My Name is Leo

An adored cat deals gracefully with a jaw tumor while his owner quietly falls apart.

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Location: Philadelphia area, Northeast, United States

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Final Hours

(Continuing from the last post...)

I finally managed to get to bed at 6 AM Sunday morning. At 7 AM, I was jarred from my sleep by the sickening sound of Leo's body hitting the floor (twice) and his plaintive cries.

I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs to find him two rooms away from where I had left him. He was at the top of the basement steps, probably in a last-ditch effort to visit his litter boxes (even though I had brought one upstairs, he was a good kitty that wanted to go in the usual place.)

Didn't mention in the last post that Leo had so little control during the night that he had peed twice in the spots where he had been lying.

If there was any bright side to the heartbreak of the past twelve hours, it was that there was absolutely no doubt that it was "time." I told my husband we had to go now, and he quickly dressed. I apologized for needing him to go with me -- I had taken our other cat to be euthanized by myself, but with Leo (who I was so much closer to) I was really afraid I wouldn't be able to drive through the tears.

Since it was Sunday, our only option was an emergency vet. Luckily, I had found one online that was less than 10 minutes from our house.

That settled, my husband and I had a discussion that I had been dreading. What to do with Leo's body. It's something I had given a lot of thought to.

When Leo's brother Zeke had to be euthanized last year, our vet had simply asked if we wanted a communal cremation or for him to be cremated alone. Since I had no intention of taking ashes (I respect any individual's wishes, but pet cremains don't appeal to me) I opted for the communal cremation.

When I returned home from Zeke's last vet visit, I was extremely disturbed to see the term "bagged pet" used on the forms I had signed for his "disposal." My tortured mind saw this equating him with a bag of trash that would be tossed on a heap of other remains.

Sure, probably not the case. But my imagination haunted me, with the question of whether his body was treated with respect.

And this is what I dreaded most when I had contemplated Leo's demise through the course of his illness.

Sometime in the past months, I had asked my husband about burying Leo in our backyard. He looked at me as if a second head had suddenly sprouted on my shoulder...or, "Who is this woman pretending to be my (practical) wife?"

My husband believes that the body is just a shell, and once life leaves, the body has no significance (except maybe to gross him out.)

Subsequently, I had begun to wonder about burying Leo on my parent's rural property. A number of my childhood pets were buried in the woods there. But that would require driving an hour-and-a-quarter with a dead animal in the back. I couldn't imagine being composed enough myself to drive that journey safely.

But on this Sunday, my husband and I were already going back to my parents' place to pick up our girls. And I had mentioned something to my dad the day before, expecting his resistance. Instead, he said that he thought that it would be a perfect final resting place for Leo.

So, before we left for the emergency vet, my husband and I needed to discuss what we were going to do. He kindly volunteered to do whatever I wanted, even bury Leo in our back yard. What a guy.

But in my previous ruminations, I hadn't been able to think of a decent place in our small suburban yard where I could be assured that Leo's remains would not be disturbed by future landscaping, fence replacement, etc.

And he had been born outside, next door to my parent's house. In effect, Leo would be going home.

We didn't even know if New Jersey allows people to take their deceased pets (after all, my regular vet office didn't even ask me with Zeke.) It was agreed that we wouldn't push the issue, but would take Leo if allowed.

7:50 AM -- Even in his weakened state, Leo wasn't crazy about being put into the carrier. Luckily, we have a large-door-on-top model, so I could place him inside, lying down, with little effort.

He did meow his usual car-ride scared cry when we first set off, and struggled a bit inside the carrier, but soon settled down and was quiet for the ride.

Animal Emergency Service of South Jersey operates out of Mt. Laurel Animal Hospital. The lobby of the building has skylights, and the morning sun shone through into the room when we arrived.

As we stood at the reception desk, it seemed as if a ray of light was shining down right onto Leo's carrier. I felt good about this place.

We were asked if we wanted Leo to see a vet for an exam, or just proceed with the euthanasia. Was there anything to be gained by a vet exam? No. There was no recovery for Leo, and an exam would not likely give us any definitive answers anyway.

Meanwhile, Leo had been crying in the carrier. All I wanted was for his suffering to be over.

And then, we were asked if we wanted to take the body or use their cremation services. So thankful that this was an option that we didn't even have to ask about. Relieved that we didn't have to leave Leo behind.

We were shown to a quiet room. A vet tech took Leo into the back to have a catheter inserted into his leg. My husband and I made casual conversation, sitting on a wooden bench in the room, both trying to stay composed.

I expected Leo to be sedated when he returned.

Instead, he was carried back a few minutes later lying on a thick sheepskin-esque pad, in the same state of consciousness as when he left.

In contrast, when Zeke was euthanized, his vet injected a sedative into the scruff of his neck (with me present) and then let me spend time alone with him, until they took him away for an IV euthanasia. I had opted not to be present for that final step, and the regret had stabbed at me in the days to follow...that I had not been present for Zeke when his spirit left his body.

Leo lay on his side with the IV port taped to his front leg. We pet him and tried to calm him, as he meowed sadly and made occasional futile efforts to get up.

I had to reach into the box of tissues on the counter more than once.

Then the vet entered the room. She introduced herself, but I can no more recall her name than I can remember her face. All I cared about was that she was there to end Leo's pain.

She explained that she was going to inject three syringes into the IV port. The first, a sedative and then a barbituate that would effectively OD Leo and cause his heart to stop. She explained that there could be a loss of bodily fluids, and that the body might twitch or shudder in the process.

The vet asked me to stand where Leo could see me (although I don't think I quite made it into his direct line of sight because the vet was in my way - oh well) and I stroked his head between his ears as the vet began the injections.

