I get the news moments before my 21-year-old son Mickey gets home. The biopsy is back: Our 14-year-old cat Fudge has lymphoma.
I still manage to greet Mickey cheerfully when he walks through the door. But he knows me too well. “Do you have sad news for me? Is Fudge dead?”
So much for the myth that people with autism have no empathy.
We try a course of chemo. She responds better than we expect. But late one Sunday night, Fudge suddenly pees on the carpet. She has never done this. She staggers, and looks spacey. Something is very, very wrong. When I pick her up, she is limp.
“Is Fudge dying?” Mickey asks.
“No,” I lie, trying to shield him. “She’s feeling sick. The vet will try to make her better.” Inwardly I cringe; what if I’m wrong? But she may yet pull through. Why alarm him until we must? We call the animal specialty hospital. I place a soft towel in her carrier, and carefully tuck her in. Marc drives her to the pet emergency room, and waits while they run blood work. The vet determines that her kidney values are elevated, and that she is dehydrated and anemic. They admit her to the ICU.
We try to coax Mickey to join us when we visit Fudge the next day, but he’s having none of it, so we leave him with a sitter. As we get out of the car, Marc tells me, “I signed a DNR last night.”
“I guess I should have asked you,” he says.
“Yes, you should have.”
“Would you really want her intubated, or shocked with paddles?”
I shudder. “No.”
How do you visit a pet in the hospital? Are you supposed to show up with flowers? A box of fish-flavored treats? As we enter the facility my heart starts hammering. They take us into the overly bright ICU, and I am assaulted by the sound of so many dogs barking. Fudge is frightened by loud noises; couldn’t they keep the cats in a quieter room? I see technicians in green scrubs. Steel examining tables. Floor-to-ceiling metal cages; Fudge crouches in one of them, connected to a beeping monitor. She looks diminished. Forlorn. Or is she drugged? Her eyes are dilated. “You can’t touch her without gloves,” the tech warns, pointing to a sign. Fudge sniffs my gloved hand but looks away. Please, open the cage so I can hold her, I want to say. I can’t even reach my fingers far enough through the bars to touch her. I will myself not to cry.
“I’m so glad we didn’t bring Mickey,” Marc says. “This would really have freaked him out.” He’s right. It freaks me out. Mickey would have been terrified.
We bring Fudge home the next day. “Hi, honey,” Mickey says, petting her head. Fudge is a bedraggled version of herself. We set up a makeshift IV pole to administer bags of fluids. We give her injections. Pills. Supplements. Fudge is quiet. She sleeps most of the time and eats little. But she still purrs. I wonder: is she signaling contentment, or trying to soothe herself?
Not an hour goes by that Mickey doesn’t ask, “Is she going to die? Is she still dying? Is she weak? Is she still young? Just a little young? Will she come back when she dies? I want her to come back. Why can’t she come back? When Fudge dies you have to put her in a box in the back yard.”
“Is that where you think we should bury her?” I ask, thinking that might give all of us some measure of comfort.
“NO!” he says. “Don’t bury her.”
His questions exhaust me. I can’t explain the finality of death. I barely understand it myself.
I watch as he squats on the floor beside Fudge. He croons, “How are you, my pretty girl?” After a while, he looks up and says, "Fudge needs her blessings."
I’m unsure what he means, but I take her in my arms. She is so emaciated that I can feel the fragile architecture of her rib cage.
You think you will have a pet forever. You bathe her. Groom her. Feed her treats. Nurse her through surgery. You buy her fishing pole toys and feather ticklers and little bouncy balls with bells in them. You do these things for her, even when she hawks up hairballs on your best rug. You do them because of her sweet squeaks and trills, and the way she always—always—answers to her name by trilling right back. You do them because of the way she snuggles against your hip whenever you sit on the couch. You do them because every night she sleeps on Mickey’s pillow or the foot of Jonathan’s bed, lulling them to sleep with the sound of her motorized purr, and because she has the most gentle disposition in a cat you’ve ever seen. You do all these things because she is family.
And then you have to let her go.
What we didn’t realize, when we first fell in love with that delicious caramel and chocolate colored kitten, was that someday we would have to make hard decisions. Fudge has given all of us joy for nearly 15 years. But we know that soon there will come an awful day, after months of suffering, when she will let us know that it is time to go. Marc and I will stay with her in those final moments, just as we did with our two other cats, cradling and whispering and stroking her, until her heart stops beating. We will walk out of that vet’s office without her.
And then we will have to tell Mickey and Jonathan that our pet is gone.
There is no “good” way to lose your pet. There isn't. But here’s the thing I return to again and again. Just as it is with people, either we choose to engage, to love, knowing that every relationship is time-limited ... or we choose never to love at all.
Knowing this from the beginning doesn’t make it hurt any less at the end.