Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Final Bunny Report

Well. That was hard.

There's nothing like euthanizing an animal you have loved and been loved by for many years. There's nothing like it simply because we can't offer this mercy to each other when we're suffering at the end of our lives, of course. And it's too bad: it's such a painless, peaceful process, at least for the patient.

It was neither painless nor peaceful for us. Rushing our cat to Angell Memorial Animal Hospital at 10 on a Saturday night was better than "making a death appointment," as our vet puts it in her usual, colorful way. When we did that for our last cat, whose time had clearly come, it felt grotesque to go about that day realizing that, at 2:10 in the afternoon, we were going to put our feeble tabby in her carrier and drive her to her death. At least we were spared that surreal experience with Bunny.

On Saturday night we'd just come back from a family dinner, given Bunny her chemo and heart pills, and were settled on the couch watching Prizzi's Honor when we heard her moaning behind us. She was on her side, struggling for breath, her feet flailing, her eyes wide, black, and terrified. When her breathing didn't slow down after 20 minutes, we followed our vet's instructions and took her to Angell. Our vet has no emergency service, so we were at the mercy of strangers who didn't know our cat.

I have issues with Angell —their liaisons can be rude and unhelpful on the phone, and they won't even answer an abstract question about a medication, no matter how hard one begs for advice. But this time, we were fortunate to be handed over to a very gentle and understanding young vet. She explained that Bunny wasn't having a heart attack and that she could stabilize her with oxygen and do some cardiac testing. We began to list all of Bunny's issues: lymphoma, anemia, enlarged heart, upper respiratory virus, weakness, plus the scary attack that had brought us to Angell. Then she began to ask us more questions about Bunny's quality of life.

We knew that, for nearly two weeks, she had been enduring life, not enjoying it, spending whole days and nights lying half-awake under an armchair, emerging only to eat and use her box. We'd asked our own vet more than once if she thought it was "time," and she was hesitant because she felt that a lot of Bunny's distress was due to the respiratory virus. If that went away, and she could breathe easily again, she might have much more energy and enthusiasm for life. The vet at Angell asked us to think about the five things Bunny most enjoyed doing, and how many she was enjoying now. We drew a blank; even eating was a chore because of her blocked nose. I'd been feeding her cat food on my fingers, and baby food off a baby spoon, and holding up her bowl so she could breathe.

The vet then told us that when cats have a latent respiratory virus, like herpes — which Bunny had — chemo will reactivate it as it depresses the cat's immune system. And then it never goes away. We'd been watching our poor, exhausted cat lying helpless in her carrier through this discussion and, somehow, we just knew it was time. She'd been struggling for at least 12 days with that virus already. So the deed was done while we cried, said goodbye, and thanked the vet through tears for stopping Bunny's pain. The vet was tearful, too.

I have no idea how people who have suddenly lost a human member of their household handle that tragedy. Coming home to find Bunny's medicines and food dishes awaiting her demolished me. I've never lost a person I actually lived with, and now I realize I've been spared the very worst kind of heartbreak. In bad times, I need my family. I called my sister in Pennsylvania, and she was a great comfort.

But I still felt terrible. I spent the night in bed, trying to read, crying and thinking, "What did we just DO?" Our vet had told us to wait to see if the virus went away; we hadn't. My sister had always told me that when cats stop eating, they want to stop living. Bunny had eaten Fancy Feast, turkey, and baby food that evening. Had we made a terrible mistake? Had we killed our cat because she had a stuffed-up nose? Was I going to be missing my #1 Cat of All Time because I had made a bad decision in an hour of panic and confused thinking? Or had we done the most merciful thing at the right time? I had no idea. These thoughts tortured me for the next two and half days.

I cried so hard that I couldn't breathe through my nose anymore. So I closed my mouth and tried to stay alive. Wow, I thought, if that's what Bunny had been going through, we did the right thing after all.

Our vet was finally back in the office this afternoon, and she called us as soon as she could. When we described the attack that Bunny had had, she said it sounded like a seizure. She asked for more details and explained that lymphoma can spread to the brain, and it probably had. We had certainly done the right thing, she said. And she repeated what I always say myself: "Cats don't fear death — only pain."


When I told her how lost we'd felt without her guidance on Saturday night, she said that the next time we are dealing with a seriously ill cat, she'll give us her cell phone number. Her practice stopped its emergency service because clients were calling in the middle of the night with very stupid questions. She trusts us.

I'm feeling much better now. I'm free to mourn and miss our lovely cat, without feeling terrible guilt that we acted too soon. There's a big hole in my life, but it couldn't be helped. I hope I'm not neurotic enough to start beating myself up because we possibly acted too late. I think we did fine, actually.

There are no American traditions or rituals for memorializing a cat. We lit some candles at St. Clement's, but Bunny was not Catholic. When the ancient Egyptians mourned a cat, they shaved off their eyebrows. That wouldn't do it for us, either. I know there are tacky web sites where you can post photos and send your cat over the Rainbow Bridge, but that's all wrong for us.

My husband tried retail therapy, buying his first electric guitar, a beautiful Gibson Les Paul. He can already make wonderful music with it. It's the Bunnelina Memorial Guitar.

Me? I suspect it will take nothing less than a bushy-tailed calico kitten to make me whole again.

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