June 3, 2007

The Dark Humor of Pets


At two a.m. Friday morning, I was awakened by the sound of my cat’s claws clicking lightly into the room. This was not unusual in itself, but her steps seemed somehow unstable. Then I heard the short stack of videotapes on the floor topple over. She didn’t make a sound, but continued stumbling around the room.

      She may have been blind, but this had never happened before. Unlike me, she tended to move very slowly and cautiously. She’d never knocked anything over. Something was wrong.

      I climbed out of bed, and went feeling for her in the darkness. The acoustics in my apartment can be very deceptive, so it took a bit to hone in on the clicking. When I finally did find her, I could feel that she was having a seizure. Her muscles were contracted and her head was snapping back and forth.

      Two days earlier, she’d had her first one. It was brief—about fifteen seconds—and when it was over she continued as if nothing had happened. I’d noted it, but wasn’t too concerned. Afterward she’d seemed just fine.

      But this one didn’t seem to be stopping, and she was clearly having serious trouble walking.

      It eventually passed, and she lay down. But instead of returning to her spot beneath the bench in the kitchen (she’d created a nest atop some old briefcases there), she flopped herself down in the middle of the floor.

      Well, none of this was good news. She was mighty old, I knew, but she’d been in absurdly good health for nineteen years, up to the point a few weeks ago when she went blind. But even then she seemed otherwise perfectly healthy—until now.

      I sat up with her the rest of the night, expecting the worst. She was having trouble getting up on her hind legs, and began pulling herself around in circles by scrabbling on the linoleum with her front claws. She had more seizures. She tried to drag herself behind the refrigerator and under the tub. During the brief time she was able to stand, she stomped through her food dish, and stood in her water. She obviously had no idea who I was anymore.

      For it all, though, she still stopped to eat, drink, and use the litter box.

      Well, this is it, I figured.

      When morning came, I called the vet as soon as they opened. The earliest appointment I could get was one thirty that afternoon.

      I continued sitting with her until the time came to go, resigning myself all the while to the fact that, one way or another, she probably wasn’t coming home.

      She’d been with me her entire life and half of mine, so it was a tough thing to come to grips with.

      When the time finally came to head to the vet, I loaded her in the carrier with a heavy heart, zipped it shut, and took her outside. It was about a ten minute walk to the vet’s. Along the way, I heard her gagging, and felt the carrier spasm. I was sure that was it. She hadn’t been outside in almost seventeen years, and the shock of it all provided the final blow. I didn’t stop to check. Just kept walking.

      Morgan met me on the way, having rushed over from Manhattan after I let her know what was happening, and the three of us made the sad walk to the animal hospital, not knowing what to expect, but prepared for the worst.

      When we got there, my cat was still alive—she’d only puked all over the inside of the carrier, which I guess was understandable. I felt a bit like puking myself.

      A few minutes later in the examination room, the doctor—a straightforward Indian fellow—gave her a thorough going over, and she only swung at him once, which was pretty good for her.

      Her heart and lungs were in very good shape for someone her age, he said, but her kidneys were small and her intestines seemed thick. None of it was too shocking, and none of it had anything to do with the situation at hand.

      Then came the doozy. Her blindness—and many of her recent problems, he said—very likely resulted from hypertension.

      Hypertension? I thought. What in the hell does she have to be tense about?

      He wasn’t sure about the seizures, but those might be tied in, too. Either that or they were the result of a brain tumor.

      “Oh,” he added, “and she has some tartar on her teeth, too.”

      He explained that the blood pressure had caused hemorrhaging at the back of the eyes, leaving her completely blind. And the erratic behavior and trouble walking might be the result of the terrible headaches she’d been suffering. As Morgan pointed out later, all her careening about the night before was probably just an effort to try and get away from the pain.

      For it all, it wasn’t nearly as hopeless as I had expected.

      So they kept her a couple of days for observation and put her on some meds to bring her blood pressure down. Then they let her come home again. I had to change her feeding schedule, give her some tuna-flavored blood pressure medication twice a day, and keep an eye out for seizures, but that was about it. If the seizures continued, he warned me, chances were good she had a brain tumor.

      Now, here’s the Big Joke in all this.

      There’s an old saw that says that over time, pets come to resemble their owners. We’ve all seen that idea played with in a thousand television commercials—tough-looking old men with big jowls posing with bulldogs, adenoidal Englishman posing with Greyhounds and the like.

      Well, my old cat doesn’t look a thing like me. Never has and never will. That would be too obvious. She’s more subtle and subversive than that. No, what she’s done instead, over these past weeks is adopt all of my physical ailments. And because she’s always been sort of a grumpy beast, she’s insisted on adopting these ailments in a much more extreme form than I’ve ever experienced them. Instead of slowly and gradually going blind, she lost her sight abruptly and completely. Her seizures very quickly became tongue-biting whoppers. And her blood pressure—nearly double what it should’ve been—was so high that it burst all the blood vessels in her retinas and made it nearly impossible to walk.

      The little show-off.


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