Seeking the Grail: When Doing the Right Thing Doesn’t Feel Good

Seeking the Grail: When Doing the Right Thing Doesn’t Feel Good May 16, 2016

About a month ago I put my cat to sleep, and only in the past week have I really begun to feel like I did the right thing. Luna wasn’t well for a long time…but she wasn’t really sick, either. Her health was a long, slow decline, and it never felt like the right time to take her to the vet and end her life. Yet, I knew she wasn’t happy.

If you’re not a pet owner, you probably haven’t endured this special kind of hell. Luna’s poor health dragged on me for years. I met her when she was eight, which was also eight years ago. She was my ex’s cat; he told me he’d adopted her for his (then) wife–who never liked the cat–and then Luna bonded with him.  The first time I met her, she was adorable and cuddly and crawled into my backpack when it was time for me to head home. I was in love.

photograph of a black-and-white tuxedo cat on a brick-colored bed spread
Luna / Courtesy of Shauna Aura Knight

It had been some time since I’d had a cat of my own. Years before, I’d broken up with my (now ex) husband and moved to a cabin at Diana’s Grove. We split up our two cats, he kept Tama and I kept Key. Except, Diana’s Grove was also a dog rescue, and I was told I couldn’t bring my cat with me. I was so eager to move there that I agreed to it even though it scorched every bone in my body. My mom agreed to watch over Key for a while. My plan was to convince the folks at Diana’s Grove to let me bring Key to live with me in my cabin once I’d proved myself.

Just months after I moved to Diana’s Grove, though, Key became ill. My mom’s other two cats were fine but Key had to be rushed to the vet. She went into a coma and never came out of it. For days I waited to for the phone call that would tell me that she was getting better, but instead, she was getting worse. Her liver function was failing, and the vet told my mom it was time to let her go.

I was an eight hour drive away without a car and without a driver’s license, and I had no money to get there. In retrospect, I wish I’d asked someone for help getting to the train to get back to Wisconsin.  Instead, I sat on the phone bawling while my mom sat with Key at the vet and held her while she was euthanized.  Years and years later, I still haven’t forgiven myself for not being there.

In fact, I’ve actually never been there when a pet has died. My first cat, Mr. Bubbles, grew up with a brain disorder that caused more and more violent seizures. We adopted him for Christmas when I was nine, and my mom decided to put him to sleep the week before I turned ten when Bubbles was six months old.

We adopted several other cats after that; Coky was my cat, and became my anchor and friend during my really rough years in middle school. When I was being bullied and abused, I had her. But unfortunately, Coky had a penchant for escaping the house, and we lived out on a farm. She was smart enough to get out, not smart enough to avoid a car. One day, my dad accidentally hit her when she chased a cricket across the road. She survived despite two collapsed lungs, a broken tooth, a broken toe, and a hernia. But just a couple of years after that, about when I started high school, she got out and never came home and I never saw her again.

I adopted another cat with a friend in college, but it was his first cat so when I moved to Chicago I let him keep Asheling.

And, then I adopted Key.

When I met Luna, I was still raw from losing Key. I still felt that guilt for not insisting that I bring her with me, for not being there when she passed. As my ex and I prepared to move in, Luna had some health issues crop up. She was constantly scratching her ears and had done so to the point where she’d actually flayed the flesh off her neck.

My ex and I didn’t have a lot of money, but after I did what I could to treat her wound, I insisted that we take her to the vet. He didn’t have time so I did it. I figured she had earmites, though unfortunately it wasn’t that simple. Luna had a long-term issue where excessive earwax created a yeast infection. We tried the treatment (a cold drip that had to be sprayed into her ear twice a day), but Luna was so traumatized by it after the ten day course, she wouldn’t come out from under the couch. Her neck wound healed, but her ears continued to itch.

Once my ex and I moved in together, Luna sort of adopted me. She slept next to me, cuddled with me.

I wish I could explain the night and day difference between the Luna I met, and the Luna she became after my ex was gone. My adopting Ziggy (Xiggoreth Destroyer) was part of her trauma, and Luna was definitely one of those cats that needed to be in a single cat household.

When my ex abandoned us, I had no choice but to move into a different apartment. My ex had stolen the rent and bills money, so as various utilities started getting shut off, and as my car got towed from his unpaid tickets, I discovered I was about to be evicted from our apartment. Worse, it wasn’t just me moving with Luna and Ziggy, it was us moving into a small apartment with a cat that wasn’t fixed and that had some behavioral issues.

