Shaggy was put to sleep last week.
He developed a fast-growing cancer under his tongue, and the veterinarian pulled no punches in saying he shouldn’t be allowed to suffer with that type of cancer. Even when treated it’s a miserable treatment process, and the location of the tumor, which was already open and festering, makes it cruel for the animal to endure. And even with treatment, the vet said it’s the kind that recurs. There was no question about what to do, but no end to the heartbreak of having to agree to it, especially not being there to hold him in the end.
He was a rescue from an animal shelter in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. We got him in 1998. In his fifteen years, we were told at least fifteen times that Shaggy was part Maine Coon cat. I don’t know about that, but I know he was the most unique cat I’ve ever known.
You would think as a writer I could have come up with a better name than “Shaggy.” But he was just a mop of hair as a kitten, and I never called him Shaggy much anyway. It started when I would call him Shaggy-boom and then I just started calling him “Booms” or “Boomie.”
I taught Shaggy to come to whistling. Every time I fed him I would whistle a song I made up. I whistled it softly when I held him, too. I always make up a song for each pet I have, but most of them have words. Shaggy’s was the first that was only a tune I whistled. As he grew older, anytime I was whistling – whether it was that tune or not, he would come purring against me, wanting to be held.
He was one of the only cats I’ve ever had who liked to be held upside down, like a baby. He even mewed like a kitten instead of meowing like an adult cat…all his life.
When I was writing in my journal or on the laptop, he would sneak up and quickly sit or lie down on top of my hand so I couldn’t use my pen or keyboard. I would then wrap him up under my arm so he knew he was a priority, but so I could also use my hand to keep writing!
He was strangely obsessed with water. When I would get a bath he would come jump on the ledge of the tub and sit and watch me, occasionally dipping a paw in the water. He also preferred to drink water dripping in the tub, even when I bought him a fresh water fountain. I would frequently walk in the bathroom to find him in the tub. Sometimes he was drinking, other times just sitting and watching the faucet hopefully. My cousin, Amy, who he lived with when we moved to South Africa, sent me photos showing he had developed the same routine there.
Shaggy loved other animals. I was grateful that he developed a friendship with my cousin’s cat, Max, where he lived in his last months of life. He was spoiled and coddled and got to have a buddy again, and when it was time for him to go, my cousin and her daughter went in with him to shower him with love and affection.
He needed that feline buddy, because he had a hard time after we lost Cueball, our other cat who died at home a few years ago. He also had cancer, but I wasn’t ready to let him go , and I avoided any discussion of euthanasia.
Both our previous dogs had to be put to sleep in 2006, the year my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Pippin was sixteen and had progressive cancer all through her mouth. Alex was twelve and had a stroke, leaving him paralyzed and listless. It was a rough period of time, and after Mom died in 2008, I couldn’t handle the thought of another death, human or animal.
My inability to suffer one more death caused Cueball to suffer, and he died miserably, during a day we were away. We found him under the basement steps, and it looked like he had been crawling across the floor for some time. I’m not telling you this to be shocking. I’m telling you this because I want to share a lesson I learned about myself and what I now believe about animal stewardship. If I take the responsibility of caring for an animal, I also take on the awful, terrifying and heartbreaking responsibility of trying to understand my charge well enough to know when they are ready to go, and not prolonging out of my own fear or need for comfort.
The day that Shaggy was put down, every moment of my day felt surreal. I knew the hour he was to go, and it felt like watching myself go through the motions of my day. After taking care of a lot of errands, I was driving back to the house, to sit and just think about Shaggy during the time he would be put down. I stopped for one last errand: to fill up my car at the petrol station.
The attendant sang to me as he washed the windows and fueled the car. He stopped and held his rag to his mouth like a microphone and spun around, staring at me. He wouldn’t stop singing and smiling at me, and as I drove away, he started singing as loud as he could and I saw him still watching me drive away. I don’t think he was being creepy or hitting on me. I think sometimes people just recognize sadness, no matter how much you try to hide it.
The song was stuck in my head as I drove home, as I sat and thought about Shaggy and looked at his photos, and whistled the tune I had made up for him when he was a kitten. I wondered if he was gone yet, and how my cousin and her daughter were doing. And my whistling changed to humming as I finished the petrol attendant’s serenade, “I don’t know much. But I know I love you. And that may be… all there is to know.”
I love you, Booms. And I miss you.