Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Dry Run

My daughter Lila's cat, Shadow is dying. You might think that this shouldn't have that great an impact on me, but for the last five years Paula and I have been the primary caregivers for this animal. We kind of knew this would happen when Lila got the cat some fourteen years ago, so it hasn't been a surprise, but nonetheless, now that the cat is dying the primary responsibility for decisions about its care has fallen on us.
Shadow was born in Victoria, but truly only came into her own with the move to the farm over a decade ago. Paula very quickly gave her the sobriquet “Danger Cat,” which seemed quite suitable if you watched her prowl the acreage giving full rein to her desire to hunt. She chased down gophers (Richardson's Ground Squirrels), hunted birds both on the ground and in the Manitoba maple trees and poplars that ring our farm. She slaughtered untold numbers of mice (the past few years leaving nothing but noses behind to mark their passing) and on at least two occasions took on full-grown weasels. She survived coyotes—mostly by learning to climb metal siding with nothing but claws and fear—and quite sensibly left the badger,deer and moose alone. Though to look at her, you know she thought about what it would be like to bring a large ungulate down....

When Lila moved out, quite naturally she moved into an apartment complex that didn't allow pets. We didn't mind too much. Shadow was far too effective at rodent control to really have been happy living inside a bachelor suite 24/7.
When she and I left the farm last winter, she was very upset with me. The weather turned awful as we drove into a blizzard with wind chill of -40°C (or F, for that matter), and when we washed up for a couple of weeks in Nelson, Monica's house not only had another cat, but also a dog that lived indoors. Shadow thought that I was doing all this to torment her. But when she finally could go outside and explore the barn, even though there was snow everywhere, she was emotionally ready to forgive me for the trip. Particularly since it was beginning to look like she was going to be able to co-exist with Monica's dog.
So when I uprooted her again and we drove out to the coast, she was seriously pissed. She'd lived in one place for over a decade, and here I'd moved her twice in less than a month. When we got out of the car and she found not only that I'd brought her to Paula (good, she at least is familiar), but also seemed to somehow have discovered the doorway into spring (Victoria in February is most certainly not -40°C...or even the -10°C of Nelson), she was much quicker to forgive me for uprooting her.
She mellowed into a Victoria lifestyle quite quickly. When she discovered the cat door, she knew she could live here. Her home territory had shrunk—the yard isn't anywhere near as big as the farm, but then raccoons aren't quite as big a problem as coyotes either. And there were two other adults who really didn't mind being cat toys either, so that was good. So Shadow seemed to slip into retirement with grace and an attitude that involved sleeping 22 hours a day—much like the rest of the retirement community in Victoria.
But two weeks ago we noticed that she was drooling a little bit and that the shape of her face had changed slightly. When we finally convinced her to open her mouth, we discovered that she was in fact missing one of her big teeth. Paula took her to the vet a couple of days later to ensure that there was no problem with infection, and the vet told her that Shadow had a very fast-growing cancer in her jawbone. The only question was whether the cancer was the fast-growing one or the really fast-growing one. It was not really a question that needed answering—either way it was going to kill her—so it wasn't answered. And a couple of days back, she lost another tooth, so even if it's not the really fast-growing one, it's growing plenty fast for her.
A couple of months ago when John told me his cat was ill, I mentioned that on the farm we had a very inexpensive .22 calibre solution for sick animals. He—quite rightly—suggested that I'd been on the farm too long.
But our family knew right from the beginning that vet bills were something we weren't going to be saddled with; there was an upper limit and it was very low. Thankfully my sister-in-law being a small-animal vet helped keep visits to a minimum. She would answer questions and do quick exams to let us know if there was anything to be worried about. And there never was. Shadow has been a most healthy cat, with the occasional incident of mouse-bait-eating excepted.
The vet question is still moot—Shadow has just now exceeded what we had set as her upper level of health care benefits, and we know that the cancer is 100% guaranteed fatal, so there is no point in medical intervention.
The question now is only when does she die. Euthanasia is not an option in this case, but a necessity. Shadow has difficulty eating and is losing both fur and weight. And better a day early than a day late.
But we don't want to impose the final solution too early. Lila is planing to come out mid-month—not just to visit the cat, but relatives and parents and such as well. Will Shadow be in reasonable shape in ten days? Are we pushing to extend her life for our emotional ends? Shadow doesn't appear to either us or the vet to be in any great pain, except perhaps immediately after eating. But she's been shifted from her normal hard, crunchy cat food over to meat paté (which she doesn't seem to like as much as the old crappy food. Or maybe it's just that the new food hurts to eat also). You can stroke her neck and chin, including the tumour, without causing her any distress. All she wants is to curl up someplace warm and sleep—and if that warm place is on or next to you, so much the better. And so far her breathing doesn't seem to be affected, so we let her carry on. But she isn't consuming enough calories, so she gets thinner and weaker every day, and we go through the dry run of decision-making for when our parents, children, or friends will rely on us to make the same decision for them: when is enough actually enough?
With people it can be easier; my mother remained lucid up to the end, and so could decide for herself when enough was enough. But Shadow can't talk, so the ethics of it, the hard decision of it rests completely with us. Hit by a car? Easy. Get a chunk of firewood and the cat is out of its misery. But this uncertainty, the indefiniteness of it is what is hard. Lila is happy to leave the problem in our laps (often quite literally). So I throw her questions like “what do we do with her body?” Mass cremation/disposal? Individual cremation? Or do we just freeze her and send her out to Lila's freezer to wait for the ground on the farm to thaw enough to bury her there? (Yeah, that one didn't go over too well. “I don't think that's the way I want to do it” was the polite answer). Bury her in Victoria? It was where she was born, but, like people, is it where her roots are? Where do we want to think of the cat being? Because, after all, most of this is about the survivors. So I get my daughter thinking about the questions that one day will have to be answered about me, that I have to answer about my parents, and I look at a cat we've loved slowly decline, preparing to go off and hunt the Great Perhaps.

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