Monday, August 21, 2006

Pet Chaplain

Two years ago today, our cat Pyewacket died. He was fifteen years old and ill, and we had to take him to an after-hours emergency vet clinic. Luckily for all of us, Pye’s regular vet was working there that night. She was very kind and gentle both with us and with him, and assured us that euthanasia was the right decision. His death was peaceful.

The anniversary of his death seems like a fitting time to explain why Pet Chaplain is in the Heroes section of my sidebar.

Less than a year after Pye died, we lost our other fifteen-year-old cat, Belphoebe. She’d been sick too, so sick that we’d asked our vet (a different one) if she’d come to the house to give Phoebe The Shot. She said she would. But we thought we still had a little bit of time.

Gary was going to a concert that night, and I had a shift at the hospital. I thought about staying home with Phoebe, but she’d been sleeping all day, on a blanket in a corner of my study, and didn’t seem to be in any pain. Maybe I was hoping that she’d keep sleeping and simply wouldn’t wake up, that she’d spare us the decision. In any case, I decided to go to the hospital.

It was a quiet night. My only memorable visit came when I knocked on the door of a room, went in, and introduced myself as the volunteer chaplain. The patient looked up at me, started to cry, and said, “I’m dying of AIDS. Fifteen minutes ago I was praying to God to send me a sign that he still loved me, and then you walked in. You’re a sign from God.”

If you’re only going to have one memorable visit, that’s the one to have. During slow times at the hospital, when nobody wants to talk to me and I don’t feel as if I’m doing any good for anyone -- and sometimes a stretch like that will last for weeks -- this is the memory I come back to, the one that keeps me going. Sometimes, it’s not about what you do. Sometimes you don’t have to do anything but show up. Sometimes the mere fact that you’re there gives someone new hope or new meaning.

This is the classic “why I am a chaplain” moment.

But the minute I walked back into the house after that shift, I heard Phoebe, upstairs, moaning.

She’d dragged herself out of my study and was huddled under Gary’s desk. She was wheezing, trembling. When I touched her, she screamed.

Gary was still at the concert, which probably wouldn’t be over for at least another half an hour. He didn’t have a cell phone. I had no way to reach him. He’d gotten a ride from friends -- he doesn’t drive -- but they were performing in the concert, so I couldn’t call them, either.

I paced, talked to Phoebe, sent panicky e-mail to a couple of friends, and called the after-hours clinic (where our old vet, alas, was no longer working) to alert them that we’d be coming in. I didn’t want to go down there without Gary. The person who answered the phone, sounding as bored as if we were discussing paper clips, said, “Are you just bringing her in for euthanasia, or do you want an exam? The emergency exam is $85.”

“I want to be sure I’m doing the right thing,” I said. I must have already been crying by then.

Gary didn’t come home. I paced. Phoebe moaned. I was afraid to touch her again, because I didn't want to cause her more pain. I thought about the patient at the hospital. Do cats pray? Had Phoebe been praying for her people to be there, all those hours when she was alone? Had she been praying for a sign that we still loved her, that God still loved her? The only thing that kept my self-reproach from becoming full-fledged hysteria was that Gary would have gone to the concert even if I hadn’t gone to the hospital. I still wouldn’t have been able to reach him. I’d just have had to wait that much longer.

Gary didn’t come home. Finally it occurred to me that he might have gone to our friends’ house for an after-concert drink. I called, and he was there, and I said, “He has to come home now. Our cat’s dying.”

Our friends, bless them, offered to drive us to the emergency clinic, but I said that I didn’t know how long we’d be. It was already late at night, and they had work the next morning. I said I was okay to drive.

So they brought Gary home, and Gary put Phoebe in the carrying case, and we drove the fifteen miles to the clinic. (Our regular vet is a block away.) When we got there, the clerk asked again if we wanted the $85 exam, and I said again, “I want to be sure I’m doing the right thing.”

We waited with Phoebe in a room. The vet came in, took one look at her, said scornfully, “Yes, it’s time,” and left again. Both he and the techs were glaring at us, at me, or at least that was how I felt; maybe it was just my own guilt. She was indeed very clearly in horrible shape, and I think they thought we’d let her suffer too long already. That may be why what happened next happened so quickly.

When Pye died, our vet told us we could stay with him as long as we wanted, both before and after the final shot. She took him to another room to examine him, sedated him, and carried him gently back to us on a soft crocheted afghan. He was lying on the afghan, with our hands on him, when she gave him The Shot.

