It’s hard for me to go public with my grief, but perhaps someone can learn something from this story. Almost two months ago, I very abruptly lost my sweet orange cat Chester. Here is Chester’s story.
Years ago, I volunteered at the Mesabi Humane Society in Virginia, MN. A friendly and sweet orange cat caught my eye at the shelter. He started out in a cage by himself, but was so sociable that the staff eventually integrated him into a multi-cat room. Chester liked to be around other cats and he had a sweet and serious managerial kind of personality. He always liked to know what was going on around him. I watched him for a few months, wanting him but resisting adding another cat to the household. The day that I did adopt him, he walked right up to me in the multi-cat room as if to say, “Let’s get on with it. I knew you were coming for me.”
Chester had a long and happy life with us and our cats. He adapted easily to his new home. He had several small stuffed catnip pillow toys that he loved to carry around the house and leave in obvious places. He’d often talk with the toy in his mouth.
He bonded well with my girl cat Karma (and to a slightly lesser extent with my female Kali). Chester loved to take care of these two. When Karma passed on, Chester grieved hard and was not himself for months. It was almost as if he’d lost his purpose. He was always friendly with the other cats, but I never saw him bond again with another cat the way he’d bonded with Karma.
Chester also had a funny snarky side. For a weekend, we babysat a sweet docile female German Shepherd. Chester’s glare was all it took to make the dog cower in the corner of the couch, hiding behind my husband. And Chester wasn’t a blowhard about his feelings. He expressed everything he felt with a simple “look.” Simple and effective — that was Chester.
Chester wasn’t the cat that company noticed. People were often more attracted to the showy looking Zorro (my Ragdoll rescue) or cute orange and white Norton. Chester was quiet enough to fly under the radar, unless you knew him. He had an endearing way of rotating back and forth between my husband’s lap and my lap — as if to make sure we both got equal attention…or that he got equal attention from us.
This February, we noticed that Chester’s breath seemed a little noisier, as if he had a head cold. The vet wondered if bad teeth could be contributing to some sort of sinus infection, and we scheduled a dental. They removed a lot of tartar from his teeth, but found no abscess or infection. They did notice a lot of inflammation and puss down Chester’s throat, but x rays of the throat, sinuses, and chest showed nothing suspicious. (However, I was to learn later that the throat is quite complex and an x ray might not tell the whole story.)
We were trying all kinds of things and missing what was really the problem. Assuming that this was a stubborn infection or perhaps a Herpes virus, we tried the antibiotic. After that appeared to not be working, the vet tried prednisone and nose drops. But the shift in Chester’s breathing was subtle, and it very slowly shifted from sounding like a head cold to sounding more raspy and dry.
We woke up one Saturday morning and it seemed that Chester’s breathing was worse. I decided to get a second opinion, even though I still didn’t realize that this was a potential emergency. I called ahead and took Chester to the emergency vet, 1-1/2 hours away in New Hampshire.
In Littleton, NH, a kind vet gave Chester oxygen, took x rays (which again, showed nothing definitive), and did an amazing job of calmly and compassionately explaining what might be going on, and what I could do if I wanted to know more. She suspected airway obstruction, but to determine this would require hospitalization and intubation to look down the throat. If I wanted to know more, she recommended I get Chester to the nearest specialty veterinary hospital (2-1/2 hours away, in Maine, with the appropriate equipment) as soon as possible so that his breathing could be stabilized for a procedure that might not happen until Monday. On the spot, I decided to make the trip.
Driving through the White Mountains, on a gorgeous day, I was completely unaware of the scenery. My only thoughts were for Chester, who was having a harder and harder time breathing. By the time we got to Maine, I was shaky and Chester was immediately put on oxygen. The very competent staff didn’t rush into the procedure, as it was risky with Chester’s breathing as it was. When they did initiate the procedure of looking down his throat, they were successfully able to catheter and intubate him, but they found a mass in his throat.
Intubated, and under anesthesia, Chester was able to breathe without obstruction. Meantime, I had some fast, hard, and emotional decisions to make with my husband (who was back in Vermont) and the veterinarian. I broke down, realizing the full extent of this emergency. And strangely, it was very clear to me the route that we needed to take. Options (other than putting Chester to sleep) would have required a temporary tracheotomy, a CAT scan, and potentially very risky surgery with no guarantees of success. Chester might still have had trouble breathing, or eating, after such surgery. Chester also had a heart murmur, which was a risk factor. I felt clearer about the decision than I ever had in the past (in many end of life animal scenarios) — but that didn’t make it easy.
We did not wake Chester up, as that would have been extremely stressful for him to have to struggle to breathe again. I was with Chester when the vet put him to sleep. I stroked him and cried and loved him. But I did not get to say goodbye to an awake Chester in good health. All I have are my memories. I cried much of the way home, again, driving through these northern New England mountains that hold me with their beauty.
Chester, I miss you so much.
Chester, I hope I did the right thing. I hope I made the right choice.
Chester, this was way too fast. I said goodbye, and I touched you as you passed, but I never really got to say goodbye to you.
I’ve not processed this completely. I feel as if I still need to cry. Something has to let loose.
I miss you so much, my buff colored manager cat — Sweet Chester.