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Waking out of a deep sleep, I heard my husband, John, shout, “Karen, you need to get up and see this. Bucky can’t walk.”

It can’t be that bad, I’ll just roll over and sleep a little more.

“Get up,” he said. “You have to see this.”

Grudgingly, I got out of bed and saw that our cat, Bucky kept falling over as he tried to drink from his water bowl.

Bucky was 20 years old. Since I never had children, he was my “baby,” sweet, gentle, timid and affectionate. I loved to cuddle with him and pet his soft gray and white fur. As the runt of his litter, Bucky had outlived his brother, Spanky, and his next feline companion, Kitty. He was the least adventurous of them all, although, having moved ten times in his long life, he experienced plenty of adventure.

Blind and arthritic, Bucky had recently become incontinent and developed a terrible smell that bathing didn’t help. Was his time near? He didn’t appear to be suffering. I hadn’t even considered putting him to sleep. He kept my lap warm while I wrote in the morning, slept in my meditation chair next to me as I worked during the day, and lay on my belly at night while I watched movies or read. He was my constant companion.

That morning, Bucky was distressed because he couldn’t stand without falling. His heart rate was high and he seemed agitated. I settled him down on the couch with cushions surrounding him so he wouldn’t fall over, and a soft blanket and pee mat under him. I sat beside him, at a loss about what to do. Watching his small frail body rise and fall with each breath, tears poured down my face. In that moment I knew…it was time to let Bucky go.

John and I had both had dreams about him the night before. John dreamed that he was trying to find a home for Bucky’s litter box. I dreamed that John and I were living on a beautiful yacht. We were given a new berth for our boat in a nicer, more beautiful location, but it would mean that Bucky would have to travel farther to find his litter box.

Our dreams confirmed that it was time to let him go, but I wished that Bucky would die naturally. I hated the idea of purposefully putting him to sleep. I had never had to do this before. As a young girl, my dog, Cinder, ran away from home. I gave two cats, Annie and Sunny, away while going through a divorce. Spanky was killed by a car, and Kitty taken by a coyote. The thought of having Bucky put down tormented me, but so did watching him suffer.

As the day went on and his condition did not improve, I reluctantly made the vet appointment for that evening. I spent the rest of the day on the couch next to Bucky. I wrote a goodbye letter and talked to him about what would happen, suggesting he follow the light. In meditation, I asked my father and brother, who had already passed away and who also loved cats, to help him cross over. My dear friend, Lumenaria, consoled me on the phone. But, there was really no way to prepare to say goodbye.

On the way to the vet’s, John drove as I cradled Bucky in my arms. I waited in the car until our room was ready; I didn’t want anyone to see the torment on my face. I asked the vet what she thought was wrong with him, anticipating that she would confirm our decision to let him go. Instead, she said he probably had Vestibular Disease. “He could regain balance within a week or two, but it might be challenging for him because of his blindness,” she told us. “His fur is so soft and healthy. He doesn’t appear to be 20 years old.” Then she pulled out a can of food and Bucky devoured several bites. At home, he hadn’t eaten.

Now I had to decide all over again. It didn’t feel right to bring him home as I had already started the grieving process. It felt like I was only postponing the inevitable. At the same time, it didn’t feel right to have him put down. John left the decision completely up to me because he didn’t want me to have any regrets. Mustering all of the inner strength and courage I had, trusted my initial decision to let him go.

But, it wasn’t the peaceful passing I had hoped for. Bucky did not relax with the sedative and he resisted the IV. After the vet gave him the injection and his body went limp, I stayed with him while John paid the bill and waited outside. My body shook as I sobbed quietly, attempting to contain the enormity of my grief. I wanted to scream. Why did I have to make this terrible decision? Who was I to take his life? Deeply traumatized by this “humane” act, I lifted Bucky up to my chest one last time, but his limp body melted like butter as he slipped through my arms back onto the cold sterile table. He was no longer mine to hold.

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Karen Mehringer, MA, MFT - Grief support, counseling and life coaching in Santa Cruz area.