Monday, March 8, 2010

Unbearable: The death of a friend

Hank and I sat on the bench near the exit of the vet's office on Sunday, the warm rays of the late-afternoon sun pouring through the door. On the wall in front of us were notices of all the lost pets in the area, with photos of their upturned faces and trusting eyes. You could feel the anguish of their owners.

Somewhere behind us was our cat Paka. We were waiting for the doctor to come out and tell us when she'd be ready to transfer to a 24-hour animal hospital that might be able to stabilize her and give us a couple more months with our dear friend.

This was not where I'd expected to be two days earlier, when I had plucked Paka from her favorite place in the world - stretched out on the Oriental rug in our living room, basking in the the morning sunlight streaming through the window.

We had to be sneaky when taking Paka to the vet. If she saw the cat carrier, she'd hide and we'd never get her out. So I'd set up the cat carrier the night before, and I approached her on the rug - as I so often did - crooning and rubbing her big sun-warmed belly, which she appreciatively exposed to me. Then I scooped her up and put her in the carrier, and the yowling commenced.

"Oh, Paka!" I said. It was just a routine appointment. Read more...

Paka was Hank's cat. He'd gotten her in early 1996 when she was a kitten, long before he'd even met me. When Hank and I started seeing each other in Virginia, Paka was friendly to me, but only to a point: When I spent the night at Hank's place, she'd wedge herself between the two of us, and I'd wake up in the middle of the night to find I was about to fall off the bed to avoid squishing her.

But I didn't mind. She was beautiful and sweet, and probably the best-behaved cat I'd ever met - entirely due to Hank's expert training with squirt bottles and well-aimed sneakers that discouraged poor manners, like jumping on kitchen counters and yowling before the humans had decided it was time to wake up.

She loved to sit on our laps, and loved to be brushed, and loved, loved, loved to eat. Especially any roasted bird. The girl would go nuts when a turkey was in the oven.

She tolerated my presence in Richmond, but when I moved to Minnesota in 2002 and Hank followed a few months later, she accepted me - sleeping now at the foot of the bed, instead of between us. And I welcomed her as my own, brushing her every day, and indulging her loves, while trying to keep her weight down.

It was in St. Paul that she did the strangest thing I'd ever seen a cat do. Hank had begun making liqueurs, and one night we were sipping one that he'd made from an herb he'd foraged in the woods, some sort of mint.

Paka climbed into my lap and sniffed at the cordial glass - which is about where a cat usually becomes disinterested in liquor - then dipped her little snout in and started lapping up the sweet liquid.

What the hell? Then it dawned on us. That mint Hank had foraged was catnip. We took the glass away before she could get her little cat self in trouble, and laughed for the rest of the night.

A couple years later, we moved to California, me first, followed a couple months later by Hank. This time there would be no room for Paka in the car, so Hank sent her to me on an airplane. She looked so stressed out when I got her at the airport, but she recognized me and accepted the comfort I offered on the ride to her new home. She was already acclimated and content by the time Hank arrived. We were a family.

For a couple years it was just the three of us. Then I brought my own calico kitten - Giblet - into the house, and a year later we welcomed Giblet's littermate, Harlequin, as a sporadic visitor in our home. Paka had gazed upon Giblet as a matron would look at a 16-year-old harlot. Interloper. Attention grabber. Bitch.

But they reached a peace with each other. Not a cuddly peace. But Paka tolerated Giblet, and on rare occasions, they'd actually play, thundering up and down the hallway, first Paka chasing Giblet, then Giblet chasing Paka.

Even with three cats in the house, Paka was the only one who really appreciated Hank's food. If there was meat on the table, she wanted some. As she got older, we had to deny her things like elk and venison, which would make her barf. But fish and roast birds? The smells just drove her wild. She'd circle the table like a shark, meowing insistently.

We had a joke about this. I'd be eating my dinner, minding my own business, when suddenly her fuzzy little face would materialize between my knees. "I have a pussy between my legs!" I'd yell, and Hank and I would laugh, and we'd tear off little bits of meat for her.

