This Saturday morning my husband and I were sitting outside enjoying the beautiful weather. I had wrapped myself in a quilt as it was a little chilly, and my dog, Peanut, was snuggled up close in my lap. As my husband read the paper, he read aloud to me the Ask the Veterinarian column. Someone had written recounting the last months of their beloved cat’s life during which they and their veterinarian had attempted to save the cat through multiple trips to the vet and a series of treatments and injections. All well meaning, but the truth of the matter was it was time for the cat to die. The writer regretted all she had put her cat through trying to extend her life, and lamented the lack of palliative or hospice care for companion animals. Ultimately the owner was able to locate a veterinarian who agreed to euthanize the animal at home, in familiar, comfortable surroundings, in the arms of the person who had loved her all her life.
I looked at my sweet dog in my lap, his wagging tail, his graying muzzle, his kind and devoted eyes looking back at me. The moment gave me the gift of being able to plan for his passing. I vowed that when the time comes, he won’t be euthanized in a vet’s office, a place that terrifies him. I’ll inquire now, and make sure he’ll be in his home, where he plays, and sleeps, and romps, and explores every day, as he’s done his entire life. This is how this sacred and tender process of death should be experienced if possible.
But this story isn’t about my dog. It’s about a wonderful blue-eyed and very talkative Siamese cat named Barney. Barney was my fast friend for a long time. He lived and traveled with me during my college and law school days, moving with me from apartment to apartment and town to town as I made my way through those early adult years. He was still with me with me when I fell in love and married. Barney was both a feisty and incredibly affectionate and loyal animal. I remember a period when he spent a great deal of time away from home, and I learned (to my horror) that he had been stalking the new baby chicks that had hatched at the farm next door. On more than one occasion he gifted me with the carcass of some poor squirrel, and once even stole a chicken breast out of a pot of boiling water on the stove! (my pre-vegetarian days).
In the mornings when he wanted breakfast, he would crawl under the covers, all the way to my ankles, and give me a gentle “bite” to wake me up. If I wasn’t prompt enough for his liking, his next “bite” would be just a bit more forceful, until he was successful in getting me up. He was quite jealous of my other cat and would tackle her every time he saw me petting her (even though she significantly outweighed him and could have easily put him in his place.) However, when he wasn’t up to these shenanigans, he was lying in my lap, or next to me in bed, purring LOUDLY, and staring DEEPLY into my eyes, “kneading” his paws just like a kitten. I recall thinking at those times “what will I ever do without you?”
When I was in law school, Barney suffered a serious bout of feline leukemia (this was before the vaccine) and came close to death. He lost much of his fur and became too weak to stand and feed himself. Twice daily I would hold him in my lap and hand feed him bite size pieces of cooked liver. He eventually went into remission, his fur grew back, and he lived several more years.
I was already married and working when the leukemia returned. We made a bed for Barney in the bottom of a closet. My husband and I would take turns coming home from work at lunch to check on him. He began to cry out in pain, and x-rays revealed that he had tumors throughout his body. One night we knew we had to take him to the emergency vet. We didn’t yet have a cat carrier, so I put a blanket inside a large box and put him inside and placed it in the back seat of the car. For some reason, I felt it wise to place the lid on the box during the car ride. Barney looked up at me with his huge blue eyes. He was afraid. I agonized over placing the lid on the box as we started out for the vet. I knew he was leaving me. Although I held him as the vet administered the final injection, I regret having taken him out of his home for this experience.
What amazes me now, more than twenty years later, is how real, deep, and tender my memories and emotions are still. When my husband read the letter from the newspaper this morning, and I recalled Barney, it was astounding to me how after so many years these deep emotions are still with me, needing to be felt, expressed, and remembered. Barney was with me during a wonderful and adventurous era of my life. He brought me tremendous joy, and was a huge comfort to me when I was lonely or sad. I loved him (and still do), and also loved that part of me who lived, and laughed, learned and discovered, made mistakes and wrong turns, doubted and was unsure. That part of me, of life, of Barney’s life, that made her way through those years. What a time it was!