I'm always sad on the anniversary of the day my mother died, so when Stella phoned to tell me her cat was failing, it's not as if her news wrecked an otherwise fabulous afternoon. Cancer had taken my mother at age 57 on April 27, 1979. She was not ready to die and, at 24, I was not ready to lose her. Since then, April 27th has been a tough day for me.
"Is there any chance you could drive us to the animal hospital?" Stella asked. "I'll be right there," I said. Stella adored her dear little grey cat. I loved sweet-natured Fluffy too; I usually took care of her when Stella traveled. Stella had gone so far as to change her will to provide that if she died on her travels, Fuffy would go to me, along with a generous stipend for kibble and catnip. "It gives me peace of mind to know she'll be in good hands," she explained. That seemed a bit over the top, but when I told my friends Julie and Rob about it, they promptly changed their wills, leaving me all seven of their cats. My own will makes no provision for pets. I don't know if this means I'm less quirky than my friends, or less responsible.
When I pulled up, Stella, looking devastated, emerged from her house with Fluffy in her arms. We wept all the way to the animal hospital, reminiscing about Fluffy's happier days. Yes, we were a cliché -- a couple of senior librarians in tears over an elderly cat. But loss hurts, whether you're losing your mother, your best friend or "merely" a beloved feline. Fluffy rested quietly in Stella's arms. "She hasn't eaten for three days," Stella said. "She's suffering. I knew it was time."
The receptionist at the animal hospital, probably all too familiar with the arrival of the weeping owners of dying cats, quickly took us to a small examining room.
I'd never actually seen a cat put to death. Two years ago, Louisa, my elderly cat, quietly crept behind the washing machine and gave up the ghost. Even as I struggled to extricate her lifeless body from that cramped space, I silently thanked her. I'd been dreading our final trip to the vet.
A technician briefly described the upcoming procedure, then took Fluffy to another room, returning her to us moments later with a small tube in one leg. "Do you want her ashes?" the technician asked. (This seemed rather tactless with Fluffy still right there.)
Stella, in tears, shook her head no.
When the vet came in, Stella said, "This must be the worst part of your job."
"It's tough," he agreed. Kneeling, he drew back the towel Fluffy was wrapped in, found the small tube, then quietly injected a drug to sedate her. "It's the same drug they give you when you get a colonoscopy," he told us. (I remember that drug! It turned the world into an extremely pleasant place -- I'd even joked, at the time, that a colonoscopy was a small price to pay for such a delightful sensation.)
Soon Fluffy's eyes closed. The vet injected the final drug, then took out his stethoscope and listened. "Her heart has stopped," he said. He took Fluffy's body from Stella, placed her on the examining table, wrapped the towel around her and carried her from the room. "Thank you," Stella whispered as he left.
I'd never actually witnessed the moment of death. I took care of my mother round the clock throughout her long illness, but when the moment finally came, I fled. She was in a coma so I didn't have to be there for her, and I couldn't bear to see it.
Mom's slow, painful death was a horrible ordeal. When my time comes, I want to go like Fluffy. Quickly. Painlessly. In the arms of a loved one. High as a kite. But you can't elect to be gently put to death in Pennsylvania. Since I'm a person, rather than a beloved family pet, a painless death with dignity is not something I'm entitled to. I'll just have to take my chances.
"Thanks for doing this," Stella said when I dropped her back home.
"I'm glad I could," I said. I would have been sad that afternoon anyway. At least I could be there for Stella. When life takes a turn for the worse, being of comfort, or just being company, is sometimes all you can do.
Rest in Peace, Fluffy.