On Wednesday was my 32nd birthday, yeah thanks, and yes, I do look… about 32… which I guess means I’ll never work in television media. Anyway on the night of my birthday, I was heading to a family dinner at my place with my good lady wife (who is in fact just a friend who I call my wife, at the time we both had man friends of various seriousness, mine, not very (not invited to dinner) hers, has Given Her A Ring. But Not That Kind). Anyway, I got a call from the vet to tell me that my grey cat, let’s call her Sally, for that is her name, had been brought in by a good citizen (let’s call her Lynne… because, you know) and that Sally had been hit by a car.
As much as every pet owner knows that pets get hit by cars, we all, I think, love to believe that this will not happen to them (and yes on an immature narcissistic level, much less on our birthday). We changed our route and in a matter of minutes I was sitting by the side of my small grey, in-shock, wearing-tiny-cat-oxygen-mask, hit-by-car, Sally. And I knew, and said to the good wife, at that second, “she’s not going to make it”. Might I add that I am no vet. And I’m sure many animals who are hit by cars look, we’ll say ‘awful’ as an understatement, and that some of them live. And as people go, I am rather positive, some might say ‘a fighter’, Destiny’s Child in fact might say, ‘a survivor’, yet I was completely sure, at that moment, that my Sal, hereinafter, was not.
The lovely vet, we’ll call her Anne, advised that we take Sally to be assessed by a specialist and so we packed her up, full of anti-pain medication, into a pet pack and off we went. It was the quietest Sal had ever been on a car ride. Usually she wails, not through any pain or awkwardness, she is actually sitting quite comfortably, she just likes to let us know, that for a feline of her status and intelligence, being packed into a plastic crate for transport is wholly unacceptable. She in fact finds many things unacceptable, and is quite voraciously vocal about said issues. Say if you are sitting down when you are meant to be feeding her, or doing the washing, or sleeping, or well, basically anything which is not feeding or praising or patting her, this is wholly unacceptable and you will be wailed at. Unless she is outside, berating others for not petting her, then you’re off the hook, for a time. It’s not that she was unhappy with the world, more so that she was like some Italian grandma who in fact loved everything and showed it by wailing. However, she was in fact a young soul also and would tear up and down the stairs at a speed any grandma, or human for that matter, would be wholly incapable of. She was quite small so perhaps she thought she would go unnoticed if she did not make noise. Although, she was also in fact quite beautiful, so this was never the case (and this is why you were awoken from your afternoon sleeps by smooches Sal, so don’t whine, we know you loved it).
Anyway, back to the car and the lack of wailing (and truth be told just her breathing, which was a comfort and concern at once). We arrived at the specialist and I accidentally introduced myself as Sal’s Mum and they didn’t bat an eyelid despite our obvious differences in appearance, and on we went. Sal was taken in by another army of Nurse-angels who made her comfortable and stroked her and put her in an oxygen tank (yes Just Like Michael Jackson’s… but much smaller). Then my young brother arrived who truth be told is more or less the light of my life and as Sal lives with him, more of an ‘owner’ to her too.
The specialist had an excellent speech about injuries, possible injuries, possible outcomes and possible costs. And an invitation, to make a choice. A choice which could only be made by us. That choice, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, was whether or not to try and save, or to euthanize our small grey family member.
What Sally meant to us was not in question. She had joined our family at a time when my brother lived with me as a young teenager and I wanted him to come home to someone when I was at work, that someone was a ball-of-wool-sized hurricane he named Sally. He picked her from the litter because she was the most rambunctious, mischievous little soul among them. I knew she was trouble from the start. And she was. Mostly to the next-door neighbour’s dog who she mercilessly tortured, flirting from atop the fence; and sometimes to my brother, who had never had a cat and once furiously came out from his room screaming “Sally shat under my bed!”. That day he learnt, that that’s what kittens do… until they’re trained. Sally grew and so did we, I moved out and she stayed with my brother and his flatmates, who adored her, and she ended up online, in our photos, friend’s photos, as my avatar, and eventually she even had her own facebook. I’m not entirely sold on facebooks for pets, but apparently her interstate friends appreciated keeping in contact.
All of that though, turned out not to weigh on our decision at all. As a family who has loved and lost, members (dare I say) more significant than our pets, death is no stranger, the process of endless operations is familiar, and so is the pain, to the patient and their loved ones. That may have had something to do with it. Not even to avoid the experience of her suffering, or our elongated waiting, but just the knowledge that we could get through it, and that death, whilst agonising, has beautiful moments, and that dignity means something. Granted I’m not sure what dignity in death means to a cat necessarily, but if you will for a moment revisit the pet carrier, this was a proud cat, not to mention an adventurer, not a cat to sit and be quiet, or be locked indoors during daylight hours, as she would have to be in future.
In the end the decision came down to gut instinct. I knew the moment I saw her that if she was there, whatever the essence is that makes a body a being, that it was not for long. And so we discussed it, we discussed her chances, and the possible outcomes and yes, the costs, which would have been slightly more than what we’d saved for my brother’s first car. And we decided, if we thought she would make it, we would go ahead and try to save her. And then we discussed whether she would make it, and we knew, in a way that I can’t explain, but if you listen to your instincts and your connection to someone you love, that she wasn’t going to stay with us.
So we stayed with her while she fell asleep with a lovely vet, and we cried, and it was fast. We walked outside that small consulting room and we sobbed, and then I waited for the guilt, and it didn’t come. I waited for guilt about there being no guilt, and still it didn’t come. Either I am a heartless, insane wench, or euthanasia is an option.
I spoke to my unserious manfriend and he said “I sometimes think we treat our animals better than our people.” I think he’s right. I don’t think I have the strength to let go a person, I think if it was a person we were talking about, I would have said do everything you can. I think they would have suffered, there would have been pain, for everyone, and that the outcome would have been the same. They would have died, but with more suffering, and less dignity.
My Mum died after they had tried everything. And I never, ever would have made the choice to let her go. But she had said, that if she ever had something like dementia, that she would want to die, not to live on for years without dignity, and as a burden. Sadly, or happily perhaps, she died young, and didn’t have that undignified end. But if she had had dementia, I wouldn’t have had the choice, and if we had discussed it and she died suspiciously, I would have been a suspect. Our current stance on euthanasia means that families cannot even have meaningful conversations about voluntary death for fear of being the subject of suspicion should that family member die. That doesn’t seem right.
We say we don’t have the right to choose death for people, but what gives us the right to prolong life? They seem different sides of the same coin. Are we keeping people who are, to their minds, dead, alive for our own sakes, because we can’t stand to lose them? There are many questions – if death were not such a shameful subject in western society (and it is – try bringing it up at the dinner table and watch people’s eyes drop to the floor) perhaps we could consider these questions. Not the questions we can’t answer, of the afterlife, the or why it happens, but the things we do know – when and if a patient should suffer, and how and when people who love that person learn to let go. And whether we should have the choice.
[a version of this long-winded epitaph shall appear in the next issue of the most excellent Thelma magazine]
(c) Lou Pardi 2010