At some point during the last couple days of Scamp’s life I said to Allie that I was surprised by the experience. I expected it to be unbearable and monolithically awful. And I’d even before this all started to go down, been thinking about the inevitability of our animals’ deaths, and absolutely dreading it. I’d even taken to saying that the only downside of pet ownership is that they don’t live as long as we do. Now, having gone through it, I have to say that it’s one of its greatest gifts.
Throughout the spring and summer, Scamp seemed to be doing great. She just loved the raw meat we were giving her and she was gaining weight and acting like her old self, not barfing near as much. But then a couple of weeks ago I noticed she wasn’t eating. Then she started puking up bile. I petted her and felt her bony back. She was losing weight again.
We took her to the vet and a blood test revealed her liver was out of whack again. For the first time we noticed that her skin under her fur had turned yellow. We took her to a specialist and they ran a sonogram and a fine-needle aspirate. We had to wait 48 hours for the results, so we force-fed her and hydrated her with a drip back during the interim.
When the results came back, we felt hopeful because they told us it was fatty liver disease. All we’d need to do, according to the stuff we’d read online, was make sure to get plenty of nutrients in her. To do that, we’d have a feeding tube installed. But shortly after we dropped her off for the procedure, the doctor called us back to say something didn’t look quite right with the results. He ran a couple of tests and found that she also had colangiohepatitis. But still, his assessment was encouraging. He gave us a prescription and said she should get better in a few days.
Well, she didn’t. We fed her six or seven times a day, which she hated. At first I just held her while Allie shot pasty Hills Prescription Diet into her mouth with a large-gauge syringe. I had to hold her little head firmly in my hand and then tilt her head back so she wouldn’t spit it out. Allie was constantly worried that I was strangling Scamp, or that I would cause her to inhale some of it and make matters a whole lot worse. Scamp just plain hated it. She bit at us and growled while she chewed, making this hilariously adorable gnawing sound. As we honed our technique we started wrapping her with a blanket, which only added to her adorableness, with her tiny alien head peeking angrily out of the bundle.
For days we clung to the tiniest sign she was getting better. Under certain light it would seem as though the yellow was fading from her skin, but at other times it would seem darker than ever. Sometimes she seemed to like the food. On one occasion, she hopped on my desk as if she were looking for some food. I quickly grabbed a can and opened it. But she passed it up after a couple of sniffs. One morning I saw her on her old perch on the top of my desk chair and I was so excited I posted the good news on Facebook.
But it was obvious that she was only getting weaker. She spent most of her time cowered behind the couch or under my desk. And when she collapsed while vomiting, spewing all over her paws, I just knew.
On Wednesday I called the specialist and he said she most certainly should be improving. And if she’s not improving, he went on to say, there isn’t really much as that can be done. All the other possible problems, he explained, are incurable. I was out having coffee then with some friends at that moment, and I just felt devastated. I told Allie, and on the drive home I cried for the first of what would be many, many times over the next five days.
The next day I had a full day of orientation at KU, so Allie kept up the feeding schedule on her own. During my lunch break I called a friend to tell him about the Scamp ordeal and a bunch of other stuff I was sweating and he told me not to sweat any of the other stuff, that I was going through a major experience with the loss of Scamp and that I should cut myself some slack and just focus on getting through that. That call just unleashed me. During the break between lunch and my next session I wandered off on my own, found a spot in the grass and just bawled. Then during the afternoon break I stole away to the bathroom and cried some more. And then again at the end of the day on my walk back to my car and on the whole drive home.
We kept up the feeding schedule for the rest of that night, but it was hard to because she hated it so much. I was of the mind to give her a last few days without stress. On the way home I had stopped off to buy a beef heart and some liver, thinking she might enjoy some of her favorite tastes, but she wasn’t having any of it. So Allie and I spent the rest of the evening with her, listening to sad and lovely music and occasionally pulling her out from under the bed so I could lay with her body draped along my side and her shin rested on my shoulder while I very gently petted her head. Scamp was always a loud purer, but her purr was so quiet now. She seemed to like it. But after a while she’d slowly get up and return to her spot beneath the bed.
I wanted to let her know I was with her, so I decided to sing to her, with me laying on top of the bed and her down below. I started singing “Brokedown Palace” and “Box of Rain,” but I didn’t know the words, so I went to the computer and found them and copied them down. The lyrics to those songs are such good writing, so simple yet just as deep and true as can possibly be. Like, what could be truer than “fare you well, fare you well, I love you more than words can tell.” And Box of Rain seems as if it was written specifically for hospice. It's tone is so gentle and loving, not at all overwrought. Just how can I help you? and It's gonna be OK. I made an iTunes playlist with every version I have of both songs, set it to shuffle and repeat, and Scamp and Jazz and I went to sleep listening to it. For a while, Jazz slept under the bed with Scamp, which is not her usual sleeping place.
The next morning, I plucked Scamp out from hiding and placed her in the window by my desk and to my delight she stayed there for several hours. It was a spectacularly beautiful morning, not too hot but sunny as can be and just enough breeze to set everything into motion. We listened to the Dead together and the music spoke to me even more deeply, on levels of meaning words can't get to. Garcia is so brilliant at this. I was astounded, and I continue to be astounded, at how clearly his playing articulates the mix of emotions that accompany life and death. It's the best art because it has all of it, the all the extremes of joy and pain and all the shades in between, yet it's easy and natural, not the least bit pretentious.
After I left at noon for the last of my orientation sessions at KU, Allie set a piece of heart meat in front of Scamp. She sniffed it, gave it a couple of licks and then chomped it down. Allie was so excited that she immediately called me. But I must have been in a dead zone, because I didn’t hear the phone ring. No matter, though: Scamp threw up a few minutes later and Allie’s hopes were dashed.
