Care and Death, Death in Care, Care in Death: Bear’s Peaceful Passage

The past two weeks have been a doozy. My elder cat, Bear, a handsome eighteen years old, got really sick. It’s hard to tell when a cat goes from being just an old cat with some bouts of dementia and a propensity to angry poop in the hallway, to actually-really-sick-call-the-vet. There’s a subtle shift. He had a really bad accident on a Saturday, the kind that involved a grumpy roommate and me just mopping the whole house. Then he puked, then he just sat still. More still than usual and he sleeps about 23 1/2 hours a day. I put a call out to my friends on Facebook if there was a vet person I could talk to about whether I should go to the vet. I’ve known so many people who have dumped thousands of dollars into an old cat to find out what’s wrong only to have to let them go anyway. I didn’t want that to be Bear’s experience in his senior years, I just wanted him to be comfortable and happy.

The answer never came from Facebook, but it did come from my heart. Jacqueline came over to hang out that Sunday night and told me about her awesome vet who does house calls and I thought that was perfect. I mean, I like my other vet but I couldn’t imagine schlepping Bear if he was feeling so crappy. I’ll spend $55 for an exam to find out if Bear is getting ready to go be with the goddess or if he has something easily treatable.

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Me, ALF, Bear and Macy. Photo by Kelsey Dickey.

The poor little guy was so sick and I was really glad to get an appointment same day. My friend Hadley came to support me during the visit. The vet reminded me a lot of me, professionally. I have made a lot of unconventional decisions with my law practice that make me better able to service my clients and it makes so much sense for a vet to be able to come see animal companions in the comfort of their own environment. She was very matter of fact and compassionate, which is an incredible balance to maintain and works really well in a vet.

The doctor touched Bear and took one look at me with a pained expression and I just said, “Oh god!” thinking she was going to say that I had to put him down right then and there.

She said he was 12-15% dehydrated and was likely in kidney failure. She suggested a few courses of action and I settled on an injectable antibiotic, anti-nausea meds and subcutaneous fluids. I decided to wait on blood work because it’s expensive and I wanted to see how he did with treatment.

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This is what subcutaneous fluids looks like. It’s not a big deal, takes less than five minutes when you get used to it.

Eight months ago, ALF, my younger cat (14) was diagnosed with hypertension and kidney failure and has absolutely thrived with treatment. After he got on fluids and I changed his food to the special kidney diet food he has been better than he was for years. He’s just being a wonderful little weirdo and now likes cat treats a lot more (probably because they’re more awesome than his kidney food).

So I thought Bear would rally. The rest of the vet visit was sort of funny. She made a lot of jokes that I thought were hilarious, also I probably laughed a lot more because I was so relieved that Bear was sick with something I understood and I felt like there was a course of action. She did tell me, “Don’t be surprised if you wake up one day and he’s passed.” And she talked about how she has to send cats via Fed Ex (in a cooler, overnight) to the crematorium because of how far away it was.

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I can always tell how old a photo is of my cats based on the bed spread. This is from when I was engaged!

I made a Facebook post about the whole adventure, because it was just a bad day. In addition to the vet visit and the very sick cat, our building sent some plumber to “check out” our toilet and that turned into taking the toilet physically out of the wall with no notice that we would have no bathroom access for several hours. It was a lesson in acceptance, since we could call 311, we could complain to the super, but nothing but being nice to the plumbers would get our toilet back. And nothing but accepting that Bear was sick and might not make it was going to help me have peace about it.

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I have spent a lot of time in my life railing against things that I had no control over. In the last couple of years I’ve found that working with the current of life, instead of fighting against it, is the best way for me to have serenity. Sometimes it’s a nice flow, sometimes it feels like whitewater rafting and I’m only holding on with my white knuckles barely in the boat, but it’s a lot more peaceful on the daily than screaming and pushing against the natural order of things.

Screen shot of @sharpbiscuits photo of me giving fluids to my sick cat Bear. He has kidney failure like ALF but is four years older. Rough day all around but feel slightly hopeful after in home vet visit.
Giving fluids to both cats at once reminded me how when I was growing up I was convinced I was going to have twins because twins run in my family. Two cats getting fluids is a hilarious effort in multi-tasking, but I’m glad my boys are mellow.

