Guest post by Sarah Chauncey
This is the first post in a three-part series. Sarah Chauncey is the author of an upcoming book for adults grieving the loss of their cat. We will feature part two, Making the Euthanasia Decision, next week, and part three, Creating an End of Life Ritual, the following week.
In the wee hours of a winter Friday morning in 2016, I had a nightmare: My 20-year-old black cat, Hedda, was having a seizure. Diarrhea was flying everywhere. Her green eyes stared at me, terrified, as her body convulsed. I was powerless to help her.
I was awakened by the usual 6am swat to the mouth that indicated Hedda wanted her medicine and breakfast. I rubbed a dose of transdermal painkillers on the inside of her ears, got up to put out fresh food and water, then went back to bed.
A few hours later, I saw—and smelled—droplets of brown liquid on the old flannel pillowcase that covered her heating pad. Hedda’s sides seemed to be occasionally heaving, and I realized she was straining to empty her bowels.
My mind began spinning. The thoughts came so fast and from every direction that I couldn’t pay attention to even one. I called a friend in Toronto, who had known and loved Hedda almost as long as I had. I blathered on and on to him, alternating between panic and total denial. My friend, perhaps intuitively understanding what was to come, was both reassuring and practical: Call the vet.
We couldn’t get in until mid-afternoon. The vet tech who answered the phone said it sounded like constipation—Hedda was elderly, had mid-stage kidney disease, and she was on a synthetic opioid. She probably needed an enema. Poor Hedda, I thought. Poor vet. Giving a cat a pill is bad enough. But at least that was straightforward. It would be rough, but she’d feel better and we’d come home.
As the hours went on, Hedda became lethargic and, for the first time, disengaged. The bedroom reeked as she soiled the puppy pads I’d placed on the bed, even with small droplets. She managed to pass a couple of small lumps of stool, which I took photos of and excitedly emailed to the vet. Maybe she wouldn’t need an enema, just…like, kitty Ex-Lax or something?
The vet stood across the examining table from me. She spoke firmly, almost angrily, as Hedda explored the new environment. “This isn’t constipation; it’s diarrhea,” the vet said. I asked what might be causing it; her guess was hyperthyroidism. Hedda had lost more than two pounds in the previous six months.
“What do we do?” I asked, and my voice cracked. She laid out the options of treating the symptoms without doing any tests, or doing blood and urine tests to find the underlying cause. Then she paused.
“Have you thought about euthanasia?”
In the past, I wouldn’t have allowed anyone to utter that word in the same room as Hedda. It was a cold, wet slap across my heart.
I had always felt strongly that ‘quality of life’ should be defined on Hedda’s terms—not arbitrary indicators of whether she could still act like a younger cat, but whether she still wanted to be alive. Even if her pleasures were simple: Eating, watching birds out the window, snuggling with me…simply being. I didn’t believe her life was mine to take, unless I was certain that she felt death would be preferable.
The vet looked at me in a way that I interpreted as half-grim, half compassionate. I burst into tears.
Her tone softened a bit. “People worry about doing it too soon. I want to tell you, it’s not too soon.”
I am grateful to her for being so direct. I knew we were coming from different belief systems, possibly different definitions of “quality of life,” but even in my mental fog, she forced open a door I’d been keeping locked. We both were coming from a place of compassion.
“Let’s do tests, treat the symptoms, and see how it goes over the weekend,” I said.
“She may not make it through the weekend,” the vet replied in a soft voice. “She might go downhill.”
I blinked. Nodded. My brain wasn’t computing any of this. I knew that if anything happened, I didn’t have the funds to take her to the emergency vet. Was that what my nightmare had been about? But I couldn’t just kill her right now.
For a few minutes, I was alone with Hedda in the examining room. I stroked her and with a shaky voice said, “Hey sweetie. We’ll be home soon.” I lifted her onto the examining table so that I could hold her closer, and I repeated the line I’d often told her. “Everybody loves Hedda. James loves Hedda and Dianna loves Hedda and Susan loves Hedda…” and I continued until I’d worn out everybody who had ever met her. “Everybody loves Hedda. Hedda is Love.” I placed her back on the floor.
We think we know what decisions we’d make in a given moment, but that assumes we can predict what our mindset will be, that our brains will be functioning at the same level as when life is flowing smoothly. That’s rarely the case.
My insides were a jumble—like, a drawing a toddler might make if he only had a black crayon. On some level, I knew the end was near. Yet I felt that, in this moment, I was being pressured to euthanize, and I knew that if I did make that decision, it had to come from my heart, not other people’s minds. And my heart was very much not on board.
Like many guardians, I expected that Hedda would communicate to me when she was ready to die. But I hadn’t been getting those signs. She still engaged with me, although her eye contact had been less frequent. She went up and down her ramp beside the bed a dozen or more times a day, and although I’d noticed that she was skinnier, she was eating as voraciously as ever.
Over the weekend, Hedda’s diarrhea subsided. We settled back into our comfortable routine, though this time, I had some decisions to make.
Coming next Wednesday: Saying Goodbye to Hedda, Part Two: Making the Euthanasia Decision
Sarah Chauncey is the author of P.S. I Love You More Than Tuna, an upcoming gift book for adults grieving their cat. She runs @morethantuna on Instagram and Facebook, “a celebration of nine lives,” and she started #tunatributes, a support community for people grieving their cat. She lives on Vancouver Island.