So today, one of the founding members of a rescue group the hospital is closely associated with brings in a stray cat that she found to be examined, sterilized, and essentially made ready to be adopted out. The staff appropriately performs a combo test on the cat even before I arrive at the office. The test is negative and even without me ever having looked at the cat, knowing this result, is a positive beginning to my evaluation and makes everyone feel good for the cat. This includes me. I meander through a few of the normal tasks I perform in the morning for an hour or two before I ask a staff member to get the cat out of the cage and bring him to the exam table so I can look at him.
At my first close and direct glance of the cat, I see the things that most do not. I see all of the dominos lined up in some artistic and detailed rendition of a feline silhouette, and then I see the first domino fall into the next, and the next, picking up speed, until the dominos begin falling so quickly they meld into one clear image. Sometimes, it isn’t so fun to be ten moves ahead of everyone. Sometimes, it isn’t so fun to see into the future.
I wait until I place my hands upon the patient before I speak…something about touch. “How old did she say this cat was or how old does she think he is?” The normal assumption under these circumstances is that the cat is young to middle aged and no one has given me any indication to think otherwise. The staff knows me well enough to know the question is only rhetorical and they also know something has upset me. They wait. “He looks like he is about twenty-nine.” A little playful sigh escapes from my mouth, but I know on the outside, a sad you-can-laugh-or-you-can-cry gentle frown has now captured my expression.
The cat is emaciated. He weighs half of what he should. He is not twenty-nine, as I see it in my satirical world, but probably more like sixteen or eighteen in non-fictional years; still very old and very near the end of his time. Several of his teeth are gone and many of those that remain are falling out. His eyes are sunken in their sockets and the lenses in his eyes have turned opaque. The markings of his grey tabby and white coat, which I am sure were once very cute and maybe even beautiful, are now subjected to abnormal hair that is rough and musty and full of dandruff; a product of metabolic imbalance. I am surprised when I auscult his heart and find it to sound completely and utterly normal. And it is at about that time, as I am finishing my exam, that he begins to purr.
I look at him and as I look directly into those opaque eyes, I know he suffers from debilitating chronic kidney disease and perhaps diabetes and maybe even cancer as well. Whatever it is or whatever combination of diseases lurks inside of his whiskered body doesn’t really matter. He is in bad shape, near or past the end of his normal life expectancy, and the rescue resources necessary for diagnostics and treatment should be applied towards treating patients who are younger in their years and who have disease states that can be cured or significantly improved. This is just the reality of the situation. It is what it is. I’m not really trying to break the rules, that usually doesn’t work very well. But sometimes it hits me and this crazy, geriatric cat, who is almost nothing more than whiskers and bone, is purring. Purring…..and all he seems to want is some attention, for someone to pet him and give him a little love. So I scratch his back and stroke his fur, feeling every bone in his body, and I give him a gentle head butt and he thanks me with more purring and a profoundly stiff little cat dance.
I know that I will be playing god in the very near future as I inject death into his veins. It will be tomorrow and I am sure of it. The rules will not be broken…. and down deep, I am aware that it is the right thing to do, that it would be much worse to pass on the responsibility to someone else or play the “God’s will card” allowing the further unnecessary suffering of this innocent and helpless creature until his impending death.
After a short while, he goes back into the cage. I tell the staff to give him plenty of rich canned cat food to hopefully spoil him a bit and help him enjoy his existence more profoundly during his short respite.
Later that night, after the staff has gone, I walk over to his cage and I let him out so I can play with him. Head butt, purr, pet, eat, purr, dance, eat, all mixed with walking slowly in circles with the gait of a drunken, stumbling fool. After play time, I say good night to him, contentedly knowing that he has eaten all of his food. I turn off the lights and tell him “to dream the kitty dream” in baby talk.
The next day, the last three dominos fall.
Three…”Okay, it’s time. Can you please get the cat? Let’s do this.” and a staff member sets him on the table. I pet him and decide to take a picture. He keeps moving and all the pictures are coming out blurry, so finally we pick him up and suspend him gently and he turns and looks straight at the camera and at me. I take the picture.
Two…we restrain him on his side…I say to use soft restraint and I try to clear my mind as I spray alcohol over his vein while I spread the hair. I insert the needle in his vein and play god.
One…there is a very short window of time after I finish the injection before he will pass, and oddly, this window might be longer than normal because of his poor health. I make an active effort to move quickly; I let go of his back leg and I sit him up in a comfortable, sternal position and I pet his head and I say good bye brother. I am holding him when his body goes limp and as that last domino falls, so does a tear.
Maybe I would rewrite the rules if I could. I might even argue that I have rewritten a few of the minor ones, but that is the limit of my capacity. Rules are rules, it is what it is. But I can love, and I can cry, and I can do everything possible to prevent suffering in another creature, even if it means I must do the deed myself in complete and utter awareness. Even if every day, I see thousands and thousands of dominos, that you can’t see, that you don’t want to see. It is all worth it to me; it is how I touch the world. The tears do hurt like hell and they are felt so intensely as they well up and form out of my awareness, but those tears and those dominos are a worthwhile trade for having an innocent creature look you in the eye and purr in expectation of the love you will offer.