Notes on Peepers

Written 10 July 2007

Released to public 9 August 2007

Austin, Texas

Kourtney de Haas

Peepers was euthanised yeseterday. I guess I should not be surprised by how saddened I am by this--I had a relationship with her that was closer and more affectionate than with any other animal. I hope I can take what I learned from my time with her and apply it to my other relationships--with Jennifer, the other cats and my other friends.

When we first saw Peepers, known officially as Leona, she perked up to us at the shelter and I couldn't get her out of my mind. Her information card at the shelter described her in three words: affectionate, talkative, confident. We went back on closing day on our house and ended the joyous day with an addition to our family. She never disappointed us and her friendliness was without limits.

Peepers started to show changes in her behavior early this spring, when she could be found sleeping up in front of the microwave on the kitchen counter, on the rolltop desk or even on the refrigerator. I thought it was depression due to my increased absence for work at the rowing club, and I thought it would pass in the late summer when we would have more time together.

After a series of trips that took me away for a few weeks, Peepers started to show signs of illness--sleeping behind the toilet, under the desk, under my chair or behind the television. I would pick her up and notice that she had lost weight, and her appetite was waning--a sure sign of problems. I was lucky to have a good model for pet ownership in Randy Burt, as she would spare no expense to tend to the health needs of her animals. I forged on with Peepers, taking her to the vet. After bloodwork they noted nothing outstanding but did see increased white blood cell counts, though lacking a fever. They prescribed antibiotics, a large green pill which I had to dilute with 1ml of water, given with a syringe once a day. Peepers hated that--the solution would froth on her chin and she would drool profusely, giving me remorseful looks.

Her weight continued to drop and she became dehydrated. We went back to the vet and I learned how to administer subcutaneous fluids once a day, and we picked up some Eukanuba Max Calorie food to help her diet along. I carefully fed her the food four times a day with a large plastic syringe, about 15ml per feeding. We soon got a good routine of me jetting some food on her forpaws and she licking it off, but after a while she stopped doing that so I would have to jet the food in very small amounts into her mouth. A great deal of the food would just fall on the floor. I was really crestfallen--trying very hard to help my little friend, but I think generations of feline instincts had already programmed her behave with a mortal bent.

Our Town Lake being closed due to flooding, it was necessary for us to have a weekend rowing camp in The Woodlands. I boarded Peepers at the vet, hoping the intensive care of trained professionals would bring her back up to good health. The Thursday afternoon that Hugh Morrow came over to drive us to the vet Peepers was at first lethargic. I gave her an appetite stimulant, 100ccs of sq normal saline and some wet food via syringe. Ninety minutes later, just prior to leaving for the vet, the appetite medicine kicked in and she lit up at the sound of the pantry door opening. I obliged her peeping, dropping some dry food in her bowl. She immediately took to it. Hugh and I were elated--it looked like she was coming around. We sat in the east room while Peepers ate, and then she came in and jumped up on my lap in the easy chair, peeping and purring happily, making eye contact with me. We had a wonderful few minutes in the chair and I felt like I was betraying her when I finally had to put her in the cat carrier for the trip to the vet. I could not help but feel a little selfish that I was boarding her for the weekend while going away on a rowing excursion--except that I truly felt some time at the vet would give us a clearer picture on her health and her recovery.

On the way to the vet I took her out of the carrier and she showed her usual curiosity, looking out the windows at the scenery, the sky and at me, protesting every now and then. I felt good about leaving her at the vet, and didn't worry about her when we left. I made sure a towel from our house was put in her cage so that she would have a familiar smell to bed down in.

The rowing camp occupied the whole weekend, and on Monday morning Jennifer and I returned to the vet to pick up Peepers, full of hope for her recovery and return to normal life at our home. On our arrival I immediately felt ominous signs of trouble ahead--in that they wanted us to have a meeting with the vets to discuss Peepers' condition. We went to the back area of the clinic and Dr. Haight explained the various attempts to continue feeding Peepers this weekend, but with no real success--just occasional dry food. They were able to continue administration of sq fluids and the drugs. On Friday they made three x-rays of Peepers, and Dr. Haight pulled these out to show us what they found. The first film was a profile and I immediately noticed a large mass in her stomach--perhaps a hairball, or a tumor, Dr. Haight was not sure. This might explain why she was incapable of eating. I immediately thought that was operable and was relieved, until I looked at her lungs and Dr. Haight started to describe the distributed densities of cells in her lungs, describing that as a classic presentation of lung cancer. My heart fell and I could feel a chill come over both Jennifer and myself, knowing that we were dealing with a terminally ill cat. Dr. Haight was very matter-of-fact, saying that lung cancer is inoperable, and euthanasia is the only humane solution. We spoke briefly about a biopsy, but in Peepers' state of phyiscal deterioration I knew surviving surgery was a huge risk.