Nothing like that happened this time. My memory, which is probably inaccurate, is that almost as soon as the vet left -- this stranger we’d never seen before -- he came back again with The Shot. They must have taken Phoebe out of the room at some point, because I know he told us that she was in organ failure, that her lungs were filling with fluid, and I think they must have shaved her leg and put in an IV catheter for The Shot. But what I remember is the vet coming in and giving Phoebe The Shot on that cold metal table. As weak as she was, she fought. She stood up and struggled and tried to get away, and then she fell over into my hands.

It wasn’t peaceful.

I wasn’t peaceful. I was howling, sobbing. I was a crazy woman. The vet had left. I think a tech touched my shoulder and mumbled, “I’m sorry,” but then he fled. I could see people peering in the window of the room at me. Gary was huddled in a corner, a million miles away.

I’ve now seen enough death at the hospital to know that family members frequently fly off in different directions, especially if the death’s unexpected or difficult. Relatives don’t usually fall into each other’s arms the way they do in movies: they bounce off each other and off the walls, like pinballs. Gary and I were reacting perfectly normally. But I didn’t know that then.

In retrospect, I should have let our friends come with us.

At some point, I was lucid enough for just long enough to think, “I really need a chaplain. A few hours ago, I was the chaplain. But I can’t do it for myself, and they don’t have a chaplain here. Nobody here even wants to get near me.”

We left. I drove the fifteen miles home; the discipline of driving steadied me, although I’m sure any objective observer would have said I shouldn’t have been driving at all.

The next morning, I did a Google search and found Pet Chaplain: a multicultural, multifaith pastoral-care service, “caring for people who care for pets.” I was both amazed and grateful. I hit the “contact” button and sent off a tearful e-mail about Phoebe: about how guilty I felt because I’d been at the hospital, caring for strangers, when my cat was in so much pain. I talked about the AIDS patient. I couldn’t regret that visit (how could I ever regret that visit?), but had Phoebe been praying while I was gone? How good had I been at showing her that I still loved her, that God still loved her?

Rob Gierka wrote back right away. He said all the right things. He told me that my work at the hospital was important, and that clearly I’d been meant to be there. He told me that I’d loved my cat and given her a good life, and that I’d done the right thing for her at the end, even though it was so hard. He assured me that God loved both me and Phoebe. And he told me just enough of his own history to make me understand just how much he could empathize.

And that’s why Pet Chaplain is one of my heroes.

I could never do what Rob does. I can usually stay calm and focused around suffering people, but I can’t maintain any kind of detachment around suffering or dying animals. This has to be incredibly hard for the people who work at veterinary clinics. That’s probably why everyone seemed so cold the night Phoebe died. Maybe they really were judging me, or maybe I just thought so because I felt so guilty. But maybe they wouldn’t get near me because they were trying to hold it together themselves.

I still feel awful about what happened that night. Now I wish we’d had our vet come to the house that afternoon. But then I surely would have been in no shape to go to the hospital, and the AIDS patient needed me. I don’t think there’s any way to solve this dilemma. I don’t think the AIDS patient was more important than Phoebe because he was human and she was a cat; they were both important. She was part of my family, and he was part of my ministry, and I couldn’t be there for both of them. This is a very stark story about human limitation.

I still feel guilty. I believe very firmly that our pets will meet us in heaven, because it won’t be heaven if they aren’t there. But in the only dream I had about Phoebe after she died, she’d come back from the dead and was stalking me, growling and glaring: Zombie Kitty. That may sound funny, but it was an awful dream, one of the ones where you scream yourself awake and then can’t shake the feeling for -- well, to be honest, I still haven’t shaken the feeling. It wasn’t a peaceful dream, and I’m still not at peace with what happened.

But I’m more grateful than I can say that someone was willing to listen.

Thank you, Rob Gierka.


  1. This really strikes deep. Once I adopted a puppy from a shelter. The poor thing had distemper. We tried to treat it but couldn't. When it was time to take the puppy back to the shelter for release from that illness I couldn't go and so my roommate took her. I always felt guilty about that. Later, when my sister married a veteranarian, I got to watch him give the shot once. It was a very quite and peaceful way to go for the poor dog who received it. My brother-in-law is a good vet. Watching that release of someone else's pet helped me to deal with my own troubled feelings about the loss of Cookie. I think it is really strong of you to be able to go and get it done for your pet. That is the hardest decision to make. People who don't have pets or don't care for them as deeply as you or I don't realize that these "animals" become family members with full rights to love, care and attention to all their needs, even their emotional ones. They become people. God Bless you Susan. You have a kind and loving heart.

