“What will he feel?” I asked. I already knew the answer. My question was a delay tactic of the most obvious kind.
“When I give him the shot, he’ll just relax and go to sleep,” the doctor replied.
I was already crying. Tears and lamentations overwhelmed me long before I left home, and now standing here facing this horrific event they came unabated and uncontrolled. While I could hear the doctor clearly and knew somewhere in my mind that I understood him, I wept, and I lost myself in the weeping. Both Derek and Jenny stood with arms around me as their own tears clouded whatever support they wished to offer. Neither had known him as long as me. Only Mom could understand that longevity, and even to her the last several years were lost.
For reasons I couldn’t understand, Henry always had been my cat. He found comfort in my lap when no other was acceptable or welcoming. Sitting on the floor in front of the backdoor at my parents’ old house, we would dance albeit with more joy in me than him, and we would embrace each other afterward in celebration of his survival and my entertainment, though there was no cruelty involved and he tolerated it only because of that fact. I was the only one who stayed up with him all night when he became so ill that he wandered about the house in delirium, wailing in tones horrific and rending of the heart, first in the bathroom by the toilet and eventually in the hall with his head stuck partway through the closet door which leaned uncomfortably against his neck. He slept with me when all others were denied. If I was sick or distraught, he knew it and would respond accordingly. Comrade spirits in life, we two had an understanding, the crux of intimacy between human and cat, that place wherein the master predator gives itself completely to the companionship and love of another and learns to rely trustingly.
I leaned my weight wholly against the counter. My arms completely enwrapped Henry and I snuggled him closer to my body, a futile gesture as he was already an essential part of my being at that very moment, held so closely and with such love and care that the most fragile of things would have been eternally safe were it placed in the same grasp. Unapologetically, I sniffled and wiped draining tears from my eyes with the sleeve of my shirt. Pride and presentation were not concerns. I tried to listen, but the veterinarian’s words became increasingly lost in my own sorrow.
“He won’t feel any pain. In fact, the pain he’s in now will drain away as the drug sets in. He’ll relax completely—”
“OK…” I interrupted with a mumble.
“You must understand,” he continued, “his entire body will react. When it relaxes, some of his bodily functions might release, so don’t be surprised if he urinates or if his bowels move. That’s normal and is just a sign that he’s resting and his body’s going to sleep.”
The thought of such a thing reinvigorated my sobbing. His voice seemed an alien sound both unfamiliar and intrusive. Suddenly I wanted nothing more than to grab the black cat now ensconced in a place almost completely surrounded by my presence, curled up deeply and closely in fear, and to run through the door out to the car, to escape and take him away, to protect him from this abomination of all that we shared.
“Do you understand?” the doctor asked.
“Yes, I know. I understand,” I said. “It’s OK. I just don’t want him to hurt anymore. I just want the pain to go away so he’s not suffering.” The dirge playing in my heart and mind rocked my body with the terror of facing life without him. Somehow, in a way I could not yet comprehend, all of this seemed dreadfully cruel.
No! Damn it! He can’t go yet. I need him and he needs me. How can I go on without him? He’s been the constant in a life of inconstancy. This can’t be the end! My mind howled in rage. Denial is such a powerful force.
The veterinarian was only a blur, a white-robed apparition grotesquely resembling a person in all the wrong ways, a creature of death offering meaningless understanding as one might proffer a cheap gift known to be insufficient and insulting. I hated him. I wanted him to go away and leave me to care for Henry in the way that only I could. This entire situation was wrong. If he was to die, it should be in the comfort of what he knows, in a place where he fears nothing and absolutely trusts in my desire and intent to do what is best for him. I am his protector — his guardian — and only in the place where we live and with me will he find contentment necessary to diminish his suffering. Why did I bring him here?
“I won’t do anything until you’re ready. Just let me know when you want me to give him the injection. Once I give it to him, I’ll leave.” It was then that he reached out and touched my arm in gentle compassion, a brief display of understanding and support. It was not a gratuitous gesture as this veterinary clinic had seen me through years of pet care. They knew me as I knew them, and everyone on the staff understood how much I loved my children. Despite this innate sympathy and the support I so desperately needed, I hated him all the more for it. “You’re welcome to stay as long as you like. There’s no hurry.”
Go to hell! Keep your filthy mitts away from me and my child. Step back and take that damn needle with you. He’s mine. I’ll take care of him. I’ll make sure he gets through this. How dare you act like you care when you intend to kill him! I felt selfish. And I wanted to be selfish. If I didn’t act that way in his favor, would anyone else? Would they know what he wanted? Would they even care? He trusted me. He relied on me. I knew somehow that only I was capable of helping him through this final journey.
Jenny’s grip tightened around my shoulders. She could feel the tension in facing the nearness of the thing. “We’re here, Sweetie,” she said. Her voice betrayed the pain in her heart. “Take your time.”
