All things must pass
The clink of the spoon on my cereal bowl rings like Pavlov’s bell.
It always triggered a response in Tonapaw, who would position himself on nonchalant high alert nearby, ready to lap up the last of the milk the second I set the bowl on the floor.
Turns out, it also triggers anticipation in me. I expect the cat to be there to play his part in our steady morning ritual. And now, for the first time in 10 years, he isn’t here. And that absence, the sudden gap in a familiar routine, pangs me only a little less each day.
A nice, young vet came to the house and put Tony down with consummate gentleness. It was as perfect as it could be. Tony could barely hold his head up by then; he was twig thin. But he was lying on Ellen’s lap, in the sun, warming his 17-year-old bones from above and below. The first shot startled him, but he soon fell asleep. He never felt the second.
Through tears, as if to reassure herself, Ellen said, “We’re always telling other people that it’s the brave and kind thing to do.” And the vet had the perfect response. She said, the animal’s “dignity, so strong in life, is well served by your decision.”
The decision, that’s the hard part. The part where you play God. You tell yourself it’s the humane thing, but you don’t know for sure—you can’t know. The decision and its execution (hmm, is that the word I want?) inevitably raise the question of what right anyone has to decide for another living being—to extinguish what Bill Bryson, in his wise tome, A Short History of Nearly Everything, calls “the spark.” (We’re not talking here about the necessity of eating, about the food chain, the jungle.) We make the decision with relative sanguinity for our voiceless pets. We make assumptions about their dignity. Would we make the decision for our parents, or ourselves?
We who have the gift of speech, and (sometimes) the clarity and the wherewithal to make our wishes manifest? I remember feeling a kind of approval—though we didn’t even know them—when we heard about a couple in our valley who took their own lives. They weren’t terribly old, but they had made a pact apparently. They decided it was time. They flooded their greenhouse with carbon monoxide from the car’s tailpipe. They sat down in lawn chairs, side by side, holding hands. And they drifted off.
More recently, there was that English conductor, Edward Downes, and his wife, a former ballerina, who ended their lives, together, at a Swiss clinic called Dignitas. He was 85, losing his vision and his hearing; he couldn’t hear the music that was his life’s work. She had terminal cancer. They had their children take them to Zurich and watch as they downed cups of a clear liquid. Then they, too, lay down and held hands.
Involving other people is always going to be fraught, it seems to me. Ellen’s mother made it abundantly clear, over and over, in the last years of her life that she did not want to linger in a hospital. She did not want to be revived. So, when she had her stroke, and Ellen flew east to be with her in the hospital, there was no doubt about what was to be done. Ellen’s instructions to the nurses and doctors were clear. Her mother couldn’t talk, couldn’t respond in any clinical way, but Ellen could read her eyes. And Zandria had trained her brave and loyal daughter well.
It’s one thing to be in a hospital, with morphine right there. It is another to be out in the woods, acting surreptitiously. I know people who helped a once-vital friend bow out, a friend in a wheelchair who had no chance of recovery. Theirs would be the final party. They all wanted it to be a celebration, but it wasn’t simple. There were the drug cocktails to be obtained from a willing doctor, and the problem of the coroner afterward.
Ellen and I decided, way back in our twenties, and only half joking, that when the time came we would somehow wheel each other off the edge of the Great White Throne in Zion National Park. Romantic, sure. But hardly likely.
As Tony’s breathing subsided and his heartbeat stopped, Ellen stroked his side and said, in part to reassure the vet, “I hope someone will do this for me someday.”