Friday, December 18, 2015


I know, I’m not supposed to call it that.  I’m supposed to say I put him to sleep, or sent him over the rainbow bridge, or put him out of his misery. After all, he’s been dying by increments for over a year and was in the final stages of renal failure.  I simply euthanized him—an English term based on the Greek: “eu-thanatos” = a good death. 

Last photo of Inferno at the vet's with his blue
blankie, tucked securely in his carrier.
All that is true.  Yet in the aftermath, and as brutal as “I killed my cat today” sounds, I need to own that decision, one of the harder (if not the hardest) I’ve ever made.  I have no issue if others prefer gentler terms.  This is about me, not others.

Grief is one of the great human universals, yet mourning (how we grieve) is highly individual.  I share mine, maybe to make someone else’s easier.

When I worked as a chaplain years ago in oncology, ER, ICU, and cardiology, I dealt a lot with dying people, and with survivors.  So I’m used to all the euphemisms by which we talk about death, because death is scary, final, and horribly painful for those left behind.  (Even when death is partly a relief, it’s still painful and complicated.)  Yet I also learned respect for it.  Faced with that last countdown, time becomes precious.  We’re more fully aware.  We remember the good, even if there was also bad.  It’s not possible, emotionally, for us to think on mortality daily.  We’d go crazy.  But when faced with death, we're reminded of what’s really important.

The dying teach us to live.

Thus over time, I developed a personal dislike for euphemisms, although I do continue to use them, especially with people I don’t know well, or when I can’t explain.  My goal is not to hurt, shock, or offend others in situations that are tender.  Yet for myself, I’ve come to prefer to call things what they are, perhaps out of a profound respect, and awe, and—yes—fear of that ultimate journey.  To become comfortable with death, one has to call it by name.

So when the shoe is on the other foot, and I must accept the terrible responsibility of deciding when it’s time to take the life of another creature, I feel the need to use blunt terms.  To make that decision to kill one's pet must be a struggle of contemplation and/or prayer.  Soul-searching.  It’s HARD.  It's dough-in-the-belly sick hard.

So I use “kill” to make it real for me.  Not murder—I didn’t murder my cat.  Murder implies anger and violence.  Kill is more neutral, but it does suggest decision, and that’s what’s important.  I need to own that decision, and why, in order to heal. 

Inferno and his long-time buddie Licorice,
but Inferno in head-down "I don't feel good" mode.
Ever since I called the vet to turn a simple weigh-in to a “probably going to end it” choice, I’ve tried to put it in those honest, blunt terms to myself.  I became aware of precious time.  He had a week, then less than a week.  He had 5 days, 3 days, 24 hours.  Then he had 12, 3, 2, 1….  I didn’t sleep well last night, stayed up late to be with him, even though he’d passed beyond any real desire to snuggle (the heretofore snuggliest cat in the house who would insist on making me or Licorice put up with him curling right beside us).  I went to sleep about 4:30, then got up early, tried to do this and that (nothing that took much thought).

I kept looking at the clock.

And I was back in the zone I remember so well from before.  It’s a holy zone, as death approaches.  Time fractures, distorts.  Reality fogs, yet also sharpens.  Small things gain great importance, “big” things (like all the class finals I've yet to grade) fade away, because in the face of death, they really don’t matter.

It was about 3am last night that I became completely certain that letting Inferno die was the right choice.  I decided after browsing pictures I’d taken earlier documenting his last hours, setting one of him yesterday against another taken in 2012 of a vibrant, healthy, beautiful red-point Siamese with sky-blue eyes.  Seeing the contrast, I fully accepted that my poor Inferno was tired.  He’d put up a mighty fight, lived longer than any of us expected with minimal medical intervention.  I’d like to think we loved him into living that long.  Even his vet had been astonished.  She called him a "miracle cat" when, last spring, his blood-work showed that his kidney function had actually improved just a bit, instead of deteriorating as she'd expected, and had done so without fluid therapy (because he fought it so hard he was in danger of hurting himself).

