Tuesday, July 28, 2015

In Sickness and in Health, Cancer and Disability, Allie the Cat Was By My Side

We adopted Allie when she was about a year old on rescue day at a PetSmart. She had recently given birth to five kittens, which were snapped up right away. She looked kind of sad, like a mother would look if her babies had been taken from her and she was in a cage being sized up by customers. But she was adorable, a calico cat who needed a home.

My husband spotted her as a viable addition to our family. We were looking for a slightly older cat. Our last cat was completely nuts when we got her as a kitten. She lived a short, dangerous life, breaking a tiny hip jumping down from our backyard fence (so much for the "cats always land on their feet safely” myth) and running away one day only to meet her demise at the cruel hands (claws?) of A) coyotes or B) Satan worshippers. The family jury is still out on that one.

So when we adopted Allie, all five members of the family had to meet with the rescue organization reps and promise to take good care of her,  keeping her indoors only, for what we hoped would be a calmer life.  

But living indoors with me turned out to be a wild ride. Little was I or she to know.

A couple of years after we adopted Allie, our family moved from Phoenix to Southern California. Allie rode in my car's passenger seat as we drove nearly seven hours across the desert. She took to our new house well, but seemed to attach herself to me. As I wrote in a previous blog post  she was a one-person cat and I was her person.  

The attachment deepened as we both got older and sicker. She was never a lap cat and she didn’t like to be picked up. But she was loyal. She used to run upstairs and down, napping in various spots. She had to be in my range to be truly happy. If I was working on the computer upstairs, she would curl up in the adjacent daybed. When I was on that bed, recovering from surgery, she settled herself on the computer desk chair. During my months-long-decline in health, she put up with various nurses coming to give me lengthy intravenous injections and other treatments. She avoided strangers if she could and was  super picky about who could pet her and how they did it.
Allie liked to keep her eyes on me

Then when I got sicker and sicker, she was bereft. I entered the hospital one day in  February 2006 and didn’t come home for nearly five months. She gradually warmed up to my husband and some of the many friends and family who arrived at my house to help out. Love (or at least like) the one you’re with became her feline motto. 

When I returned home to a downstairs hospital bed, she was wary. I didn’t look like I did before. I was frail, used a wheelchair and needed help getting in or out of my bed. She stayed nearby but didn’t jump on my bed for a while. When she did, she didn’t like the crinkly noise from my waterproof mattress pads. Or the commode that was often in the center of the family room.  She was wary of the nurse who came every day to care for me. And the physical therapist who helped me learn how to walk again, with mobility aids that frightened her. When the house was clear of activity, she got comfortable sleeping at the foot of my bed or near my head, purring loudly. 

After more than a year of intense chemotherapy and another year of more rehabilitation, I had a relapse, needed more hospitalization and a bone marrow transplant that took me away for a solid month. 

Meanwhile, Allie was showing signs of age. The vet prescribed a senior diet, food that would make her joints feel better and medicine for arthritis. Once described by her first veterinarian as having “a sweet disposition and good looks to boot,” she was too arthritic to groom herself and her fur became severely matted. She was unhappy and in pain from the mats.  The vet shaved her so she could start anew. She didn’t like the look or the feel. And despite regular brushing, her mats returned. 

I could relate. At various points in my treatment, my hair was thin or sparse or shedding or gone.  I didn't like my look either. For months, I struggled to groom myself, too. Just leaning against the sink to brush my teeth or wash my face exhausted me. 

But as I slowly got stronger (and hairier), Allie got worse. It became difficult for her to ascend the stairs. She would stand at the foot and cry before making the painful hike to her litter box.  I could relate: I rarely go upstairs: it is possible for me, but extremely tough.

My living area became the downstairs. Allie’s did, too. We moved the litter box down. Allie wouldn’t even go into another room other than the one I was in. She would perch herself on our couch, and when I moved around the house during the day using my walker, she would quietly turn accordingly, so that her eyes would be on me. When I walked into the kitchen, she would follow me.  When I sat at the kitchen table to read my newspaper or work on the computer, she would sit on the chair beside me, nudging my arm or thigh. When I lay down for a nap, she would join me on my bed for one, too.  At night, she would sleep on the top of the couch so she could see me when I went to sleep and when I awoke.

She would take my place on the bed when I left, under the covers if she could get there or smack in the middle on top. But she wouldn’t sit or lay on top of me. Or anybody.  Like I said, she wasn’t a lap cat.

