At first the mild swelling, just above the paw of our oldest cat Murchie, struck me as nothing more than a bee sting. It was June in Toronto after all. And if our four cats weren’t busy lolling outside in the garden, they were threatening mutiny for daring to be held indoors.
The swelling didn’t subside however, and after waiting a week I booked an appointment with our veterinarian.
I don’t know which was harder: the words “terminal cancer” or masking my grief from our young children, until my husband and I sorted things. They had never known life without Murchie.
If we did nothing, Murchie would have a happy five months. If we drove the hour and half to Guelph for regular chemo we would have him for those five months plus a year. Maybe longer.
In the end, the decision not to pursue chemotherapy was an easy one. It was the kindest thing we could do for our pet. Deciding how and when to tell our children proved much harder. They were old enough to understand that death is permanent. Inevitable. Young enough that the concept was loaded with fear and anxiety.
The bump made its unwelcome return eight weeks later. And in the way that children seem to intuit things, from that moment, until the day Murchie died – a fleeting three months later – I only had to broach the subject once. The rest of the time our kids took on that difficult task. It was my job to watch and listen.
Often the questions came at bedtime, or with a flood of tears after a bad dream in the night. I would get comfortable with them under the covers and talk until the questions petered out and their head fell heavy against my chest.
I was determined to be honest, but with a “glass half-full approach”.
So talks about cancer, focused on Murchie’s health and happiness in the moment. Talks about Terry Fox, the Canadian research activist who died at 22 from cancer, focused on his efforts to raise money and awareness.
Talks about old though, swirled with their fears. We would compare cat years (Murchie was 16) to people years (he would be 80) and count from one to the other as fast as we could. We played “Will you still be alive when I’m this old”. Sometimes the answer was no, followed by a long hug. I reminded them that none of their loved ones were going anywhere soon. I agreed that one day we would die and they would too. It was a conversation we had again and again.
Then days, sometimes weeks, would go by where they didn’t talk about it at all. And I would say, “You know, you can ask me about Murchie anytime,” and they would say, “I know mom,” and carry on with their Lego or book.
Suddenly, or so it seemed to me, it was mid-autumn. Despite an outward appearance of health, I knew our time with Murchie was running short. It was the one time I broached the subject, over lunch on a sunny day off from school. I didn’t try for the “glass half full approach.” How could I?
Murchie’s cancer, I said, was going to start to make it very hard for his body to work properly. And when that happened, the best thing we could do for him was not to let him suffer. I was careful to avoid euphemisms, like “put to sleep” or “resting” when I explained euthanasia. When they asked if Santa could keep Murchie alive until after the holidays, my voice cracked and dropped to a whisper. Their faces crumpled. I reminded them that it was okay to cry. Or feel angry. My youngest said, “I’m not mad at Murchie, I’m mad at the cancer.” My eldest drew a beautiful picture of Murchie and his family that took pride of place on our chalkboard wall.
Three weeks later the cancer won out. Our sweet fellow was vomiting continually, straining to poo anywhere and everywhere. The light had gone out of his eyes. It was an agonizing conference call with my husband and our vet. I booked the appointment to euthanize Murchie for that afternoon. Then I cried. A lot.
Then, I picked the kids up from school.
We walked, the three of us holding hands, around and around the block. Red eyed and crying. Intimate details about what would happen helped my youngest cope with what was coming. My eldest though, clamped her hands over her ears and stormed at the words euthanasia and death and asked to go back to class.
Before I dropped her off, I gave them both the choice – to be there at the end when Murchie took his last breath, or not. They both said yes. Without hesitation. Without fear. Without anxiety. They said yes. Their only thought was of loving their cat Murchie and being there to say goodbye.
We said goodbye to Murchie, as a family, on a warm Monday afternoon in early November. Each of us placed a sprig of catmint between his paws. We read a children’s book on saying goodbye to a pet. All in the dimly lit, quiet, and strangely peaceful euthanization room at our veterinary hospital. Our children had the chance to hold him, and stroke him both before and after he died.