There is a distinct and recognizable odor in every veterinary clinic I have ever been in. A strange mixture of flea shampoo, Lysol and animal urine that is oddly comforting and disturbing, all at the same time. I found myself breathing in that familiar smell on a recent Tuesday afternoon, searching for some wisdom in its scent. Next to me, on an exam table, lay my 18-year-old cat, cradled in an old towel. Behind me, on a bench, sat my two boys, anxiously waiting for the vet to enter the room. For the first time all summer, none of us were talking. The silence, which is unusual for our crew, was suffocating. Fiddling with my iPhone, I scrolled down through the last few texts I had sent that morning.
Hi neighbor – I have to take our ancient kitty to the vet today at 2… I think they’ll make the decision to euthanize. : ( Trying to find a place for the boys to hang out from 1:30 to 3ish. No pressure though. I can definitely ask other folks.
I had copied and pasted that text three separate times into my phone earlier in the day. Three separate times, I got some version of “Oh, so sorry to hear that! But no – we aren’t home today.”
Crud. I thought. What am I going to do with the kids?
Frisbee, our 18-½ year old tabby, had been slowly declining over the last year. It began when our usually meticulous cat had started urinating in all of the wrong places –a pile of unfolded laundry, an empty shoebox, a bath mat by the shower. Soon his frequent accidents were accompanied by blood-curdling howls and non-stop shedding. He ate voraciously but looked like a walking skeleton with a bad case of mange. Our elderly cat was showing his age and his fragility.
My husband and I are quick to tell people that we‘re more dog folks than cat people. But this cat was different. Frisbee was our first love child, a pet that was adopted on a whim after we got engaged. He had lived through a wedding, an elderly dog, two moves, two baby humans and one puppy. The cat had earned a permanent place on all of our laps and in all of our hearts.
How do you know when a beloved family pet is ready to go onto the next realm? I don’t really have a clear answer to that question. You look for those gentle imbalances between pain and pleasure, the signs that they are no longer enjoying their time on this planet. For my husband and I, the message became clear when Frisbee’s health and mobility declined to the point of visible discomfort. Together, on a hot summer evening, we made the decision to call the vet and schedule an appointment for the next day.
Fast forward twelve hours and I made another decision. The boys are going with me to the clinic. They’re seven and ten. They are old enough to witness the process, I reasoned. If the doctor agrees that it is Frisbee’s time, it will be good for them to say goodbye to the cat they have known their entire lives, right? Right, my inner voice reassured me. Right.
Now they sat apprehensively behind me in the vet’s exam room and I wondered if dragging them to this place of impending doom had been a smart idea.
After fifteen molasses-slow minutes, the doctor entered the room and walked up to the table. “How’s Frisbee doing today?” he gently asked.
What happened next caught me off guard. I began crying. I waited for the moment to pass but it didn’t and the vet stood there waiting for me to speak. So I tried out a sentence and it came out in those shaky, breathy words that happen when you are working hard to stifle tears.
“He’s been a really good cat,” I started.
I took a few breaths and continued.
“But my husband and I think it might be time.”
I didn’t dare turn around and look at my boys. But I could feel their little bodies tense up.
Woah – what’s this? Mom is crying. She can’t do that. She never cries. We cry over a destroyed Lego creation or a skinned knee or a lost game of Battleship. But mom NEVER cries.
Little did they know that I had cried in front of them just a few weeks before, in a dark movie theater while watching Inside Out. I cried big ol’ being-a-parent-is-hard tears as I watched the main character, Rylie, fight off childhood depression & grief. By the time we left the theater, my tears had dried and my kids were blissfully unaware. They were deep in discussion about the character Bing Bong, and had no idea that their mom had just endured a mini-meltdown.
Now we occupied the same small vet’s office and my tears weren’t drying. They were flowing and they were fresh. When the vet confirmed that it was Frisbee’s time and left the room so that we could say our goodbye’s, my boys stood up and broke out in full-throttle sobs as they crowded around their childhood pet.
“I don’t want him to die,” my 10 year old pleaded. “Tell the vet ‘NO’. Please Mom, let’s take him home. I don’t want to lose him.“
I wanted to scoop up the cat and run out of there. I wanted to put off this miserable moment a few more days, or months, or years. But my feet stayed frozen.
“Sorry honey. Frisbee has been struggling. The vet agrees that he is not in good health and that letting him go is probably the most humane thing we can do for him.”
We must have made a scene as we exited the building without our pet. Two bawling boys running for the parking lot, one wet-faced mother trailing behind them. Fortunately our house is a short five-minute drive away. As soon as I yanked up the parking break in our driveway, the boys jumped out of the car and ran for the sofa. Within seconds I had joined them in an emotional group embrace. I rubbed their backs and told them it is ok to be sad.
It’s ok for mom to be sad as well, I reassured myself.
With shiny cheeks and Kleenex in both hands, I suddenly felt like a badass. My self-doubts about parenting are frequent and shame-filled. Sitting in our living room, sharing a few minutes of raw emotion with my children, I felt more rugged and real than ever. It occurred to me that my kids can only see my true strength if I allow them to view me at my weakest. Walking around every day like a gung-ho, ever-cheerful mannequin is not doing my boys any favors. They need to see their mom crying. They need to see me struggling. They need to see me being human.
After we had squeezed every last bit of saltwater out of our bodies, we wrenched ourselves from the sofa and began the process of moving forward without our cat. I took out the litter box and the cat food. My boys started devising an elaborate plan to get a new puppy, which they would later try to sell to their dad. Our dog sniffed around for his missing friend, wondering what all the fuss was about.
As I swept up the remaining bits of cat hair, I smiled. Leave it to our old-souled feline to give our family the parting gift of shared vulnerability and grief. I felt a quiet sense of gratitude. In losing our beloved pet, we had already gained so much. Now I just had to convince my boys that my recently exposed heart wasn’t quite ready for another pet.