Monday, November 28, 2011

Requiem for a true friend

On Thanksgiving Day before my brother and his wife and my sister and her husband arrived for the weekend, I got in a workout at the gym and then met a friend afterward for lunch. We went to Chinatown on the north side in Uptown and ate at Pho 777 where Stephen filled me in on how his medical internship was going.

Stephen speaks English very well. He’s from Taiwan and here on a visa completing a medical residency/internship program that has been really difficult for him at a Chicago hospital. Although he speaks English very well, his listening comprehension isn’t quite as good, particularly if the English speaker is a non-native English speaker. It’s been very stressful for him; at one point he was ready to give up and go back to Taiwan where he is already a licensed radiologist. But he selected internal medicine for his residency program in the U.S.

Anyway, we had lunch and I listened to him, encouraged that his really difficult rotations were about to end. He was optimistic that his next two rotations won’t be as difficult.

After lunch I returned home knowing that I would need to feed Symba again. Following the surgery in early October that removed a horrible infection in his mouth – and which revealed that he had a very aggressive form of cancer – he could only eat soft food from a can. The surgery removed most of his teeth and he needed to gain weight. His appetite was voracious, and he managed to keep the food down as well. His coat was gradually getting shinier, although he wasn’t grooming himself. However, brushing him we both enjoyed as it gave me some quality time with him. I knew his days were numbered.

When I returned home Symba was snoozing on his usual spot – a small pile of brown grocery sacks on the kitchen table. He perked up when he saw me, anticipating his feast as I got the canned food out as well as some dishes. He meowed nosily as usual. When he jumped down from his spot on the table I noticed some dried blood on his right front leg. There was no injury to the leg, but it looked like he may have been bleeding from the mouth. This happened before and the incident was brief despite being quite alarming. It was a small amount of dried blood, so I just made a mental not to keep track of these incidents.

Symba wolfed his food as usual. It was quite obvious there were no issues with his appetite, not that there ever was really. I gave Tazz some soft food also, although just a tiny amount as Tazz was able to eat the dry food left out for him. I then went to clean up some new hairballs Tazz had hurled on the carpet. I had returned to the kitchen where I was rinsing out the rag I used to clean these spots up when I noticed Symba at the kitchen doorway.

Although sitting on his haunches, he was very unsteady, his body teetering side to side, and there was bright red blood dripping from his mouth. He then took his paw and furiously pawed at the side of his head as if there was something crawling all over his face. I crouched down next to him to get a closer look, to try and determine what happened, what I should do. I petted him as I examined his mouth – he immediately sensed my petting and responded with affection – and saw with this incident there was a lot more blood than before.

And he was still bleeding.

Then the most extraordinary event occurred, something I will find hard to forget. Symba’s entire front end, his front legs and all just collapsed as he fell face-first to the floor, his hind legs still up. His body was stiff and he uttered a baleful meow that was quickly followed by his back end falling sideways to the floor.

Alright, I’m not sure of the exact sequence of events, but somewhere in all this I got my phone and called my vet, who I knew wouldn’t answer, but I also knew the message at the office would have the phone number for the pet emergency hospital. Symba seemed to recover somewhat. He sat up, shook his head, which nearly knocked him over because he was so unsteady, and then he got back up on the kitchen table to be on his pile of grocery sacks just like he always did after eating. The hemorrhaging had abated, but there were drips of blood coming from his mouth. Symba looked really out of it.

I got the pet emergency hospital on the phone and began describing what was going on. When Symba collapsed, it was just like the videos I had seen in the past of farm animals when they founder – the collapse begins at the front of the body with the back end falling 2 to 3 seconds later. I got directions to the hospital, then went to get the travel cage as I called my brother to find out where he and his wife were. It was about 3 p.m. I think and I was expecting them around 5. He said they were in Indiana, so they weren’t that far. I told them I might not be home when they got to my apartment, so would they mind waiting in the street until I got back?

“I think Symba is dying,” I said.

It was difficult for me to drive at first. Seriously, I was freaking out and starting to cry. Symba was starting to bleed again. But I told myself it wouldn’t do anyone any good if I crash the car because I’m blubbering and couldn’t see the road or wasn’t paying attention. So I pulled it together and began the drive. One thing nice about Chicago on Thanksgiving: traffic is not a problem. Symba traveled as best as can be expected, but I think he went through another one of those collapses about half-way to the animal hospital.

The pet emergency room was a bit busy when I arrived with at least a dozen other people there. I put the pet carrier on the counter as I told the receptionist I was there and that I had called just a bit ago.

“And what is Symba’s problem?” The receptionist kindly asked. Consternation is such a mild term, but it described her expression as she looked at the pet carrier while I spoke.

“He’s hemorrhaging from the mouth and I think he’s been seizing.”

