A cat, my daughter and our broken hearts

Our cat Jango died and we can’t seem to get over it. He was old, but he was tough, and it happened so quickly and unexpectedly that it’s hard to absorb. And it’s worse because we — my wife, daughter and I — were involved in his death.

It had been a storybook Saturday after a long, tiring week. Caroline and her boyfriend — she’s 16, he drives, we’re dealing with it — went to dinner and came home to watch movies. Joanna and I were watching “Patriot” on Prime. Snow was falling, all was good.

Jango was old-school. He spent daytime in the house sleeping, but at night he went out. I mean, if I forgot to let him out, at 2 a.m. he’d be downstairs lifting the sofa with his claws and slamming it back down until I got up and liberated him. Snow, rain, whatever. He was 13 or 14, but for all we know he was 500 years old. He was that kind of cat. Long white wizard fur with black and orange patches, dramatic whiskers, tilted green eyes with flecks of brown. I don’t know if he was technically a Norwegian Forest Cat, but by God to look at him you’d think, that’s a cat from the Norwegian forest.

His theme music was Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” In our family mythology, he spoke like Winston Churchill, lived like Ernest Hemingway. He fought foxes — I saw him chase one out of our yard, and late one night found him surrounded by three of the mangy monsters. But he loved nothing better than nestling down in piles of girl clothes, which we happen to have tons of (Caroline, clean your room). Yeah, he liked to arrange himself on my newspaper, and the moment I turned away he’d drink the milk in my cereal bowl, but such were the ways of the Lord of the Mulch. As our son John put it, we respected his oldmanship.

On this Saturday night, Jango had been going in and out for a while on cat errands, but at the moment was enjoying his repose on Caroline’s bed. Eventually, Caroline brought him into our room so she could tell us good night. Then, as per ritual, I’d take Jango downstairs and open the door, and as he went outside I’d say, “Good night, old sport.” It was our thing.

But something happened. Jango arose from our bed, kind of wavered, went to jump down and did an awkward somersault to the floor. Then he couldn’t walk. He hunched up like a raccoon, scuffled forward, but the back legs flopped in the wrong direction. Joanna was the first to react, exclaiming and dropping down to him. I thought she was being dramatic. We checked his legs, his back, his sides, but nothing felt wrong. Jango didn’t seem to be in any pain, just confused. He dragged himself to his feet and, before we could stop him, took off awkwardly down the stairs.

He ate some cat food. He had been getting a little arthritic, so we figured maybe he just had a senior moment. He seemed slightly better, maybe? It was midnight, and sleeting, so we decided to let him curl up by the space heater and see what happened.

By Sunday morning he had hauled himself back up the stairs and was sleeping on our floor. He purred when we pet him, stretched his legs. But he couldn’t walk. He’d pitch over in weird ways that make me queasy to think about. Still no pain, no complaining. Just big eyes.

Caroline made him a nest in the clothes on her floor and he went to sleep. By afternoon, Jango would eat treats, but wouldn’t drink. Didn’t even try to stand. We googled — spine injuries, stroke, heart attack — and debated going to the emergency vet. That seemed like it might have a bad outcome. He showed no sign of pain, so we put it off. We made a quick trip to Target.

When we got back home, he was still in that nest. Listless. Everything seemed intact and working, but when we tried to stand him up — not good. So the three of us talked it out and decided to call the vet and take him in.

Caroline wrapped him in an old beach towel and held him on her lap in the back seat. He had never liked riding in the car, but this time didn’t protest. Two minutes out from the house — should’ve seen this coming — he wet himself. We ran back home and got fresh towels.

Cheerful, oversize photos of dogs and cats lined the walls at the emergency vet, but there were also signs about grief counseling and a candle they’d light when someone was losing a beloved animal. A TV screen was tuned to a pet informational channel, volume low. The only other sound was the persistent whimpering of a dog somewhere back in the clinic. They took Jango into the examination area, still in the beach towel. The vet came out and quizzed us, went back, returned holding a strip of paper. An EKG readout.

Jango’s heart was spasming like crazy. The vet said it was probably throwing off blood clots, and either that or a brain impairment had robbed him of the ability to walk. We could leave him overnight and take him to a cardiologist, he said, but it would be extremely expensive. Or, he said, it might be time to think about what was best for Jango. Because it was only going to get worse.

I stood there looking at Caroline and thinking she shouldn’t be there. We shouldn’t be exposing her to this. Will she think we’re only considering the cost? Is she old enough to confront a decision like this? The vet walked away to give us time to talk.

“I’ve had Jango since I was 3,” Caroline said, red-eyed. But it would be wrong, she said, to prolong his life if he had no dignity. She was right, and I was proud of her for it, but oh — the pain on her face. I felt bad about Jango, and bad about Caroline.

We told the vet that it was Jango’s time — all three of us, in agreement. We went into an examination room and he brought Jango in, still in the beach towel, looking exotic and confused. Caroline held him first, and Joanna said she didn’t think she could be with him when they put him under. I said I’d do it, but part of me didn’t mean it, until Caroline caught my eye and said, “You should be with him.”

So that settled it. They went out, and I held him, and just before the anesthesia I whispered the only thing that came to mind — “Good night, old sport.” It was over quickly. Somehow in less than 24 hours we had gone from happy and comfortable to bereft. Just a cat, I know, but it hurt like crazy. He was a spirit who was part of our family and then he was gone, and we hadn’t been able to prepare, and it was our decision.

As we walked out, Caroline lingered in the doorway of the vet’s office, typing on her phone. A friend who lived nearby wanted to run over and give her a hug. Joanna and I sat in the dark car and watched. Holding the folded-up beach towel, I said to Joanna, maybe we shouldn’t have put her through that. It’s hard to know, she said. Later Joanna asked her about it, and Caroline said she was glad she was there. I hope it was the right thing.

I was grateful for the ice as we drove home, because not running off the road gave me something to think about other than questioning, over and over, why we have pets. Why we set up our kids for such a cruel lesson.

At the same time, I had a strong memory of my grandmother’s sister, Aunt Annie Bell, and her unexpected reaction when her husband died. She was a big, bosomy woman who hugged everybody and said “Woooo!” when she laughed and who always had enough food when we showed up unannounced for Sunday dinner. But when Uncle Willie died she was frantic with grief, and she told me: “Don’t ever love anybody, they’ll just break your heart.” I’ve never known what to make of that, because it’s true, but it’s also true that Aunt Annie Bell couldn’t have lived that way if she had tried. I wouldn’t want Caroline to, either.