Tribute to a Tabby

“Would you like a free sample of kitten food?” the receptionist asked.
“Nah, I don’t have any kittens.”
“Would you like one?”

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So, that day, having gone to the veterinarian with one cat, I ended up going home with two. The newcomer was a sweet little “dilute orange” (i.e., blonde) tabby I named Bender. No, not for the robot character in “Futurama.” My guy was born with a bent tail – its last inch folded in on itself twice, almost like a curly-cue. As a result his tail was stiff, not graceful and fluid. When he got mad – which wasn’t often – and flapped his tail, it was like getting hit with a fuzzy mace. Whap, whap.

He was a bit awkward as a kitten with his long legs, but he grew into them, and into the most calm, mellow cat I’ve ever shared a home with. We did hit a rough patch a couple years later when I introduced Paco to the household. (Another day that I went to the vet with one cat and came home with two.) For the first three days I thought Bender was going to kill the 9 week old kitten – the way he stalked and hunted him while Paco explored his new home. But suddenly Bender turned into “Mr. Mom” and took over raising the newcomer the way that Annie had raised him. (Annie was still with us at the time, but was elderly and not up to her usual role as matriarch.)

Even after Paco grew twice his size (and took over as “alpha kitty”), Bender remained his sweet self, with an inquisitive “mmmrrrmmph” noise that he made – he never really meowed. He followed me around the house, especially on weekends, wanting to be near me. He loved to sleep on my legs, using my feet as a pillow. And he always responded when I talked to him, whether I was calling him “Boo” “Boo-Boo” “Boo-meister” or “Bender.” Most often it was “Boo” (not an uncommon nickname for cats, right? How many of you call your cats “Boo?”) I’m not sure if my friends know the exact origins of his nickname: Legally Blonde. Yes, that Reese Witherspoon movie. The asshole boyfriend called Elle Woods “Poo-Bear.” I thought it was cute, so I started calling Bender “Poo-Bear”, but after a bit, because his name began with a “B” it seemed more fitting to change it to Boo-Bear. Toward the end, I mostly called him “my sweet little old man.”

He had medical issues which required daily medication; he even had his own asthma inhaler, complete with an infant mask to fit over his nose and mouth. Scarier were the seizures he began suffering when he was about 8. (The vets could find no physical reason for them so classified it as “epilepsy” – an exclusionary diagnosis.) I’ll never forget the first one I witnessed: one second he was standing next to me, the next he was on his back, all four legs in the air, flailing about, twisting, whipping back and forth, as if his body didn’t know which was up and which was down. Even after he managed to get on his feet, the back half of his body continued to dance around for several more seconds. He watched it quizzically, until it stopped, then ran and hid for an hour.

That meant a quarter pill of phenobarbital twice a day for the rest of his life. Sometimes the money got to be a bit much (ever buy an asthma inhaler that’s not covered by your medical insurance?), but I didn’t mind. Those were our special moments each day as I took him aside to administer his meds.

As he got older, he developed arthritis (like a lot of us!) Boy, did he walk really slowly. For the past year or so instead of waiting for him to respond to mealtime, I had been carrying him into the kitchen. Inconvenient? Yeah, sure. But I enjoyed it. The last couple of months I had even begun talking to him en route, telling him what a pleasure it was to carry him to his food dish, and how glad I would be to do it as long as he needed me to.

I wish I was still doing it. Like I wish he was still sitting on the back of the chair behind me, with his feet touching me. (When he wanted attention, he would tap me on the shoulder.) Paco sits there now, lonely, and sad that he has become an only cat.

As scary as his seizures were, they didn’t quite prepare me for Sunday, January 12th. He was sleeping on the ottoman while I was taking care of the laundry. I’m not sure what made me turn around (maybe he made a noise), but he was crouching, leaning to the right, his mouth opening and closing several times. My first thought was “oh, god, is this it?” (Somehow I recognized it as the event that would end his life.) But then, it was over, he vomited a little, and then just lay there looking exhausted and drained. It was mid-afternoon, too late to take him to the regular vet. And I didn’t want to take him to an emergency vet. Not that they wouldn’t have done their best, but I’ve already had one cat (Marian) die in a strange, unknown, vet clinic, tended by veterinarians she’d never seen before. I thought, that if this was the end, I’d rather he go quietly at home with me.

