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Cancer Sucks: A Goodbye

I had a dream the other night about a woman who was coming after my family.  She was long haired and thin and she kept knocking on the door to our house, which kept opening, over and over and over.  I tried relentlessly, but I was powerless to stop her as she walked in and she would touched my family, wrapping her long fingernails around the face of a child that I was supposed to protect.  I was so afraid of her, because I knew that that this woman was a murderer — and try as hard as I might, I could not keep her out of my house.

I woke up, in the guest bedroom, terrified and shaking.  It took me a moment to remember where I was, as I’ve only slept there once or twice.  Each time was so that I could sleep with my younger cat, who has been very, very sick.

And that was when I realized that the woman in the dream was cancer, coming after my family again, so relentlessly.  It has been less than a year since I lost my young uncle and my brother-in-law to different forms of cancer.  And last week, on St. Patrick’s Day, our vet told me that my cat Morghan had it too.

It could be cancer or a polyp, he said.  And since she’s 18 years old, he said, we’re not going to do surgery to remove the tumor in her bladder.

No, I agreed.  We all know that I’ve been lucky to have her in my life this long.

So you have two choices, he said, you can manage her pain or we can talk about euthanasia.

Ah.

My beautiful Morghan.

I opted for pain management, though I know I will spend many hours wondering if that was selfish.  When I picked her up from her day of examinations, the vet who met me asked me if I had any questions as he explained the regimen of pills.  I know she’s terminal, I said.  I know that.  But how do I know when it’s time…?

Oh, you’ll know when, he said.

This last week has been a hard one, as I woke every morning to check on Morghan and see if the tumor had done terrible things to her in the night.  It hadn’t, and since she was still active enough to chase me around the house just waiting for me to sit down, I tried to convince myself that she would be okay, for a while at least.  Then she stopped eating. When I took her back for her check-up a week later, she had lost a full pound, which she didn’t have to lose in the first place.  When the vet tech weighed her in at six pounds, I cried again, because I had told myself that if she’d lost weight, then I’d really know that it was time.  I took her and her anti-nausea medicine home with me, but I still could not get her to eat.

When had come.

Eighteen years is a long time to share your life with someone.  I have no one in my life who has been there as long and as constantly, as steadily there for me as my two cats.  The wonderful thing about a pet is that there’s no judgement; no matter how terrible your day was or what terrible mistakes you made, your cat just loves you.  She has been there for my entire adult life, ever since I took her home as an 18-year-old to my first apartment.  She fit in my hand that day, a tiny little creature that had been dumped in a parking lot, weeks before she should have been separated from her mother.  I taught her how to bathe, to some extent, and spent hours and hours detangling her fur and picking out knots.  She was never very good at being a cat — she never caught a thing in her life — but she was a wonderful companion and friend.  She came with me when I moved around and then, finally, to New York. I cried in her fur at every terrible break-up I went through.  No matter what the problem was, coming home to pick her up comforted me, because I clearly mattered so much to her.  Her quiet purr, broken and nearly silent at the best of times, was always there.

I have never had to put a cat to sleep before.  I’ve dreaded the idea of having to make that decision for years now, hoping that Morghan would pass the way my fifteen year old cat Mushu did right after Hurricane Sandy.  My Beloved discovered Mushu outside, looking  as surprised as a cat can.  We presumed it was a heart attack and buried her under a pear tree in the yard, comforted knowing that her last moments were brief and out of doors.  Selfishly, I appreciated that I did not have to choose when, that that decision had been made for me.

But not for Morghan.  I said goodbye to Morghan in the car outside of the veterinary office.  I had let her roam free in the car on the drive over, which she took full advantage of, peering out the window and making me wonder if I was making up how sick she was.  But then I held her bony body, which had once been three times the size that she was on Saturday, and I could no longer deny that it was time.  I thanked her and kissed her and cried some more, in the quiet space of the car.  Then we went inside, where the staff were quick to usher us into a room.

Still, Morghan shook in fear, the tremors running down her thin shoulders.  I put her in my lap so that she could put her face in my elbow, which has always calmed her down.  Don’t be afraid, I said, petting her thick fur and desperately wishing that I believed in some sort of afterlife.  Please, love, just don’t be afraid.

When the vet gave Morghan the anaesthesia that knocked her unconscious, I was holding her against my body.  I felt her muscles relax as she crumpled against me, falling down onto the soft yellow blanket that I had insisted on.  I gently caught her and laid her down, pulling her tail out from under her and settling her legs into a more comfortable position.

Don’t be afraid, I said.  Please, don’t be afraid.

As the vet released a vial of bubble gum pink barbiturates into Morghan’s leg, I put my hands on her, holding as much of her as I could.  She did not twitch or shudder and, after a moment, the vet put her stethoscope up to Morghan’s thin chest and told me that she was gone.  My sweet girl had gone completely still, but her body was still warm and it didn’t seem like it could be true.  I tried to close her eyes, but I couldn’t, and that’s when I knew.

Morghan and Mushu, a lifetime ago

I brought her body home, keeping a hand on the box she was in for the entire drive.  I left her body in the car while we put Baba to bed for the night, and then my Beloved dug a hole in the front yard underneath the Japanese maple tree that made me fall in love with this house we bought.  We put her in it, placing her carefully, since when my last cat passes, it will become a double grave.

And so I carry on, holding my sweet girl in my heart, since I can no longer hold her in my hand.  When I walk to and from my door, I look at her grave and I am comforted that she is home.

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7 Comments

  1. Oh Mae, my heart breaks for you. We put our Lola to sleep in December 2014 and I was inconsolable. It was the right thing to do but it didn’t make the hurt any less keening. I wish you peace and comfort in your grief.

    • Mae McDonnell Mae McDonnell

      Thank you, Julie. It has not been easy.

  2. Mae…many of us, including me, have been down the same path. We very well know how you feel. You have expressed yourself well; this is a fine piece and your heart is nicely positioned in every line. Morghan can’t read what you said, but I am sure he felt every bit of it for a good 18 years.

    • Mae McDonnell Mae McDonnell

      Thank you so much, Marc. That’s appreciated very much today.

  3. Joy Joy

    You speak so eloquently for all of us who have loved or do love a pet. I, also, had to make the decision to have my 18 year old Kitty put to sleep. By the time I made that decision she was deaf, unable to eat, and just wanted to sleep in my lap. I decided I was keeping her alive for selfish reasons; that her quality of life was not what it should be. Still. It’s hard.

  4. So very sorry for your loss, Mae. It seems like so many people I know recently have been losing their beloved pets. It is painful, and a huge loss in one’s life. Take care of yourself!

  5. I’m so sorry. So very sorry. It happens too quickly. <3 I know how hard it is. I hope the coming days are filled with as much kindness as possible.

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