Ah Bart. Remember him? He was my attempt to prove to myself that I am not the cat grim reaper (or cat hospice provider as so many of you sweetly suggested.) I think it is time for me to write his final chapter.
For those of you who missed the early story Bart was a foster cat our family took in back in November when our local shelter became overcrowded with rescue animals from other states. Our mission was to get him healthy, so he could go to the pet cardiologist to have his level 2 heart murmur evaluated. (Heart murmurs for cats are graded from 1-6 with the 1-2 range usually not being a big deal.) Bart was kind of a mess when he came to us, but oh, he was a lover and had a purr that vibrated his whole body. Over the month we cared for Bart he recovered from a wound on his leg, a multiweek long respiratory infection, a perpetual bloody nose from the aforementioned respiratory infection, and being neutered. Just when everything was all better and he was healthy enough to go to the cardiologist a surprise gross abscess burst under his chin leaving bloody puss all over his fur and the floor.
The shelter people told me to bring him in, that they would evaluate this new wound then check with the specialist. Even with his new ailment, he was cleared to see the cardiologist, so Mr. Bart went for a field trip to the animal hospital, and I agreed to take him back and get his abscess cleared up before he went up for adoption. Five more days of antibiotics for Bart at the Afthead house, but he’d get to spend Christmas with us!
December 23rd the shelter called with the results of Bart’s cardiology scan. He had two defective ventricles. The shelter vets and specialists conferred and had decided that Bart was going to be euthanized. His condition gave him only 3 -18 months to live, so he wasn’t eligible for adoption. Two days before Christmas I got this news, and the extra present was that the shelter said that they would allow me, and only me, to adopt him, but I would have to take him back to the cardiologist and be responsible for his heart medication and quarterly/monthly cardiac checkups. The single thing that could save Bart was my willingness to take on the time and expense to care for a cat who probably wouldn’t live two years. I pondered all this while sitting in my study stroking what appeared to be a healthy Bart.
The only person I told was my husband, who doesn’t really care about animals the same way I do, and we agreed that no one else needed this news right before Christmas. We also agreed that I needed time to decide what we were going to do. (Mr. Afthead leaves such decisions to me, since I am the one with a breakable heart.) So I put on my happy face and celebrated the holidays with my family, my own pets, and Bart.
In the back of my head thoughts were churning. How could this happen again? Why would life be so unfair to give this sweet cat a defective heart? Could he continue to live with us? My cats hated having Bart in the house. They had stopped entering the basement, which is where their litterboxes are, and had resorted to pooping and peeing on my bed until I put a litterbox in my bedroom. Could I live with that situation? Bart was sweet, but a destructive cat and had shredded the chair in my study, his domain, and clawed other furniture when given the chance to explore. Unquestionably I could have trained him, but maybe not before he died or had a stroke: either likely situations given his condition. And while we really liked Bart no one in the family felt that he was our cat. We were doing this so that some other family could adopt this beautiful, big purring cat, not so he would be ours.
There were so many ethical considerations. Should we tell our daughter about what the shelter had decided? Should she get to help make the decision about what our family was going to do? Was it wrong for me to keep the news from my extended family over the holidays? Was it my responsibility to care for Bart until the end of his life regardless of the cost or quality of his life? Because I believe in science and medicine I didn’t think the diagnosis was wrong. If I adopted him he would die. What should I do?
I searched my heart and my brain but in the end I came to the same place I’d come before. This was too much. Without telling my daughter anything except that Bart was going back I took him to the shelter and said goodbye.
For two days I held my sadness in and pretended that Bart might be going up for adoption, or Bart might come and live with us to be fostered again. Eventually I started to tell my friends and family what had happened. Because secrets and lies have a way of worming their way to the surface eventually one of my friends told her daughter – a friend of my daughter’s – what happened. When I found out I knew I had to tell my daughter because kid friends talk. I didn’t want my child’s trust and faith in her mother to be dependent on the ability of a 9 year old to keep her mouth shut. I got home from work and said, “I’ve got some sad news.”
“Don’t tell me Bart is dead.”
All I could do was nod. We cried together about the 8 dead cats she’s known in her 8 years. She listed each one and the way they died. Three pets and five fosters all gone. When we were done with the immediate mourning she told me what I had known all along, “Mommy, we are never, ever doing that again.” We won’t. We won’t foster. We won’t keep big secrets from each other. We won’t do that ever again.
I love the community at the shelter, and the foster parents. My foster mentor was so caring when I told her what happened with Bart, and she promised me that my situation “just never happens.” No one loses 5 out of six foster cats in their first two attempts. She shared her own sad stories, and even offered to give me a her healthiest foster litter this spring to ensure I have a success. Behind the scenes I’m sure she raised heck – contrary to the evidence she really thinks I have the potential to be a great foster parent – and a few weeks after Bart died a sympathy card came from the shelter. It made me cry, but it did not make me change my mind. This is not my way of helping make the world a better place. I can’t take any more dead cats.
Last time this happened I was able to come up with some silver linings, but not this time. I’m sad for me, sad for my family, sad for Bart, and sad for the shelter and the folks who work there. Nothing about this was fair or good or worthwhile. Everyone poured their heart into this experience and the only glint of silver is that Bart was able to live in a warm house with a family for a month, but that seems so pitiful.
In the end, as always, children are the wisest. This weekend my kiddo told me, “Mom, I think that all our cats that died are part of Adventure now.” (Adventure is our only foster that lived, and she’s our pet now.) She started listing out traits of each dead cat and how she saw them reflected in our pet. At the end of her speech she looked to me for approval and I told her, “Yep kiddo, I think you are right,” because really I don’t have any better resolution.
Goodbye Bart. We were all pulling for a happy ending, but it wasn’t meant to be.