And, oh yeah, on that Facebook thread about my bad day I mentioned that the vet was really hot, which she was, and this sparked a hilarious conversation involving Jacqueline who concurred (as it was her vet, too) and lots of femmes bantering about the benefits of having a hot vet. Like, mostly during the visit I was concerned with my cat but then of course you notice that kind of stuff. It reminded me of how my friends in Rhode Island all go to the same hot dentist. And with no identifying details (other than hot vet) two people asked if it was a specific person they knew and I was quickly reminded how unprivate Facebook is.

So, our toilet was back, the bathroom looked like a disaster area and Bear was being pumped with fluids and spending most of his time sleeping. I set him up as comfortably as possible. He made some big improvement the next day, eating some watered down turkey baby food. I felt like a pushy mom, trying to give him anything he would eat. A tiny piece of chicken, some bone broth, etc… He went for a treat and I was ecstatic!

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Bear in his winter coat.

By day three he started to rebel against his two favorite convalescent spots (my armchair in the bedroom and the spot on the couch closest to the window) and began wandering the house in short stints. I would follow him. I documented a lot of his progress on my instagram. I watched him move into the hallway and sit down and get confused. He was already a cat that got confused a lot (he had good days and bad days, like people with dementia) but it seemed way worse now that he was sick. He also wasn’t sleeping on his side, or curled into a “puddle,” but sleeping sitting like a meatloaf. He didn’t look very comfortable.

Bear is better than he was on Monday but he's still really sick. Not moving around much or eating much (but some which is better than none). ALF is charming as always and I'm unsure if he's being comforting to Bear or just jealous I let him convalesce in
Bear on his sick bed.

I wanted him to get better, but tending him to when he was sick was a lot more work. I’m on a cleanse and between my morning alkalizing beverage, smoothie, my regular morning rituals, giving fluids to Bear, tending to any accident spots in the house and cleaning him off when he pooped on himself (I gave many kitty sponge baths) it was three hours before I could leave the house. It’s a good thing I work from home most of the time.

I wondered what was Bear’s quality of life and what was his convalescence. I didn’t want to give up on him before he had a chance to get better. I didn’t want to be selfish about my time–I consider animal companions to be life partners and I’m not the kind of person who just gives up when shit gets hard. Having an elderly cat means doing elderly cat care. But I also wasn’t sure what was normal for his age and what were signs that his body was shutting down.

I sent a long email to the vet asking what was normal and what I should be looking out for. She gave me a very thoughtful, lengthy response and I was left with a lot of ideas for what was possibly wrong with him, his meatloaf sleeping was probably discomfort, more treatment we could do, but also “Putting him down would not be premature.”

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Moms of toddlers take toilet training photos, moms of elderly convalescent cats celebrate litter box use.

She never once said, “You should put him down,” which were the magic words I was waiting for. Now, I adopted Bear when he was 10 and ALF was 6 (they were companions from their previous household that came together). Having older cats, I have always known that at some point in my life I would have to make a euthanasia call. I also have heard many people’s stories but they all seemed to sound the same. The pet got sick, the person was left with thousands of dollars in treatment that may or may not work and it was “the right decision given the circumstances.”

I just thought it would be really black and white and where I was in was a shade of gray. I had a cat who was getting slightly better but not all the way. Who was a lot more work and I felt okay giving him that work if that is what he needed me to do. He was still purring when I held him, especially when he snuggled up to my heart. But he felt like a flour sack in my hands. He wasn’t meowing–I think he meowed three times after he got sick, which was about a 95% decrease from his yelly hallway yowling ways. When I set him on the ground he couldn’t hold himself up right away, he flopped over to the side.

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Good therapy is to pick up both cats at once and snuggle them. They don’t usually struggle when I hold them together because Bear and ALF really love each other. Photo by Kelsey Dickey.

Euthanasia, even though I had thought about it so often for the past several years knowing that “someday” I was going to have to make that decision, was not an easy black or white decision to make at all. All of that worrying I did ahead of time was absolutely wasted. You cannot pre-live grief and pre-worry. I wish I had spent all of that time during all of those years I spent worrying and just spent it living in the moment and enjoying my life with my beloved cat.

