“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” - Anatole France.
When I first began working at an animal shelter there was a major phenomenon occurring that I wanted in on… the act of fostering.
Different animals need fostering for different reasons: some have medical problems, some have behavior issues, while some can simply use a break from the stress of living in a shelter. I had no particular animal in mind, but I knew I wanted in on this partnership. I asked a few of my fellow employees which animal they thought could really use a foster home and almost unanimously, each person answered… Barberry.
That was January in 2009 when Barberry came into my life. At that time, she was being isolated in the infirmary unit of the shelter. Someone had found her as a stray cat and admitted her to the shelter in April of 2008; she weighed only 4 lbs at the time. She was extremely emaciated, had fleas, and a bad sniffly nose which ignited bloody sneezes every few seconds. Appropriately, the veterinary staff diagnosed her with having chronic upper respiratory disease.
During her first year at the shelter, the staff tried to place her on the adoption floor with the other cats, but she made many of them sick and had to be brought back to the infirmary unit. She then spent some time as an office cat for the Low Cost Spay & Neuter staff, but was placed back in infirmary after she began isolating herself under their desks. Things weren’t looking good for Barberry.
The veterinary staff estimated that Barberry was around eleven-years-old at the time that she came in. She was missing almost all of her incisor teeth, and the few teeth that were left were badly rotten with sore and bloody gums. Her fur was shedding, and she had extra toes… she was polydactyl.
I don’t think I could have imagined myself falling so in love with such a cat.
I gently slided over the topic of her bloody sneezing with my mother when I asked to bring her home… It’s possible that I did not give my parents much of a choice, because on January 27, 2009 I carried home an eight-pound, dilute calico female that had barely seen the outside of a cage in over a year. Not bringing her home was not an option.
Almost instantaneously my carpet was ruined. Her sneezes left the walls covered with bloody mucous, so I found myself taping newspaper all along the bottom edge of my walls. But, she was perfect. I had planned to have her sleep and live in the bathroom for the first week or so that she was home, but Barberry was having none of that. After I climbed in bed on our first evening together, Barberry (in true feline fashion), took a graceful leap over the baby gate I had set up, and climbed into bed with me.
I think that was when I realized I was never bringing her back to the shelter. She had won my heart. “Foster failures” (when a foster parent adopts the animal) at my animal shelter were common, and I was joining the ranks. I remember how we used to have snuggle sessions around 4 am every morning. Barberry would climb aboard my head and knead my hair with her paws. Every night, in the middle of the night, I anticipated her purring next to my ear and her whiskers tickling the side of my face.
Those were the best times – the moments of climbing into bed and having her sprint onto the bed with me, and also the moments of waking up, when she would hear the alarm chime and jump up to say Good Morning, Mom! I had never felt such love from an animal. The most endearing act that Barberry bestowed upon me was when she would wake me up with a giant, mucousy, bloody sneeze all over my face. Good morning, I love you and I’m hungry, is what she was trying to say.
Then there was the mutt, Molly, whom Barberry decided was going to be her best friend in the whole world. Ninety-pound Molly would come upstairs to visit, and eight-pound Barberry would prance to her so that Molly could lick her all over.
A few months into my relationship with Barberry, I noticed odd behaviors. Every few weeks she would get very uncomfortable and cry uncontrollably. Her meows were deafening as she rolled and pulled herself across the carpet, seeking comfort. I tried to explain these behaviors to the medical staff at my shelter, and although all of her symptoms pointed to being in heat, they insisted that she had already been spayed!
The symptoms continued: every few weeks Barberry would emit wild howls and drag her nine-pound body across the carpet, as if she had a terrible itch. She was in heat. It was the only explanation, so I pushed the issue at the shelter. It wasn’t until almost a year after Barberry was living with me that they scheduled her for an exploratory surgery to figure out if she still had all of her girl parts… She did. They were promptly removed the week after the major 2010 snowstorm in Pittsburgh.
Making this surgery happen was not an easy feat. First, the decision had to be made whether she was healthy enough to be put under anesthesia. Then, when the snow hit, none of the veterinarians could make it to the shelter for the surgery that had taken weeks to decide to do in the first place. She sat in a cage for two days before I climbed into my Father’s astro van, braced for icy conditions, and went to the shelter to bring her home. I couldn’t bear the thought of sleeping without her for another night. The rescheduled surgery went smoothly, finally.
Barberry had up until this point been considered a Hospice Foster… meaning I would have her forever, or at least until she crossed the rainbow bridge. After her spay surgery I made the decision to adopt her, since in my heart she already belonged to me.
That first year marked the beginning of our time together. Our end began in May 2010 when she was diagnosed with Chronic Renal Failure.
When she was first diagnosed with CRF I had no idea what to expect. How much time did we have left? Weeks? Months? A Year? Every cat is different, and every disease progresses at a different rate. At the beginning of CRF a cat will drink and pee like it is their job – they will pee rivers and they will pee often. Towards the end of CRF a cat will actually stop peeing as often, marking the beginning of the end to the disease.
At the end of August, Barberry stopped using her boxes completely. I had four set out for her, and when she did go (which was seldom), she could not make it to any box.
When I climbed into bed each night, she had no interest in climbing in also.
She slept in the darkest corner of my closet all day long, occasionally getting up to eat.
There are certain things that every feline should be able to enjoy in life: the sun on its back, pouncing on toys, being fastidious about their litter box… So when Barberry’s disease had progressed to the point that she no longer did any of these things, I had to wonder… At what point in a terminal disease do you say goodbye? Do you wait until the very end when the animal has suffered all that it can? Or do you keep its suffering to a minimum?
My vet told me very simply that Barberry was dying. She was going to get worse every day, and she was going to suffer the whole way down. We could keep doing tests to find additional problems, and we could keep treating her for these things, but in reality: her fluid treatments weren’t working, we knew what all of the tests would say, and in addition, he could feel cancer in her stomach. A close friend said the words that I didn’t want to hear:
“Keeping her alive… It’s not for her, it’s for you.”
I knew what the answer was. I made the decision. Time seemed immeasurable from the moment I knew what I had to do to the moment that it was done. It is basic human nature to wonder after the fact what the right thing to do was:
Did I do it too soon?
Did she know how much I loved her?
Was the timing right?
In the end, there is never a right time to say goodbye and there is never enough time to love. There are numerous “what-ifs” that still go through my head when I think about Barberry, and when I think of how we only had a year and a half together. But the decision was done. I guided my sweet Barberry over that rainbow bridge on September 14, 2010.
I hope that she knows, wherever she is, that I miss her sniffly nose waking me up in the middle of the night.
I hope she knows that the last thing and the best thing I could have done for her was to let her go.
“There is no death. Only a change of worlds.” – Chief Seattle