Saturday, January 29, 2011
This photo was taken on the last day of our cat's life. That was two days ago. He was fifteen years old.
His name was Polanski. When I got him as a kitten in 1996, I asked some of my friends what I should name him. One of them was a big Roman Polanski fan (yes, I know), and she suggested "Polanski" as a joke. I thought it was funny so that's what I named him. Ever since then, I've had to tell this story every time I introduce him to someone, because it is a weird name for a cat and I used to get funny looks otherwise.
I never just called him that, though. I sometimes called him "Mr. Polanski", but more often I just called him "kitty" or "cat" (the latter usually when I was annoyed), sometimes "Mr. Cat", sometimes "Mr. Guy" and sometimes "Little Buddy" or even "Little Bunny" as a variation on the former. He answered to all of these nicknames.
He was really smart, loyal, playful, nice and very needy. He was not like any other cat I've ever had. He needed to be pet all the time. He would follow me around the house, and he would talk to me, sometimes even carrying on a conversation. My wife and I would have to tell him to shut up sometimes, he was so talkative, with so many different words! He was really more like a small talking dog than a cat.
He was very affectionate himself. He always had to sit or lay down in between my wife and I, leaning on one of us. He slept with us in bed, and got into the habit of nestling up under my arm. My wife disputes this, but I remember this starting about ten years ago when I was very sick and bedridden. He came to the bed and just sat there in front of me. When I looked at him, he meowed commandingly, as if saying "get up!" When I didn't, he just laid down next to me. He stayed with me like that almost the entire time I was in bed, and he did that every night from then on. And he was always especially nice whenever he knew somebody was sick or sad.
If he didn't get the attention he wanted, he knew how to get back at us. He was a paper eater; he'd eat any paper we left out, tearing it loudly, so we'd hear it. He'd walk over to my guitar that's hanging on the wall next to our staircase and start batting it. He'd stick his claws into the fireplace grating and use it as a scratching post. He scratched our couch, our chair, anything with a rough surface, even though he had three scratching posts in view at all times.
He greeted me at the door every time I came home from work. As I would make dinner, he would jump up on our kitchen table to watch. We didn't eat there so I didn't care, and I liked having a little friend keeping me company in the kitchen. This was a nightly routine.
The first sign that he was sick was when he could no longer jump. A few times he jumped on the table and almost missed, scrambling his hind legs to pull himself up. Then, he just stopped trying - he'd sit below the table and just look up, and I'd have to help him. I didn't think much of this, though - he was 14 by then, and I just assumed it was arthritis, or just weakening muscles. It was a little sad, but cats get old and worn out, like people.
Around this time he also stopped wanting to play. He had a favorite toy - one of those "Cat Dancer" things - that he would chase around all night if we did it with him. His eyes would completely dilate whenever we took it out - he would get so excited. If we left it out for him, he'd bring it to us and we would throw it around in a game of fetch. But over the past year, he stopped doing this. He'd play for a couple minutes, then lay down and just watch. Like his jumping, I assumed he was just getting older and less playful.
One day last November, I was play-fighting with him (just rubbing his belly a little and letting him try to kick me away) and at a certain point I noticed he was breathing very quickly and heavily, as if he was either really, really mad or really, really scared. I immediately stopped fighting, smiled and told him to calm down in very soothing tones. He stopped too and relaxed, but his breathing never returned to normal. The next day, we took him to the vet. I knew this kind of thing was never good.
Eventually the vet gave us a diagnosis of late stage cardiomyopathy, and we knew all we could do was try to keep him comfortable and extend his life as long as we could. We were giving him three drugs at a time, twice a day. Even so, he became more and more lethargic and unhappy very quickly, and he no longer seemed to like me much - I was the one giving him the drugs. Still, though, he was such a good cat - he learned to actually get into position to take his medicine without me doing anything. He stopped eating and lost three pounds in two months, even with me trying to feed him all the stuff he used to want but was never allowed - he wouldn't eat anything at all. He became a completely different cat. It was very, very sad, and we mourned him even as he was still alive. In fact, I thought we had mourned him so much that it would almost be a relief when he died.