Yet it was the end, and there was nothing dramatic, no fanfare, no looks from Inferno of, "Please let me go."  I’d kept waiting for some significant health dip like he’d experienced back in late October where, for a day or so, I had to carry him around, and made an appointment then for putting him to sleep, only for him to bounce back (like this weird autumn weather).  In late October, I’d never expected him to see Thanksgiving, never mind his 8th birthday, yet November was a good month for him with the warm temperatures.  Then winter came back just as he made his eight birthday on the 8th of December, and his health changed, too.

After the last bad tank, I’d promised myself I wasn’t going to let him get to that point again, where he could barely crawl to his bed or get to the litter box.  So when it became increasingly clear he was going down again, and his eyes glazed over and all he did was eat, sleep, or sit in “meatloaf” position on the table with his poor head bowed till his nose touched the table-top, I decided it was time.  He no longer cuddled.  He no longer wanted to be petted or even touched except around the head.  But I wasn't entirely sure.  After all, he was still eating rather well; he had strength enough to make the leap from the floor to the counter for his dinner.  He could probably have lasted another month, two, maybe even three.  Was it really time to kill my cat?
Basement Cat and Ceiling of my favorite pics of the boys

Yet he wasn't living.  He was just existing.  I didn’t want to carry him, barely able to lift his head, to the vet’s office to die.

So I made a choice.  I killed my cat today.  Because it was the kindest thing I could do for him before he lost all dignity.  He went easy, his “brother” Licorice there in a cat carrier beside him.  He could hear Licorice’s meows, and my voice.  (Not that Licorice really had any idea what was going on.)

Inferno's death was as peaceful as possible.  He got to eat his favorite foods on his last day.  It was sunny out.  We went for a quick (it was cold) walk about the yard.  Ever since I learned he was dying, I decided to let him outside when it got warm.  Yes, it’s dangerous for cats, but he was dying anyway, and he loved to be outside in the sun.  So I was glad today was sunny and we could go for a last walk.  I left the front door open for a while (storm door shut), so he could enjoy the sunshine.  He perched right in it, face up, eyes closed.
Licorice & Inferno looking out on what comes next.
He had a good day, today.  He was happy.

And then he died.  It was time.  He had a good death.  But I’m not going to call it euthanasia because that pulls the punch.  I need to feel that punch, so I can grieve.  I left with two cats but came home with one.  The other carrier held just a blanket bearing his residual fur and scent.  It’s sitting beside me on the couch.  I won’t wash it for a while.  And it’s okay to be sad about that.  I had time to prepare; it wasn’t sudden.  I had the luxury of a countdown.  I had the luxury to appreciate that time was precious, and there would be an end.

It’s only in the awareness of endings that we ever truly live, and love in vivid colors.

So yes, I killed my cat today.  Because I loved him that much.

Maybe all good cats cross the rainbow bridge and go to heaven.  I hope so; I hope we meet again.  But my cat died today, and I need to call it that.

Ceclia and the brother she cared for but only knew briefly.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Confessions from the Professorial Side of the Desk #4: How to (Politely) Drop a Class

About three-quarters of students will wind up dropping at least one class during their college career.  It may be for a variety of reasons from health or family issues, to poor grades/I don’t get this discipline, to I party too much.  Of those who drop, the majority never offer their professor any explanation, for (again) a variety of reasons.  They may hate the professor, they may fear reprisal from the professor, they may be hugely embarrassed about whatever personal issue caused them to drop, or they may just not care enough to explain.

With the exception of large cattle-call classes in enormous lecture halls, professors usually DO notice when a student stops attending.  I’m not addressing those situations.  I’ve taught a few (198 was my largest lecture class, which pales beside some that are 500, 700, and more).  Those feel more like a factory than a class.  It’s as hard for me, the prof, to invest in it as it is for the students.  I’ve had some in those large classes who took time to ask questions, and I got to know them.  But by-in-large, such students are anonymous.