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Vintage photo of ALF and Bear.

I turned to Facebook once again (and this is why I mostly am only friends with folks I know in real life on FB) to ask about people’s experience with euthanasia and how they “knew” when it was time. I got a LOT of answers and stories. About how pets are very much in the present moment and when they’re sick or in pain they are very scared. How people often report they waited too long. I got many great private messages, including a very detailed astrological answer that involved last week’s lunar eclipse and Saturn in Scorpio.

“The issue here on an astrological level is about care and death or care in death or death in care. or care through death or other prepositional mediations of this care/death combo.
the question then becomes who’s care…who is caring for whom…what is care. and similarly although strangely—the same sets of ontological questions can then be asked of death.”–Tina Z.

I also read through a couple of articles people sent to me about death of a pet that I found really helpful in terms of deciding one way or the other whether I should let Bear go be with the Goddess or wait to see if his health improved.

My friend Tom suggested this book, The Last Walk, where the cover and the name just broke my heart so much I couldn’t really even try to read it but I trust his opinion in all book matters, so I’m passing the suggestion along. It was very helpful to hear my friends’ stories about letting their pets go, so I think this might help some folks out there who aren’t into soul baring/crowd sourcing on the Blue Grid.

How to know when it’s time to euthanize your pet from Yahoo News (I found this one particularly helpful).

The ethics of spending $25,000 on pet healthcare in the NY Times.

And in a very gay way (because of the connection, not the content), this amazing quote from my ex-girlfriend’s fiance, Rachel, really helped me. “Think of 2 or 3 things that really make her HER and when those are no longer there, you’ll know.” What Rachel was considering when she put her gorgeous dog down.

In thinking about all of this, I wondered about Bear. He really liked yelling in the hallway, yelling to get a good snuggle while I was at the computer (I’ve done a lot of working with Bear awkwardly in one arm), he loved parties where he got as much attention as he could possibly consume, he loved expressing his emotions by pooping in the hallway when he was mad, and he loved eating paper and the covers of books. He hadn’t done any of those things in a couple of weeks (well, the party thing he couldn’t control).

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Bear, snacking on some paper (a map).

I went to bed that night praying to the Goddess to tell me what was the right course of action for Bear. The next morning I sat down on the couch to watch some Super Soul Sunday while drinking my smoothie and Macy and ALF were all over me. They could not get enough attention from me or pay enough attention to me. I remembered back to when Bear first got sick, about a week prior, and I woke up one morning with both of them laying on my chest. Neither ALF or Macy is a big chest layer, and they prefer to keep about 3 feet apart most of the time so it was really weird, them close together and on top of me. That’s when I realized that Macy and ALF were paying attention to me because I needed care, and were leaving Bear alone. I trusted their intuition–that Bear was checking out or totally checked out. And that I was the one who was struggling emotionally with whether he should stay.

I had a great talk with my Mom, since she had put down both of the cats I grew up with when I was already across the country in law school (the other cats we had previously had run away so we never had to make that call when I was younger) and it really helped me settle into the decision. She also said, “Bear doesn’t want to live a life where he’s pooping on himself.”

I sent an email to the housecalls vet asking for an appointment for in-home euthanasia. I knew from an article I had read awhile ago that this was the best choice for me–rather than schlepping your pet to a foreign place to go, he can go in peace in your home. It’s also good for the other pets because it apparently helps them understand better the process of what’s going on. I didn’t want them to think Bear was just at the groomer for the rest of eternity.

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Bear with our friend Avory.

Bear’s passing also forced me to confront one of my worst fears. Part of being a full-time freelancer/small business owner is that often life is financially feast or famine–and the last vet catastrophe last October wiped my savings and I just haven’t caught up yet. When I’m feeling afraid a method I’ve learned is to write a list of the things you fear most, then antidote with a gratitude list. One of my greatest fears is that I wouldn’t be able to financially care for my pets. Here I was, needing to make this big decision for my sweet little guy and worrying about how I was going to pay for that and my rent. I had to face that fear, though, and I was able to ask someone for a loan (which is not something I do very often).

