they have aggravated or enraged us recently (“Your dog peed on the carpet again.” “Your cat woke me up attacking my toes in the middle of the night.”) although we co-adopted four out of five of them. My wife’s cat, on the other hand, predates me. She was living in my wife’s apartment the very first time I paid a call on her in the early water-testings that would ultimately culminate in us taking the plunge together. It’s a fairly risible cliche, the single gal with a pet cat and the new boyfriend and the power struggles and pecking orders that have to be negotiated, but I lived through that hoary old script and can vouch firsthand for exactly how many grains of truth are in it. (A lot or grains, I vouch.)

So my wife and her cat had been through a lot together, more even than my wife and I have been through together, and my wife loved that beautiful old Torbie very much. It’s a paradox that making the decision that’s best for an animal’s welfare, measured in terms of the avoidance of needless suffering, often means making the decision that hurts your heart the most. Sometimes it takes a lot of love to let go. So this morning my wife went in to work early so that she could say goodbye to her beloved pet. It wasn’t easy, it simply needed to be done, and we’re all a little sadder for it.

Well, I say “we all” (because apparently I’m feeling expansive and inclusive this morning) but I’m not sure if it really applies to the children. People will say that one of the reasons why it’s good to have pets is because it gives you an opening to confront and deal with issues of mortality with your kids. We’ve had to put cats to sleep before, but they were temporary pets at best, who came to us with built-in problems they never quite got over. This was the first time a long-standing member of the family was terminal, and we broached it delicately but straightforwardly with the little guy and the little girl (the baby obviously having no clue what’s going on). The little guy said he understood that the Torbie was leaving that morning with mommy and never coming back, but also, oh so tactfully and truthfully, said he wasn’t sad about it. (He’s much more of a dog person, to be fair.) The little girl also said she understood that it was time to say goodbye forever to the cat, but she’s right on the bubble between understanding abstract concepts and being really, really good at parroting things back at us, so who knows.

So my wife held the cat on her lap on the couch and had the kids come over and say goodbye, and they complied. And, standing nearby, I added, “We’ll miss you,” and as expected my daughter mimicked that sentiment verbatim. My son, on the other hand, looked at me very doubtfully, silently conveying the obvious question: “Am I supposed to say that even though I won’t miss her?” Still, not one to pass up a teachable moment, I tried to pivot from grief to empathy by prompting the little guy to tell his mother “You’ll miss her, and I’m sorry you’re sad.” So at least there was that.

Anyway, it’s a gloomy day in our little fiefdom today, which matches the gray weather outside pretty perfectly. Tomorrow is a whole new month, and hopefully things will brighten in all senses as it comes.

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