Wheatfield Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Photograph by Robert Clements

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Portrait: Flannel Coat, Covered with Cat Hair, on a Chair in the Study

Jessie Callan Rogers sleeping in the truck.

I am putting off going into my study. The day before yesterday, I walked into that room, picked up my cat, Jessie, from where he was curled like a comma on my flannel checked coat on my office chair, put him into his cat carrier and took him to the veterinarian's office, where I had him euthanized. The imprint of his little body still owns the seat of the chair and his fur is all over my coat. I don't want to change things, just yet, although I really have to move forward.

Jessie was thirteen years old. He was a fluffy gray cat with big paws, a tiny purr, beautiful green eyes, and a lovely temperament. He had a sense of humor and a gentle, adventurous side that I was constantly discovering, even as I worried about his physical reactions.

He was always fragile. He had crystals from the day I adopted him off the street. Crystals, for the uninitiated, are formed from body crud (like kidney stones) and can block a cat's urinary tract. If not treated, only catheterization may save the cat. It did in our case, but Jessie had to have special food, which he didn't like. I wrung my hands over that. He was also supposed to stay inside. I wrung my hands over that, too. Then I realized that stress is a big cause of crystals and UTIs in cats, so I decided to keep doing what we'd done before.  I let him out when he wanted to go, and fed him high-end, low ash food. "Shorter life, happier life," I said to the vet.

 When we moved from Maine to South Dakota, it was a huge change for me, let alone my tender flower of a feline. I fretted more about how the cat would react to being driven 2,100 miles than anything else. I even thought about giving him to someone else in Maine to save him the journey, until a friend suggested that he would do best with me, wherever I went. I obtained a few kitty-Prozac pills, gave him a half a pill to start the journey, and crossed my fingers.

Jessie Callan Rogers sitting in my suitcase. He loved to travel.
He was fine. Within twenty minutes of our departure, he was out of the carrier and exploring. He slept on my lap for most of the trip, and did fine when we stopped. I loved traveling with him, and we went back and forth and back one more time. He lived with two other cats in a huge gallery building and held his own while he was with them.

I did notice last autumn that he was very thin. I took him to our South Dakota vet, and he was diagnosed with kidney failure last December. Kidney failure is terminal, but terminal to me, at that time, meant I would take him back to Maine for the four winter months I would be there marketing my first novel. I would treat him there and, hopefully, he would survive for a long time. Our little core team of the dog, Jessie, and me, rented an Portland upstairs apartment from a heart-sister and her wonderful husband, and I went from book event to book event, even as I juggled any kind of cat food that Jessie would eat, plus chicken, turkey burger, hamburger - anything that kept his upset stomach busy - with plenty of available water and lots of rest.

Despite my efforts, he crashed in February, too dehydrated to defecate. I rushed him in to the Maine vet's offices, where he was hydrated. After that, I took him to the vet's offices to be hydrated on a weekly basis (I tried it at home. No freakin' way, he said, in one of the few disagreements we ever had about how we would live his life and help him to thrive) and I boarded him there if I was going to be gone overnight.

We came back to South Dakota in May and the hydration continued, along with new medication for his chronically upset stomach and another medication to keep his blood pressure down. He hated it when I squirted stuff into his mouth. I left twice during the summer, and Bob continued the treatment for me, boarding him if he wasn't able to be around for a couple of days.

About a month ago, I finally took over the hydration treatments, hooking up the lactated ringer bag and playing 'vet tech', by making it as clinical as I could. I placed a towel on the kitchen table, set him on it, and stuck a needle under his skin, running fluids subcutaneously so that they would be absorbed by his body. This worked for the first bag of ringers. I bought another bag of ringers only five days ago, along with new medicines and all kinds of cat foods. I am leaving for October, and I wanted to make sure we were prepared. Then Bob, being honest, said he wasn't sure he was comfortable giving him the fluids, so I made arrangements with the vet's office to have Bob drop Jessie off for fluids, and then pick him up and take him home. I left a credit for his care for the month.