I had already made the “Peaceful Passage” appointment, opting for Thursday at 5 because doing it the very next day (Wednesday) at 2pm didn’t give me enough time to say goodbye to Bear. It felt rushed.

I had my friend Kelsey Dickey come over and do a family portrait sitting with me, Bear, Macy and ALF. It was something I had wanted to do for years and I’m glad I did it. Even though Bear looks pretty out of it in some of the photos, it’s really nice to have. It’s also very hard to wrangle pets in a portrait sitting. Bear had a great day that last full day. He used the litter box. I caught him cleaning himself vigorously during our photo shoot, which was the first time that had happened in a couple of weeks. I was like “Are you trying to tell me something?”

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Photo by Kelsey Dickey.

That night, the night before the peaceful passage, I was throwing a party with Nicky and Jo for Yes Ma’am. Nicky told me that they were friends with my hot vet and showed her the whole thread on my Facebook wall. I was like “How do you know that’s my vet!?!” but of course it was the same person. I was also sort of embarrassed since she was coming to my house the very next day to put my cat down. I guess if people were talking about me being hot on my friend’s friend’s Facebook wall I would want to read it, too. This is definitely proof that nobody ever died of awkward because I’m still around.

I got home from the party and Bear wasn’t in any of his regular spots. I was worried about him. This had happened to me many times before, he switches up his sleeping spot, but ever since my vet had said he might be dead one morning I was afraid he’d crawl under a piece of furniture and pass. I couldn’t really hunt for him in the house because my roommate’s mom was sleeping on our couch, so I just let it be and knew I could look in the morning. On my way to bed at 4AM (after a party, remember), I saw his two furry feet sticking out from under the bookshelf where my altar is. He had spent so much of the past few days sitting with his legs tucked under I thought for sure he was dead. I put my hand on him and he didn’t startle like he usually did when I would think he might be dead (he slept pretty heavy and scared me a few times). I thought for sure he was dead. I was distraught but I didn’t know what to do and it was so late, I just went to sleep crying about not saying goodbye and knew I would take care of it in the morning when I wasn’t going to disturb an entire household, a sleeping guest and freak out.

I woke up and texted Hadley, “Can you come over and help me move Bear, he passed last night.” The last thing I wanted to do was interact with his dead body. Hadley was on their way over when I peeked under my altar and saw that Bear had moved. I called Hadley and said it was Resurrection Thursday, Bear was alive, I was just delirious the night before.

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How I spent much of the last couple weeks of Bear’s life. Holding him as much as possible.

I spent Bear’s last day pretty chill. I had no out of the house activities, I just hung out with him and the other two Muppets. I was no longer wondering if the previous day’s feeling better was permanent, he was really out of it and started pooping on me when I would hold him. I changed my outfit and got a towel to cuddle him with. I started to feel glad I had made the decision to give him a peaceful passage, the night before I was so worried he was scared and alone when he had passed I knew this would be with love and community.

People began gathering. I sent out a call to some friends. Either folks who had bonded with Bear or who were friends of mine who were going to bring pork tenderloin (Jacqueline) or other snacks and food. All told there were five people there with me when the vet arrived with her assistant.

Bear
If I wrote a pet euthanasia book I would call it “The Last Selfie.”

Bear was curled up next to me on a towel on his favorite part of the couch. His head resting against my leg, my hand on his heart chakra. I wasn’t petting him anymore, just holding him while he rested. The vet was great, she explained everything as it was going to happen and that once he was gone she would leave us with the body for a bit and we could text her to come back up.

She offered that I could have his ashes returned, or a cast made of his paw, which I declined. I don’t need a physical representation of him. I have so many photos and so much Persian cat hair in my house, I’ll be physically remembering Bear forever, behind every piece of furniture.

She injected something into his hind leg to keep him asleep, though he was already very asleep. Then she injected another something to send him to be with the Goddess. The room fell silent and I was praying for his easy transition and thanking the Goddess for all of the time I got to spend with him as my animal companion and crying big fat tears onto him. It happened really fast. Suddenly she said, “He’s gone,” squeezed my hand and left.

I kept my hand on his heart because his body was still warm and I couldn’t bear to let go yet. My friends brought Macy over to see him (she sat quietly for a bit, sniffed him) and ALF (who ran off very fast).