For the rest of the day he slept. Paco cuddled with him for most of the time. (As two old men cats, they’d made their peace – mostly – and become cuddle buddies.) At night, I carried him to bed, and managed to stay awake off and on, checking on him periodically. I don’t think he moved the whole night. I was pleased to see him looking a little brighter the next day, seeming to bounce back a bit, but he wanted no food and or medicine. He’d wobble his way to the litter box every now and then, but mostly slept. I still expected that he might pass some time that day, but he hung on.

I wasn’t too successful at staying awake Monday night and so was dismayed to not find him still sleeping next to me when I woke up Tuesday morning. He’d somehow made his way to the bathroom and was hiding behind the toilet. (The only time he got cranky with me, and growled, was when I pulled him out.) I certainly didn’t want him to die in such an undignified place. It was clear to me that Monday’s “bounce” was a false hope. I knew Tuesday the 14th would be his last day.

Gradually he lost his ability to walk more than a few steps before his legs locked up, causing him to fall over. But he stopped even trying by lunch time. So I wrapped him in a towel, and held him. We sat that way for a few hours, his warmth against my chest comforting me. Even though I was sad, contemplating that this would probably be the last time I held him, all I felt was love. If we could’ve stayed that way forever, I would’ve been happy. I did not want to get up from that chair.

But as the afternoon waned, I began to worry. Worry that I couldn’t stay awake and that he would die while I was sleeping. I couldn’t stand the thought of him dying alone. Broadway Pet Hospital, our vet clinic – with staff who had cared for him his whole life – would be closing in only 3 hours. I knew I that I had to make that call, and let him go with as much dignity as possible. I put on my shoes, told Paco to say goodbye to his brother, and took him away for the last time.

The veterinarian agreed that he was ready. She was very kind, very professional, informing me of each step. (They always administered a sedative to calm the animal before the final injection.) They gave me some time before and after, of course. What I will always remember is how he purred from the moment I took him out of the carrier to hold him until the sedative was given. I know it’s common for sick cats to purr – it’s self-soothing for them in times of stress – but he looked up at me the whole time, and four or five times, he reached up with one paw to touch my face. He was saying goodbye.

Of all my cats, Bender’s death was the most peaceful (the “best” if it’s not too odd to use that term for a loved one dying). I miss those special moments that were his. I miss his little non-meow. But it was the right time for him, and I’ve come to accept it more quickly than the others. Like the others, he is still nearby – his ashes in a small wooden box that sits next to those holding his sisters’ ashes. I still feel his love.

Don’t try this at home, kids.

Sun, alcohol, and stupidity – I believe I alluded to that in my last blog post so many months ago. I’ve got no excuses for being so incredibly absent from my blog, other than sheer laziness, and certainly no excuses for that alcohol.

It was a beautiful, but hot September in Madagascar. The day before, we had flown south from Antananarivo (Tana), the capital city, to a private, tiny dirt airstrip, in two tiny planes. That’s an experience requiring a lot of weighing – of everything and everyone. No, really, they weighed each person and divided us up between the two aircraft, with assigned seating so that everything was properly balanced. We were picked up by our mini-bus driver who’d left Tana two whole days before us in order to get there on time.

RingtailsOur first full day excursion into Isalo National Park was a hike into Namaza Canyon, the first half of which didn’t have much shade until we reached a picnic area. Here, we had our one chance to see some Ringtails, the most famous lemur species. About half of us hiked the rest of the way into the canyon, our efforts rewarded with a beautiful little oasis.

oasis

While I definitely appreciated the shaded, cool atmosphere of our destination, I didn’t feel like I had gotten dehydrated on the way in. Or on our return trek. I drank plenty of water and never felt over-heated until near the very end, when my heart started beating really fast and I had the sudden urge to get back to the air-conditioned minibus. I pushed my way past a couple other people, probably a bit rudely, and hoofed it outta there.

