“And when we have to let go, something else becomes possible.” –Pema Khandro Rinpoche
A few weeks ago, Dave and I put down our old lady cat Blacula. She’d been howling every night for half a year at least, a long, drawn-out wail from somewhere deep inside of her. The sound found its way into my subconscious, pushed my already strange dreams into new realms of oddity and confusion, and I’d wake up all anxious and sweaty, only to realize it was the damn cat again.
She woke the baby up, too. I’d stumble into his room at three in the morning and he’d be standing in his crib, meowing. Except his version of a meow mimicked the senile, eighteen-year-old cat version, so he’d say it like the word “why,” drawing out the space between the ‘wh’ and the ‘y’ in a dissonant tone reminiscent of old-timey folk laments. This became a nightly occurrence, and he started calling cats “gwhys,” a combination (we think) of the Spanish word “gato” and the cat wail “why.”
Blacula was never easy. She was one of those terrified-by-life kind of creatures. Always hid. Never let anyone touch her. Drew blood within seconds of being picked up. Soon after she was spayed as a kitten, her ovaries became infected then she gnawed at her post-surgery stitches and infected those, too. Like cats tend to do, she fell in love with the person who wanted nothing to do with her – my allergic husband, Dave, whose roommates had adopted the cat despite his protests – and therefore he was the only one whom she allowed to nurse her back to health. Which, of course, meant she fell even more fiercely in love with him.
Years later, the roommates moved out, leaving the cat they’d selected to the person she’d selected, and poor Dave, being the kind soul he is, accepted the commitment he’d been straddled with. Still, despite Blacula’s obsession with him, holding her was not allowed; Dave has a scar from the top of his pinky finger all the way down to the bottom of his palm from one particularly difficult visit to the vet.
When Dave and I first met, we quickly fell in love with one another and reveled in our mutual passion for pets, so it didn’t take long to move ourselves and our two cats in together and then rescue two dogs (yeah, we’re nuts). From the very beginning, Blacula assumed the role of evil dictator who controlled her underlings through fear. She regularly bloodied our 80-pound Boxer dog’s nose, once so badly she left a small piece of skin hanging from its tip. She’d also do things like scratch the other animals’ faces when they were sleeping, watch them scramble awake in terror, then simply strut back to wherever she’d been resting and curl up in a tiny, black-and-white ball, satisfied with the disruption she’d caused. Or, she’d sit in the middle of the narrow doorway that divided our railroad apartment in half, make herself as big as possible and growl at the others, smacking them into submission if they dared pass through. The smaller dog, Basil, took to lying on his stomach and singing for her, a strange version of a hound-like howl reserved just for these encounters. After a few minutes of this, Blacula would finally allow him to walk around and into the other side of the apartment, but no one else could ever pass through until she got hungry enough to leave her post, most likely to eat their food before finishing her own.
Blacula and me when we first moved in together back in 2008.
Dave and I decided to put Blacula down together while Lew was in daycare. I wanted to be there, to witness her death, to take responsibility for a decision I’d helped make, to ease her out of this life, to support Dave. But even more so, I wanted to be there to get some answers. I wasn’t sure what my questions were, but I was positive that watching a creature die would give me some kind of insight. I was expecting a moment, a heaving sigh and shift in the air, something big and profound. I wanted to be able to say, “Aha, now I understand.”
When the vet injected the medicine that would kill her, Blacula was already motionless from the sedatives. I pet her cheek as Dave scratched her head, we both told her that we loved her, and then I thought maybe something had changed, maybe she had passed on. I wasn’t positive, though, and so I told myself that the big moment was yet to come, but then the vet listened to her heart and confirmed that yes, it had stopped.
I’d felt only enough of something to wonder if I’d even felt it at all.
With Blacula’s history of abusing the others, Dave and I were obviously scared when I was pregnant. We imagined her attacking our precious newborn baby in the middle of the night, perhaps even scarring his perfect little body. And what would we do? Who would take a cat like her? It would be horrible to put down a healthy cat because of something like that.
To our extreme surprise, she loved L. From day one. She sniffed him and sat near him and purred loudly. His earliest attempts at petting the animals were rough smacks with his chunky hands up and down against their bodies, and while everyone else would complain or run away, Blacula would just sit there and let him smack her. Each morning after we transitioned L into his own room, she’d enthusiastically run in to greet him as soon as we opened his door, sometimes even jumping into his bed. He was the only person who could ever give her a hug. He’d wrap his arms around her torso and lay his cheek on top of her head, and my heart would leap into my throat. But she’d just sit there, calmly, happily even. If I’d done this, she would have scratched my face, my chest, any skin that her claws could reach until I’d let her go.