For the past year or so, we could see the signs of advancing age. Her meow became rougher. Her paws would sometimes tremble between steps. Occasionally her head would shake. Her hygiene was suffering. But her fundamental personality was still strong: food-loving, lap-loving, sun-loving.

Especially sun-loving. If I ever forgot to open the living room blinds in the morning, she'd come into my office and stare at me until I caught her drift. "Where's my sunshine?" she was demanding. On cloudy days, when opening the blinds didn't produce the desired effect, she'd look at me as a failure.

Paka was just an older version of her normal self. That's why I wasn't worried when I took her to the vet's office on Friday.


At least I wasn't worried until the doctor told me Paka had an abscess and would need to be anesthetized to treat it. They'd do a blood test first to make sure her organs could handle the anesthesia. That's when I got a really bad feeling about the whole thing. But I called Hank and we didn't see any choice, so I signed the papers and left her to them.

Hank picked her up that afternoon and she was predictably woozy. He brought home antibiotics and pain medication for her. Paka hated being pilled, so we crushed the antibiotic tablets in her Fancy Feast and that did the trick. She didn't like the pain meds, which we squirted on her gums with little syringes with pre-measured doses, but she endured it.

She seemed fine on Saturday. Not great, but as good as you'd expect after surgery.

Sunday morning, though, was different. She was breathing hard, and hiding under the couch. The vet's office had told us that panting was a sign of pain, so we tried pull her out to give her pain medicine, but she growled and we relented.

We got her out a while later and got her her medicine and hoped it would help. Afterward, exhausted, she lay with her head in Hank's cupped hand, purring. We went out for a while, hoping that she'd be feeling better after the meds kicked in.

But she wasn't. She was hiding under a chair, breathing hard, her head flat on the ground. I stroked her head and she didn't lift it. "I think she's in trouble," I told Hank. I didn't know if it was an infection or a bad reaction to the medicine, but Paka didn't look good.

Hank called the vet's office and they said we could bring her in in 90 minutes. "I don't think we can wait that long," I told him, so he called back, and heard the urgent tone he took with the front-desk clerk. "Look, if she were a human, I'd be calling the ambulance right now," he said. They told us to come right in.

So we stuffed her once again into the hated cat carrier. She yowled feebly.

When we walked into the vet's office, the clerk grabbed Paka's carrier and took her straight back. The doctor quickly determined what was going on and came out to let us know. She'd had a heart murmur forever, and the stress of the surgery was causing her heart to fail. Her lungs were filling with fluid. He put her in an oxygen chamber to help her breathe and gave her nitroglycerin to help her heart work better. We sat in the waiting room, tears streaming down our faces.

He'd come out from time to time to update us. This office wasn't staffed 24 hours a day, so we'd need to get her to a veterinary hospital at closing time. He was trying to get her stable enough to make the drive.

The next time he came out, he dropped immediately to his knees to talk to us. She'd been looking good and he'd taken her out of her oxygen chamber to give her another shot of nitroglycerin and she'd stopped breathing.

"We have her on a ventilator," he said. "Do you want to come see her?"

He was keeping her alive for us to say good-bye.

We rushed to the back room and saw our beloved cat stretched out on a table, a tube in her throat. Hank fell to her and began sobbing. I moved to stroke her head and tell her we were there and we loved her. Her eyes were hollow. She was leaving us.

The doctor removed the tube and explained that she would be gone in a minute. We held her and stroked her as paroxysms transformed her from the beautiful, affectionate cat we'd known for so long into this unseeing wreck on death's door.

The doctor, bless his soul, explained that she wasn't aware of what was happening to her.

We told him we knew; we'd seen death before.

If she were a duck, I'd've been putting her out of her misery. But she was a friend, and a family member, and we were grasping at every last second with her. And finally, she was gone.

It had just been a routine vet appointment on Friday. We didn't think we'd be saying good-bye so quickly.


We buried her this afternoon, during a brief sunny break in an otherwise stormy day.

We dug a hole in a spot in the garden that will get lots of sun - because she loved sun so much. We stroked her one last time before closing the box. Her body was cold, but I swear I could feel her purr, because whenever you put your hands on her, she'd purr. It was unthinkable that she wouldn't.

