Sunday, August 10, 2008

Death is Taxing

I was telling a friend recently that death is a magical, though haunting, thing. I've never had to deal with violent death, and actually have only limited experience with humans dying in my life — I've been to only one funeral so far — but there are 8 urns in my house with what's left of 6 cats and 2 dogs, all of whom I loved very much, and each of them died so differently.

Bob was my first. She was my first critter, as an adult, and she died when she was 8. Lymphoma. Survived for 18 months on chemo. Went downhill fast. She was such a bad-ass. We had a bittersweet final day together, hanging out in the backyard in the sun. She went and sat under her geraniums, while I sat on the grass and talked to her. Late in the afternoon I was lying on the grass and she came out and, with difficulty, got on my chest. We lay there for a little while. Eventually I bundled her up, and we went to the vet, where they gave her two drugs to put her down. She was peaceful as she left, except at the very end, when she gave a loud gasp as her brain stem took over trying to live. It haunts me to this day.

Harry was next. A big sweet lug of a dog. Bernese mountain dog + australian shepherd, we think. He'd been with us less than two years. He'd been reluctant to jump up into the truck for a couple weeks, and we finally took him to see the specialists in San Leandro. His abdomen was distended, and turned out he had a few liters of blood in there. He had hemangiosarcoma. Cancer of the blood vessels. They operated on him to take out his spleen, which was a mess and had been leaking blood. Shortly after, he bled out of his liver while we were back at home having picked up my brother and his family from the airport and settled them in. We'd been at the vet's all day. They called at midnight to tell us he was having trouble and wasn't likely to make it. I've never driven so fast nor run so many red lights and stop signs. We got there just in time to see him off. It was the night before thanksgiving.

8 months later, Rosie died. While we'd been away for a week, she hadn't been eating. Important note: cats that don't eat for 72 hours are in great danger of developing hepatic lipdosis — their body starts turning their liver into fat. Hard to recover from. Took her to those specialists in San Leandro. They wanted to biopsy her liver to confirm, and to be safe they tested her blood to make sure she had enough clotting factors of the kind the liver uses. Put her under, did the biopsy, and put in a nasogastric tube so I could force her to eat (she'd been carefully throwing up her appetite-stimulant pills, and I'm really good at pilling cats). She was still out of it when they brought her out to me, but she had to go home because the specialists were transitioning to the emergency medicine people. Her nose was dripping a little blood from the stitches that held the tube in place. On the way home she was flopping around in her carrier. I thought it was because of the anesthetic wearing off. Bob had done that when they'd done the exploratory surgery to confirm the cancer. As I was on the phone with a vet nurse friend trying to figure out how to put the food down the tube, I realized Rosie wasn't breathing. Another mad dash to San Leandro, but she was gone before we got there. I can still hear her flopping around, though mostly I remember her alive. She was just 4 years old.

Madelyn died a year later. She was 15. We knew it was coming. Didn't make it any easier. She'd been getting thinner and weaker for a while. On The Day, she tried to get out of the yard, but I wouldn't let her. We took her upstairs to bed, laid out a towel. Lit some candles. Talked to her, petted her. Her systems began to fail. She was scared. We did what we could to reassure her. Got a box so she could be in a smaller space. Cuddled her. She couldn't move much. Around 4am she sat up, scratched her ear, did this odd forward stretch with her forepaws in the air in front of her. Brought her paws together in a slow-motion clap. Then she lay back down. Shortly after, she stopped breathing. 5 minutes later, her heart stopped. Letting go is hard.

Amanda and Sammantha, Madelyn's girls, died about 10 months apart. Amanda ended up in my office, curled up in a corner. She lasted through the night, with us on the floor. When she started seizing, we called the vet. No final gasp, just a cessation of seizing. Sammantha wasn't feeling well through the day, then she got up on the couch and curled up. We called our friend Annie at 1, and she, bless her, came over and gave Sam a single injection. Sam never moved, and we put her in a basket still curled up.

That was 2002. Jake came near death that year, but happily the next death wasn't until 2007 when Max died.

That brings us to July 17, the day that Ferghal died. This one was hard, because he clearly wasn't ready to go, and we weren't ready to be without him. He was 13, and getting wobbly. He'd had a series of what we assume to be strokes, but had recovered from each of them, but each time not quite to where he'd been. His last week he'd had trouble walking. We bought a wagon to take him down to where he usually did his business. On the Monday, he rallied and, stubborn pup that he was, insisted on walking around a lot. He got massive edema in his foreleg as a result, which we managed to get down through heat, range of motion exercises, and other things. But he didn't take many steps after that. Wednesday we took him for chiropractic and acupuncture, and he wasn't looking good. I carried him everywhere. Wednesday night it was clear what path his body was taking, though he protested. We lay on the living room floor with him, with candles lit. He lay on his side, and had regular full-body spasms that would last maybe 3 seconds for a contraction, after which he would bark in protest. This went on for a couple hours. He wasn't eating. He was in distress. But whenever one of us got up and went somewhere, he lifted his head a little to follow us. It was clear where this was going, but our sweet vet, who would come to the house to give him acupuncture, wasn't prepared for this, so there was nothing we could do to help him along where he was refusing to go. We were absolutely not going to bundle him into a car so he could be put down, when he wanted to be with us. So we stayed together, on the floor, all of us fitfully dozing between protests. Finally at 11 another sweet vet was able to come. Even though he didn't want to go, his body wasn't giving him any choice, so we said our goodbyes, and the vet gave him something that rapidly put him to sleep, then stopped his heart. After a few minutes, his bladder sphincter relaxed, but we had a towel ready (had had one by him since the night before). It still hurts.

I suspect when the time comes, I will be like Ferghal: not ready to go, and fighting it all the way. I started a poem last year, which I may finish some time, about envying the dead of Hiroshima, but I think the process of dying is important. It's the inverse of birth, but like it in many ways: a painful and magical transition. Several people I've talked to about these experiences have said the loss is why they don't have pets. The loss, though, is the price of all the joy. I don't know why the world is set up so all good things must end, and nothing good happens without a price, but that's the way it is. For all the joy and love they've brought me, I'm willing to pay the death tax.

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