OK, so when we left off in this story Nate, me, Aslan, Holly, and Boo have been living together in relative harmony. Aslan was 19, and except for slowing down a bit, he was in great health. In November, he went to the vet for minor gastrointestinal issues. They resolved and all was well. They seemed to resurface in January, but it was relatively minor. To be on the safe side, our vet ordered blood work and a full body x-ray. The blood work came back crystal clear, but the full-body x-ray showed an enlarged heart, colon, and kidney. He acted perfectly normal, though, so we were told what symptoms to watch for, and we would closely monitor him.
One of the symptoms to watch for was any breathing difficulties. Shortly after that visit, I would wonder if Aslan was breathing faster than the other two, but then determine it was just my imagination. Soon, though, there was no denying that he was often breathing harder and faster than his siblings, but still without apparent distress. I decided to take him to the vet the next day.
But that night, things took a drastic turn for the worst, and he was in severe respiratory distress. There are no words to describe the utter helplessness, the sheer hell of watching him struggle for breath. All he could do was lie prone on our couch, head hanging over the side, mouth gaping and drooling. His sides would suck together so hard you would swear they were going to meet in the middle. And all I could do was sit with him, pray, and encourage him.
We rushed him to the vet, and his breathing eased, seemingly on its own. The vet determined that the problem was his enlarged heart, and he needed to see the feline cardiologist ASAP. Nate and I had determined that we would pay for whatever diagnostics would give us a comprehensive picture of his situation - that way we could make informed choices about what was best for his care.
The time until we saw the cardiologist was largely good. Aslan was mostly comfortable, with only minor flares of breathing difficulty. We spent a lot of time with him, snuggling him and giving him his favorite foods. I struggled with the unescapable fact that he was 19, and whatever time we had was borrowed. What did I want for him? How would I be able to determine when his quality of life had deteriorated to the extent he could no longer enjoy his life?
I inadvertently answered these questions during a trip to the vet. He was a terrible traveler; any trip would reduce him to heartbreaking howls for the entire duration. I did what I always did when he was upset - I talked to him non-stop. Knowing his distress, I longed to speak in a way he could understand that I was subjecting him to this nightmare because I loved him and needed help to take the best possible care of him. And I rambled on about how much he loved stealing and eating my butter cookies, curling up in my lap, playing and snuggling with his brother, and napping on his favorite pillow. And I realized those were my quality of life indicators - those were the things he loved most. And if he was no longer able to enjoy them, than I needed to either help him find a way to enjoy them again, or help him let go.
But he continued to enjoy every single one of those things. When I came home from work, Nate sometimes commented that he was glad I was home, Aslan had been having a really hard time. And I would look down at my happily purring cat in my lap - the perfect picture of contentment. And I would think he looked fine, surely Nate was exaggerating - he does have a flair for the dramatic.
One thing I had also considered was the intense grief and confusion Aslan had suffered when his "brother" Moses had died. How he had searched and howled for Moses, no matter how I had tried to comfort him. I had read anecdotal evidence that if the other animals in the family were allowed to encounter their "sibling" after he had passed, they were able to process it on their level and understand what had happened. If that was true, then I wanted that for Holly and Boo, as well as Aslan. I wanted them to have the chance to say goodbye. And if I had any say in the matter, than I wanted him to be in my arms when he died, with my voice being the last thing he heard.
While I had thought about all this, I really didn't think we were "there" yet (sound familiar?), and almost felt guilty even thinking about these things while he was contentedly curled up in my lap. I thought the cardiologist appointment would hopefully determine the nature and extent of the problem, and we would come up with the best way to handle that. Even if there was nothing we could do for him medically, it never entered my mind that we wouldn't be bringing him home from that appointment. What did I think, that we would schedule an appointment to put him to sleep at some undetermined point in the future? I guess I did.
When we went to put Aslan in his carrier, he typically went nuts, howling his gut-wrenching howl. This time, though, Boo also went nuts. He ran over to the carrier and started howling in response, frantically scratching at the carrier, desperate to get in to his brother. Nate looked at me, shrugged, and said, "Why not bring him too? Maybe he'll help Aslan settle down and comfort him." So that was what we did. For so many reasons, I am so glad we did.
