Theageek always needed me, but never more than at the end

GREENWOOD – He died looking me in the eye. That’s what I wanted for Théodore, my cat, my companion, my best little friend. The last thing he would see after 17 years on this earth would be my face, loving him to the end.

You could do that, hold him in your lap like that, because Theageek – the only name he knew – wasn’t like most cats. In his temperament he was more like a dog, following me around, sitting nearby while I wrote or watched TV, licking my head while I slept. You could hold it as long as you wanted, however you wanted. He loved her.

One of his last days, after another trip to the vet, looking for an answer I already knew, Theageek was on the dining table where he hung around while I wrote. I picked him up and put him on my lap, face up, staring at me. His eyes were tired. He was ready.

And me too, because he had just shown me how this story would end.

So many missed signs

Everyone kept saying he was losing weight, but I couldn’t see it. He had been a big cat — our vet in Ohio, where we lived until 2014, compared him to an NBA center — and he still looked big to me. Long, huge and thick body.

Just not as thick, apparently.

Another sign I had missed was his fur. He had always been a little nerdy, so Theodore became “Theodork”, who became “Theageek”. Because he was a geek, his transition — from a normal cat to a nerdy little guy who doesn’t groom enough to an absolute mess — was so gradual that I missed it.

A vet would have figured this out in real time, but Theageek was still so healthy. I haven’t seen a vet in years.

Blood tests in 2016 showed the disease.

His thyroid was in overdrive, a caloric furnace burning too hot. So it is why would he eat himself sick? Feed him twice a day, and he would grind it down so quickly he would vomit it up, practically without chewing. Leave food all day, however, and it would graze when hungry. Which was often. Even so, his metabolism was burning so fast that he was losing weight.

At that time, he weighed about 12 pounds. What he had been up to earlier in Ohio, I didn’t know, but we put him on thyroid therapy, a transdermal applied to his inner ear. His weight stabilized and he enjoyed being medicated. It’s something we did together.

About six months ago, he started losing weight again, going from 12 pounds to 10, to nine. I rubbed his hamstrings, and they were gone. The thyroid disease was burning his muscles and the vertebrae in his back were visible to the naked eye. Stroking it from head to tail was like stroking a rock.

Vet visits came faster now. He lost half a pound in a week, then a quarter pound in three days, then again three days later. He was down to 6 pounds and 6 ounces. Hearing that, you won’t believe what he weighed earlier in his life in Ohio. I’m not sure to tell you.

Jackson Doyel, Gregg Doyel's youngest son, with Theodore.

The claw in his paw

Theageek was so stoic, so low maintenance that he walked around with a claw stuck in his paw for god knows how long.

It was 2016, shortly after Theageek and I were reunited. He had appeared like so many pets in my previous life when I worked for CBSSports.com and lived in Fairfield, Ohio. I would go on a work trip, come back and there would be a dog. Then a cat. And another. My boys loved pet stores and seeing kittens and puppies in thrift stores, and their mom couldn’t resist. One day we are a family of four. The next thing I know is that we are a family of 10: mom, dad, two kids, three dogs, three cats.

I moved here to work for the IndyStar in 2014 and left everyone behind. Divorced, the kids are staying in Ohio – one starting college, one finishing high school – and the pets too. Poor Theageek, he wasn’t getting the attention he needed anymore. It’s no one’s fault; everyone’s life had been turned upside down. My boys told me that Theageek felt lonely. Hey, me too.

Understand, I’m allergic to cats. Wrong. And he loses horribly. Little geek, he is so full of dander that when it rained, droplets turned his fur into a glue-like substance. Allergies can be dealt with more easily than loneliness, so Theageek moved in with me. Petting him meant having to immediately wash my face afterwards. Worth it. I loved sniffing his head.

OK, so the claw in his paw.

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He was so stoic, so easy going, and in my meager defense, I was so new to being the sole owner of a cat, I didn’t cut his nails. Doesn’t to know. When he started to limp, I picked him up, put him on my lap like a baby and studied his legs.

The view was overwhelming. One of his claws had grown so long that it curled in a circle, into his paw pad, where I cut it and pulled it out, drawing blood. I’m not a tall person, 5-10 on a good day, but never in my life have I felt so small.

