I had never seen a cat "put to sleep." I stood in the veterinarian's examining room with two friends who had spared nothing in trying to save a kitten's life.
The fluffy youngster was close to 1 year old and should have been almost full-grown. Instead, he was no larger than he had been at 8 weeks. About that time, he'd shown the first signs that something wasn't right. Since then, boundless love and veterinary skill had done all they could - but an untreatable birth defect was bringing an end to the kitten's life.
He could no longer stand. He could barely raise his head. It was time to let him go.
Everything written about euthanasia, which means a gentle and easy death, explains that it is the pet owner's ultimate act of love. The person ends the animal's life to spare his or her pet's suffering. In doing so, the person takes pain upon himself or herself in order to relieve the pet of it.
It is undeniably the most difficult decision a pet owner ever has to make.
The decision is hard enough when a pet has been grievously injured and those attending advise that there is no hope of recovery. The decision is even harder for those whose pet is slowly but inevitably failing. It falls to them to watch the animal's declining quality of life and decide when living gives the pet so little pleasure that is time to say goodbye.
It had been especially hard in the case of this kitten, who had had an incredible will to live.
"Can you do this for me?" asked the woman who'd brought in the kitten, her eyes filled with pain. She left me standing beside a man in Carharrts who cradled the kitten in his arms. Nothing was going to keep him from seeing this kitten through to the very end.
That isn't something everyone can do - or wants to do. I thought no less of the woman who had left.
The veterinarian had prepared the room by dimming the lights and placing a soft, folded blanket on the examining table. I later learned that the blanket covered an absorbent pad to capture any urine released at the end.
The vet told us what to expect. She would give the kitten an injection that was, in effect, an overdose of anesthetic. We'd have a few minutes to hold and cuddle him as the drug took effect and he slowly fell asleep. She would leave us alone with him during that time.
When she returned, he would be unconscious. Then she would give him a second injection that would end his life.
She gently gave him the first injection, a small one he hardly noticed. He'd had so many shots and blood draws and IVs in his short life.
The man took the kitten back into his arms, stroking and talking to him as the little guy snuggled down. I stroked his head. We couldn't tell when he lost consciousness.
Then the vet came back, placed him gently on the folded blanket and gave him the final shot. After a minute, she checked with her stethoscope.
"He's gone," she said.
We bundled him up in a sweater that still bore the scent of the woman who loved the kitten as much as the man did. Then we placed him in the pet carrier and took him out. The woman was waiting in the car to join the man in grieving and saying their last goodbyes.
As they drove away, I thought how lucky that kitten had been to know more love than many find in a much longer life. My heart filled with gratitude for the gentleness and compassion of the veterinarian.
I couldn't drive right away. There was something in my eyes.
Linda Daniel has spent her life in the company of cats, most of whom simply showed up at her door. She's a believer in spaying and neutering to reduce the number of homeless cats. She can be contacted at email@example.com.