I didn’t have to wait; she took me to an examination room and called for a physician. They began examining Symba as I retold the sequence of events. When they went to weigh him, he seized again as he was being placed on the scale. They took Symba to another examination room where they sought to raise his body temperature and observe him. The doctor came back and we talked options. She explained that she believed that he was almost blind, that he saw motion, but it didn’t appear that he could clearly see forms. The size of his head and the shape of his skull suggested that the cancer was not just in his jaw, but very likely in his brain. There were tests if I wanted them done …

I had heard enough.

They brought Symba back to me. He was wrapped up in soft blankets to keep him warm. I held him in my arms and gently stroked the back of his head. I was left alone with him for a while. He responded affectionately to my petting, pushing his head against my hand as he always did. But one thing I noticed right away: he wasn’t purring.

After a few minutes the doctor returned and explained the procedure. I requested that I be allowed to hold him when it happened. They took Symba for just a few minutes to insert a catheter into his left foreleg, then returned him to my lap. First they sedated him. He quietly went limp in my arms. Then they injected him with propofol, the same drug that killed Michael Jackson.

I kept petting Symba as I told the vet about how I had Symba since he was a kitten, that he was rescued from the pound when he was 6 weeks old. I then handed Symba to her. Would I like to take his ashes home, she asked?

I shook my head. “Symba’s gone. That’s just a body.”

They did make a paw print, however, and gave that to me. A very cute Asian boy cleaned the blood out of his carrier for me. And then I drove back home to meet my brother and his wife. We later went out to eat dinner.

So why am I telling you all this? It’s not for sympathy. I guess it’s partly to get things out of my head in a thoughtful, cogent way. But it’s also to talk about kamma.

Yes, I created some kamma that day when I agreed to have Symba killed. You can call it euthanasia, “putting him down,” “putting him to sleep,” whatever pretty little name or phrase you like. It doesn’t change the fact that Symba is dead because I killed him. You can rationalize all you want, but Symba died at the moment that he did die because I authorized someone to kill him. You can say he was going to die anyway, but that can be said for all of us. We’re all going to die. In this case I deliberately and with forethought had Symba killed.

But here’s where I think many are wrong. Some may say that it was the compassionate thing to do. Perhaps. Some may say that by my doing this, I’ve interfered with Symba’s experiencing his own kamma. Maybe. I say the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Symba’s kamma and my kamma are not isolated from one another. Just as the Buddha taught, kamma is not linear, but involves multiple feedback loops over time and even lifetimes. With the simile of the Salt Crystal the Buddha teaches us that even with very bad things that we’ve done, we have every succeeding moment to work through and eliminate the kamma we create.

But we don’t create kamma alone. My own kamma and Symba’s kamma were intertwined. We were both suffering. While one may say that to kill him would be interfering with Symba’s kamma, one may also say for me to allow “nature to run its course” could potentially interfere with my kamma. It’s simply not black and white.

No living creature wants to die. Even the tiniest spider will do all it can to preserve its life. Heck, even an amoeba will flee from pain. Which is why, when given the opportunity and even the advice to kill Symba earlier on as soon as cancer was even a possibility, I rejected the idea of killing Symba despite most advising it. If that’s really how we’re going to manage life, then my parents should have killed me when I was 2 years old and stricken with pneumonia. We’re all going to die anyway, right? Why go through all that suffering?

Symba didn’t need the power of speech to tell me he didn’t want to die. And it’s not difficult to conclude that I didn’t want to see him suffer any longer. What I wanted to avoid for both my own and Symba’s sake was turning this event into a matter of convenience.

Some may say my decision was still ultimately made around a notion of convenience. I do not disagree. Just remember, you weren’t there.

Symba: May 1, 1996 - Nov. 24, 2011


  1. I am so sorry to hear of your loss, Richard. May both you and Symba have every blessing.

  2. Richard, I was sad to hear about Symba last week, as well. What you wrote about your kamma and Symba's kamma being intertwined, though, was very touching and something that we all - in our own personal experiences - have probably felt but have never understood. Ultimately, that sort of true understanding is probably not something any of us find in this life. But, maybe that can give us hope for a later one.

    Symba was a good cat. I'm sorry for your and Taz's loss.

  3. Thanks so much for posting this. I'm so sorry to hear about Symba.

    We put down our sixteen-year-old cat this summer, after several years of daily fluids and medication to keep his polycystic kidneys working, because he had lost control of his front legs and bladder. I went through thoughts very much like what you posted here.

    I've said a service and offered incense for Symba, I hope you don't mind.

    I'm not sure if I can link to things here, but here's our Rasha a couple years ago, working on his cat koan.

  4. Hi Steve, thanks for your thoughts. Maybe we ought to resume our discussion about kamma soon, eh?

    Thank you Bruce.

    Thanks for sharing the photo Rich, Rasha was a beauty!

  5. Hi Richard, I caught this on my blogfeed and am so glad I came to read it. I am so sorry but also so happy that Symba and you had the love for each other to carry you both through this difficult series of decisions (although it is pretty one-sided ultimately). We had to make the same choices for TomCat who suffered from feline AIDS. He was a stray and joined our family for two years. Your description of your last moments together brought back very powerful memories of sitting with TomCat, chanting the verses to Kwan te Um, and holding him after.

