It’s been a week since I had to make the decision to put my little buddy Max to sleep after a very brief battle with an incredibly invasive and rapidly-growing cancer.
I initially chose not to write about it here, but writing has always been fairly therapeutic for me and the grief is almost too much to bear.
I adopted Maximus, then called “Big Boy,” from Providence Animal Rescue League in 2012. Growing up, I always disliked cats because of my severe allergies to them and because I believed in the stereotype that cats were aloof, didn’t care for their people, and couldn’t be loved in the same way you could love a dog. They were, to my mind, independent little psychos.
For once, I’m happy to have been completely wrong.
Ask any of my family or close friends how much I loved Max and (when I adopted his friend in 2015) Rocky. They’ve been my constant companions through moves, through periods of dark depression, through friends and family that have come and gone, and through major life events. Since launching my freelance career a little more than a year ago and subsequently working from home, their bonds with me have only grown stronger.
Max, though, was always special. My heart was (and is) full of the same amount and quality of love for both Max and Rocky, but I also had two different bonds and connections with them. Rocky is attached to me and has severe separation anxiety when I’m not even in the same room with him. He’s my literal shadow.
Max was a shadow of another kind, with a personality that echoed my own. He was independent and disliked being bothered, preferring to do his own things when he felt like it. He didn’t care for company or socialization, but he didn’t bother anyone, either. And he knew how to stand up for himself. Shortly after I first adopted him, when I still lived at home with my parents, my then-puppy Daisy got a little too rambunctious with Max. Already nearing 100 pounds of muscle (she’s a half-Alaskan Malamute/half-Great Pyrenees), she cut an intimidating figure.
Max gave her a one-two punch on the nose and from that day forth, Daisy always gave the 13-pound Max a wide berth when she walked around him.
Yet for all Max’s independence, our bond was strong. He understood that I was his “dad,” and when he felt like socializing, he let it be known with his trademark “murp.” He loved to be pet or brushed softly as he lay on a pile of the softest stuff he could find—usually blankets on my bed or couch or, at night, on my computer chair. He loved to eat, especially tuna, and would never run away from me in fear.
Max had lively emerald eyes that hinted at him knowing more than any cat ought to. Multiple times, before I learned to manage my depression as I now do, he sensed the growing darkness of my thoughts. He’d know I was on my bed, wasting away and hoping to fall asleep to escape whatever problems I had at the time, and he’d jump up onto my bed to approach, those emerald eyes telling me he knew of my pain and was there to help me through it. He’d lay down beside me as if to tell me I’d be okay and I’d pet him.
Until I was okay.
The day I moved out on my own, Max was in his cloth cat carrier in my passenger seat, the top flap unzipped just enough so I could pet and calm him as I drove (he hated car rides). On the way to my new apartment, I drove through the drive-thru of a Dunkin Donuts and, while I ordered, Max slipped out of the carrier, darted across my lap and through my car window into the drive-thru window. As I struggled to keep him from falling between the building and my car, the employees laughed and tried to help me while asking me what I’d like. I managed to wrangle Max back into the car before ordering “hot almond milk,” blurting out anything that came to mind when my only focus was on keeping Max safe and getting him back in the car.
That’s the kind of cat Max was. He did what he wanted, when he wanted, and didn’t really care what you had to think or do about it.
For the five years I had Max, he was my best friend. When I worked 80 hour weeks as a soda merchandiser, he’d try to leave my apartment with me on my way to work. I adopted Rocky to keep him company and, in his general uncaring nature, Max didn’t really seem to mind. (Eventually, he and Rocky formed a great brother-like relationship).
When Max, for whatever reason, decided he didn’t like the pizza delivery-woman who delivered my pizza once, he charged at her the same way you’d expect any dog to do. “Sorry about that,” I joked. “That’s my guard cat.”
Max loved laying in the sun. He’d climb on whatever objects he had to in order to find a way to a window sill or to sit on his cat tree and stare out at all the happenings outside. He’d watch and meep at the birds and then eventually fall asleep with the sun’s rays warming his black coat.
In the first year or two I had Max, he’d eschew laying in a room cooled by the air conditioner in favor of laying on my desk while I gamed or wrote. He’d lay just above the keyboard and in front of my monitor, outstretched and without a care in the world, just to lay beside me despite the sweltering heat that the little personal fan did little to combat.
It’s not hyperbole when I say a piece of me died on January 23, 2018 on the exam table with him.
His initial diagnosis of cancer just a month prior was like a bullet to my heart, especially when I expected the swelling in his face to be the result of a simple tooth abscess or spider bite. The cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, had popped up seemingly overnight and reached a point where not even surgery would be effective—and would likely jeopardize his life anyway. I decided to let whatever remaining time he had be free of any undue stress. He was prescribed painkillers to be sprinkled over wet food, which was all he could eat without difficulty.
Over the next month, the tumor in his mouth grew, then burst through his cheek. A week before he had to be put to sleep, another tumor began growing near his eye. With the rapidity of the cancer’s development, I didn’t want to risk anything worse happening and made the call to my vet.
The day before his appointment, Max was typical Max. He demanded (and basked in) my attention, purred up a storm, and let me brush him while he walked in circles on a bed I made for him out of blankets on my computer chair—his favorite place. I asked myself for the Nth time if I was being too hasty with him needing to be put to sleep. I didn’t want him to suffer, but I also didn’t want to lose him too soon if his pain was manageable and his quality-of-life was acceptable.
The next morning, he was bleeding profusely from his mouth and quite clearly distraught by it, enough so that he actually let me clean him up and do my best to staunch the bleeding (I couldn’t). It was a sign that I made the right choice.
At 3pm that afternoon, I said goodbye to my friend and held him as he went to a peaceful, pain-free, and eternal sleep in the vet’s office.
I’ve felt pain and heartbreak before from normal, average human experiences and emotions. This pain and grief is nothing like I’ve ever felt before. I know, eventually, I’ll get over it, and I know, too, that it corresponds directly to how much I loved him. It’s the price to pay when you’re blessed with a pet like Max, and a price I’ll never regret paying. I only hope that, one day, I can see my little buddy again.