But the truth is, during the last month, he failed in small, important ways. I kept food for him, always, and he forgot where it was kept. He would jump onto my lap for a cuddle and just stand there. He crouched in that way that cats have when they don't feel well. He slept for long periods of time. He vomited when his stomach was empty, but he wouldn't eat. He craved his morning walk-about outside so that he could eat grass. He appeared to have stiff back legs. His breath smelled of decay. He began to have accidents. Still, I wanted to keep him going for a year, till December, the date when he was diagnosed as terminal. I wanted to meet that anniversary. I was prepared to do that.

Jessie Callan Rogers, a day before he left for the Heaviside Layer.
But last Friday, when I was giving him the fluids, I pierced his thin, tired skin with the needle and more fluid dribbled out onto the towel than into his poor little body. His ribs and hip bones were prominent when I rubbed my hands over him. We'd been here, before, he and I, and we had come back. Sunday, I would give him more fluids, and things would improve.

But Sunday, I woke up and I didn't give him the fluids. And I knew that it wasn't about me meeting an anniversary to prove something to myself. It was time. Jessie had been telling me this for a month and I hadn't wanted to listen. I told Bob, and we both cried. But we didn't take it back.  I called the vet Monday morning and talked to my favorite vet tech, and we set a time. 3:15 p.m. Bob asked if he should be there, with me. No, I said. Jessie and I started together, and Jessie and I would end together.      

Jessie had a great day on his last day of life. He ate raw hamburger and chicken (some of this out of the dog's dish, unbeknown to the dog).  He saw birds in the yard and stalked them through the sliding glass door screen. I took him out into the yard and the birds flew off as he left his mark in an old garden plot. He ate grass and rolled over until his gray coat was flecked with dust and gold. I cuddled him on my lap for two hours, and when he was full and content, he went into the study and slept on my coat on the chair. I woke him up at 3:00 p.m., then drove to the vet's office, one hand on the steering wheel, one hand scratching his ear through the wire of the cat carrier. He sat quiet. He was a good passenger.

Inside the veterinarian's office, a woman with a Boston Terrier puppy waited at the counter, and I envied her and her dog their beginning. I set Jessie down and spoke to him quietly. The vet tech came in and sat down beside me with a paper that I had to sign, saying that this was my decision. I signed it. We talked for a bit about his situation. Then, it was time.

She left me with Jessie in an examination room and I dumped him out of his carrier and held him to me, thanking him for his gentle grace and his dignity, telling him that I had such a deep, quiet love for him and that I was sorry for doing what I was about to do. His vet and the tech came in then, and the vet said that he was sorry and that nobody liked to do this. He shaved Jessie's right front leg so that he could find a vein to insert the needle that would allow the deadly pink fluid to run through his veins and stop his heart. "Are you ready, Morgan?" the vet tech asked me. "It will be fast." I said, "Yes". The vet inserted the needle and blew Jessie's vein. We all took a breath and he apologized. He had to shave the other leg. Jessie never flinched. "I love you," I said to him and the vet inserted the needle, again.

It was fast. I felt Jessie relax against my hand and arm, and as he did this, I felt all the tension, all the pain, and all the things I had been making him hold on to so that he would survive so that I could love him another day, leave, and I thought, this was the right thing to do. He's gone, and he doesn't hurt anymore, and I'm glad that he had a good day. He had a wonderful life and I had a wonderful life with him. I have had animals before that I loved and kept alive, too long. With Jessie, it didn't get to the point where it was a desperate, painful situation. But oh god, it was hard. I will grieve for a long time for this sweet creature, who chose me to share his life.

I threw away the ringers and the medicine with a vengeance. I will give his bowls to the humane society. His scratching rope and his litter box I will remove, later. And I have to go into the study, because we have guests coming next week, and it doubles as a guest room. It's time to move on. And so, I'll end this piece, and I'll go into the study. It has to be done. So I'll do it.    

My beautiful cat, on his way to his next adventure.