Forever etched in my mind is the painful scene in Marley and Me when the cherished family lab is put to sleep on a vet’s table with his devoted sidekick nestled beside him. I saw the tear jerker with my extended L.A. family during a winter vacation and was moved by the chorus of sobs from siblings and cousins who are raising dogs and horses instead of children.
Sadly, I relived the Marley death scene this week when I put my my 16-year-old glamor puss, Audrey, to sleep.
My family gathered around her on the hospital table, hands on her bony five-pound body as her asparagus green eyes slowly lost focus and she drifted onto her next life. Karma might let her come back as a pug dog that is incessantly bossed around by a Grizabella. Karma might return her as a doomed house fly on a window sill tormented during a hunt. Or better yet, as a new bride loved unconditionally by a cuddly and playful fur ball.
Edwin and I adopted Audrey from the San Francisco SPCA right after getting married, plucking the marbled gray tabby from a box of foster kittens just delivered to the shelter. The moment my husband picked her up and put her close to his ear, she purred like a mad freight train; like no one’s business. “This is a good one,” he proclaimed. And she was, from her early days in a concrete Russian Hill flat to her final years in the grassy suburbs.
Last week, the purring stopped for the first time. Nothing. And I knew – they purr for pleasure and it takes energy. She couldn’t eat. She could hardly walk. The kidney disease had progressed and in vital ways, she was already gone. So I made that excruciating decision, and now I miss the loud meowing alarm that stirred me each morning and alerted me to meal or hug time. There is a deep hole in my heart and an empty, cold spot on my bed.
In the backyard, where we have buried countless goldfish and a pair of hamsters, there is a vintage ceramic cat doorstop marking the mound where Audrey Jane rests. My daughters decorated an organic cotton pillowcase to use as a shroud, and it was something, the sweet epithets penned, the sun and flowers scrawled. It offered closure but the pain and guilt still lingers.
It is hard to forgive yourself for choosing death for another being; any being that deserved life. That’s why humane organizations like the SPCA offer counseling to support people grieving the loss of a pet.
There was no sequel to Marley and Me offering tips on coping, so we depend on the wisdom of health care pros to guide us along that path to letting go. Pet euthanasia specialist, Hilary Brown, says our animals don’t consciously convey to us it is time to put them out of their misery, and that we must go with out instincts and understand that we are actually giving our terminally ill pets the “ultimate gift” in setting them free.
“From the moment we embrace these animals when they first grace our lives, every day is one day closer to the day they must abandon their very temporary and faulty bodies and return to the state of total perfection and rapture they have always deserved,” says Brown. Today is a good day, perhaps tomorrow will be, too, and perhaps next week and the weeks of months after. But there will eventually be a winding down and we must not let that part of the cycle become our enemy.”
Brown also offers a compassionate perspective when it comes to supporting our vets who have chosen a career of healing and must be the one to inject what she terms the “freedom elixir”.
“I always place my hand on top of his hand that holds the syringe,” Brown explains. “I want to shoulder that burden with him so he’s not alone. The law says the vet is the one licensed to administer the shot, not me, but a much higher law says this is the responsibility that I undertook on the day I welcomed that pet into my life forever.”
One could argue the responsibility isn’t anything compared to deciding to end life support for a failing, one-pound preemie infant or to call a Dr. Kevorkian when a terminally ill parent requests an end to intervention. But I say it’s all relative. And for some, cats and dogs make the best relatives of all.
Images: IMDB, Luanne Bradley