    We make these choices and willingly take on the kamma. That is the middle ground of practice. It is not at the extremes of "Do Good" or "Do No Harm." To have let TomCat suffer was, in my practice, doing harm. To make the decision for him was that uncertain middle ground in which I can never know if it was right or wrong. And, to say it is his karma to go through that pain takes on a "knowing" that we just don't possess. I am willing to go through a million kalpas of Buddhist Hells if it spared him any further pain.

    Thank you and deep bows for your courage!

    Lynette Genju

  6. I hope my partner this for me when the time comes. What you did was out of compassion for Symba, relax and grieve.

  7. Thank you Lynette, that was nice to think of chanting as TomCat died. Kind of wished I had thought of that, but oh well.

    Thanks you Was Once. Even Don Juan told Carlos Castaneda that all living things are made equal by death.

  8. Richard, my condolences. I lost my cat, Tara, about 6 months ago, so this is one of the rare times in life I can say that I know how you feel and really mean it.

    As far as interfering with Symba’s kamma goes, one would have to know what that was, wouldn’t they? How do we know that it wasn’t Symba’s kamma to die by the compassionate hands of his true friend?

    How can we know that had Symba the power of speech and the ability to form thoughts, that he wouldn’t have wanted to have his suffering come to an end? There’s just too many questions and too many sides of the questions for us to know, and believe me, you can drive yourself nuts considering all of them. And in doing so, isn't one just creating more suffering? Besides which, speculating about kamma and how it manifests in cases such as this, which we can never truly know about anyway, is not very fruitful. Nonetheless, I was very depressed after my cat died (she passed away while at the vets undergoing tests) and for quite a while I beat myself up with why didn’t I take her sooner, why didn’t I do this or that.

    There is no way for me to know what my cat’s fate or kamma was destined to be. All I know is what her life in this present life was like, so in the end, I concluded that the only important thing is that for 13 years, she was safe, well-cared for, and loved. I was her bodhisattva and she was mine, and I have to believe that our loving relationship created good kamma that outweighs any other negativity.

  9. Sorry for your loss, Richard. And thank you for posting this. It brings back my own memories of losing loved pets as well.

    At a conference recently a man described being in Sri Lanka where he watched a dog die slowly of injuries because the Buddhist culture there prohibits euthanasia.

    From my perspective, you did the right thing. Others may disagree; but as you said, none of us were there. While early Buddhism does always seem to say that killing or aiding a death is a 'bad' kamma, love and compassion are lauded as even more extraordinarily 'good' kammas. And I trust that the love in that choice and throughout your time with Symba was pretty powerful.

  10. Thanks Justin. There are examples in the Vinaya that describe punishments for monks who abandon terminally ill monks, who walk away from treating them so they will die, but the punishments tend to be light, less severe than not caring for someone at all and definitely not as severe as for an act that would easily be described as "murder." I find your example interesting, because someone sitting idly by and watching an animal die is creating Kamma, creating kamma for himself, so it's not like anyone can really be "neutral," can he?

  11. I caught this on my blog feed and am so glad I came to read it.Sorry for your loss, Richard. And thank you for posting this. It brings back my own memories of losing loved pets as well.

    7 chakras Meditation

  12. I'm sorry to hear about Symba. But your story is somewhat similar to my experience with my dog companion, Gracie. The vet. even thought that what was causing her problems (including increasing loss of eyesight) was a brain tumor or pituitary tumor. In any case, the thing that I still find the most difficult is the feeling of somehow going against that primal urge to live--despite her suffering, --through having her "put down." I really haven't had the courage to write it all down as you have. Nevermind -- I'll surely encounter it again and again during meditation. But thank you for writing about it anyway. It's done me some good.

  13. Thank you Jean for your kind words. I also struggled with my role in Symba's death. All we can do is the best we can under the present circumstances. Kind of reminds me of the simile of the mustard seed. I need to look up that story.

  14. Belated condolences for your loss. We just recently said goodbye to our 17 YO cat right before Christmas & 2 years ago, we lost our 14 YO dog - both these pets had cancer, and yes, we chose to euthanize them at the very end. I don't presume to have any answers. All I know is that with both these pets, we spent a sleepless night trying to ease their suffering (our cat suffered seizures, as many as 3 per hr in the end).

    I know for me, having that one last night with them felt very selfish - yes, we could have chosen to take them to the emergency vet knowing it would end their suffering sooner. Instead, we waited til the morning to take them to our vet.

    I think for me, it came down to how much suffering our pets were going through at the time, and the question of what their quality of life would be like if they recovered. In our cat's case, we came close to euthanizing him twice before - in both cases he recovered & his quality of life was good til the end.

    I wrote about my dog here

    I certainly don't have any answers and I find your questions very intriguing.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and I hope you've found some peace with your decision.

    With a bow, Trish

  15. Thank you Trish for sharing your kind comments.