He just… stopped eating. That was the red flag.
Sometime in December, our sweet Dominic suddenly renounced all forms of sustenance and slowly began to fade away. We thought maybe he was simply rejecting his dry food, either because he was tired of it or perhaps due to some kind of dental discomfort from the act of crunching. But no matter what wet food we gave him — the cheaper stuff, the more expensive stuff, Star-Kist tuna, or a carton of light cream I rushed out to buy on New Year’s Eve on a sudden whim — he turned away indifferently from all of it.
You can lead a horse to water, or a sick cat to a bowl of juicy trout and salmon in gravy, but sadly you can’t force-feed either one. Or persuade them of the value of feeding themselves, even using the soundest logic and the warmest tone of voice. Some malevolent afflictions just have the power to destroy the self-preservation instinct.
Our veterinarian did blood work and, after we waited impatiently for close to a week, informed us that there were 2 possibilities. Either Dom had pancreatitis or, if not that, it would be the worst-case scenario. Cancer. The scourge of the human and canine and feline worlds. The body-vaporizing, Thanos-like supervillain of physical afflictions. We hoped and prayed for pancreatitis, which is not a sentence you think you will ever utter.
The meds the veterinarian gave us only briefly (and barely) helped resuscitate Dom’s interest in food before he went back to fully boycotting everything except water. His movements became slower and more labored. The bones of his vertebrae poked awkwardly through his increasingly dull and matted fir. Petting his sunken back made our hearts sink.
Dom no longer ran laps around our living room and dining room immediately after visiting the litter box, exhibiting some kind of manic post-poop euphoria (which had always baffled and amused us). He no longer ran at all. He climbed and descended the stairs slowly, when he needed some alone time (which was often), and he slept for a majority of each day.
The most telling thing of all was that our hyper-affectionate little guy didn’t actively seek out our affection. He was content (or at least willing) to be caressed, but he didn’t seem to derive any intense, body-vibrating enjoyment from it anymore. I had to orchestrate our usual late-night snuggles on the couch, and even then Dom would sometimes gingerly hop off after a few minutes.
For the final few weeks, we let our frail little guy sleep with us every night, lifting him up onto our bed since he wasn’t able to make the leap anymore. I’m glad he spent those last days on one of the softest comforters I’ve ever had the pleasure of sleeping under. And I’m glad he was close to our nighttime movements, the exhalations of our bodies in the dark. I hope he derived from that final gesture of solidarity that we loved him. And I hope he forgave us for not permitting him to sleep with us for the previous 2 years. We had our infant-based reasons for that decision, but it’s hard not to feel guilty now for blocking Dom out of one whole room of our house for 9 out of every 24 hours of his life. Hopefully cats have as short a memory as dogs do.
The final few days were brutal. It’s a haunting thing to watch a sentient creature approach death’s door. There were times when Dom lurked near the door to the basement, which he almost never did, facing away from us, as if he wanted to go somewhere dark and cold to be alone. But we kept him near us as best as we could, and we kept lifting him into our bed at night. We were in hospice care mode, and we wanted Dom to feel surrounded by love.
On Dom’s final Saturday, we couldn’t locate him. We searched all over the house multiple times over and were baffled how he could have eluded us. We checked all his usual napping haunts and we checked the basement (even though we always keep that door closed). Finally, on my second run-through of Greyson’s room, I spotted Dom, just barely, in a narrow nook in the wall that’s filled with large stuffed animals.
I’ll never forget the haunting image of looking down at those stuffed animals with their big plastic eyes, and suddenly realizing that underneath all of them was one set of small green eyes, flat and dull and tired. Dom had somehow, despite his physical decay, managed to wedge himself underneath a large moose, next to an oversized teddy bear. My heart got caught in my throat. This is what they talk about. Animals going off to die. The saddest of all instincts.
I learned from some quick, anxious internet searching that even though this is an animal’s instinct in its final moments, it doesn’t mean you should willingly let the animal die alone. The animal is following its instinct to protect itself from predators while in an enfeebled state. But no sentient creature that is part of a family should be banished to a lonely death. Relieved to know that I didn’t have to perform an unbearable act of tough love, I extricated the increasingly limp, bony, life-drained body of our sweet Dom from underneath the pile of soft, plush, lifeless bodies. And I loved up on him with an even more poignant urgency.
The next day, Danielle and I could tell it was only a matter of hours. We hadn’t made any plan for how we would explain death to 3-year-old Greyson. The idea just seemed too daunting. But thankfully, in the moment, it came to me naturally.
I just gave Greyson the simplest version of the truth. He already knew that Dom was very sick, but I told him that we now needed to say goodbye to him. Choking back tears, I told Greyson that Dommy wouldn’t be with us anymore, except in our memories of him. I forced myself to use the almighty D-word. I asked him if he understood, and he looked at the floor and sadly said, “Dommy’s very sick.” I explained that I would need to dig a hole in the backyard where we could lay his body. After consulting with Danielle, I reluctantly took her recommendation to let Greyson come outside with me to dig the hole. It proved to be the right call, as her advice usually is.
Mercifully, the mid-January weather was mild and unseasonably warm. The soil in the backyard of the only house we’ve ever owned was pliable enough to dig a grave for our dearly about-to-depart Dominic. While I mournfully dug up dirt, removing rocks with each shovelful, our innocent Greyson happily ran circles around a pile of brush I had never gotten around to burning last fall. Every few minutes, he would come over and check on the status of the hole and say in a subdued voice, “Papa’s digging a hole for Dommy.” Then he would resume his frolicking.
The hole I dug was right next to the grave I had dug 3½ years earlier for Taz, our other sweet rescued boy with his own afflictions. Taz was Danielle’s best friend for many years and then became the first dog I ever knew and loved. The graves for both of our sweet boys would be out in the corner of our backyard, tucked into a quiet, secluded area between a large bush, a flower garden, and a neighbor’s apple orchard. Deep in the countryside. A perfect final resting place.
When I had dug the hole deep enough for Dommy’s body to be protected —since I’d heard cringe-worthy tales of buried pets being dug up from shallow graves by scavenging animals — I took my shovel and went back inside with Greyson. I took over on hospice duty, offering our dying boy all the sweetness and solidarity that I could as he lay listlessly in a soft old recliner. His eyes were glassy and his lower gums were exposed, giving him a sadly alarmed (and alarming) visage. Stiffness was already setting into his body, the precursor of rigor mortis. Every 10 or 15 minutes, Dommy would release an unbearably sad exhalation of pain. Some kind of dark, heightened, somber inversion of a meowing sound. The end was imminent. I had the kids — both of them, this time — give Dommy one final pet and one final goodbye.
Shortly after that, while Danielle was on hospice duty and I was upstairs, she softly called my name. With a lump in my throat, I approached the top of the stairway. “I think he might be gone,” she said in a muffled, mournful tone. With quiet dread, I walked to the room where he lay and looked down at the recliner. And our beloved boy was just… not there anymore. His soul had left his body. What remained on that recliner was not our precious Dommy. It was just a shell. A vessel.
A mortal coil that had been shuffled off by a tender, patient, tired soul who was no longer in pain.
When I offered Greyson my simple explanation of death, I adorned it — as most of us do — with some flourishes about Dommy going to kitty heaven (and Tazzy already being in puppy heaven). And in the days since Dommy’s death, my heart has ached with beauty several times as Greyson has sweetly and innocently repeated some of the things I said to him. The thing that really made me smile and well up with emotion is this quote:
“Maybe Dommy and Tazzy are playing with each other! Because puppy heaven and kitty heaven are right next to each other!”
I bet they are, buddy boy.