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.