Our options; a series of fluids and foods that would give us a little more time with the friend we had spent nearly all of our marriage with. How much time? A week, maybe less, probably not more. Behind door number two lay the heavy burden, the inevitable, the thing we would just be staving off.
The doctor left us in that room to speak of it, our Lulu finding some strength in the nervous agitation a veterinarian’s office brings. Her tail, which had become stationary over the long weekend where we waited for the vet’s office to open, now hit an irregular rhythm out on the yellow-tinged linoleum. Occasionally she would give us a long, forlorn meow, so different from the chirps and squeaks she would harass us with while we went about our daily routine.
Beyond the doors I hear laughter and talk, the excited barking of a small dog, the shifting of crates and papers. Time moves agonizingly slow, yet it’s drawing to a close for our little lady, too soon, too soon, it’s always too soon.
Her eyes are angry, seemingly permanently dilated, and weeping black tears that I wipe away even as my husband and I cry. She is old, though we don’t know her exact age. When we brought her home from the shelter the employees told us their vets had guessed ten, maybe eleven. Now she is at least seventeen, and her kidneys are no longer functioning as they should.
My husband is the first to say it, and I am grateful for his honesty and strength, even if I don’t want to admit it. In my heart I know she is suffering, that this will not get better, the fluids and forced-feeding will not make her happy, will not bring back my angry little lady who would only play through the opening below a closed door. Who chased her adopted brother around when he got too rowdy, who would follow me every time I rose from my chair or moved towards the kitchen. That time was over, her time was slipping fast.
Every series of footsteps beyond the closed door draws our nervous attention, hers as well. I try not to imagine that she knows a choice is coming. We continue to pet her; the veterinary technician said her temperature was elevated, but she feels cold to the touch, like her blood’s not reaching her legs and paws. Her ears are cold, the fur like little cirrus clouds above her darkly weeping eyes. Every touch I count as my last, I did not go to sleep last night thinking that tomorrow would be goodbye. I spent most of my day away from her, working and worrying, but I did not think on Sunday night, that that was the last evening I would have with her.
I want to rail against the truth, refuse it and find myself seven years in the past, taking her home from the shelter, where she had been for over a year. I hadn’t wanted to adopt her, there had been a younger, more attentive cat that had drawn my attention. Lulu was raggedy, and only interested in her food, but then again, she was probably used to people over-looking her, why should she pay attention to anyone when no one payed attention to her? Despite my reservations, my husband convinced me, and I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do. Both of us love and respect animals, she would have a good life with us, and I like to think that in spite of her general lack of affection, she was happy we had brought her home.
How she had cried on that ride back to our apartment! Her little face pressed to the door of her carrier, her paws pushing and desperate for escape. I sat twisted in my seat, giving gentle reassurance that soon she would be home, a forever home, where she would not have to compete for attention, or face the indignity of being ignored. She showed little in way of agitation upon arriving at our apartment, and settled into our lives as though she had always been there.
She liked dark alcoves and quiet places, she did not like sleeping in laps or twining around legs. She was a solid little cannon ball of fur and affronted sensibilities who loved to sleep under our Christmas tree and drink water as it was being poured into her bowl. We joked that she tolerated us, and we her, but in our hearts we adored her and her independent attitude, and we liked to believe that she loved us just as much.
Back in the vets office, the room is too tiny, one and half steps to the box of tissues, one and a half back to the floor where Lulu lays. I sit on the old linoleum and run my hand over her rail thin body, suddenly I am cold, and shaking. I press my back against my husbands legs, his tears are reassuring, we are all weeping together, black tears and clear, broken and weak. Rise again, wipe at the tears, blow my nose, staring at the little persevered bodies of parasites taken from pets over the years. Ticks, ringworm, fleas, tapeworms, engorged and floating in formaldehyde. Tiny cycles of life and death.
A nurse opens the door and leans in. “Has the doctor returned?” She asks, we shake our heads, and I fumble my words, trying to tell her we are ready, that we’ve made our choice. It’s time for Lulu to not be in pain.
She returns with a waiver, I let my eyes fall over the words but don’t see them. The only thing I really process is this;
“Owner: Jessica Rasmussen”
That’s me, that’s the title gifted to me at birth, at the dawn of this life, but I don’t feel like much. Certainly I have no claim over this tiny, fiercely burning flame that is flickering at my feet. I grasp the pen, feel the cold plastic of it, press so hard it bites into my flesh, little indentations of pain that do nothing to draw from the suffering I feel approaching, a tsunami in the distance, a squall fast approaching. Am I being selfish? I wonder, but no… we deserve to have champions of life, people who want our hearts to keep beating, it is not wrong to want that life to continue, even as you let it go.
My hand falters after the “e” of my first name, the thought flashes through me, all lightening and pain, “I am signing her life away… I am literally signing it away.” I mutter, staring at the mostly blank line still waiting for my name. Every letter feels like a lie as I lay them down, I don’t want this, don’t agree to it, but I know there is no better option. Her life was as good as we could have made it for her, and she wanted for nothing, until the end.
The doctor and nurse return an eternity later, but also too soon. They are gentle, gently lifting her to the table, gently urging us to stand before her, gently telling us we’re doing the right thing. Gently the doctor lifts Lulu’s hind leg, gently shaves away the long, dark hairs to reveal the thin blue veins that dance beneath. The fluid they are injecting into her is the same color as her blood, I watch for a moment as the liquid disappears, literally stilling her heart, literally taking her from me as I watch.
It takes seconds, her little head slowly lowering to the table. I want her eyes to close, but she doesn’t even have time for that before her heart stops beating. The tiny thunder in her chest stills, and her eyes are empty, no confusion, no pain, nothing.
I am broken. Even now I am breaking. I press a final kiss to her cool ears and die inside, the nurse gives me a hug, there are words flying around me, telling me we made the right choice, that we were good parents, and that her suffering is over. I hear them, but don’t. Mind wondering from her empty eyes to the burden of returning home without her, to the mornings I will wake and she will not be there to greet me.
The nurse is gone, Lulu’s body with her. In some weeks time we will receive her ashes and take them with us somewhere remote, where we can scatter them in the woods. She’s a Maine Coon, you see, a forest cat in spite of her complete lack of interest in the outdoors. We need some ritual, some way to say goodbye beyond watching a swinging door close for a final time behind her lifeless body.
I make it to the office doors before I break, a strangled sob forcing it’s way out of me as I push passed the glass and out into the August heat. The world narrows into a chasm of regret and pain, as I stare through tear blurred vision at purple and scarlet crape myrtle, a wind I don’t feel chasing blossom from the bough. Nothing makes this easier, nothing makes it better, the exchange rate on life is high, and we have nothing to offer except acceptance and love. I want her back, but nothing will do that.
Every day I feel as though I am breaking. But not today, today I am broken complete.