In early December of 2009, my wife and I had to put our cat Carlota to sleep. She was twenty. According to my vet Arnold Plotnick, a cat specialist, that equates to about 100 years old in human years. In the months following, my wife and I became incredibly conscious of how many cats like Carlota must end up in shelters late in their lives for various unfair reasons and, some of them, while dealing with any number of illnesses, diseases and medical conditions. The next summer, we had decided that we wanted to adopt another cat. Living with us still was Susie, my wife’s cat that she went back home to get in Puerto Rico after permanently moving to our one bedroom apartment in New York. Susie and Carlota had lived together… tolerated each other… reluctantly, for about 5 years. Having cared for Carlota for so long even though she only got sick near the end, and having had to deal with a few medical issues with Susie as well, we decided that we wanted to find an older cat that needed the attention of people who could really dedicate themselves to improving his or her quality of life, even if it was only for a few years.
When we first met Django, his name was Archie. He had been found in a home with 3 other cats. The lady who owned them had apparently died somewhere else because the cats had been alone in the apartment for 2 weeks. Django needed the most care when he was found: he was hyperthyroid, he had an infection in his mouth that caused him to lose several teeth and a few more needed to be pulled, he had blood pressure issues, minor kidney failure, and a combination of inner ear infections and ear mites that had caused him to scratch his ear to the point of deformity. Constantly kicking himself in the ear with untrimmed nails had caused his right ear to bend down like a Scottish Fold’s ears from the trauma. By the time we met him he had been cleaned up significantly but he was a bit thin, shaggy on all sides like he had just been through a dumpster, and his leg muscles were a bit weak from doing nothing but sitting in a cage all day waiting for half a pill, given to him in the evening. We had gone to see him after seeing the rescue shelter’s ad for him with the hopes of adopting him. Almost as though she thought we’d prefer a less problematic cat, the lady from the shelter tried to show us another, but it was no use. The first thing he did when he was put in front of us on the examination table at the vet’s office where we met him was to walk up to us and bump our face gently with his forehead. Done. We were sold. Django had a home.
We called him Django because of our love of jazz and because of a bizarre but loving connection we made between his deformed ear and the deformed left hand of jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt, whose hand was burned in a fire when he was a young boy. With a thumb, his first two fingers and the deformity in his last two fingers he went on to be one of the greatest guitar players ever recorded and, in my opinion, of all time. Django, the cat, got treatment for the remaining ear infection, a few good baths, an amazing diet to help with his slight kidney failure and allowed him, even at an older age which our vet, Dr. Plotnick, guessed to be about 12 or 13, to bloom from what was a cat that basically just sat around to one that eventually interacted with us every day, jumping everywhere and sleeping anywhere, often with his face literally buried in his paws. It was a transformation that people who saw him more than once were quick to notice.
This past Monday morning, Ana and I had to put Django to sleep. And it was as sudden as that. A pervasive cough two weeks ago concerned us enough to take him to his vet and before we had time to get used to any kind of treatment routine we were talking about a tumor, and then just like with Carlota the decision to stop everything before it turned into suffering had to be made. This time it was just a lot sooner than we expected. Ana and I have a rule, we refuse to let vets make diagnosis easy for us to take. We ask for nothing less than explicit medical and clinical analysis with the express goal of answering at all times one simple question no matter how tough it is: “what is best for him right now?” without ever, under any circumstances, putting our feelings first. Django or any other animal not being able to speak or tell us what hurts deserves the kind of care that never puts anything but their best interests and health before anything else.
We’ve been through this so we know pretty much how it plays out. We’re human. It hurts. It hurts to care every day for an animal who is a family member, a loved one, a friend, and to not have that animal around anymore. At some point, I’ll stop stepping around the entrance to the kitchen where he’d sit and watch me cooking, waiting for something to drop so he could get a taste or just flat out demanding it out loud. I’ll stop leaving a little gap between me and the edge of the bed before I fall asleep so he has somewhere to lie down without too much effort in case he decides to join us. I’ll stop thinking I see him out of the corner of my eye on that spot on the couch which gave him both proximity to us during movie watching and a short hop away from food and water. And at some point, I’ll be able to get through this story, like I now can with Carlota, without getting blurry vision from tears. But being human, and having a logical brain that we’re all both blessed and cursed by that has no idea how to live in harmony with our emotions, the one thing I’ve never learned to answer is whether we did all we could do at every possible moment. I’m ok with knowing we at least tried to.
Dr. Victoria Sheheri, our lighthouse this past week who we didn’t know much before and now feel richer for having met, Dr. Arnold Plotnick our regular vet, and everyone at his private practice Manhattan Cat Specialists made the past week perfect as they seem to have figured out how to do with everything from check-ups to buying cat food. Dr. Whitney Long and Dr. Meredith Daly at Bluepearl Veterinary Partners made Django’s last 24 hours exactly what they needed to be, pain-free. We’ll never know how difficult his first 12 years were or even if they really were 12 years or more or less. We only had the traces of his life to interpret that were left on him when he was rescued . But we do know that a team of incredible, warm, compassionate and passionate people came together to make sure he received enough care and respect to make up for anything he may have lived through before. We’re not people of religious faith but the people that help animals like Django when they need it are our versions of angels.
Something struck me the other day when I was looking at him after having learned he was sick. To have had so much going on in him for so many years, to have had to deal with the condition his various ailments had left him with, to have had trouble with the simplest tasks like eating and rubbing his ear, and to still get so thrilled with something as simple as a bite-size piece of prosciutto, stroking his shoulders, or greeting us when we came home made me wish we could be as appreciative and thrilled by simple pleasures as our pets are. It reminded me that a large part of the trouble we have to go through in life is influenced by how we choose to deal with it.
I wish he could know how much philosophical thought he’s inspired. How desperately we wanted to make sure he never spent a moment not being given the life he deserved. And how much just sitting still and getting kisses on the little prickly hairs between his eyes pleased his owners.