We weren’t there for very long anyways; after about six months I moved back up to Wisconsin to live with my mom. My mom has two older cats, and Buffy is a really cranky, territorial female cat.

For the past four years, Luna has been this sad, traumatized cat. The first year we were in Wisconsin she hid most of the time. I lived in the unfinished second floor and I was petrified that Luna would curl up into some hidey hole in the insulation or flooring and die, and I’d have to dig around and find her.

If I’d had the money I’d have taken her to the vet…but I’ve had enough cats (and I know enough crazy cat ladies) that I knew she didn’t have anything medical wrong with her.

She wasn’t ill, she was just sad. She was traumatized.

I understood that; I was traumatized too. It took me years to get my head right after being in the abusive relationship that had landed me living with my mom again in my late 30’s. Luna’s mood significantly improved when we moved from the house over to the studio above the garage. Ziggy was still there, but she didn’t have to deal with my mom’s two cats. Luna didn’t hide as much, and she even played milk ring fetch again for the first time in years.

But then a year ago I adopted Valentine. It’s a long story; a friend of mine was moving from Michigan to California and couldn’t take his cat with him. Valentine had always liked me when I’d visited this friend, so he asked me to adopt him. I didn’t really need a third cat, nor did I want additional strain on Luna…but it was either me, or a shelter.

And Luna didn’t take it well; Valentine didn’t have an easy transition either. Over that year, Luna started peeing in places she shouldn’t. She stopped grooming herself. She got skinnier. There were times where she’d just randomly yowl.

I knew the signs well enough; her health was declining. But I couldn’t put a cat to sleep just for peeing on my bed. I couldn’t do that, even though at the time I could barely afford the extra cost of washing the large comforter at the laundromat. If I couldn’t afford ten bucks to wash a comforter, there’s no way I could afford vet visits and treatments.

And Luna was turning sixteen. I knew that it was just a matter of time.

Then I began discussing moving in with my boyfriend and his family, and their three cats. I knew I couldn’t move Luna in with three more cats. It would be torture for an old, sick cat.

But, I couldn’t kill my cat just to move in. That wasn’t right either.

I dragged out my move to give her more time. I started giving her vanilla pudding as a treat. She loved pudding–yes, it’s bad for her. No, I didn’t care; she was dying and her health was continuing to decline anyways. I still felt guilty, though. I couldn’t just take a cat in to the vet and say, “Hey, I’m moving and my cat’s too sick to make the move, but she could hang on for months, so put her out of my misery.” That’s not who I am.

I waited for her to tell me she was done. That she was hurting too much. But the messages aren’t always so clear. She peed on her favorite blanket, and then I noticed some other health things I won’t go into here. She was running to the litterbox more and more during a day, and then I watched her straining to defecate.

She was still affectionate, still wanted cuddles, but I knew she was hurting. She’d finally passed the point where, even though she wasn’t on her deathbed, I couldn’t in good conscience keep her in pain.

I still felt the guilt when I took her in. My boyfriend drove me; he’s a cat guy, and he understands. He drove me so I could hold her on the way there, and on the way back home. He helped me dig the hole and lay her there with a milk ring for the afterlife.

For weeks, I still carried that guilt. Was she sick enough? Had I waited long enough? I don’t know if it was a dream, or just a memory, but I began to remember the Luna she’d been. I thought about the way she walked in the last weeks, the way it was hard for her to use the litterbox.

No, she wasn’t sick in a way that was obvious, but she was hurting. I know that I did the right thing. How do you decide when to give an animal companion mercy? I couldn’t respect her sovereign choice because she couldn’t tell me what she wanted.

But at that certain point, she was in enough pain that I realize it would have been selfish of me to continue to keep her on just because I was feeling guilty. There are a lot of things in my life I regret. There are a lot of choices that are difficult ones and there’s no right or wrong, no easy answer, just shades of gray.

I tried to do right by Luna. I tried to give her a good life after my ex left us, even though she was sad and hurting. I wish I could have given her a single cat home, but that wasn’t in the cards for her. In the end, she got lots of gushy food, some milk rings, and all the vanilla pudding she could eat.

This won’t be the last hard choice I’ll face in my life. I hope the afterlife brings Luna a peace that she didn’t get in her last years. I hope that I made the right choice; I think that I did.

I’ll see you in the Summerlands, Luna. Hopefully Mr. Bubbles and Coky and Key are keeping you company.

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