"Rest in in peace," she said softly as she inserted the first syringe of medication into the IV. And then, "No more more more pain," as she swiftly emptied the syringes in succession.

Just as quickly as it took me to type the previous paragraph, Leo was gone.

No shuddering, gasping or loss of bodily fluids. More importantly, no more pain.

And then, the most surprising part. Instead of collapsing into a puddle of grief, I was calm.

It was as if a huge crushing boulder had been removed from my heart. Leo's spirit had been set free -- awakened from the nightmare of his suffering.

I placed one of the towels from his carrier next to him, and gently slid his body on top, then wrapped the towel around his body. Carefully, lovingly, I lowered my friend's remains into the carrier. Still on his side, his little head exposed with the rest of his body covered.

We felt no need to remain in this place any longer. We walked outside...where the sun was bright and warm, the air fall-crisp and the morning seemed as beautiful as the night had seemed cruel.

(The end of the journey to follow...)


Blogger Merujo said...

Oh, that was hard to read, and I'm crying right now, remembering all my friends we've had to help when the time came. Sounds like you had a compassionate ER vet to help you.

10/11/2006 9:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great blog. I had similar experiences in Philadelphia. Also, lived in Hdfld. Wonder about which vets helped you.

2/11/2007 7:30 AM  
Blogger Cyn said...

Leo's regular vet was Village Veterinary Hospital in Medford, NJ.

The emergency vet service (where Leo was euthanized) was provided at Mt. Laurel Animal Hospital in Mt. Laurel, NJ.

2/11/2007 12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't thank you enough for sharing your story. I am going thru the same thing with my beloved, 15 yr old Peanut. Same cancer in the jaw, whatever it may be. I am beside myself with grief as I watch my once vibrant kitty drool and need help cleaning herself. I have researched the web for the past 3 weeks since diagnosis and was so grateful to find you and your beautiful Leo. Now I know what to expect and sad to say, give up any hope for a miraculous recovery. It helps to know what to expect. You have no idea how much your blog has helped me. Thank you, Cyn. Wendy, Gainesville, Fl

6/13/2008 8:14 PM  
Blogger Cyn said...

Hi Wendy,

Thanks for your kind comment. I'm so sorry to hear you and Peanut are going through the same thing. If this blog helped you, it makes what Leo went through have some purpose.

Words seem lacking in light of what you are going through, but I hope you are able to find at least a little bit of happiness in whatever time you two have left together.

6/14/2008 4:17 PM  
Anonymous Allison said...

My cat Gizmo has the same diagnosis & he's developing the same bloody jaw. I'm crying here, but thank you so much for the words and especially photos - knowing what is coming makes it better to deal with.


11/10/2009 3:52 PM  
Blogger Cyn said...

Sorry that you (and Gizmo) are dealing with this. It's a tough road for us humans who love our friends so much. For Leo...well, I know he dealt with his illness far better than I was able to(mentally, at least.)

So thanks for taking the time to comment here -- even after three years, Leo's loss is still deeply felt...and it means so much to me that his story can help others.

11/12/2009 9:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your posts about Leo. My dear Patches was euthanized today after a 2 1/2 month fight with a jaw tumor. The ideas I read here helped me make his last weeks better - especially the idea of giving him baby food. About 5 weeks ago we started taking him in weekly to get a fentanyl pain patch attached to his skin which helped a lot.

The fact that you shared his last days and hours helped me know it was time and make the decision today. He'd stopped eating Sunday evening, and was starting to hide, giving us the signs that he was ready to be done with this. We'd taken him to the vet yesterday, got him a pain shot and a fresh pain patch, but it didn't make a difference after 24 hours; his jaw was starting to bleed at times and we felt it was time. He would still purr when we scratched his head.

I held him and told him I loved him, kept petting and talking to him, and the euthanasia was very gentle and peaceful. I will miss him so much and am very sad, but relieved that he no longer has to deal with this. I think he didn't suffer much but would have if we'd let it go on longer.

So thank you again and know that despite your pain on losing Leo, your story helped me so much.

4/18/2012 8:37 PM  
Blogger Cyn said...

To Patches' owner - I feel awful that I didn't respond to your comment earlier. I get them via e-mail and while I always read them immediately it's often hard to force myself to visit the blog...I'm sorry for that failing in myself, especially when I read something as touching as your comment. It really does mean a lot to me. Thank you for taking the time on that very saddest of days to share your story.

3/12/2013 12:36 AM  
Blogger Anonymous said...

Last night we out down our sweet boy Bob. It was clear to me that morning when he was bleeding profusely and so thin that it was time. The mass on his jaw had grown so large. He wanted to eat, but struggled to swallow. He was thirsty, but just stared at his water dish. Tuna juice sustained him, but he was sad and weak. Not the Bob we knew for 16 years. Such an awful disease for poor Leo and Bob and countless other much lived felines. Our vet came over and Bob's life ended in front of the heater on his favorite bed. We buried him in our yard. So sad to not have him anymore. He was a sweet gentle soul and the peacemaker of my other 2 cats. He will be missed as I am sure Leo is. Thank you for your post.

12/20/2016 9:16 PM  
Blogger Anonymous said...

I also wanted to add that I visited this site often during Bob's disease. It helped to know others shared this painful experience. It helped to know what to expect, and what might be helpful. I tried pureeing his food and also tried baby food. I was willing to try anything to get him to eat without pain. The tumor was fast growing. We first noticed it when his tongue stuck out a tiny bit. But as it grew it became obvious something was very wrong. It was obvious you loved your Leo and thank you so much for sharing your story to help others.

12/20/2016 10:00 PM  
Blogger terry p said...

my cat passed away sat.tumor on his jaw bone.

11/17/2017 4:16 AM  

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