[A LONG SHAGGY CAT STORY]
Ten thousand dollars is how much I spent on Sophie last spring. And she wasn’t my favorite cat. Laying out that much money – in four installments, to be fair – was a major financial event for me. It took almost all the discretionary cash remaining in the private little slush fund I’d set aside for travel when I retired fourteen years ago. Together with frequent flyer miles, ten thousand dollars could have paid for two more modest yearly trips abroad – after which I‘d have been too old to enjoy hobbling around the world anyway.
So how could I have? Put simply: I couldn’t not have.
Even though she’d been a disappointment from the get go. For starters, she came with sticker shock. Sasha, my other cat — from the same breeder three and half years before — had cost $1200. Sophie’s price was $1500. Sasha had been adorable as a kitten. (She’s still gorgeous.) When ten-week Sophie arrived, she looked like a little rat. She was also a highly neurotic kitten. She’d been the runt of the litter, smaller and weaker than her seven sibling kittens. Because they’d kept her from nursing, the breeder had to feed her by hand. Safe from the killer seven with me, she was still afraid to eat. At mealtimes, she would look at her bowl longingly, lick her mouth and run away, creeping back in stealth only when she was sure Sasha — who in any event had her own bowl and no interest in Sophie’s — wouldn’t attack her for eating.
Eventually her appearance improved. At six months, she did look like a cat. But a $1500 cat? Candidly, no. She had a pointy chin, not typical of the breed, from which water from the drinking bowl perpetually dripped. Her head was smaller than Sasha’s, and her fur less fluffy. She had baldish spots beneath her ears. Even more distressing cosmetically, her eyes bulged. The vet shrugged off the eyes. He didn’t quite say “Suck it up.” But that’s what he meant. Moreover, her pupils were closer to the top of the eyeball than to the center, giving her a perpetually mournful look.
She did wash herself nicely, and had no accidents outside the litter boxes. But she covered her productions therein with such furious digging that litter sprayed all over the bathroom floor. (God forbid an enemy in the apartment discover her whereabouts from a whiff of her poop or pee.) She also had the unpleasant habit of taking a mouthful of wet food (when she finally worked up courage to approach a bowl) and then depositing it on the floor or rug, eating it from there in tiny bits but not entirely.
She didn’t really play, except with one cheap wand and one tunnel – ignoring all the other cat toys and equipment decorating my living quarters. Unlike Sasha, who investigated everything, Sophie had no intellectual curiosity. She ran away when you tried to pet her. She never came for cuddles. The one thing she truly loved in all the world was Sasha, the dominant cat of the two, who almost always graciously licked Sophie’s head and ears if they met in the apartment but otherwise kept her distance. Whenever I came home from outside, Sasha would run to greet me at the door (if she wasn’t already waiting on the hall table). Sophie didn’t care about me. She came running because Sasha would be there.
In short, an unrewarding cat. And not the sharpest tool in the box either. Who did she think was the food source anyway?
Because she was so standoffish, it took a few days to realize her left eye was half shut and oozing. At first I thought the eye was partially gummed together from fluid, but whenever I tried to soften the gumming with a warm wet washcloth, she pulled away. A traveling vet came to the apartment. She said it was a corneal ulcer, “common in flat-faced breeds with pronounced eyes.” She also explained Sophie wasn’t opening her left eye because it hurt when she did. It would need to be treated with antibiotic eyedrops four times a day for ten days.
In the vet’s dreams! I was living alone now, with no one to help. Sophie was not only skittish but had prominent and needle-thin dew claws. I was taking heavily advertised Eliquis, apparently the blood thinner par excellence for clot prevention, the one cardiologists, including mine, fly to like iron filings to a magnet. I would be bleeding non-stop all over the apartment at each attempt to bring an eyedropper near Sophie’s eye. But untreated, the infection would spread. Long story short: I was to try hiding the antibiotic in Sophie’s food, a method the vet admitted was of dubious effectiveness. And if that seemed not to be working, either because it didn’t get eaten or the eye didn’t improve, Sophie would need further treatment that Ms. Traveling Vet couldn’t provide. She gave me the name of the nearest veterinary surgical hospital – “nearest” meaning forty minutes away – and the name of the surgeon she recommended.
