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 59 on April 27, 1979. She was not ready to die and, at 24, I was not ready to lose her.  Since then, April 27 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, Fluffy 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 merely less responsible.

When I pulled up, Stella emerged from her house, Fluffy in her arms. Stella looked devastated. It just about broke my heart. We wept all the way to the animal hospital, reminiscing about Fluffy’s happier days. Yes, we were a cliché — a couple of middle-aged 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.”

Not Fluffy. But it was kinda like this.

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 own elderly cat, quietly crept behind the washing machine and gave up the ghost. Even as I struggled to extricate her 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 it on the examining table, wrapped the towel around it and carried it from the room. “Thank you,” Stella whispered as he left.

I’d never actually witnessed the moment of death. Although I took care of my mother round the clock throughout her long illness, 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.

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  • hillsmom August 29, 2011 at 11:03 am

    Sorry about this dilatory reply due to power outage from “Irene”, but I wanted to say that this brought tears to my eyes, too. People who may say “it’s only just a cat” can never understand the pain of loss. It’s too soon, now, but please remember somewhere a cat is waiting…

    Reply
  • Diane Vacca August 28, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    Chris, I didn’t want to see her eyes. I was looking down at the top of her head, stroking her, and then her head became heavier in my hand. I couldn’t look at all after that. But I do know that she was at ease and felt my touch and smelled my familiar smell until the end, when she stopped licking my hand.

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  • Chris Lombardi August 28, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    So sorry for your grief, Diane. Yes, this flashed me back to when I had to let go of my old man Nikko, almost ten years ago – my throat fills when I mention his name. (He was my best boyfriend, I always say of my 19-year-old kitty.) But I have to say that I don’t think he gained *anything* from me being there when his heart stopped and his tongue stilled. I had nightmares of that moment for years afterward, and wish I’d just kissed him goodbye and sent him off in the vet’s arms. YMMV, of course.

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  • Rie August 28, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    I so know exactly what you mean. I didn’t get to say good-bye to my darling Chumley but I vowed I’d be there for the rest. After 18 years, my heart broke with Gyruss and Nemo the next year. I missed Puddy and Miss Kitty (surgery and a sudden demise) but I vowed to always be there for that final good-bye. It is the absolute least I can do for all of the unconditional love. I miss and every one, each and every day.

    Reply
  • kate stone August 28, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    What a great piece. Our lovely young cat was run over last November. It was almost three years to the day when I first held someone’s hand as she died. Shocking sudden death, long and painful death, even peaceful euthanasia – wrenching loss of the people and creatures we love and who loved us is always devastating. And every new loss includes the echoes of the others we’ve been through. As you pointed out so well, the emotional attachments matter, not the species. You are a such a great friend and we’re all lucky that you write these terrific articles.

    Reply
  • Anne Beidler August 28, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Very moving article. All the more because I am thinking I was probably not there being supportive enough of you during that very hard time while your mother was so ill. So many things one would do differently if it were possible to turn back the clock and be a 24 year old with adult wisdom.

    love you, Anne

    Reply
  • Roz Warren August 28, 2011 at 10:02 am

    Wow. Diane, your words brought tears to MY eyes. Part of why I wanted to write this was to describe what actually happens — which had been a mystery to me. (Sounds like you, too, had a great vet and a good friend to come with.) My pal Julie — who has had to go through this often because she and Rob have rescued and loved so many great cats — always told me that you KNOW when it’s time. And in fact that does seem to be the case.

    Reply
  • Diane Vacca August 28, 2011 at 9:46 am

    Roz, never say “‘merely’ a beloved feline” — your story brought tears to my eyes. Again.
    My beloved Tigra and I underwent the same experience 12 days ago. It is devastating. Tigra wasn’t elderly; she had cancer (mast cell). Much as I fought against myself to let her go, I knew when it was time. I didn’t want her to suffer any more, once she was clearly in pain and not acting in her usual way.
    I was fortunate in having both a sensitive and loving vet who was totally with me and a dear friend who went with me and Tigra. She was patting me while I was caressing Tigra and the vet was making sure that it was my decision. “Tigra’s ready,” she said, “are you?”
    Unlike Stella, I did want the ashes, but the vet wouldn’t let me pick them up unless she was there to give them to me personally.
    It’s very hard to let go of a constant, faithful, loving companion. I can’t bring myself to describe what actually happened that day, 9 years, 11 months and one day after Tigra found us. I wrote about how she came into our lives on my blog, but I can’t write about how she left us. Not yet. The tears are streaming down my face as I write.
    Stella is fortunate to have had you at her side to comfort and console her. I was lucky in that way too.

    Reply