That changed a few weeks ago. Suddenly, when I would lie in my bed she would jump up and sit on my chest, her purring face inches from mine. If I was reading or holding my phone, she would rub her face on the corners of the phone or book, rendering whatever I was trying to do impossible. When I got up she would grudgingly jump down, but would soon return at the next opportunity. It was weird and annoying and sweet. She also warmed up more to my daughter and husband, climbing on the couch to snuggle next to them when they sat down. Wary and tentative her whole life, she was suddenly needy.

Then one Friday, when she hadn’t eaten for days, we arranged to take her to the vet. That day, she tried to jump on my bed and fell to the floor. She tried again and couldn’t make it. My husband picked her up and laid her on my chest for what would be a final time. I petted the sides of her face the way she liked it and she purred contentedly. 

Suffering from sudden kidney failure and a heart condition, she died in a hospital two days later.

The Arizona rescue organization had saved her from the pound days before she was to be euthanized. A pregnant stray, she was in foster care while she had her kittens. Then we came along, saw her sweet, sad calico face and invited her to join our family. We gave her a home and 14 years of life she would not have had. She hung on during the unexpected ride that my cancer created. And, like us, she adapted to the twists, turns and realities of my long fight. 

Like so many amazing friends and family members, Allie joined me on my horrible journey to hell and back. And like them, she brought love and devotion. 

In sickness and in health.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Cause of My Post-Cancer Dropsies? God Knows

After I got out of bed the other day, I dropped my iPhone on the floor. A little while later, I opened a new carton of milk to pour on my cereal. I dropped the top on the kitchen floor. About 90 minutes later, when I was in my exercise class, I dropped my water bottle. When I got home, I decided to bake banana-strawberry muffins. When the timer went off, I pulled the muffin tin out of the oven, placed it on top of the stove and was going to pierce one of the muffins with a toothpick to test for doneness. The toothpick dropped from my hand, bounced on the stovetop and landed under the burner, which was under the muffin tin.

“Crap!” I said. 

A sugar-free hard toffee dropped from my mouth, bounced on the stove, and hit the floor, rolling underneath the edge of the oven.

It was not yet 11:30 a.m.

It was a typical day for me. Since I recovered from cancer, I seem to have a case of the dropsies. An extreme case. I drop things or knock them to the ground, large and small, easy to pick up and impossible to pick up. All day, every day. Some things are so preposterous that if you wanted to drop them, you couldn’t do it. 

On occasion, I ask myself: Did I always drop this many things? Or does every incident now burn itself into my brain because it’s SO ANNOYING to pick it up now that I am disabled? I believe it’s a relatively new thing. It’s just since I was stricken with cancer almost 10 years ago and rendered disabled that I have been dropping things at home and at stores, in parking lots all over town, sometimes in impossibly aggravating and laughable ways. 

I have three theories on this. One is that it’s somehow related to the tumors that were in my brain, creating nerve damage that cannot be reversed. (Real life examples of this are my neuropathy, screwed up leg veins, balance and walking issues.)

The second is that it’s related to chemo brain, a real side effect of going through toxic doses of chemotherapy (in my case massive). I’m not sure if it can last more than six years after your last dose of chemo, or if it can render you not only fuzzy-brained but clumsy-handed, too. 

My third theory is that God saved my life not once (when I survived a rare, horrible type of lymphoma) but twice (when I made it through a scary bone marrow transplant). So now he’s just screwing with me for his amusement.

It reminds me of beguiling scenes from the 60s movie “Jason and the Argonauts,” when Zeus and Hera were watching and controlling events on Earth from their vantage point on Mount Olympus. It was like a board game, only in Jason’s case it involved ships and multi-headed monsters and the Golden Fleece and in mine it includes an unending number of falling items.

When I came home after more than four months in the hospital and rehabilitation facilities battling cancer, I couldn’t walk. Intensive chemo and rehab therapy had gotten me out of a state of paraplegia, but the recovery was slow. As I slowly got better, it was difficult to carry things. I remember dropping things or knocking them over, but someone was alway there to assist me. As my strength grew and my flexibility and balance increased, I marked my progress. I remember telling my friend triumphantly that I had dropped a grape on the kitchen floor and I was able to pick it up myself. Yay!

Be careful what you celebrate. As if to test my new abilities, I started dropping and knocking stuff over like crazy. Some are easy to pick up. But others -- many others -- are not. At home, I will often have to ask for help. In stores and in parking lots, I politely ask strangers to come to my aid. In the grocery store, when I have my fold-up walker inside the basket and I am pushing the cart like every other shopper, I don’t appear disabled. So I will point this out when I ask someone for help, just so they know I’m not just bossy.