Whatever minimal amount of antibiotic I managed to trick picky Sophie into swallowing had no effect on the eye. An acquaintance in my building who had constructed her retirement years around adopting elderly cats with medical problems knew the back-roads way of avoiding hated Route 1 to reach North Star Vets (“Veterinary Emergency Trauma & Specialty Center”). She offered to give up the better part of a day driving us there, waiting for the diagnosis, and then bringing me (or hopefully us, meaning me and Sophie) home again. When I protested gratefully, she explained it was actually for Sophie, not me. She really did love cats!
This was a year ago last February. Until then I had no idea there were surgeons who performed only small-animal opthamological operations. Until then, I had no idea how much small animal surgery, and billed-by-the-day hospital recovery, would cost. Dr. V. – the recommended surgeon – was very kind. She regretted there were no miracle shots. The infected part of Sophie’s eye would need to be surgically cleared away. (I immediately felt guilty I hadn’t brought her in sooner.) Fortunately, the infection hadn’t yet reached her cornea.
There were two ways to deal with it. The first, a keratacomy, would address the present infection but not necessarily prevent such a thing from happening again. However, it would leave her vision and her appearance unimpaired. The more extensive procedure, called “conjunctival flap surgery,” did prevent recurrence 90% of the time. It would involve lifting a flap from behind the eyeball and bringing it forward to cover the cleaned part of the eye. It would save all her vision, but there would be a slight blue haze over her eyeball, “hardly noticeable except in certain lights.” I had to decide there, on the spot, what I wanted Dr. V. to do. I could tell she was leaning towards the more extensive procedure, despite the blue haze. But I was thinking “more extensive” meant more expensive. I was thinking we could always address future problems in the future. I was thinking why blue haze until absolutely necessary? I asked how much a keratacomy would cost.
A line-by-line estimate was prepared while my accommodating friend in the lobby waited. It was extensive, since it also included a three-to-four week recovery period, termed “medical boarding,” during which Sophie’s eye would receive, at North Star, all the post-surgical painkillers and medications her inept owner was unable to administer. North Star overlooked no detail. In addition to her medical care, every meal of Science Diet Sophie would be offered was listed. I would also pay $12 for the surgical collar that would keep her from pawing her eye. The “low” estimate was $5,187.14. The “high” estimate was about $1,000 more. I would need to pay half the “low” estimate before Sophie could check in.
Was there an alternative? Dr. V. looked sad. “We could remove the eye. That’s a simpler surgery, costs less, and heals faster. Cats can live long and happy lives with one eye.” We were all in the examination room together, Dr. V., Sophie curled up at one end of her carry case with the top open, and me. I looked into the carry case. Sophie hadn’t asked me to buy her and bring her home with me. She had never asked for anything, except to be licked by Sasha. Her idea of happiness might be different than mine. But she was a warm living breathing little creature entirely dependent on me for food, warmth, shelter and care. For everything really. Suddenly, despite her weeping half-shut eye, she looked beautiful. Much more beautiful than money, or another trip abroad.
I went with the keratacomy – the surgical alternative I thought might cost less and look better. As the cashier processed my credit card for half the low estimate, I did ask, “What about people without savings? Do their animals have to be put down?” (Shame on me for even having the thought.) The cashier looked shocked. “They charge it and pay over time,” she said firmly.
Sophie came home last March. When my cat-loving friend and I arrived at North Star to pay the balance due and collect her, the technician who brought her out exclaimed how “sweet” she was. One of the sweetest cats they’d ever had boarding with them, she declared. Everyone working there used to take her out of her “cat condo” – a two-story cage that invited climbing around — and pet and play with her whenever they had a little free time. One had declared she’d adopt her in a nanosecond if she ever became available.
My Sophie, sweet? Had she preferred medical boarding to me? Was she sweet only with others? Where there was no dominant Sasha to commandeer attention? I resolved to make future efforts to be more fair. To divide the cookie more scrupulously into two equal halves. (A metaphor originating in having once raised two small boys.)