“I know,” I think I said, although I cannot be sure what response fell from my lips. “Go ahead, please, and give him the shot.”
It stood out there on the horizon of thought as an offense to all that seemed reasonable and caring. It was a specter of dark shadow enveloping the light as it approached. It had a name, an unspeakable name that I dared not acknowledge in Henry’s presence, yet it could not be denied, and he must know its embrace before this day was done.
I knew Derek was already in emotional shambles. He was barely able to speak, muttering supportive garble in feeble attempts to mask his own bawling in woefully presented strength of character. I wondered, in such a short time, how it was that he became so enamored of Henry. That was an easy question to answer given Henry’s personality, yet the asking of it pierced my heart with great depth.
I sobbed, leaning lower and stroking his black fur and mumbling to him. “It’s OK, Henry,” I said. “You’re OK. We’re going to make it better. We’re going to take away the pain.” I hated myself for saying it. I felt deceptive, a liar telling his child that the pain is how we grow when what is necessary is an understanding that the pain means we are hurt, that our body in one of its many forms is damaged, that we need healing that words rarely provide. I despised myself immensely for such cheap contributions to his final moments.
“It’ll be over soon. You know I love you, Henry. I just want your suffering to stop. I don’t want you to hurt anymore.” I leaned my head forward and rested it against him. The doctor was only just beginning to move forward with the lethal instrument at the ready. So much of my being wished to reach out and stop him, to place a hand betwixt the weapon and the victim. I wanted nothing more than to stay the whole event.
This can’t happen. I deny you and your intentions.
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, using an innocent movement to hide a more significant shift of weight to the cold Formica upon which Henry, and now I, rested. I couldn’t support myself anymore, and I knew this despite attempts to act contradictory. All will and strength rapidly drained from me. Whatever else might be happening in the world, this place and time became all that mattered, and my breath left me temporarily in uncontrollable moans and cries.
Might I somehow metaphysically consume him and take all that he is into my own self? Can I bestow upon him more living through my own essence and life, finding in that act an ability to extend my parental care beyond mortality?
All thought was gone from me; only my heart acted. Despite thinking it impossible, I leaned even closer to Henry and embraced his body next to mine as the doctor tenderly inserted the needle, slowly but deliberately injected its contents, and removed it in a motion swift and targeted so that very little notice of it might present. He stroked Henry lovingly one last time, then again touched my arm ever so briefly before turning and leaving the room.
I wept. Oh, how I wept. I listened to his breathing and held him close to me. I continued talking to him through my own tears, assuring and reassuring him that he would be OK, that the pain was soon to be gone, that no more suffering would befall him, and that he need not worry about me anymore, just himself. The life drained out of him with slowing breath and with it, my soul poured forth in tears. He who had been so near to me took his last intake of air and laid it upon my face with the whisper of his being. Oh, how I wept then. My tears fell upon his still fur. My own wailings transformed into unmanageable gasps of air. Measured only in a few brief minutes, the decades of his life vanished on that counter as he lay wrapped in my arms and held close to me, and with the going of his light so too left a part of my soul forever lost to me, that part of my own living measured in doses of Henry.
Some part of me stoked the flames of anger at that moment, brought to wrath in the thought that Henry might partake in his last vision a strange place wrought with stimuli denying of peace. How could I let his last moment be filled not with home but instead with the uncaring and unwarm settings of a little room at the veterinarian’s office? I set the thought aside.
Both Derek and Jenny held to me in tight comfort. They shared my distress and sadness. While the breaking of my heart spilled on that countertop in one afternoon, I shared the most terrifying of griefs with those capable of supporting the burden, even if only in limited ways compared to that which was lost.
I do not know how long it was that I stood there holding him. Minutes seemed like hours. Although undeniably lifeless, somehow I found it within me to hold him closer and tighter with gentleness immeasurable. Some part of me died there that day, a part of the universe lost in abundant fullness and absence. There is no portion of me now that fails to weep at the thought of it. These many years later, I still feel the emptiness left in his wake.
Minutes seemed like hours…
And now I wonder. Was it better for him to be in an alien place, frightened and stressed in his already weakened and ailing state, the cold of stainless steel, tile floor, hard counter, fluorescent lighting, and needle surrounding him on all sides and pressing in on him, yet cloaked in totality by three people who loved him dearly, there in the not-home and not-comfortable to take his final breath? Or would it have been better for him to face his death in the comfort of his home where he knew himself to be safe, in that place wherein he could be Henry, embraced by those familiar walls and ceiling and floor that had been his home for so many years, undoubtedly suffering as his body failed uncontrollably, yet in that section of the cosmos wherein he was the all of himself, where he knew he was safe and loved? I do not know the answer to that question. And it vexes me.