At 5:15 this afternoon, the vet is coming to put our cat down.
It’s hard to believe.
Chester lies still on a blanket on our son’s bed. An old guy. Eighteen years old. One hundred twenty-six in cat years. A good long life by anyone’s reckoning. But there is no purr today. Just the gentle up and down of his sides as he breathes, limp, eyes closed. Hanging closely onto that last thread.
He was a stray, you know. Found down near the Des Moines River back when we were all a lot younger. Two women rescued him from a life on the streets. Jeannie Vaudt and Anu Vaitheswaran, young lawyers with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office back in those days. Their attempt to house him in a government building was done with great hope but little success. It appears not everyone appreciated the litter box. The young women were forced to make a plea for a new home.
Animals come and go in our house. Cats and dogs and even a goldfish. A helpful pattern has emerged over the years as to how this occurs. My wife and kids come to me and propose that we adopt a new animal. I emphatically say “no.” I give a clear and lengthy explanation as to why the “no” is final. I remark on the heavy responsibilities we already have, the failure of past promises when it came to caring for other cats and dogs, the destruction of couches, chairs, shoes, and rugs, and the general chaos that already exists in our house. “NO” is the answer. Everyone nods in agreement.
The next day the animal is part of our family.
Chester became one of a long line of cats living in our home. And just like with the other animals, I fell in love.
By the way, don’t get smug, you would have fallen in love too. A deep purr that reverberates from him into your chest like the heavy bass from a rumbling car idling next to you at the stop. Golden soft fur that begs to be petted, and stroked, and made smooth. A personality that just wants to be at the party, and, by the way, to BE the party — resulting in any social event being a grand opportunity for Chester to purr loudly and jump on to the lap of every hapless guest. And always finding that one special guest who is allergic to cats. He loves a crowd. It isn’t complicated.
And the years passed. He played in the tall grass. He harassed unwary guests. And he raced around the backyard chasing our golden lab. A cat’s life.
“Cancer of the mouth,” the vet said. Not pretty. Strings of drool dripped on my keyboard a few weeks ago as he leaned into me as I wrote. And a stink came from the disease that made my nostrils flare. But then an echo of the purr would be softly heard. The sunken eyes would have a spark. He would butt his head one more time against my cheek.
“Alive . . . I’m not done yet . . . I’m not ready to go,” he seemed to say.
The idea of putting an animal “down” is complicated. Notice, it’s not “up.” I’ve held and petted many of our animals over the years as they’ve been put down. It’s never uplifting. It’s never purifying. It’s never some wonderful marker that says you’ve passed this step in the stages of grief. It’s just sad.
Thankfully, our vet, Dr. Michael Henning, helps us. A tall, strong-looking man. Wide-smiled and sturdy. I always wonder if he used to wrestle cattle in some former large-animal practice. But for over 20 years, he’s been one of the owner/vets at Starch Pet Hospital and takes care of cats and dogs and miscellaneous critters. Oh, yeah, and takes care of us. He shows up at our house when an animal needs to be put down. He looks at us with his kindly eyes. And talks us all through the inevitable. When tears are all you can see, he sadly sees for you.
So here we are. Chester has stopped eating for several days. He struggles to drink. His skin only covers bones. His old large head droops. His eyes glaze. The purr is gone.
There will be no pardon from the governor, folks. Lourdes water will not save the day. I’m afraid it is time. I call the vet.
Several weeks ago in the warm weather, Chester watched me painting the peeling window frames outside the house. His golden hue melded into the yellow leaves fallen from the maple trees. Crouched down low, only his head showing above the grass, he would change positions with the sun, catching the rays on his still-lustrous coat. I like to think he was dreaming of the high plains then. The big cats coming down to the water. The smell of earth and grass that hint of the winter to come. The warmth of the sun as it toasted his fur. The joy of life.
There’s a knock at the front door. It’s 5:15.