EXPRESSING MY FELINES
I was woken up this morning very loudly and abruptly by a rather distressed and unhappy daughter. I opened my eyes to see a blurry young woman wrapped in a towel and stressed out that she wouldn’t make it to her online sociology class on time. I’d been drug awake a few hours earlier, this time it was the thumping of a persistent headache that had roused me. I’d finally managed to fall asleep when my angry and flustered offspring came in to give me a piece of her mind. Some days just start rougher than others.
The source of Maya’s anxiety this morning was Mouse, our six-year-old, twenty-something-pound black cat who had pushed his rather portly, furry body through the plastic portal instilled in the bathroom door and decided to pee on the towel Maya had laid on the tile in front of the shower. Maya, who is not known for her enormous amount of patience, sidestepped the offending stain, wrapped herself up in a towel, and came storming into the living room where I lay curled up in a tight little ball on the couch. It doesn’t matter that she was the one who found Mouse, or that the two of them seemed to have an immediate bond from the beginning. It didn’t matter that she knew Mouse had to come home with us on that fateful night six years ago, or that the two of them have always had a strange sort of human/animal simpatico vibe going on between them. Mouse had made her mad this morning, which made him my infuriating little beastie, and it was up to me to remedy the unfortunate situation.
I grew up with animals. I love them all and remember many dogs and cats that lived in my house from the time I was very small. My mother captured pictures of me with various animals, and I don’t really remember any stretch of time from my earliest memory until I was grown when there wasn’t at least one pet beneath my roof. Oftentimes, there were many more than that. There was a canary in the mix, rabbits, even a duck for a very short period of time. Before Maya was born, I inherited a fifty-gallon fish tank from a friend of mine who unknowingly kicked off a decade long fascination with the finned creatures.
She loved those fish. She eventually had several tanks of her own over the years, and Scotty loved them, too. They were a lot of work, but the tanks were a good night light, and the fish were soothing for a little girl who always struggled with sleep.
My kids had a varied collection of live pets much like I did. Fish, hamsters, even a pair of frogs named Cricket and Butterfly. We had a charming yellow lab named Joey. I still miss that sweet soul. When we moved to Germany for two years, we—or rather Scotty— befriended a beautiful horse. She lived between Queidersbach and Linden, so we put the two together and came up with the name Quill. Quill tolerated a small amount of affection from Maya and me, but she adored Scott. She would get very excited when she saw us walking up the path toward the pasture in which she grazed, and she happily munched on all the apples we always brought to her.
There was a stray cat that hung out at our house. Our landlords, whom we lived next to and with whom we were very friendly, told us that they thought the cat had belonged to an American family but was left to fend for herself when the family went back to the states. When we first spotted her, she was lying in a patch of ivy that grew near our back door. Ivy was the name we gave this little gray cat because we’re creative that way. She would come and visit every day, and we’d leave food and water out for her. We weren’t allowed to have pets in our house, so Scotty made her a covered bed out of a Rubbermaid bin, complete with insulation and blankets, and tucked it beneath a covered patio so she would have a warm, dry place to go and get out of the weather. It was because of Ivy that we decided to get a cat when we came back to Colorado.
While still in Germany, I’d begun writing Alabama Skye, my second novel. In the first couple of drafts, there was a cat in the story. She was an orange tabby named Mouse, and she was the mama of a new litter of kittens. She lived at Gannon’s Glen, a B & B featured prominently in the book. I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but Mouse turned into a sassy little French bulldog named Georgette—Georgie for short—who hung out in a bookshop called The Cheshire Cat instead of a bed and breakfast. I was still quite fond of the name Mouse for a cat, though, and thought it would be cool to adopt an orange tabby should I find one.
One night, we were shopping for a pet bed for Joey. One of the county shelters had some animals there that day who were up for adoption. Maya gravitated over to the cats, and there it happened. She fell in love.
There were two all black cats in one cage. They weren’t babies, but about seven to nine months old. One of them, who was named Passat—his brother had been given the name Jetta—was particularly interested in Maya. He reached out to her with his little paws and meowed at her. He rubbed against the bars trying to feel her fingers in his fur, and all thoughts of that orange tabby flew right out the window. When a woman caring for the animals asked Maya if she wanted to hold him, I knew we were goners. She was told she wasn’t holding him like cats normally like to be held, but this little black ball of fur looked so incredibly comfortable and safe in Maya’s arms that the caregiver just shrugged and smiled. Little Passat—whom we began calling Mouse before we were even out the door—had found a new home.
From what we could gather from the shelter, Mouse had been abandoned by his mom. They speculated that she might have gotten hit by a car, or that she died shortly after giving birth because mama cats are usually quite attentive to their young. From the beginning, we knew Mouse had some health issues. His tummy didn’t work right. He was a voracious eater, but then his belly would grumble and groan, and the outcome was less than pleasant. He sneezed a lot, and it sounded like he had a hard time getting air through his little nose. We made several trips to the vet where they treated him for an upper respiratory infection and put him on a special diet of specialized kitten chow and boiled chicken. He was energetic and playful. He seemed to be incredibly happy, and his little green eyes were bright and clear.
