words by Feliks Garcia
illustration by Stav Sela
Struggling for air and unable to stand, Murderface flailed in his carrier as I transferred him from the emergency animal hospital to his primary veterinarian. The faster I drove, the better his chances.
What was once a playful, talkative, sometimes spiteful, yet always emotive ball of fur is now ash, ground apart and held in a small, maple box atop my twenty dollar desk. Ashes, dust: wrapped in a plastic ziploc, enclosed in wood. That’s all that remains of my fifteen pound friend, Murderface the cat.
His name was a funny homage to the eponymous bassist from an Adult Swim cartoon. Murderface encapsulated his sass, cattitude, spunkiness from an early age. He certainly wasn’t a “Sugar,” his ASPCA-given name.
He was born with chronic heart disease (diagnosed when he was two) that required three different pills twice a day for the remainder of his life. Ever since I found out about his condition, I felt he was on borrowed time.
Mourning is the process of learning to move on, though not necessarily trying to replace something/someone you no longer have. Of course mourning is a different experience for everyone. In my mourning, I’ve grappled with the idea that I am responsible for the death of an animal, without acknowledging or remembering the five years we shared — three of which were with heart failure. His aortic tissue was enlarged, his body was always in a state of high alert. That’s ultimately what killed Murderface, regardless of what my guilt is telling me.
Euthanasia is defined as painless killing, mercy-killing, “good death.” Killing justified by the sheer amount of pain an animal is undergoing. The animal has no real say in the matter, regardless of how sick it may or may not be. That’s up to the owner and the ethics of the veterinarian. Reaching the decision to euthanize your animal is supposed to stem from that pain you sense they’re going through, and, when all is considered, a last resort, as their energy lessens and their breaths become quicker, shallower, they decide to stop eating. When an animal takes such a sudden plunge towards end of life, you aren’t afforded the luxury of preparation, and even if you were, there’s no way to really ready yourself for that decision.
The night before — earlier that morning — Murderface’s paws were ice cold, his hind legs were in spasm, and his walk was more of a military crawl. He wanted to eat despite the fact the he only had enough energy to rest his head in the food bowl. In the emergency clinic, the doctor quickly diagnosed him with Feline Aortic Thromboembolism, or FATE, an acronym so obvious it sounds like some horrible villainous organization in a bad spy thriller, or good spy comedy.
FATE results from a blood clot in the cat’s aorta, often a result of heart disease. Embolisms are dispersed throughout the body, often the rear legs, causing extreme pain, numbness, and shock. FATE isn’t necessarily a death sentence for cats, but it’s certainly not a sign of good things to come.
76% of cats with FATE are diagnosed with heart disease. Cats without heart disease survive an average of 223 days after their first FATE episode. Cats with heart disease survive an average of 77 days after their first FATE episode.
In my vet’s office, I let Murderface rest inside the carrier. The top was removed, he was trying to walk out, only his numb legs, clots in all four at this point, couldn’t hold him up. He panicked. I was afraid to touch him, but shook that off and picked him up, laying him across the exam table. I tried my best to calm him down. When the vet came in, he took one look at his struggle for air and rushed him to a respirator. I didn’t get to see the machine, but I assumed it was similar to an incubator you would see a neonatal ward: a clear, plastic dome full of clean air and, for me, hope that he’ll catch his breath and come back.
“We’ve got him on oxygen right now to help regulate his breathing; but I’m concerned he shot a clot into his diaphragm, which would explain why his breathing is so labored.” The doctor began explaining my options. “We could hook him up to a life support system and inject him with fluids to help thin his blood and break apart the clots, but things aren’t looking very good right now. Realistically, there’s only a twenty percent chance he will improve just enough that you can take him home and we can do this again tomorrow.”
“Well, I can take out more credit. I don’t care how much it costs.”
“You could have ten thousand dollars, and that wouldn’t improve those odds. It’s really a question of the quality of life you want him to maintain. It’s unlikely he’ll regain full use of his legs, and I can tell you that he’s in an extreme amount of pain right now.”
“Euthanasia itself is a really difficult, unreal idea — I can barely wrap my head around it. It’s such a murky thing. I won’t try to,” Christopher said reflecting on the recent passing of his Pekingese, Alex.
Christopher was given Alex at a young age, 11, after facing the death of his first dog, Chunky, his pet since he was two years old. Chunky’s death was his first experience with mortality. Christopher grew up with Alex from adolescence well into adulthood, and recently went through the process of accepting his companion’s fate. Alex remained youthful through seventeenth year, when Christopher began to notice a decline in his health.
“I knew he wouldn’t be around forever, and the closer he got up there, the more likely that something terrible would happen, and I’d have to prepare for it.” As Alex’s health declined, he began losing his sight, hearing, and control of his body due to arthritis. Unable to lift his legs, Alex would end up sitting in his own urine. It reached a point where Christopher would bathe Alex, a “notorious bath hater,” twice a day. Taking into account Alex’s condition, Christopher assessed the situation, trying to remain as objective as possible. “The truth is: this wasn’t much of a life for him anymore, and he wasn’t going to get any better.”
Christopher did his best to prepare himself for confronting Alex’s health. After calling his vet, a date was set, “and then [I] had this weird date looming while I had to go about my life.”
