Death recently made itself a houseguest here, taking Baggie with it when at last it left a week ago today.
I was right about death in some ways and wrong in others. I was just a noob, and now death has brushed me with its wing. Death, it seems is not always a peaceful passing on a warm spring day.
I wanted Baggie’s death to be natural the way a birth can be natural, something taking place at home in a natural way, a managed experience but not a medical experience. But my home is not a veterinary hospital, and while I do not think Baggie suffered much as she slipped away, I made newbie mistakes this first time taking care of my houseguest, death.
You see, house-call vets don’t sit by the phone waiting for you to call them to come whisk your friend’s life away the moment you begin to fear she will suffer. On Tuesday, when I began to seriously fear that the seizures and vomiting that my vet had said might be part of renal failure might soon come, no mobile vet was available to come over. I called them both, both were booked solid all day, and my regular vet couldn’t euthanize her until the early afternoon. My ignorance could have consigned Baggie to a lingering bad death rather than the peaceful one I so foolishly and so humanly believed I could make happen without planning it. But she died at home, I think fairly peacefully, before my vet could schedule us in.
It could have been otherwise.
With an expiring cat on my side porch, a cat that was truly and deeply loved, and no one in the house to share the physical and emotional burdens, my decision-making and coping skills were in the toilet. My observer-self stood outside of me, noting how I, who think fairly highly of my ability to remain logical, calm and fair in a crisis, became a frightened mess. Three days of constant care — washing sheets, giving injections, giving baths, cleaning pee and excrement and smelly fur — had taken their toll. On Baggie’s death-day I wandered the house like a sad little pinball, bouncing from the sink to my desk to the outdoors to her sickbed on the side porch, doing nothing. There was nothing I could focus on. The house smelled of sickness, even on a warm and beautiful spring day.
I am not a vet. But Baggie only seemed to have a few seconds of distress all day. I pray I am right to believe this. She spent most of the day in a deep, coma-like sleep, and slipped away silently in the early afternoon. I was right there.
I did not choose to let Bagheera die at home because I could not bear to end her life. I wanted only what was right for her. And I thought that what was right for her should not involve euthanasia far from home. I knew her veins would be hard to find, and I did not want her dying on a steel table in a strange place. I still feel guilt and confusion, but I think she would have suffered as much going to the vet for emergency euthanasia as she did dying here at home.
So now I know how to manage an animal’s death. Now I think that rush her body along the path it is already taking is kindest. Your job is to keep your friend clean, comfortable and pain-free, and when that gets hard to do, it is time for the line of division. Draw the line while you are still in control of what is happening. Set an appointment with the house-call vet before things descend past a the point where you can control them quickly and easily. Baggie should have and could have died a day or two before she did, on a sunny day, in the yard. We do not manage the sickness of animals the way we do humans, with a controlled environment providing many helpers and pain management. And so I now think that the best we can do is to just spare them the end-piece of their lives, rush them past the pain.
Into what, I do not know.
When my mom called me to check in, I realized I had forgotten that there are other people who loved Baggie. My sister left me a voicemail message of an old story about Baggie, one I had never heard that comforted me hugely. Baggie has been old and sick and wasting away for a year or more, and I have been glad to remember the beautiful cat she once was, to remember all her stories. It was tremendously comforting for me to realize that two other people had loved my little cat, and were grieving her dying with me. I was surprised by how powerfully affected and comforted I was by just knowing that my family understood.
Because most people didn’t, really. And I was not sure how to tell them. They didn’t know that it took up to a few hours every day to care for her, and that I was stressed out and exhausted. Caring for Baggie as she died was almost like caring for a tiny person who only weighed four pounds. Baths, medical management, changing sheets twice a day when your elderly cat pees on your bed but you can’t bear to put her anywhere else. Meanwhile, I was still sick with the mystery illness and dragging myself through the day. (BTW if someone you love is dealing with death, don’t sit around waiting for them to tell you they need you. They need all manner of help, and they may be too consumed by the experience to make it clear to their friends and loved ones that they do. Just go to them. Just go.)
I’m not a glutton for self-sacrifice, but I loved my cat and I wanted her to die comfortably at home and, if possible, of natural causes. I suppose I got my wish. But death was not the brief and pleasant visitor that I had so naively envisioned it could be. Or rather, I did not yet know how to force death into that scenario. I still don’t see death as evil or unwholesome or terrifying. But I see it as something that must be managed into the best shape we can make it.
I am the one who swears and swears that inevitabilities should never be depressing. But I got up close and personal with death, and I don’t think I will ever be quite the same. Death’s been in this house now on my watch, and life is different for it.