Dr. Haight left us alone to go get Peepers and collect our thoughts. We stood in the clinic's kitchen hugged each other and began to sob quietly. At that moment I just wanted our cat with us. I soon heard Peepers protesting the cat carrier, and she appeared with the vets in the doorway. Peepers saw us and we had a sad greeting--but Peepers was clearly exhausted, hardly able to become excited anymore due to her lack of energy and labor of breathing. We paid $190 for the boarding, x-rays and some pain medication the vets administered just prior to her release, and headed home.

Once at home we let Peepers out of the cage and I just wanted her to be comfortable in familiar, quiet surroundings. I came and went, sometimes sitting or laying by her side and sometimes sitting in another room to give her some privacy and quiet. Jennifer and I talked, did some research on the internet and decided to euthanise on Tuesday. I called the vet and they stated that only a substitute vet was available on Tuesday, and that Wednesday or later this afternoon would be available. I set the time for 2:30PM and hung up the phone. It was all happening too quickly. I had wanted to spend one last night with Peepers, to let her wake up in our bed, greet me on the bedsheets with a purr and lead me out the bedroom door to the food bowls. Yet I knew she was tired, that her pain medicine would wear off, that we had no fluids for her and that by Wednesday she would be very near a long, drawn out natural death. I struggled again with feelings of selfishness, with our busy schedules this week and next, travel on the horizon, knowing that it would be better to start the grieving process now.

I was sick with fear, sadness, anger and grief--and could hardly eat, though I knew I had to try. I made breakfast cereal and sat on the floor with Peepers in the east room for one last meal together. She recognized the cereal bowl and her eyes lit up with desire for milk. Of course I obliged her body language, but when it came time for her lap up the milk in the bowl she only sniffed it carefully and then turned her eyes up to me, as if to say she could not identify it. Jennifer groomed Peepers and we took a few fur clippings to remember her by.

To avoid the terrible act of carrying out her empty cat carrier, we opted to just bring her red pillow and carry her on my lap to the vet. We stepped out of the house and I turned her round as we walked by the garden, giving her a view of the plants and the sun shining on her fur. She perked up again during the drive and protested with meows, but this wore her out terribly and by the time we pulled in to the vet parking lot she was totally prone on the pillow, just barely meowing a protest through her teeth. We sat alone in the car with her for a few minutes while Jennifer and I spoke plainly to Peepers, telling her and each other that she was a good cat, and we had enjoyed almost five years together, all of it very good.

Inside the vet we waited quietly in the lobby and then I took Peepers back to the farthest room while Jennifer waited in the lobby, as she said she could not bear to witness Peepers' moment of death. In the exam room Peepers weighed 9.3 pounds on the scale, and its cold surface caused her to look for a more comfortable spot. Helping her conserve energy, I carried her gently to the bench on the opposite wall and sat next to her, giving her constant caresses. The tech came in and out, being sensitive all the time and preparing me for what was to come. Dr. Fitzgerald appeared and explained that the barbiturates used for the euthanasia were very fast acting. She also explained that anything can happen--loss of bowel control, twitching, sounds, etc. I indicated that I understood what may happen and was prepared for it. She disappeared and returned with an electric razor and a syringe with the drugs within. Taking Peepers' left forepaw, she shaved off a small patch on the front aspect, exposing Peepers' white skin. Without the fur to give her mass, I could see that her foreleg was very thin and frail. Dr. Fitzgerald offered the chance for me to hold Peepers in my lap, but I knew Peepers was comfortable where she was. Dr. Fitzgerald then placed the needle, drew back some of Peepers' blood to verify the needle placement and then slowly pushed the drugs. I watched Peepers' sides for cessation of breathing, which happened almost instantly, but not before a slight and brief last struggle from Peepers, probably due to the drugs and the needle being cold and imparting a burning sensation. The vet tech cradled Peepers' head and I saw her body become limp and peaceful. The room was quiet, and all three of us were whispering caresses and praise to Peepers. Dr. Fitzgerald verified there was no pulse or breathing and said, "she's gone." I indicated that I understood and they left me alone for a few minutes with Peepers.

