Recently I noticed that Harry, one of my two nineteen-year-old cats (the other is his brother, George), has been looking a little round in the belly, and that his tummy has seemed swollen and tight, although not painful to the touch. I also realized he hasn't really been pooping.
"Aha, he's constipated, not uncommon in older cats," I thought. So I booked a vet appointment with my friend and proceeded to dose Harry with mineral oil and Metamucil, hoping to cure the situation and avoid a vet bill. Neither remedy produced the desired result.
"He may need an enema," said my vet friend, "and trust me, you don't want to do that on your own."
So on Saturday morning we went for the appointment.
"Wow, his belly is really firm," said the vet, feeling Harry's abdomen while he waited patiently. "I'm going to do a rectal exam to see whether I can feel anything in there, and to make sure his bladder isn't enlarged."
She took Harry out back and a few moment later I heard a loud "MEEEEEOOOOOWR."
"That would be the rectal exam," I thought.
She came back in, holding a rather astonished-looking Harry. "I feel some feces, but nothing to indicate he's constipated, and his bladder feels fine, so I'd like to do an X-ray to see what's going on."
"Do what you need to," I said.
Now, Harry is easy at the vet. He's mellow and not troublesome, so I knew taking his X-ray would be simple. So when over twenty-five minutes had passed and she hadn't come back, I began to feel dread in the pit of my stomach.
Finally, she came back holding two X rays, She stopped and gave me a very sad look.
"I had a feeling," I said, my stomach dropping.
She held up the X-rays. There was fluid, a lot of it, in Harry's abdomen. She showed me all the things that I never would have picked up on with my untrained eye. The lack of a clear border, indicating fluid rather than a mass. The pressure against one of his lungs. But even my untrained eye had seen enough other X-rays of my cats over the years to know that I was looking at a story with no happy ending.
"I'd have to put the fluid under a slide to confirm it, but I'm pretty sure it's cancer," she said. "I'm so sorry."
I just stared at the X-ray, at the insides of the cat I loved more than breathing, and felt so sad for him, that his body was betraying him this way. I looked at the outline of his heart, the fine bones of his ribs, the sharp poetry of his spine. I looked at the dense white cloud of fluid that didn't belong there but that would, unfairly, cast the deciding vote for everything that did.
"You could try treating it, try chemo..." she began, "but at his age, you'd have to ask yourself who it would really be for..."
"No. No. I will not put him through that. He's nineteen. It's just his time. I've been sort of preparing for this... it's just...hard."
I drew in a ragged breath, trying to focus and stay coherent. "Ok. Ok. So...is this at a stage..."
She knew what I wanted to know. "It's affecting his quality of life."
I could feel the tears all over my face, but I swallowed the lump in my throat and kept talking, feeling the contrast between my matter-of fact tone and the tears streaming down all over me. I was still staring at the X-ray, at the bright spot, trying to focus on something.
"I can't euthanize him today," I said, my voice finally breaking. "I can't. I need some time to say goodbye. He's nineteen. He's been with me for nineteen years. I need some time to say goodbye. Do you think it would be OK to wait a week, I mean, do you think it would be inhumane to wait a week?"
"You can do that," she said, "and if he deteriorates in the meantime, you just bring him in sooner. I'll give him some fluids, and send him home with an appetite stimulant."
She aspirated some of the fluid to study and showed me the syringe. It was full of a milky-white fluid tinged with pink.
"It looks like lymph, so I'm guessing he's got lymphoma, and it's blocking his lymph ducts, and it's draining into his abdomen."
She also agreed to see about doing an in-home euthanasia for me when the time came.
Out in the lobby, sunglasses over my swollen eyes and the tears mercifully at bay, I waited to pay my bill, Harry in a carrier at my feet. A little boy of about six came over and squatted in front of the carrier. He was careful to keep his hands against his chest, so someone had told him about not touching strange animals.
He looked in at Harry, and broke into a wide grin. "This looks like a really nice cat," he said. He was adorable.
"He is. He is a really nice cat," I smiled at him. "His name is Harry, and you can pat him. He's very friendly."
"Hey, Harry," the boy said, putting a finger through the door of the carrier. "He isn't sniffing my finger or anything, and he's not letting me touch him. He's too far away."
"Well, he's been poked and prodded a lot today, and he probably just needs a break," I explained. "But you can talk to him; he likes that." Harry is of course now deaf, but he didn't have to know.
"Hey Harry, you sure are a nice cat," the boy said. Another little boy joined him.
"Have you ever read the book A Cricket in Times Square?" I asked. "There is a cat named Harry in that book." They thought this was great.
I'd paid and picked up the carrier. "Thanks for talking to Harry. And remember: A Cricket in Times Square."
I made it to the car, had a moment, regained my composure, and drove home.
Harry is sleeping a lot, and walking very little, his distended abdomen making it more difficult, although today it is far less tight. I'm not going to kid myself, though. I slept with him on the floor for part of the night (he seems to prefer that now), but ended up in my bed when my neck got stiff. I woke to find him on the bed with me in his usual position in the cook of my arm, purring. Yesterday I took him to a side garden and let him sniff the grass and flowers and bask in the sun. I read sitting on the floor, and he comes over to lay his head on my lap. He's still Harry.
I do wish he could still hear, but the fact he can't doesn't stop me from talking to him. I lay with him on the rug, reminiscing while he purred at my side.
"Remember when you almost attacked the raccoons in Vermont, thinking they were a danger to me?" I laughed. "They were twice your size, but you almost went through the screen to get to them. And the time you swatted Maggie's dogs away when they started licking my face?" I rubbed his chin, burying my face in his side, bringing on a louder purr. "You have always had the heart of a lion. Thank you for taking such good care of me."
The hard part is knowing when the time will be right. I know he has cancer; the signs of it are unmistakable in his obscenely swollen belly. He doesn't appear to be in pain, but he lays in one spot practically all the time and sleeps. His head hangs down in a strange new way. But he still thrums with happiness when I stroke his head, his paws kneading the floor in bliss. I think he knows his time is getting short -- he's going out of his way to show me attention, just as I am with him. I don't want him to suffer, but I don't want to rob him of any good days he has left. He spends most of them sleeping, but they are his days to sleep away, on his rug, in his house, with us. And he loves to be with me, sometimes purring so loud he goes up an octave. He loves being here.
I have never let my cats roam the streets, terrified that they would come to harm. When I make the decision to end Harry's life, I know I will do it to spare him suffering, make it as gentle and kind as it can be, but I will also be sending him away to a place where I can't protect him or take care of him. I will be putting him out of my life, exiling him to someplace unknown. For the first time in his life, I will be sending him away from me. The first time ever, and the last. The decision weighs so heavy.
I put my head against his, twisting my fingers in his paws.
"Do you trust me?" I ask him.
His answer is to purr even louder and knead my fingers gently.
I wish I shared his faith.