CWB Writing

The Works of Christopher Buecheler

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Content Warning: Loss of Pet

This is a long post and there is nothing new or revelatory in it – any pet owner who's experienced this loss will have a similar story, and I'm unsure that it's of particular interest to anyone but myself. That said, writing is part of how I work through things, and I need to work through this.

On Monday morning, February 6th 2023, my wife and I got up and went about our normal routines. She was working from home due to a pipe break at her school. I was working at home because I have worked from home full-time since 2011. We went about our morning routine. I worked out, ran, and took a shower. She fed the cats—Carbomb, a female tortie almost 17 years old, and Baron Salvatore H. Lynx II, a male Maine coon almost 15 years old—made coffee and breakfast for herself, and got set up to work from her office upstairs.

Sometime shortly after my shower, Carbomb made a strange noise and then barfed up her breakfast. This was, in itself, not a terribly unusual event. She's been a pukey cat her entire life, prone to scarfing and barfing (yes, we'd checked with multiple vets about it, and their response was a uniform "there's nothing wrong with her, some cats just puke a lot"). So, we cleaned things up and went about our day, until about an hour later we noticed she was behaving oddly. She was unsteady on her feet, didn't seem to realize where she was, and kept getting stuck in corners and then giving a single upset shout about it. Because she was an old cat, and because it was such a wide swing in behavior even from the previous morning, we scheduled a vet appointment that day.

A little background: We adopted Carbomb in the spring of 2007, when she was about a year old. We went to the ASPCA on the upper east side of Manhattan with the intention of finding a cat, walked into the cat room, and she leapt down from a perch and walked on top of several other, less enthusiastic cats to greet us. We did at least "interview" a few other cats but the deal was pretty much sealed from the start. She was the one. We called her Carbomb because her fur was the color of Guinness, Bailey's, and Jameson. She'd been a constant part of our life for nearly sixteen years, moving with us from Manhattan, to Brooklyn, to Indianapolis, to Providence, and even making a six-month trip with us to Paris (her brother was also there for all of the stops except Manhattan).

Carbomb had been acting "old" for several months at this point. She had trouble getting up on the couch, and her counter-hopping days were years past. She had become picky about where she spent her time, living mostly in her heated bed or on the couch in my office (the warmest room in the house). She would still chase treats if we bounced them along our hardwood floor, but she mostly found them by sound and movement. If they came to a complete stop, she would lose them. She had no major health issues that we knew about, although a few months ago we did find her holed up and looking unwell at the bottom of our front stairs, the coldest part of our house (a trip to the animal ER showed nothing wrong with her bloodwork, and only that she was a bit dehydrated). So, nothing crazy for a cat that was pushing seventeen. We figured her eyes were just going a bit, the way her legs had been for years now. She was still a vibrant, active, responsive cat. Now, very suddenly, she wasn't.

The vet inspected her and diagnosed her with, essentially, "seizure hangover" - she thought Carbomb had experienced a significant seizure that morning (thus the weird noise before the puking) and was still recovering. Typically, she said, the recovery would take a day or so, though there was no guarantee how complete it would be, or that it would happen at all. When Charlotte asked her what the likely cause was, she said unfortunately the most likely cause was brain tumors (not necessarily cancerous), but it wouldn't be possible to know without doing an MRI. Charlotte said she'd talk everything over with me, and brought Carbomb home. The vet had given her some valium to relax her, and once we got her someplace comfortable, she mostly slept for the rest of the night. She was uninterested in food or water, and we didn't push her to eat or drink.

On Tuesday, it became apparent that our cat was not recovering. For one thing, she was completely blind. For another, she was having difficulty walking, and even when standing still would often sway. When asleep, which was often, she seemed fine. When she decided she wanted to move, she would walk slowly in a near-straight line, listing slightly to the right, until she reached an obstacle (usually by running face-first into it). At that point, she would clumsily attempt to scale the obstacle, whether it was a shoe, a stool, or a wall. Several times she walked right through her own water bowl, not noticing her wet paws. She frequently became trapped in corners and would then yell, but it was apparent she didn't even really know what she was yelling about. She remained unresponsive to our voices, though we could tell by head and ear twitches she could at least hear. She did seem to take comfort in being on us. Whenever one of us sat with her on our chest, she would promptly fall asleep.

Tuesday night, Charlotte "fed" her by jamming a few fingers of wet food down her gullet. She swallowed them with difficulty but had no real interest in the food itself. We resorted to using a medication syringe to jet water into her mouth, which was the only way to get her to drink. She did not groom. She did not use the litter box. She did not really react to stimulus including being picked up or otherwise interacted with, other than the aforementioned falling asleep when she was on us. We tried anti-inflammatories in case her brain had swelled, and we tried phenobarbital, a common seizure suppressant, even though it mostly only works for epilepsy and Carbomb did not have epilepsy.