Unless they’re asleep at the time of death, animals die with their eyes open. Seconds after her heart finished beating, I was shocked that she still looked alive. “It just seems like she’s resting,” I said aloud, then leaned down and stared deep into her dead eyes. I swear they looked back at me; something was still there. Then they began to glaze over, just a bit at first, then more and more until about a minute later, they had transformed into cloudy, turquoise mirrors reflecting the fluorescent light above us.
Blacula took to hiding under the futon for most of the day and night about six months before we put her down. The final weeks were pathetic – she was confused and scared, unable to properly clean herself, and rarely came out from her hiding spot. But the strangest part was how the other animals ganged up on her. The dogs began chasing and nipping at her whenever she did manage to venture out, and Frida, the other cat who’d mostly avoided her in the years since we’d moved from the railroad to a more spacious apartment, began guarding the water bowl and litter box and attacking her whenever she tried to use either. We thought this was an instinctive version of payback and did our best to make it easier on Bla, but then immediately upon returning home with the empty carrier after her final appointment, the other pets relaxed, became much friendlier and more easygoing – Frida even cuddles with the dogs now – and we wondered if these attacks were their way of telling us it was her time, that perhaps they weren’t enacting payback but instead trying to end her suffering, a suffering that was distressing them all.
In the movie The Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson shares a story about asking her Tibetan Buddhist teacher whether or not to put down her very sick dog. The teacher told her that we humans do not have the right to end another creature’s life, to take away its time of suffering, time it can learn and gain knowledge from, knowledge it will then use in the bardo, or the space between this life and the next.
Laurie Anderson by Maria Zaikina / Creative Commons
Part of me agrees with this sentiment. It didn’t feel quite right to end Blacula’s life. I took a power that didn’t belong to me, and she didn’t even have the capability to let me know if this was what she wanted or not (side note, I think about this a lot when it comes to eating meat, but the vegetarian days of my past and the omnivorous ways of my present are for another essay).
On the other hand, though, I felt like I was giving her a gift. She’d suffered for such a long time already. Her mind was gone and her existence was miserable. She would not be missing these days. If I were in that position, I would want Dave to release me, too.
And, to be honest, we were wrecked. We’re parents, we work a lot, we both make art, and we weren’t sleeping because of the freaking cat – the difficult, mean, malevolent cat who’d been a challenge since the day other people picked her out and brought her home and left her to Dave, a person who never wanted a cat in the first place. We tried so, so many things to help her, but it didn’t matter; she just got worse by the day, and we were exhausted. More than wanting Dave to release me from this burden, I would want to release him from it.
We were sadder than we thought we’d be. It turns out you get used to a creature, even an evil creature, after sharing a home with it for years. “I want gwhy,” L repeated many times that night and the following morning. We had done our best to explain it to him beforehand, used phrases like, “We have to say goodbye to Blacula forever,” and, “Dying means your body is all done and you go to sleep,” and, “Blacula is going away but we’ll still have her in our memories.” We had these conversations a handful of times and each would end with him saying, “Bye bye, gwhy.” But it obviously didn’t translate. He’d look under the chair in his room, the place she deemed second best to underneath the futon, and say, “Gwhy? Gwhy?” then cry when we reminded him that she was gone. It only took two days, though, and he moved on.
But for me, days later, I was still upset. Yes, it took me four whole days to realize that through this experience of putting down the cat, I’d actually been looking for some kind of insight into my mother’s death. What happened to her when she moved from dreaming into dying into being dead? What kind of moment did she experience? What did the room feel like when/if this moment happened? And where is she now? We will never know, not even my father who was sleeping beside her.
I’d wanted this controlled experience with death, with choosing to end a creature’s suffering, watching the injection, feeling the moment, to inform me, to comfort me, to give me something. Instead, a million new questions ran through my head as I gazed into her mirrorball eyes. What happened during that minute between her heart stopping and her eyes turning? Where was she then, and where was she now? Did she know I was there looking deeply into her final moment? Could she see me or hear me or sense me in some way? What do we even mean when we use words like “she?” Who or what was she? Who was my mom? Who am I?
Of course there are no real answers. But in letting go of my mom, in letting go of Blacula, in letting go of these questions and my expectations and my ruminations, something else becomes possible.
I would advise getting a second opinion from that Tibetan Buddhist teacher. Others would cite the story of the Buddha and the Tigress.