Farewell, Good Friend

Posted on June 20, 2014

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Oliver1June 18th, 2014


Our son Oliver died today. He was twelve.

He was a cat. Yes, I know calling him ‘son’ is a bit of a stretch, especially to people who don’t have animals or whose hearts aren’t shaped in that very specific way, but that’s what he was — a son. My girlfriend and I doted on him for twelve years. We fussed over him. Gave him countless silly nicknames. We rubbed his ears, and scratched his chin and planted so many kisses on his head I’m surprised we didn’t wear a hole in his fur.

Mind you, he was a complete pain-in-the-ass half the time. Fond of the 4 a.m. paw-in-the-face wake-up call, the ‘you weren’t drinking that, right?’ wine glass tip-over, the timely and always wonderfully expensive ‘laptop power cord bite and chew.’ He had style, I have to give him that. And he never apologized, no matter how deep the transgression or how vicious the scolding —the ‘Yeah? So?’ look was a pretty standard Oliver response in our house. He stuck to his guns, that cat.

So why am I writing this? I’m writing this because today, a very difficult day centered almost entirely around a fifteen pound animal, was a day I was reminded just how wonderful humans are.

Humans, those complicated, complex and prickly creatures we deal with every day of our lives. The ones who give us the pains in our backsides that aren’t quite as endearing as the pains our animals give. They’re difficult, sometimes, humans. Pets are easy — unconditional affection, unconditional love. People? They can be a little trickier.

I woke up this morning with no idea that today would be a day full of doubt and concern, of very tough choices that would ultimately lead to sadness. And as I checked my email at seven a.m., worried about all sorts of inconsequential things like meetings and projects and deadlines, I didn’t know my day would end with saying goodbye to an animal that had become a huge part of the daily fabric of our lives. That I’d walk out into the sunshine of a glorious June evening with an empty cat carrier, feeling sad, stunned and more than a little bit lost. Oliver has left the building. Our chubby little Elvis was always The King in this house. We miss him so much already. Oliver2

He wasn’t well. Kelly picked up on it right away. The silly cat horked up a gigantic fur ball after breakfast and immediately became weak and listless. Not right. Kelly called our friends at the Veterinary Clinic in town and set up an appointment. I was working from home. We agreed that I’d bring him in at 2:30 and get him checked out. ‘Probably nothing serious,’ I thought. Then, a couple of hours later I watched him amble out of the bedroom and crawl behind the curtain of our makeshift bathroom closet. Not good. Now, I was worried.

The doctors and the wonderful staff at the Veterinary Clinic were Oliver’s first stop. We’ve been taking the chubby little miscreant here for years and I think the little bugger actually came to enjoy his visits. His first time, he was a twenty-three pound porker, a bowling ball in a fur suit. So fat, his corpulence made him a mini-celebrity — at one point he had three staffers scratching his ears, rubbing his tummy and generally cooing over him as if he were a furry prince on a palace getaway — Oliver just lay there, in all his Jabba the Hut glory, soaking up the love. ‘Yes, you may continue to pet me. I will permit it,’ he seemed to say, purring like a Honda.

But today was different. He was a sick cat. The technician who checked him in was concerned — he’d lost almost four pounds since November. The doctor examined him. She was worried about her little buddy Oliver, too. She could feel a blockage in his abdomen.

Blood work and X-rays followed. Then, bad news — there was a large mass near his bladder and fluid in his stomach. He would need to go to the animal care hospital in the city for an ultrasound. Our doctor put in a call to give them a heads-up and let them know we were coming. Her staff took the time to put all his materials into a little ‘I’m Oliver and here’s what’s going on with me’ package. Class, professionalism, kindness. That last word doesn’t get enough play in our world these days. Everyone at our Veterinary Clinic has it in spades. I’m grateful for that.

At the animal hospital, the receptionist used the word ‘triage,’ (‘Triage?’ I thought. And then I looked around and realized I really was, in fact, in an animal ER) and a doctor came out to the waiting area immediately to find out what was going on with Oliver and take him back to the examination room.

Five minutes later I was talking with another doctor, giving as detailed a recounting as I could about his behavior and habits over the last few weeks. This was an information transfer but the unspoken and unmistakable tone that ran underneath our conversation was that word I mentioned before – kindness. ‘We know he’s sick and we understand how difficult this is for you right now. We’re going to do everything we can to help him.’ I can’t tell you how grateful I was for that.

Within a half hour, I was meeting with yet another doctor. The prognosis wasn’t good. Oliver had sepsis. The mass in his stomach had perforated and the fluid had leaked out into his body. There was a 50/50 chance he’d even survive the surgery needed to cut the thing out. He was already in shock.

When I heard that, I knew. He’s twelve years old. Even if he survives the surgery, what kind of life will he have afterwards? Another shock – if we want to put him down, it has to be tonight. He’s suffering. It can’t wait until tomorrow. We can’t take him home and have someone come to our house. It has to happen now. Tonight.

Oliver3We make an agreement with ourselves when we decide to bring an animal into our lives. We agree to become attached. We agree to love them even though we know our time with them will be relatively short. Finite.

We do all these things and we make that agreement and we tell ourselves that the tough decision we’ll have to make one day is very far off in the future, a dark speck dwelling at the end of a very bright tunnel filled with a whole lot of happiness. And we’re never ready for it when it comes, no matter how old our animals become.

And we do it again and again because we know the days and the moments colored with all that joy will always outweigh the pain that comes at the end. But it never seems like a good agreement in that exact moment when you have to make the decision, when you have to decide whether or not to end the life of an animal you love dearly.

Kelly and I decided that ending Oliver’s life was better than the uncertainty of him undergoing a surgery he probably wouldn’t survive. I was standing outside the hospital entrance when we made the decision, a beautiful, sunny evening with the shade from the oak trees throwing shadows across the grass. I watched as people walked through the front entrance, people with animals who didn’t appear to be at death’s door. I really wanted to be one of those people.

I made the arrangements. I paid the bill in advance, knowing I wouldn’t be in any shape to do it afterwards. Everyone I came in contact with at the hospital, from the doctors, to the technicians, to the receptionists, was professional, gracious, and kind. The doctors (I don’t even remember their names, now. I really wish I did. It was a blur.) asked me if I wanted to have some time alone with Oliver before he received ‘the shot.’ I did. They told me I could take as much time as I needed.

I spent ten minutes with Oliver, alone in the examining room. Telling a twelve year old cat lying in front of me with dull and bleary eyes how much his Mom and Dad loved him and how everything was going to be better for him now. I wondered if he knew who I was. I wondered if my voice had any power to soothe him. I wondered a lot of things. And then I decided it was time to stop wondering. Oliver4

And so today, at 6:30 pm, Oliver died with his head resting in my hand, while I stroked his fur and whispered to him softly.

He had a short life, but it was full of love and affection and we gave him as good a home as any animal could hope for. And we’re sad, but thankful, and grateful to all the people who helped make this day, a very tough day, as easy as it could possibly be.

To all the people who helped Oliver today, we want to say:

Thank you for all that you do every day. Don’t ever think it goes unnoticed or unappreciated.

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Posted in: Loss