One morning, he started screaming in the hallway - a sound I'd never heard him make before. He literally was screaming "ow!" over and over at the top of his lungs. I was asleep, but woke up and ran out to see what was wrong. I found him laying on the floor, a puddle of pee next to him. When he saw me, he tried to get up and walk away but could only drag his hind legs. We took him back to the vet as quickly as possible, thinking this might be the end. But by the time we got there, he was back to normal (his "new" normal, anyway). The doctor would only say he thought it was some sort of cardiac event.
Still, though, he could be happy for a few minutes out of the day. My wife told me she let him into his favorite room only a few days ago - a room we normally keep him out of, because it's an office filled with paper that he likes to eat - and he was purring very hard. I always said that as long as he could still enjoy life at all, I wouldn't put him to sleep. But I realized this was the best it would ever be for him, he was going downhill very fast; I didn't want him to have another clot or heart attack, and I didn't want him to suffer with his breathing alone, as he was most of the time. He was also skin and bones by this time. He was going to die painfully if we let him, and soon. There was no saving him.
Three nights ago, he came downstairs for about ten minutes - this was all he could muster by the end - and laid down on his side in front of us. His breathing was very, very bad - basically full, deep breaths every single breath. It was almost like he was showing us his breathing, because by then he was normally only able to lay down straight, like cats do, in order to be somewhat comfortable.
He came to bed with us one last time that night, for about five minutes, then got up and left. He didn't purr. I cried after he left because I knew that was probably the last time he'd ever be in bed with us - this was the end of a ten year tradition of affection between us.
The next morning, we took him to the vet for the last time. I shot the photo above just beforehand. I was crying when I took it. I think his eyes look very resigned and melancholy in this photo, don't you? He used to be such a happy cat. I think he had basically given up.
Putting him to sleep was very, very hard. We stayed with him until the end; we wanted him to know we were there. The vet first gave him a mix of drugs to sedate and numb him. Even this part is really disconcerting, because in addition to the numbing and euphoria, it basically paralyzes the cat. He almost fell over, and we had to pick him up and lay him back down. At this point, he was still technically alive, but basically already gone - without sensation, brain in a state of euphoria, unaware of his surroundings. His eyes were stuck open, and the vet said they would be.
The second injection is what actually stops the heart. It was very quick, within seconds. I could feel him stop breathing. The doctor listened to his heart one last time, told us we could stay as long as we needed, and then left the room.
We both sobbed pretty much uncontrollably for about ten minutes. I kept petting him for most of that time. I couldn't look at his face - both his eyes and mouth were open. Seeing him completely motionless like that... it was a very weird experience. I don't think I've dealt with a lot of death so directly in my life - I've known a lot of people that died, but I never actually saw their bodies afterwards, and I've never actually been with a pet during the euthanasia procedure. People talk about it being peaceful, but that's not how I'd describe it. You are killing your pet. It may be a mercy killing and it may be completely warranted, but it is still very disturbing. No euphemism can change that.
We said our final goodbyes, still sniffling and with tears rolling down, and then left the room.
I decided to ask for a private cremation, so I can have the ashes back. This costs a lot more, but I couldn't deal with the thought of him being dumped in with a bunch of other cats, and then his ashes just tossed in a landfill somewhere. I want him back. I don't know what I will do with his ashes, but he needs to be home.
Two days later, I am still kind of a mess. I know I'll eventually put it behind me, as I have with other cats I've had. But he was a really special cat, and the one I've had the longest by far. Literally 1/3 of my life, I spent with that cat. It's hard for people who have never had a cat to understand that it's really losing a family member. Cats are not all aloof and uncaring like a lot of non-cat people think. They have real relationships with their owners. They are full-fledged members of the household. And he's been a member of mine for 15 years.
I have feelings of guilt - guilt for failing him as a protector against this disease, and guilt for actually deciding to put him to sleep. I don't know if that's what he wanted or not, but I just couldn't bear to see him suffer. I feel like that makes me selfish in a way, but I've also had the opposite experience - waiting far too long trying to nurse back to health a sick cat that was beyond all hope - and that's something I swore I'd never put another cat through. Giving constant medication and force feeding is not any kind of existence for a cat.
And I just miss him so much.
Well, I wrote this both hoping for some kind of catharsis and also to just keep a record before I forget anything. I don't want to forget anything. I really want to keep his memory alive forever.