Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to slow down a lot of my professional ambitions to take care of one of my cats. As difficult as it’s been, it’s also been an incredibly transformative experience. Over the next few posts, I’ll share some of my insights from the process.
I walked into the vet clinic about an hour before closing time. The staff members were clearly expecting me and ushered me back quickly, thus saving me the embarrassment of sobbing in front of several elderly dog owners in the front lobby. In less than a week, I’d gone from being worried about my cat not eating and quickly losing weight to arranging to have her put down. A few days ago, she’d been hospitalized in order to try to diagnose the source of her symptoms and to get her stabilized. The vet had identified kidney, heart, and thyroid problems, and would eventually suspect cancer as well. Coco had initially responded well to treatment, but was now aggressively refusing any food or medication. To protect her from further suffering, I asked the vet to have her euthanized that evening.
I was taken to what I mentally dubbed The Death Room. It was tastefully decorated, I noted to myself. There was soft, neutral lighting, a large leather couch, an end table with ample tissue, pictures of happy dogs (probably now dead, I cynically thought), and a small bookcase with shelves full of small, beautiful urns and with a luscious green potted plant on top. For some reason, there was also an eye-washing station on the counter (this was clearly a room that nobody wanted to be in). As I sat there quietly sobbing and waiting for them to process my payment and bring Coco up to say goodbye, it struck me that they’d taken a lot of care to make this horrible experience as peaceful as possible.
After what seemed like an eternity, they brought Coco in the room. She was wrapped in a towel and looked smaller and more helpless than I’d ever seen her. Once the assistant left to give me a few moments alone with her, I held her in my arms and started trying to tell her how much I loved her and how much she meant to me (a speech I’d been mentally preparing in the car ride over). However, after initially running onto my lap and purring joyfully, she started to grow restless and hopped down off my lap.
Then she did something that amazed me. Even though her legs were shaking (she hadn’t eaten for 2 days), she began to explore the room in her typical, curious manner. She led me on a playful chase around the couch, she climbed on the counter and rubbed her face on the eyewash station (I probably should’ve told the staff about that), she got into a glass of water that they’d given me, and she began foraging through the bottom shelf of urns. As I took in this tragicomic scene, it occurred to me that there was no way in hell I could have her put down when she was being her usual, cute, but inadvertently destructive self – no matter how horrible she looked.
Then, she climbed up on the couch and ragged at me. I first heard this rag almost 10 years ago, after stumbling home late one night from my friend’s birthday party. She then stepped into the light of my porch, demanded to be fed and sheltered, and the rest was history. Now, three degrees, five moves, and countless heartbreaks later, she was making a similar request. “Ok, little girl,” I said resolutely, “Let’s take you home.”
It took me five minutes to find a staff member and “cancel the order” (they were trying to give me privacy with her). When I got back to The Death Room, Coco was chewing on a plant leaf.
When the vet did come in to check on us, she was flabbergasted by the energetic, calm, and slightly annoyed cat now in front of her, and assured me that she never would have never recommended putting Coco down had she seen her in this improved state. We parted ways, both visibly relieved.
Twenty minutes later, I left the vet with a refund for the euthanasia injection and cremation services, and a dying cat in tow. Walking to my car, I suddenly felt like a real adult, more so than I ever had with earning the Ph.D. As I thought about it, I realized that I still thought of adulthood as the process of acquisition – whether it meant degrees, houses, spouses, children, jobs, or hefty bank accounts. Instead, I felt like I’d left a great deal of baggage behind in The Death Room – my childish grudges (particularly over having a sibling who required the kind of intensive care that I was now giving Coco) and my paralyzing fears of death, dying, and suffering. By taking her home, I was taking on a huge amount of responsibility – for her care, well-being, and eventual death. But ultimately, I felt like I had a choice: take home the fears and grudges or take home her. And I chose her.