We had plans for the holiday.
We were going to spend Christmas Eve with my parents and brothers and their significant others – something we haven’t been able to do for ten years. We were going to spend Christmas Day on a blogging streak and then prep early with cake and popcorn for the Doctor Who special.
We were planning two weeks of alternating between super intensive get-stuff-done time and super intensive do-nothing-and-have-a-beer time.
The universe didn’t care.
I was tempted just then to write, “The universe had different plans,” but the universe has no plans. It just is.
Indifferent to all things we want and expect and hope for, it keeps doing what universes do.
On a good day I find that comforting. I like the idea of existence just because. Things that happen, not for a good reason or for a bad reason, but just because that’s the way they are. If you stop worrying about whys and judgments and stop waiting for explanations, it can be very peaceful.
This year I found no comfort in that as I sat in the emergency room of the veterinary hospital at midnight on Christmas Eve, waiting to find out if my cat would live or die. Knowing I was going to miss Christmas with my family – the presents, the cookies, the oversized tree – because I was sitting in a veterinary hospital waiting for my cat to live or die.
She had been under the weather for a few days. She wasn’t eating much, she was vomiting, she slept a lot. But I had forgotten the cardinal rule of universes and so I thought, “She’ll be fine. It’s just a ‘thing’. She’s had ‘things’ before. It’s Christmas.”
And so we went shopping. We visited with friends. We went out for dinner and a beer and arrived home later to what we expected to be angry cats for waiting three hours too long for dinner.
Instead we found one angry cat and one that almost fell down the steps when she tried to come for dinner.
We took her to the emergency room and spent the next several hours pacing and trying to get wifi (because even in a crisis, or maybe especially in a crisis, that’s what you do) as the doctors took blood tests and attempted to find out what was wrong.
If you’ve been to the hospital or spent any time in a hospital or know anything about hospitals at all, you know that tests are never conclusive. They are only conduits to more tests.
The blood tests told me what I knew: she had stopped eating. She was sick.
They didn’t tell me whether it was due to stress or a life threatening illness.
This is part of the problem with the universe. Things don’t always have a nice, easy answer. The universe isn’t waiting around just in case we have a problem or a worry to answer our questions.
Other people were with their families. And their healthy pets. Other people were happy. Of course, other people were also dying and sick and hungry. It’s how universes work.
These are the things that go through my mind when I’m forced to confront the indifference. Things like “this isn’t fair” have no place in a conversation with the universe. “Fair” is something we invented because that’s how we want it to be.
So I thought about everyone who was better off than me and felt mad. I thought about everyone who was worse off than me and felt guilty. It’s what I do, to keep things balanced.
The only thing we left knowing was that our cat was very sick. She had jaundice, which meant her gums and ears had turned yellow. Because her liver had stopped working. Because she had stopped eating.
Seventeen years we’ve had this cat and I’m only first learning the fact that cats can’t go more than a day or two without eating before they develop liver disease.
I asked myself why I didn’t know that. I also asked myself how I missed the fact that her ears were yellow. The universe didn’t blame me. I blamed myself.
The next several days were a blur of words. Ultrasound. Aspirate. Spleen. Catheter. Feeding tube. And then the one I had asked the universe not to say: lymphoma.
I don’t actually remember the last time I cried this much. I cried the night we took her in when the blood tests were inconclusive and the doctor told us that lymphoma was a possibility. I cried that morning when we got home to a house with one less cat than there should have been. I cried because I was missing the first Christmas in ten years I could have spent with my family, eating shrimp and mushrooms and being happy instead of waiting for my cat to die.
Over the next few days I cried when I saw her with a feeding tube – it had been inserted through her nose and down her throat, stitched into her lip and stapled to her face, with a cone around her head so she couldn’t dislodge it. I cried over her shaved belly and legs where various things had been inserted and prodded and tested. I cried when they put in the “permanent” feeding tube, inserted into her neck and bandaged in bright, insulting pink.
When the final test results came back as lymphoma I shook my head, not quite believing the universe had done this, and cried some more.
I hated the universe and then felt ridiculous for hating something that has no malice, no intent. It’s hard to hate something unless it can hate you back, like hating the chair you stubbed your toe on. And so I reinvented God and reminded myself why we invented him in the first place. Because of “not fair” and “help me”.
These are the things that go through my mind when I’m faced with indifference.
Just this past year we lost my grandmother. She died at 94, after years of declining mentally and physically, after weeks of being holed up in a hospital with needles in her bruised and bone-thin arms and tubes up her nose to help her breathe.
Watching it, listening to her tell me she didn’t want to die, was heartbreaking. I tried to block out the image of what she was to me and focus instead on what she needed me to be. I still don’t know what that was, but I held her hand a lot, tried to feed her pudding and reminded her of how she used to tell me bedtime stories as a kid. I didn’t cry.
I’d almost been preparing for her to die for years. Every time my phone rang at an odd hour of the night or when my mother called me at an odd hour of the day, my heart would lurch and I’d expect “the news”. It got to a point that whenever my mother called me even five minutes off schedule she’d start with, “Everything is ok.”
