A True Story / Eric Valentine
I don’t want to say I’m a dog person over a cat person, it makes me feel bad for my cats. But it is a little harder to say goodbye to a dog. They do more things with you—like grocery store runs, downtown patio dining and random road trips. So when they’re no longer in your life, the empty space feels larger.
When I put my 14-year-old hyperthyroid cat Manny down on Saturday night, I cried like a little boy but headed home partly relieved, knowing his sister Molly would ultimately be OK without him wasting away in front of her. And so would I. When I put my dog Zoey down three years ago, I recall driving home knowing I did the right thing at the right time and saved her from what could have been a painful, scary death—an abdominal tumor bursting into internal organs. Yet feeling nonetheless knife-like guilt in my gut for ending my dear friend’s life, and wishing the knife was real instead.
“Zoey?!” I moaned nearly all the way back on the drive home, looking over at the now dogless leash and collar on the passenger seat to my right. Driving the same road back home after Manny’s passing was easier. The sad part was the process it took to get there.
Manny and Molly both began to show their age almost three years ago. After Zoey’s death I sold my condo and moved about two and a half hours out of Boise to the scenic Wood River Valley. Long story short: I housed multiple people on that property and multiple dogs, none of whom had the lounging demeanor of Zoey. I was also cutting back on expenses to cover the higher cost of living I was now faced with. I started buying shit-quality cat food. And I still haven’t really forgiven myself for changing their quality of life in the desperate, off chance my new surroundings would improve mine.
By about 18 months into the new lifestyle, I tapped out. Not because of the dogs, because of the people. And it probably saved Manny’s and Molly’s life. I began feeding them properly again and promised them I’d go dogless, for a while. Rather than find a dog to call mine, I decided to let my next dog find me.
Molly recovered right away and I swear she’s popping ’roids or something when I’m not looking. She’s robust and active and she’ll probably outlive me. But Manny only had ebbs and flows of improved health. I took him to the vet and they said they could give him meds for what might be a liver problem. He hated it and I didn’t get more than two pills down his throat no matter what I paired it with.
More likely, in hindsight, Manny probably had hyperthyroidism—an overactive thyroid that portends a three- to five-year life expectancy for felines once it’s diagnosed. By the new year, I noticed Manny and Molly never really played together anymore—a chase game typically following a poop that my mother would call in German their glückliche fünf Minuten (happy five minutes). By spring, Manny’s spine and hips lost all muscle tone. But he looked tired, not uncomfortable. And he wasn’t moody or mean, he was still affectionate, but no longer made sure to greet all visitors before somehow giving his sister the OK sign that she could now find a safe lap to sit on. They had always been a team that way. They never spent a day apart in their 14 years of life.
Then the poops themselves started to change. And by his last week he was having diarrhea every night, only to scarf down food the next morning trying to fill the hole, only to get diarrhea once again. I knew what I had to do.
The only thing most cats hate more than driving in a car is driving in a car in a carrier. So, I held Manny close to my chest and carried him to the car in my arms and let him roam freely once inside. You can’t get enough holding in when you’re headed where we were headed.
The drive sucked. It’s supposed to suck. But the last thing you want to see is your cat stressed out at a time like this. Because of the pandemic, you have to call the vet once you’re in the parking lot. It’s a shitty call to make, explaining to the person on the other end why you’re there. They’re understanding, of course, and deal with this probably daily. But every answer to every question—from how old is he to what’s his symptoms—make you fucking cry. By the end of the call, they inform you someone will come out to your car, take your pet in to get a catheter, and when he’s all ready, they’ll call you to come in through the side gate to be with your cat in the euthanization room. Sorry, I can’t recall the euphemistic name they give that room there.
In the room Manny settled in rather easily. There was a window sill there, his favorite thing to sit on. And on the sill next to him was the little button you push that alerts the doctor you are ready for them to come in and do the injections—one to sedate your pet, one to stop his or her heart. That last one takes a piece of yours with it. It goes against every shared instinct you have with the little sucker.
