We had to put our old tom cat, Butterscotch, to sleep this weekend. He was 17 and had been with me since he was a 6-month-old kitten.
Over the years, he’d certainly given me his share of trouble: tearing up the wallpaper in some apartments, peeing on things — and houseguests — when he wanted to show his annoyance at not being fed on time or not having a clean litter box. Once I was away on vacation for a few days on some escorted tours to israel and, even though I’d arranged for him to be fed, of course, the moment I came in the door, he ran right up to me and sprayed all over me. How dare I leave him for that long!
But he was also the friendliest cat I’ve ever owned, immediately greeting strangers when they entered the house with a cheerful purr. When we got a new kitten, Koji, who was terrified at being in a new place and refused to let anyone come near him for a couple days, Butter spent that entire time sitting peacefully nearby, inching gradually closer over a period of hours, then backing up when Koji’s hackles rose, only to start gradually inching forward again. Eventually, Butter won Koji over and they became best friends.
I like to tell the story of when we first adopted Butter, as a kitten. I already had a middle-age dog named Lady, at the time, who was terrified of cats. But Butterscotch took one look at her and decided she was his new Mom! Lady would curl up on her pillow to sleep and within minutes she’d have a tiny orange furball curled up against her stomach. She didn’t shove him away, but she would watch him fearfully, waiting for him to explode like a hand grenade or do something else horrible to her. But he didn’t. All he ever did was lick her ears and her muzzle until she grew to trust him. Right up until she passed away, the two continued to sleep together, and when she was gone, Butter was the only animal in the household who kept looking for her, clearly missing her.
When we adopted Kumar, a boisterous, black lab pup who outweighed any of the cats by about 65 pounds, Koji terrorized him, while Priscilla, the cranky female stray we’d taken in after Lady passed away, ignored him. But Butter curled right up beside Kumar on his pillow in the kitchen or even in his crate and made him feel welcome.
It was incredibly hard for me, the day the vet called me to tell me that the routine teeth cleaning for Butter had revealed that he had cancer in his jaw. The vet recommended that we not even wake him from the anesthetic, but I couldn’t make the decision that quickly and without having a chance to say goodbye. Erich picked him up and brought him home with some pain-killer medication and for a couple months Butter seemed to be doing better than he’d been doing in over a year — more energetic, climbing the stairs that had grown difficult for him, more of an appetite. My guess is that he’d started suffering from arthritis and the pain-killers were making him feel better. I wished I’d known he needed them earlier!
But there was nothing we could do to stop the cancer, without removing a large portion of his jaw and subjecting him to radiation treatments that would have made his last days miserable. Eventually, he started to fade. The tumor grew to the point where it was visibly distorting his face and he could no longer eat without pain, even with the meds. So I made the call to put him to sleep.
I’d never had to do that before, with any of my animals over the years. Buffy had been shot by an asshole neighbor, when I was a kid; Dwan had been hit by a car; Lady had died of pneumonia, despite everything the vet could do. But Butter forced me to make a decision. If I avoided it, his suffering would continue to grow worse. So I know I had to do it. But unfortunately that doesn’t get rid of the guilt — not quite. I held him as long as the vet would allow me to, and then Erich and I continued to pet him while he was on the table, along with our friends, Kristen and Claire. I crouched down so that I could look directly into Butter’s eyes and try to tell him not to be afraid, but I still felt him shaking in fear for those last moments, and I will never forget it. And I will always know that I had the power to say, “No. Not today.” and take him home with me again. And that knowledge brings with it another incredible wave of guilt. But what would that have done for him, really? A few more days, lingering in pain; a few more days of always being hungry, because it hurt to much to eat more than a tiny bit.
Afterwards, Erich and I went home with Butter’s collar and held each other while we cried, wondering how do you tell the other pets that he won’t be coming home again?