  2. Thanks, Lee. One of my favorite quotations is from SF writer Connie Willis: "God chooses to believe that we have souls because he loves us." (This is from her short story "Samaritan," about a controversy about whether an organgutan who uses sign language should be baptized.)

    For me, going with my pets is the right choice, because I'm someone who needs to see what has actually happened so I won't endlessly imagine awful outcomes. (Once a roommate of mine asked me to take her cat in to be released because she couldn't do it; I couldn't do it then, either -- her sister wound up doing it -- and that's something I still feel guilty about.)

    But people are different, and I've heard vets say that since pets know when their people are upset, it can be kinder to the pet not to have a distraught person there in the final moments. That's another thing I feel about with Phoebe, that I couldn't be calmer for her. We were calm, although very sad, for Pye, but that was a different situation.

    On my 19th birthday, my mother and I had to release a cat we'd had for sixteen years. We were wrecks. Our vet said it might be better, for her sake, if we weren't there, but he let us wait in his private office, and (with our permission) he sent in a lovely, friendly, fluffy Golden Retriever to keep us company and comfort us.

    That dog was a wonderful chaplain!

  3. I hope I can type this, but there are tears in my eyes. I'm facing that situation right now with my 16 year old cat. She's not quite ready I yet I know, but it will be soon. I have a trip coming up soon and I almost want to do it before I go whether she's ready or not because I can't bear the thought of her going without me there, or suffering too long until I get back. I feel guilty already. And completely heartbroken.

  4. Hi, Jan. Thanks for your comment (and I like your website, especially the cool cars!). My heart goes out to you; this is a very difficult situation.

    Have you talked to your vet about it?

    We recently cat-sat for some friends with a very old cat: 23. Before they left, we talked about what to do if the old cat was in real trouble. They said, "We trust your judgment implicitly. We've left a letter with our vet authorizing you to make medical decisions, and our credit card is on file with them if you need to go there."

    They did ask, if the old cat had to have The Shot, for us to stay with him, which of course we would have done.

    Fortunately, nothing happened -- he was absolutely fine the whole time they were away -- but all the scenarios had been discussed very thoroughly first. Do you have cat-sitting friends you trust enough to give such authority?

    Of course, that wouldn't help ease the pain of your not being there yourself. But I would advise talking to your vet about all this.

    Good luck!

  5. Thanks (I've put a few more car shots and a car gallery link too).

    The vet clinic says that they can/will board her while I'm gone. That way no one has to take her in everyday for her fluids (which has been our routine for the last three months), and if she gets really sick, it'll get caught quickly and they can do whatever is necessary. I think that she'll be fine, she's rebounded a little the last couple of days. No telling how long that will last, but there's always hope...

  6. Good luck, Jan, and have a good trip! Knowing she'll get immediate vet care if anything happens would certainly be a relief, I'd think.

  7. My mother was not able to bring her dog to the vet for his Final Voyage, so I had to do it. I remember not being able to cry until I stepped into my car afterwards, having had to sit upon the dog because he would have gotten up and walked away, until he fell asleep. And now my own dog is aging fast (11,5 years is way venerable for a German Shepherd) we have been thinking about it, steeling ourselves, knowing the day will come when we will say good-bye for the last time to a beloved companion.
    I know I can do it, I know I'm able to stay with my furry friend up to the end and remain calm and serene all the while. And I write poems afterwards, with bittersweet rememberance. I celebrate the love that has been.
    As you, Susan, are a Minister of Man, so others can be Minister of Animal. This world and its denizens were created to be rejoiced, and the bitter good-byes remember us to the worth of love. There is no "price to pay", as we will all be reunited sometime, if we haven't already been.

    Please accept this, a sad musing, that may one day be passed on to another heart in need:

    Rest in peace Fenris

    have you also felt that sigh
    gone pain in body and limbs
    I softly tousled your fur
    when your eyes slowly dimmed
    I sat on you, this loving lap
    that never brought you forth
    but whom with love until death
    embraced you with loving force
    not your mother giving a slobbering lick
    but a hand lain gently onto your chest
    you sighed again and I softly said
    for the very last time: "go to rest"

    (Fenris, my mother's German Shepherd,
    "put asleep" on July 22nd 2004, 11 AM in Elewijt, Belgium
    I miss you old meeper.)

  8. Thank you, Babeth! We called our cat Harley "the meeper" when he was a kitten, because of how he mewed. "Meep, meep." He and our other cat Figaro are both half-Siamese, and they tend to be long-lived cats, so we're hoping that we'll have both of them for a long time.

    Fenris is a great name! That's the wolf from Norse mythology, yes? We had a cat named Grendel once.

    Thank you so much for your thoughts.


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