Theageek and the Blue Great Dane

Even at the end, I was not convinced. Theageek loved Friskies cat food — Seafood Sensations flavor, blue bag — and was starting to miss it. I got more from Kroger, the biggest bag, 16 lbs.

It was five days ago.

They need us all the time, our pets, but never more than at the end. They need us to see what they can’t show us, to hear what they can’t tell us. It happened on Tuesday:

We are at the Franklin Animal Clinic, the original location in Franklin, getting Theageek checked again. A man in the waiting room has a huge dog, a blue Great Dane. He says his dog Blu is about 10 and a half years old, beyond the breed’s life expectancy. Blu looks happy and tall, so thick across the chest, and the man nods sadly and mentions Blu’s legs.

“They keep dating him,” he says.

He knows what’s going on with Blu, like I know with Theageek. We sympathize with the decision we face, wanting to make it at the perfect time – not too soon, God no, but not a minute too late. Just then, a vet tech comes to get Blu for a checkup, and his legs give out right there in the waiting room. Sweet baby dog.

In a minute, I’ll talk to Javier, Theageek’s vet tech, about the decision I’m facing, the uncertainty. He mentions a checklist created by an Ohio State University veterinarian to help pet owners deal with this decision. Would I like a copy? Please yes.

“How to know when it’s time”, it is titled, with a list of statements to be scored from one (“strongly agree”) to five (“strongly disagree”). I’m moving forward, mostly 2s and 3s, when I get to the seventh statement:

My animal does not seem to like life.

I lose it. Because I know. Theageek hasn’t followed me for a few weeks. He no longer sleeps on my bed. When I find him and sniff his little head, he no longer purrs softly. He doesn’t even seem to get much sleep, come to think of it. Just sitting on the floor in this Sphinx position, awake.

My cat is dying, right before my eyes.

IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel's son, Macon, with Theodore.

This is how it ends

Let me tell you about the Franklin Animal Clinic.

I have already written these words – Let me tell you about… — when we had to put down my son’s cat, Marms, in 2020. The clinic was beautiful then, and beautiful on Thursday. I call to set up the last meeting Theageek will need, struggling to get the words out and apologizing, and the receptionist, an angel named Natalie, quietly says that everything is fine. Two years ago, I had made the same call about Marms, and another receptionist, Holly, had treated me the same way.

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Now I ask Natalie if I can speak with Javier, the vet tech. Basically, I want him to say I’m doing the right thing, putting him in a terrible position and knowing it and apologizing again. Javier is calm and wonderful and threads the needle just right: he supports my decision without telling me what to do. He lets me decide, but doesn’t let me feel bad about it.

I pick up Theageek from his Sphinx position in the lobby and lead him to the Greenwood location of the clinic. Javier is here today. Just like Dr. Record. They have been with me every step of the way. I need one more.

Holly leads me into a private room, and guess what’s framed on the wall? The story I wrote about Marms in 2020. They gave it a place of honor.

IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel with his cat, Theodore, before he was to be shot.  The article on the bulletin board is Gregg's article about the slaughter of his son's cat, Marms.

Javier comes in, explains the procedure, makes sure I’m ready, then takes Theageek to have a catheter placed in his right leg. While I wait, I call the vet in Theageek, Ohio. I tell them what’s going on here in Greenwood, and ask a question: “How much did Theageek weigh at that time?” They pull out his records, tell me his date of birth — August 14, 2005 — and say something shocking: He usually weighed around 20 pounds.

It’s too much, so hurtful to hear – I didn’t see my cat, my responsibility, wasting away? – but now Javy brings Theageek back to me, makes sure I’m ready, then leaves us alone. The door soon opens, and it’s Dr. Record with several vials of liquid. One is a sedative, a clear liquid that will relax Theageek until he falls asleep. The pink medicine is anesthesia, a lovingly high dose that will send her on her way.

Theageek is lying on my lap, face up. He stares at me as the clear medicine courses through his veins, and now he’s sleeping, truly unconscious, his eyes still open.

Next is the pink medicine. He’s gone but still with me, staring at me as I look back at him, seeing my reflection in his eyes.

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