Before I left home, my daughter packed the bag with food, snacks, a picture she’d colored in the car and a stuffed blue “Pete the Cat” doll. My wife told her to do this as a way to comfort Dodge, our cat, while she went to the vet. My wife and I had a feeling Dodge wouldn’t be returning home, or we knew she wouldn’t, and the bag was a way for our daughter and her younger brother to do something to help. It also gave them a way to say goodbye. Now, the vet told me over the phone that Dodge was for sure never returning home, and I couldn’t bring Pete the Cat in with me.
It was late May and the pandemic had engulfed the world. No one was allowed inside the veterinary clinic except for dire cases. The vet wanted me to come in. I called my wife to see if she wanted me to go in with Dodge. If she wanted it, I’d go.
I called the vet back and told them I’d be in in a minute.
I put on my mask and sanitized my hands.
A few months earlier, Dodge had started acting strange. She came out from her hiding places in search of water. She knocked over glasses and lapped the puddle on the counter. She pounced on the toilet seat and drank from the bowl. She drank from the catches at the bottom of house plants. She’d stalk the kitchen at night, whining and crying. She began to sit on the bed with us, which scared me at first because she never wanted to sit with anyone. Her coat had gone to hell since the death of her brother Jim, years ago, and now grew even grosser, matted and covered in clumps that we’d cut off. She ate incessantly.
My wife took Dodge to the vet for the first time after Christmas and she called while driving home after the appointment to tell me that Dodge had diabetes. No more dry cat food. She needed canned food twice a day with an injection of insulin at each meal. “That should take care of most of her problems,” the vet said. Her coat should fill and smooth out again and her dandruff disappear.
There was more, my wife said. Dodge had a black spot under her tongue. It could be cancer. They asked if she wanted it biopsied. She declined. We needed to wrap our heads around the diabetes diagnosis first before we could move on to cancer. Dodge was 13 and had never been the healthiest specimen. One problem at a time.
Over the next few months, nothing went right for Dodge. Her fur looked a little better at first, but she kept losing weight and she somehow became hungrier than ever. The growth in her mouth got worse. She struggled to eat and drink. She turned her mouth sideways to eat the wet cat food. The water lapped against her face. Her drool, something new, dangled from her chin and at times stretched to the floor. Her underside, the only place she cleaned, became soaked with sticky saliva.
Dodge was my wife’s cat, but she couldn’t be the one to decide if Dodge lived or died. I’d been in the room for this conversation before. It’s never easy, but over the years I’ve become adept at navigating the words and phrases you use to tell someone when they’re about to lose their pet.
Before I was born my father bought my mother a pair of puppies, golden retriever and yellow lab mix. They named them after beers, Mickey and Molson. Our street had been a farm before it became a sparsely populated residential street; it was mostly woodlands that the dogs roamed together. No harness, leash or kennel could contain them.
Molson could open cabinets and unbuckle harnesses. She could find the soft spot in the mostly slate backyard to dig a hole and escape from the metal kennel. My parents gave up trying to cage them in. Mickey was the playful one. He chased balls and brought home rabbits. He’d put them on the back porch and bark at them, begging them to try to run away again. One time, the two of them broke into the liquor cabinet and Molson opened a bottle of Baileys for them to drink. They got sick after.
I’d rest my head on their bellies while watching TV in our living room. I’d whistle for them to come home. There were only two other kids on our street, and they were best friends. I was the third wheel. The dogs filled in.
On that day, I went with my mother to the vet, but the memory fades a bit. I know I was there in the waiting room when the dogs went out back with the doctor for a routine vet visit. I don’t remember if we went with them. I can see the stale white tiled floor and a bench. I can see my mother’s teased blond hair. I want to say she wore a jean jacket, but that might be because she is wearing that jacket in most of our photos of her from that time. I’m sure I had a bowl cut of shiny brown hair and wore something from K-Mart or Bradlees.
The vet came out to talk to my mother. There was a problem. A heart. Maybe lungs. Something about fluid. Mickey, the one who looked more like a golden retriever, with his long blonde hair dangling to the ground, had something wrong with him. The doctor said it couldn’t be fixed.
That Mickey made it to the vet was a miracle. He had no outward symptoms that I could see as a small child. That he was alive at all was a mystery. His desire to live greater than we could understand.