Mouse had his challenges. We were told domesticated mama cats train their kittens to use a litter box at a very young age. He didn’t have a mama to teach him, so his box habits were erratic. His tummy issues continued as he grew, and he sounded like a trash truck when he slept. The upper respiratory infection was treated, but the vet now suspects he might suffer from asthma. He’s overweight and he’s incredibly vocal. That last bit wouldn’t be such a big deal, but, well, let’s just say his singing voice isn’t the most pleasant. To sum things up: Mousie is far from perfect.
I’ve always loved him regardless. Maybe I love him a little more because of his imperfections. I, too, am imperfect. I mean, we’re all flawed. That’s just being human. But I feel that just a little bit more. I don’t work quite right, and I, too, cause those around me to have to work a little bit harder to cover my shortcomings. Physically, I am unable to do things the way I once did. I feel much the same as Mouse, and I empathize with his less than perfect ways.
I suffer from chronic pain. It started when I was sixteen and a competitive figure skater. I broke my wrist trying to land a jump that vexed me, falling over and over and over again. I was so angry at my inability to land this jump that I didn’t realize I’d hurt myself until I came off the ice and couldn’t get my glove off my swollen hand. One of the mothers gathered at the rink to pick up her daughter was an RN. She took one look at my arm and sent my mom and me on our way to the ER. She knew something was broken. She was right, and I spent the next four months in two different casts.
I dealt with tendonitis for years after that and then broke my wrist again in my forties. The last straw was when I injured it a final time helping my kids move our surly, uncooperative, toe stumper of a German couch into our Colorado home. Whatever I did to it that day was serious, and it sent me to a GP who diagnosed me with carpal tunnel. Not entirely convinced she was right, she sent me to a specialist. Turns out she wasn’t right. Carpal tunnel had nothing to do with what was ailing my wrist.
I began seeing an orthopedic surgeon in June 2015. After several cortisone shots, which made my pain much worse, an assortment of different braces, an MRI, daily bouts of heat and cold therapy and a lot of pain medications, my doctor decided his best option was to do exploratory surgery. A few days before Thanksgiving, they wheeled me into the operating room and found out that my ulna joint was almost completely destroyed.
In mid-December, I went through a second surgery. This time, my doctor replaced the joint and part of the ulna bone, giving me what looks like a little silver hammer. He told me it would be better to go through the surgery and replace the joint, but that my wrist would always be “broken”. He couldn’t fix me. I would be trading one pain for another, and because I had such extensive arthritis, I would never be pain-free again.
I suffered nerve damage during the surgeries, which affects my hand and my fingers, and I often get muscle spasms that can last for an hour, a day, sometimes weeks. There hasn’t been a time in the last five years that my hand and fingers haven’t been swollen, and the only time my wrist isn’t wrapped or in a brace is when I’m in the shower or trying to clean something. I can’t lift, push, pull or twist, and on my worst days—which I call “twitch and fumble days”—I deal with severe muscle spasms and fingers that simply cannot grip. I drop things often, and I deal with chronic pain.
I do have really good days. When those happen, my handwriting is pretty and flowing like it used to be before the second break. On those days I don’t take any medications. I don’t soak in Epsom salts, and I’m not constantly seeking a heat source. I’m grateful for those days, and I never take them for granted. I am still able to write and edit, which are my passions. I use an ergonomic keyboard, and, while some days are harder than others, my fingers seem to do just fine stacking up words.
I have a lot of patience with Mouse. When I look at him, I see a beautiful, shiny, black house panther with inquisitive green eyes. When I talk to him, he bobs his head in recognition. He knows his mama loves him, and he basks in all the compliments I give him. When I work at my desk, I feel him raise himself on his big back feet and hook his claws into my jeans. He wants to be picked up, and I always indulge him, even though he’s overweight and he’s hard for my wrist to handle. I clean up after him. I know he isn’t being vindictive or naughty when he doesn’t go in his box. I know his stomach bothers him, and I forgive him his crankier days. I boil and cut his chicken up for him, and I compliment him on his less than stellar vocalizations when he has something to say. Mouse’s flaws aren’t things he’s chosen. He simply is the way he is, and I don’t mind the extra work he causes me because I love him.
I’ve been blessed to share my life with many pets. There have been at least twenty cats I’ve gotten to spend time with, and each one of them was unique and special in their own way. I think out of all of them, Mouse has been my favorite. He’s made me look at myself a bit differently, helped me accept the things about myself that are less than ideal, the things that make me feel less than, that make me feel cumbersome or incapable. I give Mouse the patience I am hoping to find from myself and others. I’ve learned that even with all our flaws, we can still be beautiful and worthy. We can be endearing and funny and sweet. Mouse has helped me see that both of us can be imperfectly perfect.