I had been waiting for a sign from Maxwell that it was time. Though his health has declined significantly in the past year, and his quality of life along with it, he still seemed to take pleasure in our presence and ate with gusto. Max had been an insulin-dependent diabetic for over three years and this year was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. I couldn't justify euthanizing him when he didn't seem to be in any pain. What a Catch 22--do you wait until the animal is suffering before making the decision, or do humanely let him go before he reaches that point?
Months ago, I had a sad, but beautiful dream. Max's was lying on the hardwood floor of my childhood bedroom; his body had turned to golden sand. The particles were rising in the air, floating away and I was trying to capture them in my hands, blocking his departure. I wasn't ready.
Last Thursday, Max threw up repeatedly and refused to eat or drink. I sat down next to him on the cold tile floor of the bathroom and petted his oily fur. He managed to work up a purr for me, but his eyes were pleading. What more did I need?
Coincidentally, friends of ours, Ada and Jeff, had come to Philly for a visit. Ada used to be Max's veterinarian, before he was diabetic. On Friday, she gently examined him, gave him some Pepsid-AD and syringe-fed him my mother's chicken soup, leftover from our Passover seder. Apparently, its healing powers do not extend to cats. Later that day, Max had thrown up the little food she gave him and his water remained untouched. I was afraid to give him his insulin--I didn't want him to hypo on me. I tried to test his blood, but he was so dehydrated, he wouldn't bleed freely. After three tries, I decided to stop tormenting him. I tried syringe-fed him some water, but he wrestled with me and I don't know how much he actually drank. The next morning, Ada called to check on Max. She reminded me that most vets have Saturday hours. In my anxious state, I had completely forgotten the Cat Doctor, the office of his usual veterinarian, would be open until 1. I called and they gave me the last appointment of the day.
Before I got there, I made up my mind that this time--no heroic efforts. No tests. No life-extending therapies. It was time to let him go.
Resigned, I strapped Sophia to my body, carried her car seat in one hand and Max in the other. Helen, the receptionist, gave us a room where we could be alone together and brought me a glass of water. I sang to Sophie and Max, trying to soothe both of them at once. In waves, the magnitude of the decision that weighed upon me would hit me, and I'd begin to sob. Sophie looked up at me from her Snugli and laughed, tickled by the sounds I was making, unaware of what I was feeling. Of what was happening. The incongruity of it pained me. After an agonizing 45-minute wait, the doctor arrived and transferred us to a warmer room with a large comfortable chair. She took Max out of his cat carrier. I was ashamed at how filthy he was. Max had long stopped using his litter box and had been urinating and defecating in my bathtub. I would clean it out and sanitize it three times each day, and Kevin and I would give him a bath each week, but his underbelly was still soaked with urine. And he smelled.
I was grateful that the doctor didn't seem to mind or judge me for this. I caressed him as she inspected his mouth for signs of dehydration. She tried to take his temperature, but he cried so pitifully that we decided it made little sense to put him through the trial of the examination. She turned to me and said simply, “I fully support your decision.”
It is a difficult thing knowing where to draw the line. But I had already made up my mind. I nodded, my throat clogged with tears. She explained what would happen and gave me some time to say goodbye. When she left the room, Maxwell beelined for a corner and crouched down next to a bucket labeled hazardous waste. I sang taps to him, and hoped that it would not scar Sophie, to whom I sing taps when I put her to bed.
It's not as morbid as it sounds--the words are quite lovely--my father used to sing it to me when I was a child: Day is done, gone the sun, from the lakes, from the hills, from the skies, all is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
The doctor came in and gave him an extra-large dose of Ketamine and Valium to relax him. I asked how we would know it was working. She said that he'd start to put his head down. She left the room and I continued to pet and sing to him. Sophie began to cry for milk, and in the middle of this ordeal, I sat in the large comfortable chair and fed her. The tension around Max's eyes, which held them wide open, relaxed, and he almost looked happy, the way he used to when he would sit with Kevin and me in the living room--Kevin on the couch, me on the chair and a half, and Max perched on the coffee table between us, paws-a-hanging, lording over his people. The doctor returned with the drug that would stop his heart. She placed him on the table. The vet tech took Sophie, and I stroked Maxwell looking deep into his eyes. It's okay, I told him. I love you. I will always love you. You won't hurt anymore. I'm letting you go.
I couldn't tell that he was gone. His eyes remained open, staring into mine. The doctor checked his heart and assured me he had passed. I cried at this reality. They took him away to wrap him in a blanket and duct-taped it closed.
The vet tech placed Max in the trunk and I made the 2-hour drive up to my father's, to bury Max in the yard next to my childhood cats, Patches and Shadow. I stopped halfway, in Princeton, to feed Sophie. When we finally arrived, Sophie was a hot mess. We had blown through her morning and afternoon naps. I tried to put her down, but she just screamed and screamed. Dad and I went out to the yard, which was riddled with rocks and roots. We tried a spot next to Patches, then under the lilac bushes, and finally in the abandoned rock garden in the back yard, before being able to break ground. Dad picked at the stone-infested dirt, and I dug up what he loosened. It took a while to dig a shallow Max-sized hole.
“I want to dig it deeper,” I told him. My father thought it was deep enough.
“What if an animal digs him up?” I worried.
“There's nothing larger than raccoons around her,” my father replied. “We'll put rocks on top.”
I removed Max from the trunk. Through the blanket I could feel his body, still warm and pliable. Dad took Max out of the blanket and dropped him in the hole. I cried out as his body flopped inanimately and settled. Dad hurried to cover him. Together, we built a pile of rocks over his fresh grave. Standing back, it looked nice. Intentional and artful.
Dad and I returned to the house and spoke for a bit about the funerals we had attended. So much loss these past years. My mother-in-law. My miscarriages. Parents of friends. And now Max. Dad retreated to the television. I fetched the still-miserable Sophia and left, desperately needing some time alone.
Goodbye Max, Mr. Bootles, Max-a-million, Gluteous Maximus, the Notorious C-A-T. Goodbye my companion of 14 years. Goodbye my pet. I love you.
I decided to re-post this blog, originally posted in April 2008, inspired by Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Man a memoir by Brian McGrogry. Brian's story of how he had to euthanize his dog brought back the sadness and the awful decision I had to make five years ago. Please join my online book club, From Left to Write on November 21 as we discuss Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Man. Other bloggers will similarly share posts inspired by the book. As a member of From Left to Write, I received a copy of the book for review purposes. You can find the book here.