Her Painted Room

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.

###

Mellie, on the night we received the pathology results.

Mellie, on the night we received the pathology results.

ABOUT: Ara Hagopian’s new book is out now: http://www.LeavesOfYouthTheBook.com

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About Ara Hagopian's The LITERATE Show

For over thirty years, I have enjoyed drawing beautiful shapes and writing complementary stories. The imagery tends to focus on our place in the world—whomever or whatever we may be. I am influenced by Twentieth Century history—I read vintage magazines, books and letters. Inspiration comes from visualizing human achievement and personal interaction—derived from people, places and things which may be obscure, but never insignificant. My pen-and-ink THE MAGNIFICENT RECOVERY was selected by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for their 2008 summer art auction.
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10 Responses to Her Painted Room

  1. Sandy Anderson says:

    You write beautifully and cause tears in my eyes for a cat I do not know….but through your words , do…

  2. Leischen Bauke says:

    Loved the story. Though it was heart wrenching and made me tear up thinking of my wonderful dog Bootleg who for some reason I thought we would live out our lives together, well we did in a sense, but it was so much shorter than I had hoped and she left us 5 years ago and even now I still have her picture on my wall at work. The only picture I have.

  3. Mike Moore says:

    Hi Ara, thanks so much for your essay.

    I’ve had cats around literally all my life, with the exception of 2 years living in dorms in college, so I know how attached we can get to them. Over the years my wife and I have had several, all holding special places in our lives and hearts. About this time last year we took in a stray from our old neighborhood. The family that had found her wasn’t able to keep her, but they assumed she was a kitten. When we got her home it didn’t take more than a couple looks to realize she was much older, just reduced to proverbial skin and bones from her time on the street, and of course, covered with fleas (so much for a flea free home). Anyway, a trip to the vet didn’t reveal anything serious, just a malnourished, spayed, adult Siamese looking cat of unknown age and several broken teeth. With her markings, naming her was simple…she became Boots.

    As with Mellie, a few weeks of good food, a warm place to curl up, and plenty of attention put some flesh on her bones, and she quickly became a complete lap hog. I work at home, and during the day, whenever the mood struck her, she’d wander into my office and start yowling for attention. I got several disbelieving questions of “is that your cat?” when I was on the phone. I took to calling her the Gilber Gottfried of cats. The only way to quiet her down would be to pick her up, put her on a shoulder and spend the next 15-20 minutes working one handed.

    Unfortunately, her time on the street hadn’t been kind to her. Boots always walked with an odd hitch in her gait in her hind legs, and though she was reasonably confident jumping up on things, she hesitated quite a lot jumping down. More than once we’d see her hind legs slip out from under her upon landing. Then, last month she started losing weight again and became noticeably shakier on her feet. The vet couldn’t find anything obviously wrong with her, and standard blood tests didn’t reveal anything. His recommendation, and our gut feeling, was that it wasn’t worth spending a ton of money and making her very uncomfortable getting a diagnosis for something we couldn’t address.

    So we kept her as comfortable as we could, resigned to euthanizing her when her quality of life really seemed to be fading. It was painful to watch her weight melt away, or watch her struggle more than normal to climb a 1/2 flight of stairs. Had she not been so obviously not well, it would have been funny when she shook her head the way cats do, and had all four feet slip out from under her.

    Finally I got a call on a Saturday night earlier this month from my wife. I was just about to sit down with some club members for a celebratory meal following our very successful show. It was time. I left dinner, picked up my wife and Boots, and took them to the emergency vet. There are no words for watching the life drain out of a pet, even when you know it’s for the best. We never knew what took her from us. I wasn’t really supposed to get all that attached to her, I already had a cat, Goof, that preferred me over my wife. Goof was pretty much my constant companion while we were alone in the house. But Boots wormed her way into my heart. She even managed to get Goof settled down enough so that one could be in my lap and one on my shoulder while watching TV.

    Now that Boots is gone, I struggle to understand why her loss has hit me so hard. Reading your story made me realize it was regret. Regret for the time we couldn’t spend with her while she was on the street. Regret for her suffering during that time, and regret that anyone could be cruel enough to put such a loving animal out on the street to fend for itself or die.

    All I know now is that we gave her the best home we could for as long as she had. It wasn’t long enough, but it’ll have to do.

    Mike

    • Hi Mike, your Boots sounded like a great cat– a really good one.

      You gave her a great home, with the added plus that you were there during the day. In effect, that gave her much more time with her owner than is typically given. Translation: Win-win, for your family, and Boots.

      That euthanizing ordeal must have been real tough for you. This just happened a few weeks ago for your family, so it is very fresh and painful. It hurts because you are thinking of an animal that had a tough life but never held it against you. She gave you a lot of love. She knew she had finally found the right situation.

      Take care, you did a real good thing with that adoption. It must have been hard to write that all out. I appreciate it very much.

  4. Such a beautiful tribute in words, Ara. I thought we were finished with cats. But not so: a stray last summer has come into our lives, for as long as we three can live it. Look back, please. http://memoriesofatime.com/2014/03/12/about-cats-life-without-cats/ Thanks.

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