Back in our beautiful stone chalet at the Relais de la Reine Hotel (one of two hotels who owns that dirt airstrip), my plan for a cool shower was aborted when I realized our laundry had not yet been returned. No clean clothes = no shower (why bother if I had nothing else to wear?) So, what did I do instead? Yep, you guessed it, I headed to the main building and the bar, and helped myself to a pint of Three Horses Beer, a local lager that is the country’s top-seller. I still didn’t feel dehydrated, but adding the alcohol, not to mention starting on a second pint, really wasn’t a good idea.

Abandoning the second beer at the dinner table, where I lasted for about five minutes before having to excuse myself, and ran to the little restroom just off the lobby to, you know, upchuck all that alcohol. (Apologies to the next woman who may have tried to use that facility.)

As I made my way back to the chalet, I paid little attention to the odd beauty of the orange glow dominating the darkened horizon, only momentarily wishing I had the energy to get my camera to capture the stunning landscape. Yes, the hotel was surrounded on three sides by grass fires that night. There were different opinions on the cause of the fires: either local farmers clearing land, local villagers unhappy with their percentage of the national park’s profits, or maybe cattle rustlers.

A couple of others in my tour group later shared some photos with me. I’ll try to arrange them here to give you a sense of what it was like. The thing that sticks in my mind the most is the number of hotel guests who were lounging outside, watching the fires, all seemingly unconcerned. It was odd to me because I remember the panic of wildfires here in Northern California (1991 Oakland Hills Fire, anybody??) It was surreal. I later learned there were a few worried people, primarily the owner of a private plane that was sitting at the airstrip. Most of the hotel staff was, in fact, out there keeping the flames away from the plane.

The rest of my night was not so entertaining. I got little sleep, running back and forth to the restroom. (I’ll spare you the details.) There were times where I felt so completely drained I didn’t think I had the strength to walk the few feet back to my bed, convinced I was going to drop to the floor at any second. My poor friend, and roomie, Bobbie, kept checking on me (as did our tour leader, Andre, who had what turned out to be the best remedy: charcoal tablets.)

I was completely useless the next day, staying sequestered in the chalet, while the others went on another hike (I missed the swimming hole!). Many thanks to the hotel staff who checked on me during the day and brought me soup and juice. They were all very kind. While I did recover enough to enjoy the second week of the trip, my appetite dropped drastically and I didn’t dare drink another beer until our very last night. I lost about five pounds. (I do NOT recommend this as a weight-loss strategy.)

As I said in my previous post, it’s possible this incident had something to do with my later illness, but who knows? It could’ve compromised my immune system, I suppose. Maybe breathing in smoke from the wildfires had something to do with setting off my asthma, but I’m thinking that would’ve had a more immediate effect rather than a delayed one. I’m just happy that it’s over with.

So now that it’s summer again, remember kids, don’t try this at home. Or on vacation.

Adventures in Breathing

Ringtails

A month ago today, I returned home from a two week vacation on the island nation of Madagascar (off the southeast coast of Africa), an amazingly beautiful yet harsh land. I promise more on the actual trip in future blog posts. Do you love lemurs as much as I do? (I got pictures to share!)

Tonight, as I sit here near the end of my “self-imposed exile” from the office, I want to write about breathing. Any asthmatics out there? Raise your hands! Try not to wheeze or cough — you might make your co-workers think you’ve brought some horrific disease from overseas to infect them all. Got your rescue inhaler handy at all times? Good.

I’ve been pretty fortunate when it comes to my asthma. I’ve never suffered an acute attack (like you see in movies) and I’ve never landed myself in the hospital because of it. But in the last 15 or so years, I’ve experienced about a half dozen asthma “events” (as my doctor calls them) where, for a number of days, my asthma is not under control. The typical remedy has been a round of prednisone. (Only once before have I needed a second round.) Aside from needing to attend doctors’ appointments, I’ve never before missed work because of it.