She lay there motionless and I continued to caress her and whisper in her ears, saying her name and giving her gentle familiar calls. I looked in her eyes--dilated and still just barely alive--until I knew her life was gone. I thought about how all organisms have a survival instinct, and yet the concept of death itself seems unknown to most animals. In her final minutes she knew familiar faces and caressing hands. It was 2:45PM.

We drove home and I cried spontaneously several times. Once at home I wrote a brief email eulogy to some of the family and friends who have interacted with Peepers:

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You're receiving this message because at some point you have interacted with Peepers, one of our three cats. Peepers has been sick the past three weeks and I've spared no expense or amount of time to taking care of her. When her condition did not improve, we boarded her at the vet for a weekend and the x-rays told us Peepers had lung cancer. In cats this usually starts somewhere else and progresses to the lungs. It was distributed and explained her labored breathing, hacking and elevated heart rate. She had not responded to any drugs and had stopped eating, losing around two pounds. The vet recommended euthanasia. We cried and took her home to think about it.

Today when we picked her up from the vet she was miserable but still happy to see us. We went home and realized she was very tired and struggling just to sustain her breathing. Peepers always loved to eat and her eyes lit up this afternoon when I sat down in front of her to eat some breakfast cereal. I offered the milk to her and she refused. She was giving up.

We took the red pillow she always slept on and left the house for the last time with Peepers. She looked at the garden, the sun and the passing cars on the way down to the vet, always curious, but protesting the ride with pathetic meows. At the vet she heroically tolerated having her forleg shaven for the euthanasia drugs. I said goodbye to her at 2:45 today.

We got Peepers in December 2002 from Town Lake Animal Center. I saw her, weight problem and respiratory infection, and I knew she probably wouldn't be adopted by anyone else, but she also had a confidence with us that other cats did not express. We gave her a good chance and she did not disappoint us with her happy disposition. She never seemed to care that our other two cats resented her a bit--she'd just swat them out of the way if they bothered her.

Of all our cats Peepers was the most friendly, patient, polite companion. She was very attached to me, which I appreciated since the other two cats tend to favor Jennifer. Peepers was the ulitmate lap cat, capable of a full day in my lap during the winter break, even tolerating my snoring. When she wasn't in my lap in my easy chair she cuddled next to my head on the couch, sending purrs directly into my skull. In the early hours of the morning before rowing, 4:30AM, she would saunter up to me on the living room rug and join me in warm-up stretches. It was our private time.

Maybe we'll have a wake for Peepers soon--but in the meantime remember her for a moment today. Peepers was only 7 years old--gone too soon. We will miss her terribly.

Kourt & Jennifer de Haas

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We picked up a van for our Tuesday Decker Lake trip and loaded it with boats. Coming home, we tried to go for a swim but the pool was closed, so we just went to the store, picked up some roast chicken, bread and baked beans, and ate at home. Samantha begged for chicken and I gave her plenty, but missed Peepers and her begging terribly.

I told Jennifer about my duality thoughts on the death day--first that you want the day to end and the next one to come, so that you can work your way through the grief and proceed with life, but also that you don't want the day to end, because Peepers was alive when the sun rose this morning but was not alive when the sun set this evening. I observed the sunset on Peepers' last day of life and let it soak in.

Out of curiosity I looked at Peepers' veterinary records. Her last visit to the vet was May 9, exactly two months before--and she had received a clean bill of health at that visit, though her weight trend was showing a decrease in weight from the prior year's visit. Two months from ostensibly healthy to terminal illness.

I did some chores and went to bed, laying with Sammy for a while in bed. The blanket still had a few Peeper pills on it from her last sleep with us last week. I remembered that night, bedding down with her at my feet, hearing her purring and then quiet breathing, knowing she was happy and relaxed as she could be. We awoke together at 4AM, Peepers sauntering up to me on the blanket, purring, wanting to be pet and me petting her lovingly and quietly in the near darkness of the bedroom. Peepers was so black, so in silhouette she was truly the absence of light but her eyes were still moist and had an occasional glimmer.

