Today I want to tell you the story of my young ninth-lifer. Well, actually, I don’t want to tell the story; even though it’s been six years now, it still hurts. But I need to tell the story, so here I am.
I adopted Dahlia in September of 2006 from the Humane Society of Knox County in Thomaston, Maine. I met her at a copy shop (HSKC had a number of their adoptable cats at businesses where people could see them outside the shelter) when I was doing some errands for work, and as soon as I took her out of the cage, I knew it was love. She did, too; she threw her little paws around my neck and purred in my ear like crazy.
Dahlia was always a slender kitty, but she was pretty robust. Country life was good to her, and she got strong and brave with the help of her buddy, Thomas. The two of them had fallen in love the minute they met, too, and they’d been inseparable ever since.
For four of those six years, we lived in a basement apartment in a small Downeast Maine town. Dahlia was one of those cats who didn’t care where she was, as long as she was with her family. Our lives in that apartment were pretty good, other than an unfortunate septic flood that, unbeknownst to me, had penetrated the walls and begun to grow mold. None of the cats seemed to mind, I could barely smell it, and everyone seemed pretty healthy until one day, about a week before we were due to move to Portland, Maine’s largest city, I woke up to the sound of Dahlia coughing and wheezing. I was pretty sure she was having an asthma attack. I took a quick video of it and called the vet for an emergency appointment. We were at the vet’s half an hour later.
I showed my vet the video, and he agreed that it looked like an asthma attack. Dahlia was breathing okay by the time we got to the vet’s office, but he gave her a steroid shot just to make sure her breathing would stay good.
The next day, the vet’s assistant called to check on Dahlia. I said she was doing great, if a little stressed from the preparations for our move. As far as I could tell, her breathing was good. She was, however, hiding a lot. I attributed this to the stress of watching everything get packed in boxes and knowing that her life was about to be turned upside down.
On March 31, the movers came and packed up all my stuff. I put the cats in the back seat of my car and headed south ahead of them so I could get the keys to the apartment and make sure there was a place for the moving truck to park. Once I got to Portland, I locked the cats into the room that would become my office; I didn’t want anyone running off as the movers came up and down the stairs and the doors stayed open.
After they left, I had my furniture situated and dozens of boxes to open and sort through. I let the cats out of the office so I could set up my desk, and as evening rolled around I fed everybody. Dahlia hardly ate any of her food, and as soon as she was finished eating she ran into a closet and stayed there.
Again, I figured this was due to the stress of moving, although I was starting to get a little concerned, given that she hadn’t eaten much.
A couple of days passed, and I was continuing to unpack, when I noticed that Dahlia was wheezing again. I called a local cat clinic and made an appointment for the next day. But before I could get to that appointment, everything went to hell.
It was April 4, 2012. I’d finally sit down to relax and watch some TV after spending the day unpacking. But just as I put my feet up, Dahlia ran out of the closet where she was hiding. She was wide-eyed with terror and I could hear her wheezing and coughing. She ducked under my bed, where she freaked out and either vomited or peed a huge quantity of fluid. I dropped everything, stuffed her into her carrier, and called the local emergency clinic. Ten minutes later, she was in the hands of a team of experts who were trying to get her breathing normally again. While they were treating Dahlia, I was on the phone applying for Care Credit so I could afford to pay the emergency clinic bill. Just after I was approved, the veterinarian came out to get me. “I want you to see these X-rays,” she said.
I followed her into “the back,” where she had Dahlia’s radiographs up on a monitor. “She has what we call a pleural effusion,” the vet said.
I knew what a pleural effusion was–the chest cavity fills up with fluid and blocks the lungs’ ability to expand–and I knew it was bad. It wasn’t an infection or injury that caused it; that we knew so far.
“We drained the fluid out of her chest and I looked at some of it under the microscope” she said. “I saw a lot of lymphocytes in the fluid, which means either a tumor or heart disease. She’s in an oxygen cage right now. and she’s breathing better, but I want to keep her here overnight. I suggest you make an appointment with Portland Veterinary Specialists for an ultrasound as soon as you can.”
The next day I was at PVS with Dahlia in her carrier for her ultrasound. They took her away and I waited and worried.
I knew it was really bad the minute I saw the look on the veterinarian’s face. She had Dahlia in her carrier in one hand, and a strip of paper with images from the ultrasound on it in the other.
“Dahlia has three tumors,” she said. “One is just behind her breast bone, one is on the liver, and one is near the gallbladder, probably blocking the bile duct. It’s most likely a carcinoma or lymphoma.”
She must have seen that all-too-familiar “hit by a truck” look on my face. “I’m sorry to give you this news,” she said. “If you wish, we can do a biopsy to see what kind of tumor it is and what the prognosis is. I’ll give you a few minutes to decide how you’d like to proceed.”
