Warning: There is nothing snarky or funny in the following post. In fact, it might make you cry. Sorry. I have to write it because…
Today is the one year anniversary of the day I had to kill my best friend.
You know how a person often turns to religion in their “time of need?” Many times, someone who has been “saved” will tell you of a hard time they were enduring, like drug addiction or divorce. On the other hand, the numerous atheists I’ve encountered, if they were formerly religious, have reported to me that their fall from grace mostly occurred cumulatively, over years, with exploration, research, and a barrage of knowledge. I’ve heard this repeatedly: “I became an atheist when I read the bible.”
I had a luxury that many atheists didn't have. I was raised by supportive parents who always encouraged me to ask questions and find my own way in life. I was never punished or edited when I told my family about my beliefs. Granted, I tried very hard to fit in with my religious friends when I was a teenager, and though I followed them to church camp and joined them in the youth choir and as an acolyte, and even bowed my head when we held hands around the dinner table, I never prayed. I never believed in it. Instead, I usually tried to spend that mental energy on problem solving and finding answers, rather than making silent pleas in the form of prayer.
So, it was last Memorial Day. I was newly single and living alone for the first time in my life. I had moved to the beach with my fat orange tabby, Burrito. Because one of the first experiences I had with him when he was young was to save his life and nurture him through a near-fatal illness, we shared a bond unlike anything I have ever experienced as an animal-lover. His life was marked by severe illness. He had two open-lung surgeries, and his lungs were badly damaged and scarred. To look at him, one would never know that he had to stay on antibiotics for months and that he had once almost died in my arms. He was huge, glossy, talkative, and he slept, under the covers, spooned up against me, every night. He was a source of strength to me after my sudden divorce. I was desperately afraid of losing him. His health was so fragile.
So it came. A holiday in a small town, everything was closed. No emergency veterinary services. Burrito spiked a high fever and became weak. Another bout of pneumonia, I thought. Great, it's a three day weekend! He won’t make it until Tuesday. I packed him in the car and drove over an hour to the emergency vet in the city. It was discovered that not only did he have pneumonia again, but his little body had started shutting down. He had an intestinal blockage as his small intestine had become kinked and folded over upon itself.
I don’t know if it was the right decision, but I opted for abdominal surgery. I didn't want his poor body opened up again, but I had to try. As you can guess, after the surgery, his little lungs had their last trauma, as he had been intubated and his airways subsequently swelled. He couldn’t breathe. I remember the vet saying, “Well, it is the weekend. We’ll check in on him, but we are closing now.” Can you imagine? Your friend is in respiratory failure, but his doctors turn out the lights, lock the doors, and leave your loved one in a cage, alone? I was not going to let my friend die in the dark, so I took him home to monitor him.
I fully expected him to die with me. I cried and held him. I stayed up all night and spoke to him, telling him it was okay to die and how much he meant to me. He was so afraid because he couldn’t even pull a breath at times, and he would run. From what, I don’t know. I tried to soothe him, I told him I loved my orange meow, but he fought all night, sometimes losing consciousness, then regaining it.
In the morning, I realized for the first time that sometimes fighting against death is cruel. He was afraid. He was in acute pain. And he was anoxic. No antibiotics or steroid shots had helped. It was time.
I found a vet who agreed to meet me at his clinic. I wished that the euthanasia could have been done in our own home because he was already so scared, but that was not to be. I remember driving and being unable to see because of my hot, blurry tears, all the while headed to his final minutes. I sang to him in the car with a wavering voice.
The shot with pink liquid hovered over us. I wrapped him tightly in the same blanket that I brought him home in as a young kitten. I covered his head and told him I loved him, breathing hot breath and tears into his cheek, and then he was gone. It was so quick. I stayed, wetting his fur with my tears and crying over him for an hour. I watched his pink ears and nose turn ivory white. I finally turned out the lights in the exam room, quietly shut the door, and tried to not think that they would be putting him in a freezer after I left.
The reason I share this story is not to make you cry, though I am crying now, but to tell you that I prayed during this time. I didn’t pray to a holy father or Jesus or anyone, but in my mind, over and over, I just chanted, “Please let him live. Please let him live. Please let him live.” I think that was a rudimentary form of prayer, but I’m not sure. In reality, I knew that what I was doing was irrational. I believe that my desperation led me to panicky superstition. Perhaps if I said it enough, I’d get my wish! I even remember bargaining. I pleaded, “If he lives, I promise I’ll try harder in my life.” I can’t explain why I did it, other than that I was sleep deprived, grieving, scared, alone, and facing my first pet death. In those moments, I turned to chanting silent wishes to an invisible hope.
I still cry over my Burrito, and feel irrational guilt for putting him to sleep, as in, if only I had fought harder, tried one more thing, I could have saved him. He lived eight wonderful years longer than he logically should have after that initial illness in his kitten-hood. We fought so long together, until I realized that he was in real pain. I was in real pain. But I wish it could have been different and he could be lounging across my arms making it impossible to type this right now…just like he used to.
I don’t think I’ll ever again know another animal bond like we shared, but I am thankful for the eight years we had together. His life-long illness and difficult death taught me that I am stronger than I thought I was.
From now on, I will call Memorial Day, in my own secret way, "Burritorial Day." In addition to honoring the memory of those who fought and sacrificed for this country, I will also honor the fat orange tabby who gracefully and bravely fought chronic illness and remained by my side, kind, gentle, and loving through it all.