At first it seemed weird to have “time” with his body but it was actually really nice and peaceful. We eventually called her back up, she brought a towel and curled him up in it just like he was sleeping, and got ready to go.

I was still crying and asked, “How do I pay you?”

“Do you have Chase Quick Pay?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll send you an email.”

One of my friends piped in, “This is the most fucked up Chase Quick Pay commercial ever.”

We all laughed.

Folks stayed for some food, and a couple other friends came by later. It was nice to not be alone.

At one point I looked around at Macy and ALF and realized I was doing a subconscious Muppet count as I had done thousands of times before. The three of them triangulate in almost always the same pattern in the living room. I could look to both of them and know where Bear would be sitting. Only he wasn’t.

In the days since it has been pretty weird and sometimes hard. Old familiar grief settled on my chest. But it’s a different kind. It’s like missing a part of myself, since Bear was so much a staple of my home life. I feel like with my friends I’m only about 90% there, but doing my best to continue to function and acknowledge the sad feelings as they come. And to love on my Muppets who are still with me and who I get to continue loving in this lifetime. They’ve been really clingy to me, which I appreciate because I feel very clingy to them.

My mom is a Lesbian Catholic and I asked her to ask the Lesbian Woo couple across the street (they had four when I was a teenager, not sure how many they have now) for a good ritual for Bear. They suggested getting a candle for each color chakra and burning it. As each candle burns out it releases a different emotion. I got the candles from a religious candle store near my house. I’ve been burning the candles since Bear passed and it’s really helpful to have a place to look in the house to acknowledge him. I can say hi to him, pray for him and let them represent my emotions.

Bear's chakra candles. Rest in power little guy.
The photo on the right is from about six years ago, when he was younger and more sly.

The loss is hard, but I know I did the best I could. I read a lot of mommy blogs and I know there’s no way to be a perfect mom, but there are thousands of ways to be a good mom. I know I’ve been the best mom I can to these three critters. I know my Bear was loved very deeply and lived a comfortable, sweet life. And I know now how to be even more present and grateful for the pets I still have.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing the story of you and Bear. I cried a bunch. It reminds me very much of the passing of my beloved dog Nick 2 years ago. It’s wonderful that you have a community that is right there when you need it, and also that you’ve done the work to come to a point where you’re able to care for yourself through something so hard (both emotionally and financially). 2 years out, I have a new pup but I sometimes still miss Nick so much. He will never be replaced and I will never forget him. (Also, lol to the hair…I’ve moved twice since Nick died and I STILL find his hair sometimes. 🙂

  2. I’m so so sorry for your loss. Reading this made me cry. A lot. An almost comical lot. I couldn’t think of any rituals to do when my childhood cat died…I guess a year ago now? Because it was late spring I just tried to be in nature as much as possible, and to have a lot of color around me. My morning routine was just so different without all the various medical things I had to do for my boy that I was kind of at a loss for what to do with all that time. I did a lot of early morning baking in the first couple months. I didn’t at first but now I keep a picture on my fridge of him sprawled out and happy – it made me sad to keep his picture near my altar but he loved food so damn much when I look at his picture on the fridge I have to smile, and I agree that it’s really important to have a place in your home where you can be with your furperson mentally and emotionally. I wish for you health and warmth and love right now. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  3. Bevin- thank you so much for sharing your emotional rollercoaster with me and everyone else who will ever have to go through this. It is so clear that you put a lot of effort and thought into doing what was best for Bear. As a catmom of an 18 yr old I worry all the time and constantly monitor my Angel for signs of discomfort and changes in normal behavior. I know one day I will have to make this hard decision as well. Your blog is inspirational to me and I have saved it so I can reread it when I am faced with this decision. Thank you. RIP Bear.

  4. My condolences, Bevin.

    I think there should be a standard warning at a euthanasia about how quickly death comes after administering the lethal dose. I thought it would’ve taken longer the first time I witnessed this kind of death.

    My old therapist told me about a ritual she used when one of her pets died: she got fresh flowers and put them in all the places in the house she associated with the animal. Last year when my favorite dog died, I bought lilies and put them in her kennel with a prayer scarf and all of her things. It was totally effective. I love what you’re doing with the candles.

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