It’s smaller classes that I’m addressing.  These may still be relatively large.  I’ve had classes with as many as 70 students with actual student interaction, although most are under 40.  In these classes I do try to learn student names, and often take attendance.  Ergo, I notice when a student stops attending, and I will often check the roster to see if s/he has formally dropped, or just effectively dropped.  Most of the time, those who drop offer no explanation.  They just disappear.

I wish they wouldn’t. 

I may be able to guess why many drop; often, it owes to a failing grade.  But I don’t always know what caused the failure; it may not be lack of dedication or interest.  And I’ve had students with current Bs or Cs—even (more rarely) an A—just stop coming.  I’m left to guess the reason.

Sometimes “life” does interfere with college.  Students wind up missing class for all sorts of reasons from personal health issues to family emergencies to other personal crises, and they may not be able adequately to catch up.  Even if one has the requisite documented excuse to retake the test, we (as profs) often have to place a terminus ante-quem on make-ups, and if students take them, it’s often evident they didn’t study.  Maybe that’s because they didn’t care, but it could equally be (and sometimes is) that they had no TIME to study.  This results in poor grades, if not outright fails.  If the crisis goes on long enough, the student may choose to withdraw rather than take an F.  Retreat IS sometimes the better part of valor.  (Most) profs do actually understand that.  There’s nothing shameful about it, and I have occasional advised students to consider it. 

This brings up a side issue.  Sometimes students want somehow to make up the time lost, but it may not be feasible.  Not just a class or three, but several weeks of class.  There seems to be a disconnect between “What I can do” with “What I believe life owes me.”  But life isn’t fair.  First lesson to learn.  And when life interferes, what a student thinks is “fair” for him/her is rarely “fair” in comparison to other students who attended the class and did all required work.  As the professor, I have to consider ALL my students, not just one.  So yes, life may throw curve balls; there are no guarantees.  So please don’t whine to a professor that s/he has to find some way for you, the student, to make up substantial time lost if the professor says there’s no reasonable way to do so that’s fair to the other students—who did the full work.

And THAT, in turn, brings me to another point lost on the Entitled Student ™.  Tuition is money paid to sit in the class and learn.  As a prof, it’s my job to teach and I make appointments at need to meet with students to assist with their learning.  This is not “bothering” me.  It’s what you hired me to do.  I tend to write what many students probably think too MUCH on essays exams, because I personally hated it when profs just put a few checks and a couple words, then assigned a grade with little explanation of how to improve.  That’s not teaching.

But students are NOT paying for a passing grade.  A grade is earned, not paid for.  Sometimes the earned grade is an /F/.  But I will always explain WHY, if a student wants to know—and how to improve in the future.  Teachers want to teach, whether they teach kindergarten or college.  We want to help students “get it.”  If you’re failing, hie thee into the prof’s office, plop your butt in a chair, and ask for help.  If the prof can’t be bothered, s/he isn’t a teacher.  But most of us do actually care, as long as the student does.

Okay, that off my chest, let’s return to the occasional need to outright DROP a class.

If a student drops a class after being in it for more than the first 1-3 weeks, consider it polite to send the prof a note to explain why.

Again, I understand that some students are either embarrassed or shy.  For instance, I once had a student who wound up failing (badly) several quizzes and a midterm because she was breaking up with her long-term boyfriend of 3 years.  She didn’t say anything, didn’t say anything, I finally emailed her, and she confessed the whole thing.  She was an emotional mess.  I advised her to withdraw and take some time off.  I did NOT take it personally, but felt very sorry for her loss.  Most professors are not self-involved A-holes.  This is a classic example of where personal Real Life can get in the way of classes.  Even the best student will crumble under severe personal stress.  Dealing with the onset of depression or other mental illness is another such problem that can be “too embarrassing” for a student to tell a prof…but don’t let it be.  Back it up with a note from the counseling center on campus or from your therapist, but be up-front.

I had another student once who lost his father very suddenly, and had to deal with all the legal fall-out.  Usually an excellent A-student, he dropped to Cs.  Fortunately, he knew me and let me know what was going on.  That allowed me to extend him some grace, and even if his grades were more serviceable than good, he wanted to stay in the class rather than drop (for financial reasons).  I helped him figure out how to do that, and cut him a little slack.

