Last Wednesday, July 26th, 2017, a black cat died. His name was Boo Radley, or Boo Boo, or Boomus McStoomus PhD, or Black Bastard if you're my dad. He was amazing, and my friend, and I miss him terribly. I wrote a letter to Glenda Stansbury about it, and here it is.
Dear Ms. Stansbury:
It's a little bizarre, isn't it, how things work out sometimes? The week before last I listened to you give a presentation at the CANA training seminar at my school (CCMS), and I was moved more than I can say - I wanted to approach you and tell you just how much, in fact, but because I'm slightly more awkward than a manatee in a small European car, I lost my nerve, and before I could get it back you'd left. I'll write to her, I said. Before I did, I read the Summer 2017 Dodge magazine, and your wonderful article about death blindness, and your pug, Max the Wonder Dog - now I'm definitely going to write to her, I said, because I have a unique experience with the field of pet death (I worked in vet care for 10 years before I moved into death care).
Before I could, though, my mother called about our cat, Boo Radley. Em, what should we do? she asked. What's wrong? I asked. The side of Boo's head was swollen immensely, to the point where the soft tissues around his eye were protruding and his eye was completely hidden. He was febrile and wobbly and disinterested in food. Hm - Boo is no stranger to abscesses about the face, being the neighborhood cat mob boss, so I said try to find the scab to open it and drain it to relieve some pressure, and get him to a vet ASAP tomorrow. She put the phone down while she picked (he was always so good and never complained while we pinched, prodded and drained), and then she said: Em, it's hard. My heart sank. Hard lumps are bad lumps. I could hear the panic rising in my mom's voice, so I told her to take him to the emergency vet - where I used to work - and I would meet them there.
I drove right over, and met my mom, sister and their neighbor down the street, with whom we "shared custody" of Boo (he really catted around town). Boo was being examined in the back, and they'd given him a pain injection because his pain was so intense. Before I even sat down, money was brought up. "I'm not going to pay three hundred bucks for a dead cat," said the neighbor, and I wanted to blacken his eyes. Those words are my nightmare. They turned me into ice. Long and sickening story short, the swelling likely came from head trauma, the pressure on Boo's eye was so strong it was slowing his heart rate, and surgery would have been risky for a fifteen-year-old cat in his condition. The people with the money opted to euthanize Boo. I saw the sense in it, though I had to separate myself when they started talking about the cat who had been my friend for almost half my life as though he was a crappy old car that had finally broken down and was going to cost a lot to have towed. The neighbor told them to "go ahead and do it," and he went to leave.
I had to stop them and tell them that I wanted to be present for the euthanasia. The neighbor looked at me like I'd just married my brother because I "wanted to watch." Yes, I want to watch. I've been with hundreds of animals over the years as they've passed away, and let me tell you - they look for the ones they love. I would not send Boo to his grave alone among strangers.
Boo's death was painless and blessedly swift, and he purred until the end - because I made it so. I asked if I could place him in the cardboard box - they let me, with odd looks of course. I told them I was going to take him to the crematory myself - they said alright, because it wasn't worth arguing about.
I had called the pet crematory just before the euthanasia to make sure we could get there before they closed. The young man who answered was... nice, but less than professional. I asked him if I would be able to stay to help put Boo in the retort, and he said he wasn't sure "because I just put a big one in, and then I have a medium one, so I'm not sure how long it'll be." I didn't mind, because I'm a mortuary student, but I can't help but feel someone less prepared for that might have been a bit sickened to think of their baby being referred to as "the big one" going into a cremator. When we drove down to the crematory, Boo in my lap, we called again to let them know we were on our way. "Oh, uh, okay, well, I just had to make a quick home-return to Hamilton Township, so, uh, I might be like twenty or so minutes, so, uh, if you want to, you know, stop and grab a bite to eat on your way." Huh - I'm crying my face off here, buddy, I just lost my friend very suddenly, and in fact he's right here in my lap, I don't think I'll be "grabbing a bite to eat" tonight or anytime soon. Also, you knew we were coming soon, why make a home return?? Of course, I didn't say anything, because I was crying my face off.
We arrived, and we waited about 25 minutes before the young man, zoomed into the back, and unlocked the front door - doesn't wave us in or acknowledge us at all, just unlocks it. We got out of the car and went in, he took Boo, balanced him on a chair, called him "Bo-Bo" and tried to sell us an urn, which we declined for the time being. Never said he was sorry. Never offered me a tissue for my streaming eyes and nose. Never even offered me a seat at 9pm. At this stage, I honestly began to provide myself better customer service - again, I asked to see the retort, and he let me. I asked if I could help put Boo in, and he let me. If I hadn't, he'd have taken our money and said "Have a good night." Before we placed Boo into the retort, he jiggled him around a bit in the box, to see if he could get a rough weight on him - again, it didn't bother me because of my background, but if I was anyone else, I would have been mortified. Can you imagine someone jiggling a casketed human body in front of the family and saying "Huh, about 200? 220?"
The man at the crematory was not cruel, just a little young and very untrained. But looking back over these events (which happened all of two days ago), I realize how hard it was for me to do that - to give my friend a good death because no one else was interested in doing so, even the people who are specially trained (so they say) for that role. It's like going to a restaurant and having to find your own table, ordering with no menu, and enduring an uncommunicative, cold server - except of course we usually volunteer to eat out; death is something we are forced to deal with.
Boo's death was hard, and it was made unnecessarily harder by incompetence and ignorance. It still burns like a great flaming bowling ball settled in the pit of my stomach. I threw up because of it. I missed a day of school because of it - and ask Mrs. Dutko, I'm never, ever absent. I hate that it happened this way. And all the while I was thinking of Max the Wonder Dog (and your mother, Barbara) and how their deaths were so hard, and made so much harder by ineptitude on the part of those to whom we look for comfort in our time of greatest need.
That's garbage. Ms. Stansbury, I promise I will help to change that. I feel privileged to have seen both sides in this issue - the veterinary side, and the death care side - and if I can one day make the death of someone's Max, or someone's Boo, or even someone's Barbara, go easier, if I can just leave them knowing their love is in caring hands, if I can take that weight from off their shoulders - then I will have done some good in this world.
Thank you for your speech at my school, and thank you for sharing your stories of Max and your mother. Your words get under my skin, which is a good thing. I can only hope that one day, I am able to get under someone's skin the same way. Even though what you do is hard, and exhausting, and made more so by stupid people - please, never stop doing it.