May 16, 2011

The Miraculous: Bidding farewell to my cat Bella. ~ Andrew Wilson

Above, a vintage card: Cat Heaven.


She was in kidney failure.

She wasn’t producing urine. Too weak to stand for more than a moment by herself. Her heart rate had slowed by half, and her body temperature was dropping by the time we took her into the vet. They hooked her up with an IV for fluids and surrounded her with hot water bottles and put blankets over her in the kennel. Then they started her on various drugs to try to jump start the kidney function.

The presumption or theory of this was that her kidneys had failed due to a shock she just went through (constipation, with nausea) the day before, because the day before that she was quite normal and active.

I thought the vet’s approach was lucid and she explained everything well. I liked her. The doctor also gave Bella an antinausea drug that seemed to help. She was alert when we visited her and even started purring when I put my head on her fur. After a few hours the vet gave us bad news: the kidneys were in total failure.

She suggested trying one last attempt with a special drug to get them going. The sign of the drug working would be that her bladder would fill up. After an hour this hadn’t happened so the vet gave her the drug again. Another hour, nothing.

By that time Bella’s heart rate had slowed to about a third of normal. She was very weak. Yet she was alert. She licked my finger. She purred when I kissed her. The vet told us that if we just waited for the fluid to back up and fill her lungs this might not be particularly humane, so her advice was the injection. I talked with Gina and we decided in a few minutes to go ahead.

This is where it starts to get strange. We took some time to be alone with Bella in the little room, kissing her and more or less soaking her in tears. But after ten minutes an assistant came in with a clipboard and handed it to me. There were boxes to check. One was “Private Cremation” and another was “Common Cremation.”

I asked Gina what she thought. Gina said “Private.” Bella was looking at us both with her beautiful eyes as I checked the box “Private Cremation.” The assistant said, “The way we do things here, is we like for you to pay your bill before the procedure.” Gina said she’d already signed a credit slip earlier, and the assistant said, “That was just for a deposit.”

So Gina handed her a credit card and, like a waitress, she took it and bustled out and came back in a few minutes with the slip, which Gina signed. I am not sure if Gina added a tip. Then we spent more minutes with Bella and she seemed to be drowsing off. I got up and opened the inner door. This was the signal for the vet to came in. She had a syringe.

She said, “You should know that her eyes won’t close.” We both said we knew. I asked if we were going to give Bella a shot to sedate her first, because I thought that’s how it was done. I said I wanted to make sure she didn’t suffer. The vet said, “This shot is a painkiller.” So I said, “Okay,” weeping, and she murmured “Godspeed” and stuck it into Bella’s IV as I lowered my head and kissed Bella’s head, my tears pouring on her.

Instantly, Bella snapped awake, her mouth wide open, tongue sticking out, straining with her whole body, and let out the most terrible desperate angry growling yell, grabbing and scrabbling for Gina and I with both paws. Her eyes were bulging, she was foaming at the mouth and making gasping and choking sounds. Gina screamed.

The scream would have made my hair stand on end but it was already standing on end. The vet jumped back and said something like “Oh no” or “Oh my God.” I was holding Bella and rubbing her with both hands and talking to her with my mouth against her ear as she jerked and moaned and convulsed.

“Bella my beauty my love.” That kind of thing.

The vet said, “I’m so sorry, you two — I should have remembered that her high potassium levels might interact with this drug to produce muscle spasms.” Bella was still grabbing at me. I was still chanting into her ear: “Loving cat, miraculous cat, my beautiful, my love.”

Gina tried to push Bella’s tongue back into her mouth and Bella made a kind of yelp and her jaws snapped and Gina shrieked again. I said, “Stop it” and she said, “I’m sorry.” Both of us drenched by tears and Bella still writhing a little. The vet touched Bella’s chest and said “Her heart’s stopped.”

Bella gasped very softly a few more times and relaxed.

The vet left. After about a quarter of a minute, Bella’s head was still — her jaws weren’t moving anymore — and fluid welled out of her nose. There was a lot of it, brown fluid that poured out all of the sudden. Gina screamed again, jumped up. I said, “Go.” She ran out of the room weeping.

I grabbed the washcloth I had used to wash her face before the injection and put it under her head to soak up the fluid coming from her nose. After a few seconds it stopped. She was still. I remembered hearing somewhere about how the brain can go on working for a long time even after breathing and heart have stopped, so I pressed my mouth to her ear and murmured, “Bella, Bella, Bella, my monkey, I love you, you beautiful miraculous cat. I am so sorry. I am so sorry, my Bella.”

I did this for a few minutes. I had the odd sense that she could still hear me. Then I suddenly felt she couldn’t hear me anymore. She was really gone.

I moaned and I think cried out. I rubbed my face on her head. The fur was already wet from my tears. I watched my tears falling on her. I managed to shut her eyes. Then I picked up and refolded the washcloth and used it to clean her face and head. I pressed my ear to her chest to make sure her heart wasn’t beating. For a frightened second I thought it was, then I realized I was hearing my own heartbeat in her body.

I stayed like that for a long time just listening. I didn’t want to leave her. I couldn’t believe how beautiful she was. Even dead she was beautiful. I rearranged her on the table, so her legs weren’t splayed out, and made a pillow out of the washcloth and put her head on it, so now she really did look merely asleep. Then, crouching at the level of the table she was on, I kissed her nose and her closed eyes. Totally overwhelmed, overwhelmed by love.

“I am sorry,” I told her. “I am sorry for doing that to you. I didn’t know it would be like that. It’s my fault. I am so sorry.” I tucked the blanket up to her chin. I took out my cell phone and called Gina. I said, “I’ve cleaned her up. Please come back and look at her again.”

Gina came back in and I stood to get out of the way and said, “Kiss her on the head now and let’s go.” Gina bent down and kissed Bella’s head. She stepped back and we looked at her. “Go ahead out,” I said, “I’ll just take another minute. I’ll be out soon.” Gina went out. I took off the blanket and looked at Bella’s body. I touched her tail and her paws and petted the shining fur. Then I covered her with the blanket, drawing it over her head. As soon as I’d covered her up completely I felt a rush of pure terror at the thought she might still be alive. I pulled down the blanket to look at her again. I wanted to do nothing but look at her for the rest of my life.

My heart was beating in my ears. My pulse seemed to fill the whole room. I was aware of breathing and being alive, really hyper-aware. I didn’t have a single thought. I covered her again carefully and reached under the blanket, touched her head, then left the room. Glancing back before I shut the door, I saw Bella’s shape covered by a blanket on the aluminum table.

That night I played the flute for a long time sitting outside under the eaves with cold rain falling. Finally I started shivering so I went in. I realized I hadn’t even felt the cold. The only way I knew I was getting cold at all was that my chest had started to shiver. I sat in front of the fire Gina had made and looked into it.

My mind was still and clear, no thoughts. At one point I suddenly said to Gina, without thinking, “Today was undoubtedly the cruelest, most horrible experience in my entire life. If there were a God, I would never forgive him — or her — for this.” Gina just said, “Yes.”

I was going to go on and say something like I wished there were a God, so I could kill him, but I stopped at that.

Related: Tibetan Buddhism: what to do when your pet dies.


Andrew Wilson lives in Eugene, Oregon, where he works as a writer, editor, writing coach and manuscript consultant. His essays, fiction and poetry have appeared in about twenty-five magazines and journals in Europe, the United States and Japan. He plays the shakuhachi flute and does Zen. Check where he writes here and here.

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