NON-FICTION, 1200 words.
There’s a message on the answering machine, but our girl isn’t bothered by the gently-flashing light. There’s a scribbled list on the kitchen table, but she’s worked around those before. There are a bunch of brand new toys—infused with her first whiff of catnip—and it looks like she feels good about the world. She is forty-eight hours into her recovery from surgery and despite the stitches and climbing restrictions she’s full of life.
Did she notice all the smiles aimed her way? Her dinner was brought out first; she was served before any of our other cats, and that was new in this household. Vaguely aware of the special treatment, she seemed to like the attention.
The flashing answering machine was the horror movie creaking door, the villain ducked in the parade. Our veterinarian’s recorded message told us the news, the horrible news, over and over as we replayed the string of words. Pathology had the report on the cyst they’d removed from our cat’s mammary area. The kitchen table list was full of hasty writing, with phrases like: Life expectancy? No. Look for not eating, vomiting, coughing, difficulty breathing. Assume it’s spreading somewhere. Animals can surprise us.
She has two to six months.
Her name is Mellie, the tiniest cat I’ve known. Mellie exists in a grand proverbial room, a room that’s a span of her mind and body’s accommodation, full of sunlight and open space and clear windows. In one corner and in the next, someone is beginning to paint various surfaces black. Converting what is functional into the unusable. They are bastards, those painters, and they are working fast.
When they’re done, she’ll be gone.
That’s how adenocarcinoma works. Cancer is the black paint that nullifies Mellie’s living space—her body. The painters tread on her lymphatic system like a rug, tracking their mud around her immaculate environment, using it as a causeway to convert functionality into uselessness. Right now, most of her room is undisturbed—unpainted, if you will—and she can move about with no trouble. She can work around these painters for the time being.
When I woke the morning after the message, my eyes ached like I’d cried, although I didn’t remember tears that night. The crying was just behind my eyes, on standby, welled up behind two large circular membranes on notice. My tears were soldiers in bunkers, waiting for the go ahead. Waiting like seated school children as three o’clock loomed. Yet as bad as I felt, Mellie will feel worse.
Strength is a friendly kitten with a chipped tooth. Strength is allowing to be poked and prodded at the hospital and winning their “very best cat ever” accolade. Strength is being so drugged all you can do is circle your cage—you can’t even raise your head for your owner—but you purr for him. Strength is a flow of trust after being manhandled, more than once.
Weakness is an owner, hand-wringing over the sight of a shaved arm and Fentanyl patch. A pain drug so strong, we remove it with gloves and return it in a labeled bag. Weakness is wondering how much sickness another being can stand. Weakness is doing nothing.
Strength is doing nothing, too.
* * *
She runs into our bedroom to call for breakfast. I have a small display case next to the bed and she hops on it, waiting to press her forehead and mouth on my dropped hand. I don’t move an inch. She treats my fingers gently, and I let her control the pressure and the direction of the touch. She knows exactly what makes her feel best.
This household is going on a journey, but one of us is not coming back. The littlest one, the newest one, eight pounds of the softest substance nature ever produced. We’re all going with Mellie, but like an airport, we’re stopping at the gate to see her off. We’re only with her so far. What hurts most is knowing she doesn’t know. The hand she’s nuzzled will be in charge of picking up the phone one day and arranging the house call. For the final moments.
I look at her and think: Do you know why we’re treating you so extra-specially? We know so little about our cat, a rescue we picked up from a parking lot in 2007. All she wanted was a loving home. For two months that summer, as a stray, she engaged and participated with any stranger who happened by. Her street-side visitors would play with her and then be on their way. Over, and over, and over again. People would come, make a bond, and disengage after a few minutes. That was Mellie’s life: Selling herself, winning someone over, and being left behind.
It’s a deceptive world for the unowned cat. Human-interacting cats aren’t born strays, not the spayed or neutered ones. Mellie was most-likely abandoned from a home after her owner died or had moved. Mellie was enjoying the warm summer months, living under a housing facility’s tool shed and making what friends she could. From her coloring, it could be said her mother was a calico and dad was a tiger—she exhibited that pattern mix. We’ll never know, but everyone has a backstory and deserves a guess in the absence of facts.
Among her enemies was the cruel old man who pointed his finger like a gun and squeezed the trigger, and also, the upcoming cold season. The man, she could evade. The storms were going to be the killer.
On the morning of the day we picked her out of that lot, her Forever Day, she looked defeated. I called to her to come, and she gave me the look of, I know you, you’re one of the friendly ones, but you’ve come and left, for some time. You are just another person who is going to feed me a little and leave me a lot.
And: I am tired. I am tired of being let down.
That was what I read in her eyes and body language that morning. So we put her in a cat carrier and brought her to the vet for her first physical exam. Then, back home, we set her up in her own room, with fresh pink walls and big windows, and a litterbox. Within a week she had the run of the house. She took to our home immediately, never wanting out, never tiring of having her face touched.
Animals can surprise us.
* * *
Every time she’d felt sick in her estimated twelve years of life, she’d wait out the sickness, and had gotten over it. Every time she felt crappy, that was her answer: Wait it out. Sleep-plus-time equaled success, unfailingly.
Today, there is no waiting solution. Not one that will work. Mellie’s had her last Christmas. She’ll probably not feel a New England summer heatwave again, or the cool blast of air-conditioned relief lying splayed on the bed. As she does what has always worked for her, she will get worse.
And so she looks to us, nods in a patented “what’s up” fashion and meows quietly, once. We smile. She gives us a hesitating walk, hoping for a playmate. We follow with a new toy. When we come home after work she greets our car by calling through her favorite window. And we serve her dinner first, before the other cats. Not being second or third, for the first time in her life.
Will you fail me? We will not.
Will you stay with me? You are part of our family.
Will you care for me? Forever, our sweet girl.
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