The appointment with the vet was surprisingly routine, as the staff at the clinic treated this visit as though it were under everyday circumstances. Granted, this probably speaks to the professionalism of the clinic more so than the regularity of euthanasia — although, it’s probably more regular than I’m comfortable with acknowledging.
Christopher focused on keeping a calm presence in the exam room, making sure Alex could see him as he pet him and spoke to him. The entire process was unusual, yet peaceful. As Alex breathed his last breaths, Christopher cried and began mourning the loss of his best friend of eighteen happy years.
“[H]aving this best friend for 18 years is so much more than I could ever ask for. I felt really, really lucky and tried to remember that. I guess I do have denial sometimes — like maybe I could’ve dealt with it all and not put him down — but I know it would’ve come sooner or later, and that he wouldn’t have gotten any healthier or anything. I’ve accepted it all but I still think about him a lot. Occasionally I’ll have a really upsetting dream — the most recent one, in which I was sweeping my room and found old milk bones, was almost comically melodramatic upon reflection — but I try to remember the happy times we had together.”
I don’t remember whether or not my vet used the term “euthanasia” while suggesting how to proceed with Murderface. I knew what he was getting at, and I couldn’t believe I was in this situation. At this point, I couldn’t hold back my tears. The knot in my throat was choking me.
I resisted the doctor’s advice to euthanize Murderface, and I insisted he would get better if we just gave him some time. Really, I was just avoiding the inevitable. I tried imagining my life without him in those early moments, and I couldn’t. The doctor was right, of course, and I wasn’t considering how he felt or the amount of pain he’d undergone in the past twenty-four hours. I was focusing on myself more than what he needed, but it’s difficult to be objective about this sort of thing.
Sitting in the white room next to my empty cat carrier, I repeated, “I can’t do it, I can’t do it.” My girlfriend did her best to assure me that I had done everything. “If he had been anyone else’s cat, he probably wouldn’t have made it past the first diagnosis. You’ve saved his life so many times, already,” she said.
When I finally decided that it was time, the doctor rushed in, completely unaware of my decision. Calmly, he said, “He’s gone into cardiac arrest and his kidneys have failed,” a clear indication that the clots were now blocking his renal arteries.
“It’s okay. I’ve made my decision.”
They brought him back in, breathing his final labored breaths, looking me in my eyes. I was in utter shock and disbelief that I was here, in this room, with my dying confidant. Trying to calm him, I talked to him in the last moment we had alone.
I could only get out different variations of “I’m so sorry,” “I love you,” and “Thank you.”
Mia, Jen’s chihuahua/mini-Doberman mix, suffered from a slipped disc. They had a close bond over the year they were together. Jen took in Mia from a neighbor who was in need of a liver transplant. Since she was susceptible to infection, the neighbor’s doctor strongly discouraged keeping pets.
Pets’ health can plunge without warning, and since they can’t speak traditional human languages, sometimes the most subtle warnings can go unnoticed. A dog may whimper, a cat may hide. The first visible signs may show once it’s too late to do much. In Mia’s case, she began acting strange in December. Jen’s mom bought a Mrs. Claus dress for Mia to wear for the holidays, but her apparent pain made her uncooperative, which was unusual.
Mia’s doctor prescribed pain medication, as there’s not much you can do for a dog with a slipped disc beyond that, coupled with some rest. Jen medicated Mia for a few months before she started rejecting the pills.
The deterioration of Mia’s health and will led Jen to her conclusion to end the pain.
After her appointment with the vet, Jen’s family held a burial for Mia in their backyard.
“This first injection is will sedate him. He’ll still be alive, just asleep. The second injection is a high dose of Phenobarbital. It will basically shut down his system.” This would guarantee a “peaceful” passing, but it does little to placate the guilt that musters in your gut for months, years.
I couldn’t listen to the vet. I was petting Murderface’s soft fur, repeating “I’m sorry,” “I love you,” and “Thank you,” softly sobbing.
His eyes were still open, and I tried my best to close them. Asking him wasn’t working. “His eyes aren’t going to close, but he is asleep,” the vet said.
I remember a deep breath come from his body.
My sobbing deepened. I felt frantic. The tech held me tighter, tears falling from her eyes.
And the second…
Moments passed, and the vet asked me if I needed a some time alone with Murderface. “No. That’s not necessary. He’s gone,” I dismissed, backing away from the table, away from his body.
They carried Murderface away in a clean towel, presumably to wrap him up in plastic and throw him in a freezer. He was added to a list to go to the crematorium.
I’m sure the vet said something like “I’m very sorry for your loss,” but for a moment, in my mind, I was angry with him, and blamed him for not saving my cat’s life that morning. But I knew there was nothing we could do.
I walked out of the office with an empty carrier and drove to work.
Everybody handles loss differently. Some take up hobbies, some drink, some cry, and some bottle the pain to the point that it becomes prolonged denial. What helps me is understanding the circumstances that surrounded my animal’s death, understanding the disease, and looking at the statistics. Naturally, there will also be an inkling of doubt in my decision. I can get lost in the black hole of alternate realities: What if I did x, y, or z differently? But understanding FATE a little better allays some of that guilt, if only for five minutes at a time.
Defining yourself in terms of loss becomes the challenge. I’m learning more and more about who I am without my late companion, Murderface. And maybe that’s what mourning is. ◥
Special thanks to everyone who shared stories of their beloved pets with me.