Well, not totally. Nor were mine. Seeing Scamp in the window again, looking as happy and relaxed as ever, made me think maybe she had a chance. So Allie and I chatted during one of my breaks at school and agreed we would take her to the specialist that night. Still, I went ahead and made an appointment with the mobile vet for the next day, to put her to sleep. And while I had home on the phone I pulled a second opinion out of him. After hearing all of Scamp’s symptoms he agreed with the specialist that Scamp had no chance of survival and that it would probably best just to give her one last stress-free night. At the same time, Allie got pretty much the same word from the specialist.
On the way home I stopped off to get some catnip. I was hoping to give her one last little rush of pleasure. When I got home, I couldn’t wait to see her, of course, so I rushed upstairs while Allie fed the dogs. I opened up the catnip and went to lay some down for Jazz, so as to keep her from pouncing on Scamp when I fished her out to give her some. But Scamp came prancing out from under the bed to get some on her own! She munch down a few bites and then licked her chops. It was such an awesome moment. My only regret was that Allie wasn’t there to see it.
Allie and I both slept in the office that night, listening to Bill Evans, Kind of Blue and some more Dead with Scamp, pulling her out from under the bed to give her a little more love therapy (or to make her give some to us).
The next morning, we put her in the window again, but she didn’t stay as long. She was moving very slowly, as if she was calculating each move to determine if she had the energy to complete it. So it took her a while to descend from the sill to my desk and then to inch her way to the edge of it, right beside where my feet were propped up. Then she gingerly stepped into my lap one last time and settled down into it to let me pet her.
We took a break to walk the dogs and I think this is when I told Allie that I was surprised by how incredible the experience had been. I confided to her that for several months I’d noticed little aging signs in Maddy, our oldest dog, and these had aroused dread of her inevitable death. I reminded her that I’d been saying recently that the short lives of pets are their only drawbacks. And while I would certainly prefer them to be immortal, I had to concede a tremendous value in being there for their passage out of this world. She agreed, saying that it’s incredible to be able to care for a being throughout its life and all the way through to its end. And I said that the variety and intensity of emotions I was experienced were without equal at any other point in my life, and they all boiled down to a powerful core: love.
During Scamp’s last hour, we sat on either side of her and petted her as we sang “Brokedown Palace” and “Box of Rain” to her. While we did, Jazz came along and squeezed in between us, nestled right next to her sister. Then I played the version of “Dark Star” from February 13, 1970, setting it to repeat. I laid down on the couch and set Scamp the nook between my chest and arm, her chin resting on my shoulder. For a long time we looked into each other’s eyes.
When the doctor came into the room, her eyes widened, but she didn’t try to bolt. Allie drew from the doctor one last confirmation of our decision, and he told us about his animals, and his experiences with euthanasia, and Allie felt comforted that we were doing the right thing.
Scamp jumped a little bit when the vet poked the needle in to sedate her, and as the drug kicked in she tried to escape to her hiding place, but I held her close and finally she collapsed sideways across my chest. I couldn’t see her eyes but I felt her weight and her breath.
The doctor shaved part of her front right leg. “She’s yellow all over,” he said. “There’s no way she would have recovered. You are doing the right thing.” And at that I felt once and for all that I was doing the right thing.
He looked a turnicut around her thigh and tightened it. As he struck for a veign, she put up a fight, twisting her body and snapping with teeth. She got me just above the thumb.
But just as quickly she collapsed across my chest.
I asked if she was gone. The vet listened for her heatbeat and hearing none said she was gone.
I slowly rose, cradling her in my arms, and she folded gently into a ball, the way she used to when she slept, and I laid her in a whicker basket Allie had inlayed with my pillow case. At first her head was cocked at a garish angle, with her teeth all snarly like a possum, so I turned it and she looked like herself again, peaceful, but gone.
We took her to Wayside Waifs to be cremated. I’d never been to the place before and certainly didn’t expect what I found. It sprawls across a compound on the rural southern edge of the metro area with an off-leash dog park and a cemetery.
We had to wait for someone to arrive at the mortuary. Allie asked if we could set her down and look at her once more. I placed the basket in a patch of sunlight and opened it. She was laying there just as she had been when I closed it, undisturbed by the ride. I noticed orange fluid dripping from her nose and I turned away.
After we left her body behind, Allie and I walked through the cemetery, reading the names on the tombstones. I kept calculating the lengths of the lives, feeling jealous of the folks with upwards of 17. Having just twelve with Scamp, I felt robbed. But I also felt a kinship with all the people who’d bought these monuments, had them inscribed with their pats’ names, and, in some cases, lovely sayings like, “If love could have kept you alive, you’d have lived forever.”
On the way home we took a walk on a trail by a river and we sat for a while on a cliff over looking it. I sang “Brokedown Palace” again and felt with such profoundness the the depth of the line "Lovers come and go, the river roll, roll, roll." We were so very sad, obviously, but we also felt some comfort in knowing that despite the transitiveness of physical things there's this continuum of life and spirit. And that sense of flow continues to build as time passes.
I’m going to miss Scamp forever more. She was such a weird, alien, monkey-butt little freak cat. But I’m also going to carry forward with me the completeness of her life, and all the things she’s taught me. And the bittersweet truth is that I probably wouldn’t have learned any of those lessons, or realized that I’d learn them, if she hadn’t have died. And I guess in that way it’s another instance of life imitating art. The greatest masterpieces are the ones that have it all – the joy and tragedy and the downright goofy – but have it in a package that seems so simple you could almost pass it by without ever having known.