Now, in the past four weeks, I’ve used a little more than 100 hours of my sick leave (yep – you read that number right – fortunately I’ve not been sick much these last few years and was able to accumulate a decent balance to draw from). I’ll see the final total when I get back to work on Monday. Browsing the internet, I saw a statistic that said asthma is the fourth leading cause of absenteeism from work for adults. Wow. I have now joined those ranks. Never thought I would. But it’s quite difficult to work when one can’t breathe, isn’t it?

You’re probably asking what this has to do with Madagascar. Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. It was one of the harder trips I’ve taken and I was sick in the middle of the trip although that had more to do with sun, alcohol, and stupidity (more on that next time). Maybe that day’s illness set up my immune system for the later failure. Maybe my subsequent drop in appetite for the rest of the trip had an effect on me.

But there I was, four weeks ago, dropping onto my sofa exhausted and jet-lagged after 36 hours of travel (Antananarivo to Johannesburg to New York to Oakland). I’d spent the majority of the day sitting in La Guardia Airport waiting for my delayed flight west…sneezing and coughing. (Thanks to whichever fellow traveler gave me their cold!) It didn’t seem like such a bad cold at first, but then I was pretty much half-conscious throughout the following day. So much so that when one of my cats accidentally punctured my finger with a claw, I did not wash it. (Here’s a tip: even if you’re half-dead and barely mobile, if you get a cat scratch, WASH THE WOUND.)

You can guess where this is headed. That was late Tuesday/early Wednesday. By Friday, my finger was infected and the seemingly mild cold had morphed into a racking chest cough (the kind that hurts, making you cringe). Oh, and yes, I did attempt to go to work – I managed to get through a couple half days – then went to the doctor. She loaded me up with prednisone, some nice cough syrup, and antibiotics for the finger (tests showed it was just a common form of streptococcus something or other that my cat had gifted me with).

While the finger healed and the worst of the cough eased over the next week, my asthma symptoms did not. Back to the doctors the next Friday. More prednisone, change in asthma medications. And, yes, I did try to go to work. But I have to confess my memory is a little fuzzy. I can’t remember if I made it 4 days the first week and only 1 day the next (or if that was reversed). Hmm. I also discovered that some of my co-workers were very unhappy and complaining to my supervisor. (Somebody is apparently convinced I brought the plague back from Madagascar and was spreading it around the office with my hacking & coughing.) People don’t seem to listen when you say “it’s just asthma.”

So when I ended up back at the doctor’s during the third week, I mentioned those concerns. My doctor had already checked with an infectious disease specialist in the event that I’d picked up “an uncommon bug” – they said there was nothing to worry about. By that time I was on my third antibiotic, so not only was it pointless to test me for anything, I had long ago ceased being potentially contagious. (Fourth antibiotic if you count the anti-malaria medication I was on during the trip.) My lung x-rays were clear and all the blood tests (checking things like my thyroid, kidneys, heart, etc.) all came up average. Nothing that explained the extreme fatigue I still felt and the continued stubbornness of my asthma refusing to be reined in. So…more prednisone and a home nebulizer.

When I floated the idea of another week off work (a whole week of nothing – not even trying to do a half day or anything – just resting and recuperating)…yeah…you guessed it. My supervisor and co-workers were more than enthusiastic. Maybe I should say they were very supportive. (Either they really want me to get better or they are truly tired of listening to me cough.)

With one more day to go, I can say it’s been a successful respite. I’m no longer gasping for air when I climb the stairs, No more wheezing and coughing. I still sometimes run out of air when I’m talking and get a little hoarse, but it’s definitely not as pronounced. I think I’ve finally gotten enough sleep too. I know the cats have certainly enjoyed this week. They’ve spent most of it piled on top of me. (Yes, even the one who scratched me.)

So…when I return to work next Monday, if you hear me cough, “it’s just asthma, people” Sheesh. Let me breathe.