After she shut the door, I leaned down to Dahlia and, with tears in my eyes, said, “Oh, sweet Dahlia, you’re a very sick little kitty.” I petted her head and asked her, “What do you want to do? Would you be willing to give me a little time to see what kind of tumors they are? If it turns out to be bad, I’ll let you go.” She gave me one of her deep, soulful looks and let out a quick purr.
When the vet returned, I told her I wanted to go ahead with the biopsy. I left Dahlia there for overnight care, and they performed a fine-needle aspirate of the tumor on her liver the next day. I was allowed to take her home that night and they told me the results should be back in a couple of days.
A couple of days passed, and I got a call from the vet. I was hoping they’d have the results of the ultrasound. “The pathologist reviewed the cells we got from the fine-needle aspirate,” the vet said, “but the cells were really hard to differentiate, so they couldn’t make an exact determination. We could redo the biopsy in hopes of getting some better cells,” she said. I agreed to go ahead with that route.
Dahlia decompensated again that night, and we were back at the emergency clinic for another chest tap. The vet looked almost angry when I brought her in. I felt like I had to justify the fact that I was continually getting these chest taps done and that my cat was really sick but I wasn’t putting her to sleep yet. “I’m not trying to prolong her suffering,” I said. “I just want to know what the prognosis is before I make any life-or-death decisions.”
The next day we were back at Portland Veterinary Specialists for another try at the biopsy. While she was there, they drained some fluid out of her chest to make her more comfortable.
Dahlia seemed to be doing pretty well in terms of her breathing, but I could tell by the look on her face that she was in pain. I tried to give her some of the medicine they’d prescribed for her, but she wouldn’t take anything by mouth. I’d tried feeding her gruel through an oral syringe, and she wouldn’t take that, either. In just a few days, Dahlia had lost at least two pounds.
Then the call came. I was at work when it happened. The biopsy results were back, and this time they were a little more conclusive: Atypical large-cell lymphoma.
The vet told me that judging from the fact that she was filling up with fluids every other day and that the tumors had gotten bigger in spite of the medications she’d gotten, the prognosis was very poor.
I knew what I had to do. I didn’t have a regular vet yet–I’d lived in Portland for about a week and a half at this point–and I asked the doctor if she’d be willing to do Dahlia’s euthanasia. She said she would, and I arranged it with the receptionist.
But as I was cleaning Dahlia up and getting her ready for her final appointment, she started panting and looking desperately scared again.
I knew it couldn’t wait until tomorrow. I refused to let her suffer even one more minute. I called the emergency clinic and told them I was coming in for Dahlia’s euthanasia. I put her in her carrier and grabbed her favorite purple fleece blanket, and we ran out to the car. The rain poured down as I made the all-too-familiar trip to the Animal Emergency Clinic. “It’s okay, Dahlia,” I said as I drove with one hand on the wheel and the other on the top of her carrier. “The pain will be over soon.” I kept repeating that as she cried out in terror. My eyes filled with tears. It was hard to drive.
When I got there, they had prepared a room for Dahlia and me. They’d made the sterile room as comforting as they could. A blanket with clouds and cats covered the cold stainless-steel exam table.
“I’ll give you a few minutes,” the vet said.
I petted her head and told her how much I loved her. When I went to hold her, though, her sheer terror broke my heart. She was gasping for breath and I couldn’t wait even a minute longer. I left the room and told the receptionist that I was ready.
The vet came back in a couple of minutes later. She gave one injection of sedative that finally erased the pain and terror from her face. Then the euthanasia injection: a massive overdose of a barbiturate anesthetic. Then, a gentle touch of a stethoscope on a body that was no longer struggling to breathe. “She’s gone,” the vet said quietly.
My heart broke into a million pieces. My beloved Dahlia P. Kittenface was no longer among the living. We’d only had six years together, but those six years were full of love and adventure.
With shaking hands, I posted an update to Facebook: “It is done. Dahlia is free. Gaté, gaté, paragate, parasamgate–Bodhi soha!”
That phrase, the last line of the Buddhist Heart Sutra, is roughly translated as “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone far beyond–O, what beautiful Enlightenment!”
I dried my eyes and made arrangements for Dahlia’s cremation. Then I drove home and held Thomas as I cried. We both grieved together, and we both supported each other through those early days.
And then I had to go back to work the next day and act as if everything was just fine. My co-workers didn’t seem to have a lot of supportive things to say while Dahlia was sick, and when I told them I’d had her put to sleep the night before, there were a few “Sorry”s, but nothing that told me any of them understood the sheer magnitude of my grief.
All this–and more that I’ve either forgotten or not included in this post–happened in just eight days. I went from shock to numbness to despair, and back and forth again through all of those emotions. I also felt a lot of guilt: What if I’d investigated earlier when she was having an occasional cough? Did she get FIV when she got bitten by a barn cat at our old country home? Did I let her suffer too long? Did I do the right thing? Would I have done anything differently if I’d had another chance? I don’t know. All I do know is that if I had it all to do all over again, knowing what I know now, I still would have adopted Dahlia.