We put her brush and her food bowl in the box with her, because they were two of her favorite things. Hank kept her heart-shaped I.D. tag for his keychain.

Even with two cats still in the house, something still feels wrong. We keep waiting to hear the click of her claws on the wood floor. Expecting to see her curled up on the couch. But she's gone. And we're just so heartbroken.

You can read Hank's tribute to Paka here - I'm sure he would welcome your prayers and well wishes as much as I do.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Phillip said...

Beautiful eulogy, Holly.

I've buried my share of pets over the years, so I know there's nothing I can say that will do the job that only time can do...

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Beautifully and soulfully written, Holly. My heart goes out to both of you.

The Hunter's Wife said...

Oh Holly, I'm so very sorry. It's heartbreaking and there are no words to comfort. Thoughts and prayers for you both.

Cecilia said...

You gave your "big boned" girl a great life--and she did the same for you. It's hard to say good-bye, but she lives on in your hearts and memories.

My thoughts are with you and Hank as you grieve the loss of your Paka.

Anonymous said...

We are better as people for having known them (our pets), but it's never long enough...

I am so very, very sorry for your loss Holly that I can't even put it in words. I'll be thinkin' about you and Hank a bunch today.

SimplyOutdoors said...

I'm so very sorry, Holly. Losing a pet is so hard, and I hope time heals all the wounds for both of you.

After a recent experience with one of our pets, I completely understand.

Rest in peace, Paka.

Mandy said...

What a beautiful tribute to her. It is always hard losing a pet. You an Hank will be in my thoughts and prayers.

benedict1 said...

She will rest in peace. We never forget them. Remember her with love and laughter. She'd want it that way. I'm sorry.

Holly Heyser said...

Thank you everyone. My eyes are a little less swollen today, but the tears still come just as fast.

If you get a moment, please visit Hank's blog and share your condolences with him as well. Just click here.

Anonymous said...

Pets become part of the family, and they share our lives, provide us with companionship and help us to see the humor in Life. When they pass, we can only be grateful for the time we shared with them, for the traits they exhibited, but there's no direct replacement for a good dog or cat. There are "others" but, like humans, they have their own personalities and we miss them. Time will distance us from the acute sense of loss, and we eventually look back appreciatively, but it's never easy. May time pass quickly for you and Hank to ease the loss.
Edward J. Palumbo

Albert Quackenbush said...

I am so sorry for you both. It was a beautiful eulogy and brought tears to my eyes. I know the pain of losing a beloved friend like this and it is never easy.

Shawn K. Wayment, DVM said...

I'm very sorry to hear about the loss of your kitty! It's never the easy part of us having them in our lives! My thoughts and prayers are with you and yours!

Sincerely, Shawn

Holly Heyser said...

I know. I know some day my beloved little Giblet will go too, and I hate to even contemplate it.

It's one of the reasons I didn't have any pets for a long time. When I was in my 20s, I raised pet rats. Rats are delightful little creatures - fun, smart and playful as can be. But three years is considered a long life for them, and I was so weary of watching them go so fast, because it hurt so bad every time. So I just stopped having pets for a while.

Having Paka in my life first, and later Giblet and Harlequin, has been a joy. Every single day I see them, they make me happy. I'm just trying to focus on that now.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Until Cath and I got our beloved black Lab, Kaia, I hadn't lived with any animals since I was a kid.

Kaia turned five recently and is getting white hairs on her belly, chin, and paws. She's still full of puppy energy, but we know we've only got what? Maybe another 5 or 10 years with her? Hard to think about. So we don't dwell there. No need to trouble ourselves with "forethought of grief" as Wendell Berry put it.

amy said...


I am so sorry for your loss. Both of your losses. My thoughts are with the both of you.

Ryan Sabalow said...

It's amazing how much animals grow on us, isn't it? I used to make fun of people who wrote eulogies or poems about their dead dog or cat. In college, I even wrote a column about how much it made me want to barf hearing about other people's Fifis and Fidos.