“Ok” is a relative term.
The funny thing is that when I did get the news, it was a text from my brother. “She’s gone.”
I don’t think I cried. I’d been prepping for that day, that second. I didn’t cry during the two-hour drive to the funeral. I didn’t cry during the funeral. I didn’t cry at the gravesite where she was interred, alongside my grandfather, three aunts (my grandmother’s sisters), one uncle and a cousin – essentially all of a generation of family that had been important to me growing up. She was the last to go.
For her I cry at odd times, as I make sandwiches and remember how many lunchtimes I spent talking to her on the phone, when I stumble across a photo, when I’m getting dressed for a night out and I’m rummaging through drawers to find a matching set of earrings and find the necklace she gave me instead.
But I mostly go on with my life, because the universe makes me. Because when I work or play or write or sit or watch TV, she mostly wasn’t there. I lived my life and she lived hers and we connected in the middle. It’s in that middle where it hurts, but the rest of the time I live.
When I considered the possibility of losing the cat that has been a fixture in my life for seventeen years, I suddenly found a well of emotion that flooded everything around me for the next week.
At some point I started to feel stupid for being such a wreck. But that had no effect on actually being a wreck.
I spent a week apologizing to my cat. For not taking her to the vet for a few years. For not taking her to the vet the first day I noticed she was ill. For not noticing her yellow ears. For pushing her off the bed when she poked me for attention one too many times in the middle of the night. For pushing her off the desk when she insisted on sitting on my laptop. For letting someone shove a tube up her nose and staple it into her face.
I tried to make a deal with the universe. I promise I’ll never, ever be impatient with this cat again. I’ll let her poke me all night long, I’ll let her sleep on my laptop all day, I’ll be a better cat-mom.
You may guess by now what the universe thought of that.
A week from the day we brought her to the hospital, we talked to an oncologist. She explained our options and told us that cats respond very well to chemo and that they can, on average, have six to eight months of a good life with treatment.
Six to eight months didn’t seem like a very good response to me. Compared to the indefinite amount of time I had planned to have with this cat, six to eight months sounded like a pretty shitty deal. But it was what the universe, in its utter indifference, offered.
Cat plus chemo equals six to eight months.
Or maybe less. Or maybe more. Just as all tests are inconclusive, all treatment results “depend”.
So we opted for chemo. But that’s not true because it wasn’t a choice as much as a given. The alternative, simply giving up and putting her to sleep, didn’t make it into the equation.
More than one person has asked me how we plan to afford this. The answer is simple. “I don’t care.”
To some people that sounds ridiculous. Crazy. Impractical. Most of those people don’t have pets. It’s not something I can explain or rationalize. It’s not something I can defend. There are starving kids in the world. There are wars. There are homeless people and neglected veterans. And I’d sell my house before I let my cat die.
We adopted her and her brother when they were kittens, that first summer we were married. They had colds when we got them so we spent the first few weeks with kitten snot on every piece of furniture and every wall where they sneezed. They wouldn’t eat so we bought them baby food and that seemed to do the trick for a little while. They’ve been picky ever since so we have to buy five or six varieties of canned food and cycle through them randomly or they’ll sit and stare at us with what I interpret as the, “For real? This again?” look.
They haven’t gotten along since they were kittens. Mostly they avoid each other but occasionally we’ll wake to screeches in the middle of the night when one has cornered the other under the bed. We yell, they scurry off and then you’ll hear mournful meows for the next half hour. How dare we interrupt the fun?
She’s about half his size and for a long time we thought he was the one antagonizing her. We tried to protect her, coddle her. We held her and scolded him for roughhousing. Then one day when they were sitting on their cat tree, her on the top ledge and him on the one under, I saw her staring at him over the edge, her tail swishing. Suddenly her paw flicked out and she smacked him on the head. He looked up dumbly and then she tackled him and chased him across the house.
We were a little fairer about our scolding after that.
She’s been embedded in the fabric of our lives ever since. I go to sleep at night with her curled up on my chest. I wake up to her in the same exact spot. I wake up five, ten, fifteen times a night whenever she wants a few kibbles in her bowl or some attention. She pokes at my cheek or at my arm or at my back, whatever she can reach.
I work as she sits on my mousepad or strolls across my keyboard. More than one email has gone out with “;xjzbgdt53221” written in the body.
Many times when I’m blogging or reading at night in the living room, comfortable in the armchair with my laptop on my lap, she’ll hop on the arm and then stare down at my lap, waiting. The only remedy is to move the laptop so she can get comfortable there. I’ve become adept at working while balancing my laptop above her in one hand and typing or scrolling with the other.
When I cook at night she sits in the middle of the floor and watches. Most times we have to break for catnip and treats. If I wait too long she turns and goes upstairs and then I feel bad. Sometimes, if I haven’t burnt anything too badly, I call her back and she comes running, forgiving.