When we entered the vet’s office the sun was out. By the time we left the sun had disappeared. The other cars vacated the parking lot. We were a one dog house now.
I can see a metal table. I can see Mickey’s lifeless body, still warm and his happy personality somehow pulsating from him. I don’t know if I cried. I don’t know if I could.
I went to school the next day. I remember the tears beginning. They troubled me as I rested my head on my folded arms on my desk. I tried to hide. No one said anything. I heard the multiplication rap. I remember handing my teacher Miss Sweeney my planner and there being a note in my dad’s difficult to read cursive. She knew. Everyone somehow knew. She said she was sorry and she meant it. I always had a crush on her.
Molson didn’t last long after losing her brother. She gained weight; she’d sit on the worn linoleum in the kitchen and shake and piss herself while having seizures. She was never the playful type, more introverted, but now she retreated further. Mickey gave her life.
I was in fifth grade now when the night arrived and my dad knew it was time. Molson looked and sounded miserable. I’m sure her heart ached and her body had given up. My father put her in the green Dodge minivan with the middle aisle seats removed. I said I wanted to go. I sat in the front seat next to my dad. We drove to the emergency animal hospital at the veterinary school a few towns away.
It was dark and sad inside. There was wood paneling and a place for cats and another side for dogs. We checked in and they took Molson. That was it. She was gone.
I kept her and Mickey’s collars under my bed. I still have Molson’s. It’s under the bed I share with my wife. I am unable to let go. For a while, I used her leash with our dog. Eventually the cloth broke, gave out.
With animals, we can “put them out of their misery.” We possess their lives. More often than not, they don’t get to decide when it’s time to go. We’re their guardians and their shepherds. Most often there’s no funeral or grievance days given by our bosses. The death of a pet can be the loss of a family member, but often the loss is treated like losing a book. Except that anyone can be Dr. Kevorkian and help a pet pass away in peace. Or, we can keep them suffering.
At home, I collected the bag my daughter had packed and put Dodge up in her carrier. We told my five year old daughter and her two year old brother that Dodge might not come home. My daughter asked if she’d be with her brother Jim. My wife told her “yes.” I didn’t say anything.
Jim had been an outgoing and friendly cat. He loved to play and cuddle. He came when you called his name, most of the time anyway. He would sit on me while I was in bed and knead my chest and sleep between my legs. He’d wake me with a purr and luscious eyes. He had long legs and stretched out on them, sprawling out to get comfortable on a lap or a keyboard as I tried to work. He’d climb into the kitchen cabinets and pull loaves of bread down to snack on and then he’d look at you, knowing he’d done something wrong, knowing also that you could never be mad at him. Even when we had to amputate one of his legs, he stayed cheerful.
One day he was cleaning himself, stretched out and then his body shook. He turned over. That was it. My wife attempted CPR on him on our ottoman. “No. No. No,” she said. A puff of air came out when she pressed his chest. It was his life. My daughter, then just learning to walk and talk, patted his belly and said “kitty” in the sweetest voice. I had to bring him to the same veterinary emergency room where we’d brought Molson, years before. Where Jim had his leg cut off after he knocked an empty bookcase over and onto his paw. He hid with the pain and broken foot for days before coming out and pouncing on the kitchen table. His front right foot dangled. The surgeon amputated it and after a short recovery he became a happy tripod until he died.
I wrapped his lifeless body in a towel and placed him in a box. He was heavier than I remembered. I cried as I drove him to the animal hospital. I couldn’t explain this to my daughter, barely a toddler then.
They cremated Jim’s body and promised to send us a ceramic paw print with his name written above it. Dodge hid through all of it.
Dodge was Jim’s opposite. She was shy and preferred to live under beds and in dark corners. My wife picked her out of pity. Dodge pushed herself against the back when people came to look at the box of kittens. She never stopped trying to hide. She had short legs and a fat belly even as a kitten. Her eyes looked sad. She barely cleaned herself outside of dipping her front paws in the water bowl. Everything seemed to scare her. Even when she tried to escape out the back door, she’d never make it farther than the bottom of the stairs before bolting back inside. She never frolicked like Jim.