Then, last year, I got my little chocolate lab pup, Gaddy.

I knew my outlook had forever changed this fall, when, one late morning out at Ash Creek Wildlife Area, we were laying together on an island, two shy of a mixed bag limit of mallards, wigeon and gadwall.

Gaddy, just nine months old, had made five successful retrieves, her best so far that season.

All that swimming and chasing had zonked her out apparently, because I felt a wet nose on my shoulder and pleasant puppy snores in my ear.

My heart, right then, melted for her for good.

You guys have my sympathies.

Anonymous said...

that is so sad, very sorry Holly and Hank...

Amy Sherman said...

A loving tribute, I know she will live forever in your hearts.

Dawn (KitchenTravels) said...

My heart goes out to you both. May she rest in peace.

Bpaul said...

I'm so sorry. We just had to put down our 18-year-old matriarch -- the cat who predated me with my wife by 4 years. Not at all easy.

Peace to you both,


hooter said...

My heart goes out to both of you.We have had to put two of our pets down and bury a third. We cried like babies on each occasion. They were are "children" and we grieved as such. I know you have a void but,there will be others. Not the same as but endearing on theit own. wait for them, they are looking for you.

high over happy said...

I am so, so sorry for your loss. My cat is family and I understand your grief.

Margo True said...

Holly and Hank,

I'm so sorry to hear. She was a very dear cat...and your lives were the richer for it. And so was her life, for being part of yours.

All best,

Ghostrifle said...

Life is about meetings and partings. The harder the goodbyes the more you cared.

My sympathy

Holly Heyser said...

Thank you, everyone. Ryan, I'm glad you understand now. And Hoot, you're right - somewhere a cat is waiting for us. She won't be Paka, but she'll be ready for a family, and we'll be ready for her.

Chad Love said...

As someone who just buried one of his own, I feel for you, Holly. It sucks. No other way to express it.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Always a tough time. You have all my sympathies.

Jon Roth said...

So sorry to hear of your and Hank's loss. These darn animals really get into our souls. It is torture that they leave us after so few years. Take good care....

Lisa S. said...

I'm so sorry for your pain. Our pets just own large parts of our hearts.

May time be kind.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

That sucks, so sorry holly

danontherock said...

Truly sorry, I have lost good dogs, it hurts a lot.

regards Dan

r. hurd said...

Read this whole post with my lady. We both cried. That is so hard.

Julia said...

What a beautiful tribute to a well-loved friend. My families thoughts and prayers are with you and Hank.

Anonymous said...

Please tell Hank he did not let Paka down. Paka's body let her down. What a wonderful life you both gave her!!! In all your grief and sadness do not loose sight of the facts. Bless you both for giving her a wonderful life.


Galen Geer said...

Holly, I really have to believe that all of our pets will meet us in heaven.
You wrote the best tribute to a pet that I've read in a long, long time. glg

Ingrid said...

What a touching tribute to a dear friend. Very sorry for your loss, Holly. I know the sorrow cuts deeper than even a poignant essay like this can suggest.

Bo Curtis said...

So sad to let them go, but one door closes and another one opens. Perhaps nos the time to get a retriever pup and enhance your hunting experience?

weedy said...

I looked up my cat aka on because tonight we also no longer have my cat Paka with us. We was the neighborhood clown, each person thinking he "owned " Paka for a few nights- one neighbor started bragging about his new cat Bob(Paka was a Manx with tiny tail) and we mentioned that our cat Paka was a tabby manx. Party over at that house! Paka was such a character- people that didn't like cats were enchanted with his antics. Unfortunately, time took its toll and today (as we gathered him from a neighbor's feral cat colony ) he was beyond repair. We made a euthanasia appt through our tears. Aka somehow found the Halloween decor box we'd removed from the barn and clambered onto a styrofoam tombstone to nap his last hours. He always had the last word. He lapsed into a coma on the way to the vet, which relieved us (he did NOT like vets but nevi scratched or bit them (like he might do to a regular visitor or us!). My ct Paka , like yours, was and is unforgettable. A toast to Paka cats...