I hit the button almost immediately. You see, I didn’t want to extend the stress of being in an unfamiliar room. I had gotten in all my good-byes. I had taken all my last photos. And I left my place without much fanfare. I felt it’d be easier for Molly if she didn’t see Manny leave and never return. I wish I could know if that was the right thing.
After five minutes passed, I realized I didn’t hit the button correctly. And I had to talk myself out of this kind of stuff: “Maybe it’s the universe telling me it’s not Manny’s time.” Those projections of faith our human mind makes whenever the stress gets a little too much.
On the ride there my Kia Soul died on me. And I thought: “Maybe it’s the universe telling me it’s not Manny’s time.” But it was my old car key that had already been broken off from its fob, just enough to turn the ignition off. I turned the key back to “on” and continued on.
I could beat myself up and consider those the seventh and eighth of Manny’s lives, but they were not. They were random events the human mind tries to place order on. That’s the main difference between human brains and animal brains: we believe, they only know. People say, “Be like animals, be in the now.” But that’s arrogant. Animals know their past. Animals don’t live in the now, they live in the known. The known events this day were Manny’s declining health and his inability to live the joyful life a peaceful, sentient being deserves.
The moment had come, and the doctor came into the room, mouth covered by a mask, eyes genuinely sad. They must feel worse for you than they do the cat; they have to believe it’s always for the best or they’d probably lose their mind.
She asked me if I had gone through this before and I said yes. I told her I knew there’d be two injections and told her we were ready. Manny was in a good state of mind sitting on the sill with me stroking his always, inexplicably soft fur coat that somehow gave him an equally soft demeanor. My friend Cydney once described him this way: “Manny always looks like he just woke up from a one-month nap.”
The doctor explained that the first shot was just a sedative but would “put his brain to sleep.” I knew about the sedative, but didn’t recall Zoey’s brain going to sleep the way Manny’s did. Zoey just sort of got really relaxed. Manny seemed gone already, his tongue had slipped out of his mouth. I told the doctor to administer the second shot right away, and she did. I felt a little last thump of his heart stopping, and knew not to look at my watch which had to be clicking very close to that time I see a lot, 9:11.
The only thing I recall after that was the young man who had taken Manny from me at the car now come into the room after the doctor had left. He held a blanket.
“I’m so sorry I didn’ have this ready for him before,” he said.
“It’s totally fine. He did so well. He was so relaxed. I held him the whole time,” I said, still holding and stroking Manny like it mattered anymore.
“Do you want to stay with him longer, there’s no rush,” the young man said.
“We’re all good,” I told the young man. “We had a good run and you know I’ll take good care of your sister,” I told Manny.
The young man changed places with me and gently, placed Manny in the blanket the way you swaddle a baby.
“I don’t know how you guys do what you do,” I told the young man and grasped his shoulder with my hand, as though he needed comfort.
“It’s the worst part of the job,” he said, as the editor in me changed “worst” to “hardest.”
I headed for the door.
The young man said, “I’ll take good care of him.”
“I know,” I said. And I believed he did.
When I returned that night, I was greeted by the new dog in my life, Ember. She “found” me when a dog-walking client could no longer care for her given the post-COVID traveling nurse position she had to take. And Molly greeted me too, without seeming to notice anything different. But by her breakfast the next morning, she knew something was amiss. And she spent the next couple days looking inside the closets any time I opened one of the doors.
There’s not much you can do for an animal when they struggle to make sense of something they don’t know how to believe. You can only soften the change. So I moved Molly’s food bowl next to Ember’s and they share meals together now, knowing neither of them will disturb the other’s grub.
And, I got a new car! Well, a used Volvo just like Peter Griffin in “Family Guy” drives. The dents the humans I used to live with had put in that 2014 Soul and the drives to and from the euthanasia rooms the past few years can be things of the past for now, I believe.