So students may not always choose to withdraw, but letting the prof know what’s going on helps.  And in cases where the final grade will be lower than a /C/, dropping may be wise.

So…what if you’re failing because you partied too much and missed some key tests or quizzes?  That’s a different sort of embarrassing.  I’d still advise letting the prof know.  That’s called “owning your mistakes,” and should you need to take the class again later, the fact you stepped up and said, “Hey, my screw-up—I’m not blaming you,” will (usually) earn some tolerance.  You may still be on effective probation, but an admission of personal error combined with better effort the next time around can make a prof respect you.

Even if you screwed up and have no intention of retaking a class with that prof later, still…send a note.  I can’t tell you he number of students who suddenly showed up in my classes a year or so later after dropping one with no explanation.  They always said, “I probably should have told you why, but I was embarrassed and I’ve changed since then….”

Yes.  Tell us why.  AT THE TIME.  Not two years later.  Believe me, I’ll have more respect for you if you admit why you failed than if you just (cowardly) disappear.

But all those are student issues.  What if a student drops a class due to personal issues with the professor?  Should a note be sent then?


Obviously, politeness is a requirement.  Yet a polite note from a student who has a problem with one’s teaching style can be USEful to a professor.  Some won’t care, but some will.  The prof may not change the issue in question, as it really may be a difference of opinion and/or world-view.  But the feedback can still be of use.

That said, if a student winds up “hating” a professor for political, religious, or other similar reasons, a student writing to tell me how I need to “find Jesus,” or how I’m “going to hell,” or how I’m killing democracy with my “liberal” beliefs will probably not receive a positive response.  Also, IME, students who feel that way are not usually reluctant to say so, but seem to find great joy in the condemnation.  This is not the population I’m talking about.

Other issues can give students pause.  If a professor’s teaching style is problematic for a student, that can be useful knowledge.  It may not elicit a change, but it may still be useful knowledge.  Most profs realize their teaching is not “it” for EVERYbody.  Sometimes we can adjust; sometimes we can’t because it would wind up making us into someone we’re not.  But if we don’t get honest feedback from students, we can’t know.

BUT do be aware of how long a prof has been teaching.  For instance, I’ve been teaching 15+ years, so I have a fair idea of reasonable expectations.  A student who approaches to tell me I need to revamp my grading for __ class because s/he is failing and “I was an A student in high school” is not likely to be received well.  An “A-student” in high school who is failing my World Civ class when the average class grade is a C/C- makes little impression.  High school isn’t college, and this is what profs call “whining,” not a legit objection.  So consider 1) how long the prof has been teaching, and 2) how long the prof has been teaching the class in question, before offering substantial critique.

That said, even in classes I’ve been teaching a decade, I’ve had students offer useful suggestions.  Much depends on the HOW.  Additionally, I not infrequently change texts for classes because something new (and possibly better/more accurate) comes along.  But then I want student feedback ON the new text.  I may keep it or get rid of it based on that feedback.  IMO, good profs are always refining their classes, and student feedback can be key in that process.

Ergo, a student who approaches a prof with, “You need to completely revamp everything” probably won’t be received well (even if the prof DOES need to revamp everything).  But a student with specific suggestions from issues with a textbook to the order of lectures to the nature of tests might meet with a more positive reception.

Additionally, if the problem is less a matter of detail than a general “teaching style” issue, profs may be able to point a student to a professor with a style more suited to that student’s learning.  “I may not be the professor for you, but.…”  Often profs get students asking for advice on other profs who teach like them, because that’s flattering.  But it can be of equal use to students who are dropping to ask profs for alternative professors who teach more in ___ style?  And we might be able to help you.  

Yeah, some profs will be insulted, but again, I think many do realize we aren’t All Things to All People.  For instance, I tend to be fairly informal, and I think most students like it.  But I have had students write (anonymously) on evaluations that they did not like my style and wanted somebody more traditionally professorial.  Hey, I have colleagues who are like that, and I could point a student in their direction.