She likes to be invited to dinner. When I put food in her plate at night, she sits at the top of the steps and peeks out from between the railing, waiting. I can stand there for a long time and she won’t move. She’s very good at this game of chicken. I’m always the one who breaks first. I look up at her, at those wide eyes watching me, and say, “Come on, dinnertime,” and she darts down and starts eating.
She has graced every chair in our house with a nap. She has clawed every carpet, watched out every window, slept on every electronic component from cable boxes to computers. She has curled up on every corner of the bed but will always gravitate to my pillow if I leave it uncovered.
She’s a watcher and a listener. Sometimes I swear she knows what I’m saying because no matter how long I talk to her, she sits perfectly still and watches with her big, wide eyes, like some sort of alien cat absorbing and processing.
She makes me laugh almost every day. Whatever antic she’s up to, whatever pose she strikes, whatever bug she shows up with dangling from her lips. There’s a Zen enjoyment about it all.
I’m fairly certain she’s the reason I don’t have a wedding ring any longer. No small or shiny object has ever stood up against that swatting paw. Earrings, pens, buttons, puzzle pieces, packing peanuts. They get stalked and then flung to the floor. One day my ring was on the counter. And then it wasn’t. Ten years later it hasn’t turned up.
She’s never touched a cat toy in her life. But she makes every empty box her home, every twisty tie her challenge, ever bit of tissue or wrapping paper her conquest. When she was a kitten, we had to tie up our Christmas tree and nail it to the wall because she insisted on climbing it and swatting the ornaments to the floor. For years we had permanent eyehooks in the wall and only hung soft ornaments.
She loves tuna (but only the people kind), Ben & Jerry’s, butter and eggs. Whenever we make omelets we fully expect to share. I need to keep two sticks of butter in the house at all times. One that she licks while I cook and the other so that I can cook for company without feeling guilty. We have no qualms about sharing our food and plates with her, though at least a few people are grossed out and bemused by that.
For seventeen years she has owned us well.
I don’t know how to come home to a house where she isn’t. Where I open the door and she’s not sitting there waiting. I don’t know how to live in a house where she’s not lounging on the sofa or curled up on my chair or poking at my arm so I’ll pet her. Where she’s not chasing her twice-as-big brother across the house or sitting on the edge of the tub while I shower. Where there’s no laughter because she’s just chased something into the wall and ended up in a backflip. I got a glimpse of that for the week she was in the hospital and I didn’t care for it.
Knowing that she’ll be gone inevitably is no comfort. Knowing we had seventeen years isn’t, either. Thinking of all the people I’ve lost in my life and how I survived only reminds me that this is no different.
Towards the end of my grandmother’s life she became hyper-attached to the family dog. She would slip cheese to her all day long but until the day she died she denied it with all the vehemence of a two-year-old having a temper tantrum. She yelled at anyone who accused her of doing such a thing.
The dog hung out with her, sleeping on her feet while my grandmother washed dishes, sitting next to her as she watched the Yankee game from the couch. Whenever anyone scolded the dog for eating someone’s tuna sandwich or tearing through someone’s shoe, my grandmother would get agitated. She’d complain about how nobody was nice to the dog and how nobody understood how the dog felt. She’d get upset and rant about how the dog’s feelings were hurt and how sad she looked.
During one particularly vehement outburst she had been spluttering about the poor dog’s plight and everyone else’s indifference. My grandmother had lost her grasp on words and most nouns had become “that thing” and verbs just a trailing ellipsis. She spoke mostly in pronouns and conjunctions. This time, as she attempted to string words together to express her outrage over how unfairly she thought everyone was treating the dog, she emitted a frustrated grunt and then clear as day, said, “Dogs are people too, you know.”
Dogs – and cats – are people, too. Thank you, grandma.
As I sit here during the second week of my cat’s illness, I’ve spent more time on the floor than I have since I learned to crawl. Comforting her, spending whatever moments I have left with her, feeding her and giving her medicine through the tube in her neck. It’s not so good for my back but it’s doing wonders for my soul.
For seventeen years she’s been at times quirky, aggravating, amusing, strange, persistent, perplexing, fascinating, irritating, comforting. And always a joy. She’s my family.
I don’t know if she’ll respond to the chemo or how long she’ll last if she does. I feel alternately guilty for putting her through something she doesn’t understand and glad that there’s a chance she’ll come back to me for a little while.
In the meantime I’ll work on finding the words to explain how a seven-pound bit of bones and fur can be such an integral and necessary part of my life. I’ll think of the woman I met in the hospital who was taking her dog for two months of daily radiation to fight his cancer, how she’d just been diagnosed with breast cancer herself, and how absurdly cheerful and comforting she was as I sat there and cried.
I’ll remind myself that the universe may be indifferent, but we are not. It’s a blessing and a curse.
Last night I found her sprawled out across the hallway at the top of the steps. I didn’t know whether she was dying or resting, so I lay down next to her and started talking to her. I petted her head for a while and then when my arm was tired, I stopped. A couple of seconds later, she reached out and patted my hand, the “pet me more” gesture.
I’ll take it.