Miss Cleo was one of our three cats. She started acting strangely on a recent Saturday night. By Monday morning Cleo was so weak we rushed her to the vet for tests. We learned Cleo had serious kidney disease. So serious, as a matter of fact, the vet told us her numbers were “off the charts.” The vet flushed her system to ease her pain from the phosphorus build up, then sent her home with us with some special food and medication.
Within 24 hours Cleo wasn’t any better, but worse. She wasn’t eating, barely moved and her cries told me she was in pain. I called the vet who asked me to bring her back to the office. A few hours later I received a call from the vet who suggested we discuss “quality of life” issues. Translation: We should consider euthanizing Cleo.
Richard and I had already had the “quality of life” discussion when Cleo was sick three years ago with liver disease. As a matter of fact, we thought this latest episode was another liver issue and we were prepared to let her go if that was the case. So when Richard arrived home later that afternoon we had “the talk,” and drove to the vet’s office to say goodbye to Cleo.
I approached this event with a matter-of-fact attitude. After all, Cleo was a cat, right? She was in pain. The vet explained that Cleo’s readings were so high that bringing her back to the “old Cleo” wasn’t feasible, and what life she would have left would most likely be compromised in quality. She also explained how Cleo would feel no pain, death would be a matter of possibly a minute, she might lose control of any remaining bodily functions, and her eyes would remain open. All that said, I thought was I duly prepared to see Cleo off.
I wasn’t even close.
Cleo was gone in less than 30 seconds; and while her bodily functions remained in tact, her eyes did indeed remain open. I will never forget those eyes looking at me. I couldn’t decide whether she was saying, “Why are you doing this to me?” or “Thanks for stopping the pain.” Yeah, I know; pet owners think weird things like this when our “kids” die.
Richard and I went home, toasted Cleo and cried. Friends and family shared condolences and told us that, while euthanasia is a tough decision to make, in the end it is in the best interest of the animal because no quality of life remains. A week or so later we received a card and note from the two vets who saw Cleo. They shared their condolences and said we made the right decision for Cleo. Good to know we had the support of the professionals, right? As right as that decision was, however, it doesn’t make us feel any better about making that decision.
As strange as it sounds, since Cleo died I’ve been thinking a lot about people who have no quality of life. I’ve wondered why we sometimes treat our pets better than we treat one another. Yes, I know there is a huge difference in the ability of pets and humans to make end-of-life decisions. Still, why do we allow our fellow human beings who are in vegetative states to waste away in institutions while hooked up to machines? Some of these folks can’t even breathe on their own; and as far as we know they will never have any quality of life; yet we do everything we can to keep them breathing (note I said “breathing” and not “alive”).
I respect that sometimes people make these choices themselves before they enter vegetative states. That is, they want everything possible done to keep them on “this side of the grass,” as I’ve heard it said. Other folks–like me–make sure everyone knows we do NOT want any extraordinary measures performed to keep us alive and we put those wishes in writing. Of course, I’ve seen people disrespect the wishes of their family members, too. Still, when you’re comatose or otherwise unable to enforce your wishes, there isn’t much you can do about your loved ones’ desire to play God.
Of course, some people might say folks like me are trying to play God by instructing caregivers and family members to let us go when it is apparent that, while we are breathing, in reality, we are no longer living. Fair enough. Still, as I’ve told people who disagree with my choice to be cremated, “My body, my life, my choice. I respect your choices; please respect mine.”
Something I’ve found interesting about end of life decisions, however, is how often it is people of faith who are the ones who do everything in their power to keep their loved ones on “this side of the grass.” If you believe your loved one is bound for heaven or an otherwise blessed afterlife, why would you prolong their pain on this side of that blessed existence? And if you are afraid they are bound for eternal damnation, again, why prevent the inevitable? Suffer here, suffer there–what’s the difference?
I understand my thoughts sound cold and harsh to some people; and in all honesty, I don’t mean to hurt anyone or make light of their decisions. I’ve had to make those same decisions for people I love, too. At the same time, I’ve watched so many friends waste away and die (including my second partner), that I just cannot fathom why anyone would prolong that experience waiting for a “miracle” that in all probability isn’t coming. And that last comment isn’t so much a denial of God as it is an affirmation of the circle of life.
Here’s a thought: maybe the miracle occurs when we are able to make the well-informed decision to let our loved ones go to whatever existence may or may not wait for them beyond this life. Maybe the ultimate healing comes when they are released from the pain of so-called “life” on “this side of the grass.”
When it comes our time to choose–and trust me, that time will come–may we choose life.
And remember “breathing” doesn’t always equate to “living.”
In love and respect,