Sure enough, Aslan settled right down, and enjoyed the most peaceful car ride he had ever had. With the carrier on Nate's lap, Boo and Aslan snuggled in together like two peas in a pod as Nate gently stroked them.
When we got to the vet, we explained we had brought Boo too, for Aslan's moral support - no problem. The cardiologist began with a cardiac ultrasound. The visit almost entirely consisted of the doctor showing us problem after problem, and me gripping Nate's hand and cursing. We just kept going from bad, to worse, to much worse. Aslan's chest was entirely filled with fluid to the extent it was forcing his lungs to collapse. He only had the tiniest bit at the very top of his lung that he could still use to breathe. The pericardium was also so filled with fluid it was compressing the heart, making it hard for his heart to beat. A normal heart rate for a cat is up to 250 beats per minute. Aslan's was 40.
I will also always be thankful that the doctor went further and performed the ultrasound over the rest of his abdomen. His kidneys were failing, his liver was failing, and even the primary blood vessels had already deteriorated beyond repair. This knowledge left us with very little choice. Anything else would be so very selfish. The cardiologist looked at us and said "The only thing keeping this cat alive is love." At this point all I could do was nod and cry as I signed his death warrant.
Our vet gave us some time alone with him. I had discussed what I wanted for Aslan, (and Boo) and our vet supported every request. Aslan straddled our laps and purred his heart out, despite his frightening surroundings. That was almost harder for me. The vet was waiting for us to signal when we were ready, and I couldn't help thinking the decision was in my hands to say "OK, stop purring now, and never purr again." And at the same time I was conscious of just how much effort each breath was costing him.
We let him have some time with Boo, and they groomed each other and snuggled together. We then put Boo back in the carrier. The vet came in and inserted the catheter in Aslan's front paw. I then put Aslan in his very favorite positions, wrapped around my neck. Nate held and stroked his head. I tried with everything in me to talk without crying (and failed miserably) - I wanted the last time he heard my voice to be peaceful and reassuring, not like I was stressed. He purred into my ear right up until his very last heartbeat as I sang "You Are My Sunshine" for the last time.
He simply relaxed in my arms, and the end of his life on earth was the barest whisper, peaceful beyond anything I could have imagined. I viewed it as the last gift I could give him. For 19 years I had done everything within my power to give him the best life possible. When I could no longer do that ,I carried him and handed him over to his Creator, who knows how to love him even better than I.
But at this, Nate and I crumpled, sobbing into his lifeless body, and the vet again let us have some time alone. After some moments, we laid his body on a blanket on the table. We took Boo out of the carrier and put him on the table a little away from Aslan, allowing him to decide if he wanted to approach the body or not. Boo walked over, and sniffed him from head to toe. Then he licked Aslan all over, then snuggled in for a last cuddle. He finally reached over and gently nibbled Aslan's ear - something he always did as a sign of affection. Boo then looked at us and howled twice. He became very subdued, and of his own accord, walked to the edge of the table and jumped back in to the carrier, where he promptly curled up for the rest of the time. Nate and I have absolutely no doubt that he understood what had happened to his brother and had said goodbye. As painful as this was to go through, in may ways, Aslan's passing was also beautiful, a love story in every way.
When we got home, Boo immediately sought out Holly. They sniffed each other, cried, then curled up together - something they had never done before. The next 2 days were spent comforting each other. The cats were subdued and far more affectionate with each other and with us. But there was no searching for their brother, no howling, no confusion. They mourned the loss of their brother, but they understood. I share this because when I tried to look for resources on the web about allowing the other animals to be present at Aslan's death, there was so much negativity. Those who had posed similar questions before me were met with outrage and derision. Some openly accused them of being sick - why would they want their other animals there? Others tried to be more professional, but speculated that their attention needed to be with the animal being euthanized, and they should not have the distractions of their other animals.
But having tried both methods of handling a pets death, for us, nothing could have been further from the truth. Having Boo there brought both Aslan and Boo so much peace. So I would urge those out there dealing with similar issues to listen to your hearts and request what is important to you.
How do you say good bye to someone who has been with you for 19 years? The sheer length of time is just incredible.