It started to rain as I drove to the only vet’s office that could see Dodge, which was located on a secondary highway in central Massachusetts. A new vet, but this was an emergency. There’s a diner nearby with a sign depicting an anthropomorphic clam with two feet and two big googly eyes. I dropped Dodge off with a technician at the door. I was told it would take time. They were squeezing her in, after all. But I had nowhere to go. I sat in the parking lot and waited.
When the vet called she had bad news. The tumor inside Dodge’s mouth was cancer. It had spread into her jaw, down her neck and spine. This was pet care during a pandemic.
“You did the right thing bringing Dodge here today,” the vet said. “There are a few things we can do.”
I don’t remember if they did a biopsy, but they were certain the kind of cancer in Dodge’s mouth was aggressive, unrelenting. We could decide to try and remove the cancer with surgery, but that probably wouldn’t work and would leave Dodge without much of a mouth. She might get a few extra miserable months of life. The other option was to put her down. Option two was better. No animal deserves to suffer through months of forced feedings and pain. No animal needs to wither away.
I called my wife and told her what we needed to do. The vet had asked me if I wanted to be there when they put Dodge down. My wife didn’t want Dodge to be alone. No one deserves to be alone when they die.
It felt eerie being somewhere you’re not supposed to be. The vet techs behind the desk spoke openly and loud about the pets they were caring for, and about their owners. It was easy to see that they preferred this set-up. No one in the waiting room stared at them and asked a million times when something would be done. One of them walked me to the room where Dodge waited. She meowed when I walked in. They’d cleaned her, but that only made me see how much more weight she’d lost in the last few months.
The vet told me what was going to happen: she was going to find a vein, if they could, and insert a needle attached to a tube attached to a syringe and slowly inject her with a sedative until Dodge overdosed. Her heart would slow and her breathing would stutter down. She’d feel nothing. Her eyes would creep closed but not shut all the way. Then she’d go quiet. I said “OK,” and the tears started to drip. My nose began to run behind my mask, which made it impossible to wipe it. Safety first.
I stroked Dodge’s head, scratched behind her ear as the vet struggled to find a vein. Dodge and I never really connected. We hated each other. She’d find herself locked in closets in our house and pee on the blankets and clothes she made into her makeshift bed. She’d cover my sweatshirts and clothes in her matted gray hair. But I know she wanted me there.
Finally, after nearly a half hour, she left us. I signed the paperwork and paid $300 for the visit. They handed me a ceramic paw print made from Dodge’s lifeless paw. It shares a spot on a shelf with Jim’s print.
My daughter has more love in her than I ever had. She is as emotional, but less guarded. She’s less inward than me and more outwardly curious, asking questions in real time. I simmer and search for answers alone. I need to discover them, while she’s a rolling version of Trivial Pursuit.
My son is younger than my daughter and he’s begun to ask where Dodge is. He wants to know where she went and if she’s ok. He asked if she got “the sickness,” what we call Covid-19 with our children. He’s asked me when she will come home. He’s more rambunctious and less willing to listen to the answer. We’ve sat at breakfast in the morning and he’s asked “why” when I told him she wouldn’t be home and then I redirect him to play with one of his cards or to take a bite of his cereal. He refocuses and makes engine noises, forgetting the question for now. I get up and fix more coffee, too tired to deal with death before 7 a.m.
My kids have been playing with a stuffed toy cat that they call Dodge. It’s not Pete The Cat, who is blue and has his own books series and show on Amazon; Pete The Cat can’t be anyone but himself. It’s another stuffed animal cat, with gray and black stripes and a big white smiling face. It barely looks anything like Dodge except its color, but my daughter has come to sleep with it. Both my kids talk to fake Dodge and fight over who gets to play with her. He makes her fly and bang into things around the room. Then he pets her, gently. My daughter talks to her. “It will be OK. You’re safe,” she says. “I will take care of you.”
“Daddy, will you die?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Will momma die too?”
“Will I die?”
“Yes,” I said.
My daughter asked about her brother, her grandparents and her own theoretical children. She asked if we could all get put in the same hole together. She knows some people get buried. She knows that things die. She’s seen it happen. She asked what happened after and I didn’t have an answer.
We were driving by a cemetery when she started questioning me. She knew people went into those holes underneath those stones. I don’t know who told her that. Maybe it was me.