Yet this morning I woke at 2AM, feeling better and fretting the cloud of sadness that I knew would come to rest again on my shoulders. I tossed for almost two hours, falling asleep again around 3:45AM, only to have a brief dream of Peepers sitting on my lap, together again in the easy chair. Such a simple dream, a perfect dream. If I could dream it again I would, every night. I told myself that she was gone now, but that my memory serves me well and I will always remember the happy hours I spent with Peepers.

I fed the cats at 4:10AM and set about my routine, trying to recognize and at the same time dodge the loss I was seeing in my morning routine. Breakfast cereal alone. Stretching alone.

I went for a row and told Claudia I was exhausted from yesterday's sad ordeal. She was sympathetic but also knew her role was to keep the rowing on track and I need to thank her for that. The row was beautiful--a little windy, but sunny. I watched the sun rise hot over the lake, an unstoppable force that will someday rise without me as well.

There are countless favorite moments with Peepers--I almost don't want to catalog them, but I am overflowing with memories that I want to preserve. Peepers enjoyed the outdoors, and a favorite memory is when she once realized she could outrun me and ran loose in the front and side yards, using the closeness of the bushes to the knee wall of the house to keep me from catching her. I eventually cornered her by the rear gate, where she was too wide to slip through, but she was a full-blast ball of black fur for a few minutes.

Peepers was so polite: when wanting to get into the bedroom, she would sit patiently outside the door and utter subtle peeps to indicate her desires. When jumping on my lap she always paused before crawling fully on my chest to see if I would give her permission--which I always did. If I needed to get up, a simple pat on her hind would move her to the arm of the chair, and she would take the chair behind me. If I needed to get back into the chair, she would get up out of the way for me.

Peepers was a little tubby, in the best kind of way. She would lay like a beached whale after dinner on the kitchen floor, enjoying its cool flatness while digesting her food. When sauntering over to me during a morning stretch, she had a certain gait, rolling her body from side to side, but holding her gaze intently at me. She never liked being carried on her backside, but could be rolled onto her back if she trusted you and you respected her. When on her back you could really see her big belly, the flashes of white skin and the occasional nipple peeking out from her fur.

Peepers also had terrible dandruff and I identified with her on this point frequently. We shed on each other profusely.

Jennifer related a story about the first time we left all three cats alone together one evening while she and I went out to dinner. Upon returning home we observed relative calm among all three cats. Peepers was found sitting quietly on the couch, but close inspection of her paws revealed a tuft of Samantha's fur caught in her claws--most likely from a challenge returned with a swat from Peepers.

Sitting on the couch with me, Peepers was a great TV or nap companion. I even sometimes got a little grooming on my head from her. Her litterpan habits were scrupulous--she would always pause to clean herself after a litterpan visit--though often she overlooked her paws or her face, leaving a funny dusting on her whiskers. She was always clean, never missing the pan and never soiling other parts of the house. When scraping the pan she used short, quiet strokes and took her time.

Eating was a great pastime of hers, and she became an expert at picking the diet food from the regular. She also took advantage of Samantha's light eating habits by munching from her bowl as well. When drinking water Peepers made effective use of her huge tongue, lapping up for minutes at a time. I would imagine her a big walking water tank, as she would take so long to drink water. Peepers was the only cat out of the three that would tolerate milk and I loved to give her cereal milk. And of course it was just prior to feeding that Peepers would peep the most, while excitedly shaking the base of her tail, looking up and baring her teeth.

I'm not sure what will happen now. We have two good cats--our core cat family. I can't help but feel that Peepers was always an outsider to Sammy and Samantha--because she came to us later--but I did all that was needed to quell that feeling. The shelter was right on track in describing her as confident, and I imagine I will have a hard time finding another cat like her, if we do decide to fill the void she has left. Sammy has been much less anxious since Peepers left us, a positive outcome from a sad situation.

I am making the inevitable reflections and realize that I would do it all over again even knowing the pain I am feeling now. I had so many moments with Peepers that are beyond compare--between two living things--and I feel like we understood each other on a very basic level. I am going to hurt for a long time, and the hurt may be renewed every time I see a Peeper pill or a ball of fur behind some furniture. I imagine someday when we move out of our current house we will discover a lot of Peepers hiding in the corners. I will stir the dust, levitating and glittering in the sunbeams filling rooms we enjoyed together, and breathe in the matter of her life mixed with mine.

kourt