On Wednesday, there was no improvement. In the afternoon I was able to get her to take a few licks from a plate of water by essentially holding it directly up to her face. I also crushed up several of her favorite treats and got her to take a few half-hearted bites of them. In all, she was unable to function as a cat. Still, we waited a bit longer, seeing the attempts to eat and drink as favorable signs. That night, twice, she walked directly over Baron, barely reacting when he growled and swatted at her except to pause and then begin walking forward again. We had to separate them, and we did our best to make the area she was in safe for her. Nonetheless, in the middle of the night, she got stuck in another corner underneath a set of shelves and ended up knocking over a planter filled with cactuses (she was luckily uninjured).

During all this time, we were in communication with the vet, who in the gentlest way possible had been repeatedly telling us that if Carbomb wasn't better by now, she was unlikely to get better. We discussed the possibility of the MRI, but even the vet thought it was a bad idea. The general anesthetic might kill a cat of that age and, truthfully, it didn't matter if it was a tumor or not – we weren't about to authorize brain surgery on a seventeen-year-old cat to find a potential tumor that, even if it existed and was removed, might not even improve her condition. It would be needlessly cruel to her to put her through that.

On Thursday morning, we called it. We were at the vet at 9 AM. By 10 AM, Carbomb was gone. We each held her for a time as they prepped (she fell asleep on both of us, again). Then they sedated her, and left her with us to fall asleep for a final time, and then we both held her while they gave her the shot that would stop her heart. I'm not sorry we did it—I believe it was the right and merciful thing to do—but I will carry the memory of watching that injection with me for the rest of my life. In a way, I'm lucky. I'm 45 years old and this was the first pet I've ever had to put down. It was, I think, the hardest thing I have so far ever had to do in my entire life. I am completely unashamed to say that I broke down sobbing first when we got into that little room that I knew was the last place I'd see her alive, and again when the act was done.

A little more background: I've had a very difficult relationship with the cats. I am by nature more of a dog person – I want a pet, not a roommate. Cats are more of the latter. That said, I don't want a dog. They're too much work and too gross (I am also a pretty huge germaphobe, something I'm working on). The cats, though, are also gross … something I wasn't prepared for when we adopted them - the amount of outside-the-litter-box puke, pee, and poop I've had to deal with over the last decade and a half has been much, much higher than I anticipated. They also have strong personalities that sometimes clashed with mine - Carbomb in particular LOVED me so much that it was hard to deal with because if I interacted with her, she would get so amped up that she couldn't sit down, and then when she finally did, if I so much as shifted my legs, it would prompt another five minutes of circling. I was not sure, and remain unsure, that the cats were a net positive in my life, unless you include "made Charlotte happy" (which I do).

I did/do like them. They have brought many moments of amusement to my life. It's made me happy that they like to hang out on the couch in my office when Charlotte's not home. I absolutely love watching Charlotte interact with them. Also, I liked them as individuals. They each have their own personality, and I appreciated aspects of each of theirs. Baron is the easier cat from a personality standpoint, but I liked a lot about Carbomb as well. There are plenty of good things about owning cats, but left to my own devices, I might not ever adopt another one. Charlotte is a wonderful cat owner. I am not. I'm not a good enough cat owner, and was especially not a good enough cat owner to the one that loved me best. I ignored her desire for attention too often, and I was grumpy with her more than I should've been. I was not a good enough cat owner. That fact haunts me, now.

All that said, my view on pet adoption was that I'd made a promise to these things that I would keep them as comfortable and content as I could, for as long as I could. Even when Carbomb went through a multi-year odyssey of semi-incontinence due to what ended up being a combination of factors (including a gluten allergy), I never seriously considered rehoming her. I wanted them to live long, happy lives with us. That was the promise.

Voluntarily telling a veterinarian to kill the pet I had shared sixteen years of my life with felt like a horrific betrayal of that promise. It still does. I know it was the right thing to do, but it doesn't change the way it feels, and the way it feels is terrible. But that's not really the worst of it. The worst of it is just the overwhelming fact that she is not here. Every room I go into, there is some little reminder that Carbomb is not here and is never going to be here again. She was in the world, and now she is not in the world, and she will never come back. I do not believe in a spirit, a soul, or an afterlife (I'd love to, but I don't). I will not see my cat again. She is gone. And while I love her, and I hope I made it clear that I love her, especially in those last few days, it doesn't change anything.

I don't have any good way to wrap up this post. I could write something pithy about how the beauty of these things is in their ephemerality, but I don't believe that. I don't agree with Kurzweil that without death, life is meaningless. I vehemently reject that notion. Carbomb mattered, and would have kept on mattering if she kept on living. That she matters in death, too, doesn't bring me any comfort. I'd give a lot to put her on my lap again and let her circle for five stupid minutes while I roll my eyes and Charlotte laughs at me.

It's like I said: this isn't anything that anyone who's lost a pet hasn't experienced. It will go away in time. I'll remember her fondly, and with some sadness, but not this acute grief that I'm currently feeling. I know that. I'll get through it. But right now, I miss my cat.

As I said elsewhere: she was special. They're all special.