A wise decision. In the next few months – strengthened in any resolve to assert herself by the unremitting favoritism she’d experienced at North Star medical boarding, and supported by increased cooing from me – Sophie became perceptibly less neurotic about hiding herself from person-produced pleasures. She stopped running away from the food she wanted to eat, and merely circled the area several times while scouting for invader cats before deigning to lower her head to the bowl. She left the expensive living-room chair where she’d formerly spent much of her life sleeping curled up on a protective towel and explored some of the nooks and crannies of the apartment. (Linen closet, open shower door, under the kitchen sink, all replete with interesting-to-the-feline-nose smells.)
She even began to spend some parts of some nights at the bottom left corner of my bed. (The right side of me was Sasha territory.) From there, she once or twice moved to my prone body and, if I were flat on my back with legs extended together, visit my mid-section to push down regularly with her two front paws – the pumping movement very new kittens use on their mama cat to bring on the milk. It wasn’t entirely comfortable, especially with a full bladder. I nevertheless glowed with pride in the dark. I was becoming Sophie’s mama!
Alas! I’d also made a less wise decision. Driven in February by trivial concerns like money and Sophie’s appearance, I’d chosen the keratacomy over the more comprehensive surgery Dr. V. implied was the better option. In May, Sophie’s left eye returned to half-mast and began to weep again. This time I skipped the traveling vet. My cat-loving acquaintance with back-road expertise was summoned. She was willing. (Although admittedly, when pressed, she was additionally willing to accept a bottle of expensive French sauterne by way of thanks.) Moreover, I’d been wrong that the keratacomy might save me money. The conjunctival flap surgery – although presumably a more difficult and delicate operation — turned out to cost only $200 more, even with the anesthetic and weeks of medical boarding and antibiotics and painkillers and Science Diet and new surgical collar added in. And candidly, the so-called “blue haze” was barely visible when she came home last June; after a month it disappeared, at least to the lay eye which was mine.
There must have been even more petting, playing and favoritism during Sophie’s second stay at North Star. This time she came home a quite different cat. Almost at once she staked out her claim to being a full and equal participant in a two-cat family. The crap with the feeding bowl disappeared. Every morning she now waits at the kitchen doorstep to be served, and immediately lowers her head to what is offered. Whenever Sasha jumps up to the kitchen counter to be brushed, Sophie scrambles up to be brushed too, and often pushes Sasha out of the way. Whenever I sit in the center of the sofa, Sasha has always taken the left side. Sophie now takes the right. She initiates crazy running-up-and-down-the-apartment games. She accompanies Sasha along the hall with me to the Trash Room, where “we” dump garbage in the garbage chute and put recyclables in their barrels; it’s also an opportunity for her to do some delicious floor sniffing. At night, I now get time-shared. One comes to the bed, the other goes. And vice-versa. It makes for some broken nights, but also for feeling loved.
Some people look for lessons in their life experiences. Formerly, that might have included me. But I’m not sure what the lesson is here. Money isn’t everything? You never can tell? (Both clichés, but true. And applicable.) The love you take is equal to the love you make? (Thank you, John and Paul.) Four months shy of eighty-nine, I feel it’s time to stop thinking about what life teaches and live it now.
“Now” – as I write — is coronavirus lock-up time. Just me, Sasha, and Sophie alone together in a reasonably spacious one-bedroom apartment with den and a small outside balcony for fresh air. So nothing to complain about. No small children to be home schooled, no working at home in an overcrowded space, no squabbles with a formerly loved one. And in these parlous times, I also have the benefit of what Sophie’s infrequent bedtime milking routine has morphed into during the ten months since her second stay at North Star.
Now, at least three times a night, she comes regularly to me from her corner at the left bottom of the bed. If I’m not on my back, I obligingly roll into that position as soon as I sense her careful approach. She may do a few exploratory paw pushes into my clitoris when she arrives on top of me. Then she settles down – tail towards my feet, little head between her paws on my upper pelvis. (With arms extended, I can just reach to stroke her silky cheeks and below her chin.) The center of her weight, all twelve pounds and two ounces of her, is right on my crotch, heavy, breathing and warm. It’s been more than four years since there’s been anything heavy, warm and alive pressing down on that particular area of my anatomy. It feels wonderful. Sophie enjoys it, too. I hear a low rumbling purr.
Five or ten minutes, that’s all it lasts. Then she’s had enough and jumps off, too soon for me but I know she’ll be back.
How priceless is that?