Some dropped items are merely annoying. These include pills, medication bottles, remote controls, phones. Others are more than that.  At home, I sit at the kitchen table on a chair with two pillows on it. One or both of the pillows are frequently falling, sometimes as I get up, sometimes minutes after I’ve left the table. Many
days, when I eat at the table, something will drop between the plate and my mouth, bounce off my lap, and land on the floor dead center beneath the table, just where I can't reach it. Peas, grapes, pieces of popcorn, nuts: it’s like a trail mix in the making on the floor down there.

Many dropped things require outside assistance. Like when I drop shampoo, conditioner, razors and soap in the shower. Or when any number of lip balms and lipsticks hit the pavement as I exit my car and hang my purse from my walker. Or when I miss the mail slot at the drive-though box and the wind blows my letter away. Or when I drop my keys outside my car door on a rainy day and they bounce directly under my vehicle.

A few are costly, such as when I dropped a nearly full bottle of my favorite perfume on the tile floor on my bathroom. Or the time I dropped a nice bottle of white wine as I was putting it away in the lowest shelf of our refrigerator door. I had just poured a glass, so the bottle was nearly full and I hadn’t even sipped the wine, so I wasn’t tipsy. It fell about four inches to the ground and shattered to pieces. 

Some are just puzzling. Once, my husband found my debit card behind the passenger seat of my car, on the floor. I didn't know my card was missing.

I’m a dropping maniac in the grocery store. I often leave fresh fruit or veggies on the floor as I shop in the produce department.  I’ve unleashed avalanches of tomatoes and apples. When I grabbed for some asparagus once, two bunches tumbled to the floor. I’ve dropped yogurt trying to toss it into my basket. Once, I dropped just the envelope of a greeting card. The definition of impossible is
picking up a single envelope on the floor while my walker is inside my shopping cart and I am balancing myself by holding onto the basket handles. I left the envelope there.

For two days, I kept a record of everything I dropped just to quantify things.  Each day, I totaled 10 or 11 items in a 12 to 14 hour period. Three were pill bottles, two were containers that held hairspray and mouthwash, one was a container of cantaloupe, breaking open upside down, spreading little wet chunks of fruit all over the floor. One incident occurred when I draped a belt on a towel rack and the rod broke off and fell to the floor, spilling two towels, the rod and a belt. The final episode one day happened when I removed a casserole from the oven, dropping it just a few inches from the stovetop, sloshing hot sauce inside the oven door, on the stove, onto the floor and on my ankles.

There are days when I think my third theory (divine intervention) is definitely in the lead, when clumsiness alone cannot explain these mishaps.

A fateful visit to Walmart was one of those days. I was going there specifically to return something and because I had old eyeglasses to put in the Lions Club box so they could be reused by people in need. To understand the context for this bizarre combination of mishaps, you first need to understand my shopping routine. I exit the car after dragging my portable, lightweight walker across my lap. I walk to an empty cart and balance myself while I fold the walker up so it fits in the basket, handles up. I put my purse in the front of the shopping cart and I am ready to shop (and drop). My first stop that day was the return desk. While in line there, both of my handles on my walker -- which I wasn’t touching -- fell off simultaneously on the floor. Then they bounced and landed in front of me, beneath some empty carts. These are five-inch handles that had NEVER fallen off. I can’t yank them off if I want to.

After I enlisted help to retrieve the handles and attach them to my walker, I proceeded to the return desk. Then I realized I had left my pack of eyeglasses in the car. So I walked back to my car and placed the cart leaning against my vehicle while I reached in and retrieved the glasses, then shut and locked the door. Just then, my shopping cart, with my walker and purse in it, started to roll down the inclined parking lot, coming to a stop against a car about 25 feet away.

No one was around. I stood, holding on to the side of my hot car for balance while I waited for a non-criminal-looking type to come to my rescue. My purse, phone, wallet and car keys were across the parking lot, ripe for stealing. 

I spotted a man who looked like he wasn’t a serial killer exiting the store quickly with a bag in his hand. I had to holler at him to get his attention, then yell to explain that the shopping cart far away from me was mine. I asked if he would please bring it to me. Which he did. 

I went into the store and delivered my bag of used eyeglasses. A charitable act, for God’s sake.

I think I may have heard snickers coming from Mount Olympus.