Monday, January 30, 2006

That Little Prick, and the Reasons I Love Him Anyway

I can't believe how lonely I feel without Lancelot. This weekend I felt so sad, so alone.

Sometimes it feels ridiculous to miss a cat so much. But then I think about how much of my "real life" I spent with him. I petted him every morning and gave him a kiss every night. He slept beside me after every bad relationship, every argument with a friend, every bad day at work, every Eagles and Phillies loss. (Poor cat. I should have at least protected him from that misery.)

It's been almost two months since Lancie died, and I'm used to the quiet now. Sometimes I ring the bell on his collar so I can remember how he sounded. I rearranged the furniture and bought new curtains. It's nice not having to vacuum up hair every day and burn candles to mask the smell of fresh cat poop. No more litter bits between my toes or interruptions to my sleep because of a moth in the apartment.

I've been reading over my blog entries, and I realize I make Lancelot sound like an angel. He was a bit of a troublemaker, actually. As a younger cat, he enjoyed nipping at my bare ankles, usually without provocation. Lancelot didn't enjoy being alone, and he didn't like it when I was around and paying attention to something or someone else. My friend Jessie enjoys reminding me that I'd suddenly stop talking during telephone calls and whisper, "He sees me!" and run for my cup filled with pennies, my cheap device to scare Lance off.

He loved running under the sheets while I made the bed. We played a game where I'd lift the top sheet to form a parachute and he'd run under and roll on his back. Then I'd rub his tummy while he tried to scratch and bite me through the sheet.

Since spring 2000, my father (who hates cats but is a terrific real estate agent!) has referred to Lancelot as "that little prick" because of an incident before my grad school graduation party. I was trying to cover my kitchen table with a paper tablecloth. Lance wouldn't leave me alone; he kept jumping on the table and poking the paper with his paw. In frustration, I grabbed him up and threw him in my bedroom behind a set of French doors, so he could continue to watch the action. As my father remembers it, Lancelot fixed his eyes on my work and waited until the precise moment I had the table perfectly set. Then he bounded from the bedroom and flew atop the table, scratching nefariously until the table cloth looked like a grass skirt.

"You little prick!" Dad yelled. As my mother tried to calm him, Dad explained, "He was just waiting there, planning his attack so he could mess up that table. That conniving little beast."

My friend Carrie was terrified of Lancelot. Carrie, of course, also fears squirrels and bunny rabbits--but generally she's a good judge of character. During our first few years together, Lance and I got into some pretty bad scuffles. I wasn't really accustomed to the ways of The Cat; I didn't understand they sometimes need space and Alone Time.

Carrie often told me she feared for my safety. I remember the ring of excitement in her voice during a short period when I considered giving up Lancelot. Most of my friends felt the same. Only Maia and my friend Renee, who has been dubbed "The Cat Whisperer" because all cats gravitate to her, seemed to understand our loving, sometimes dysfunctional, bond.

Lancelot mellowed substantially with age. In his later years he spent much of his time sleeping. I learned when to leave him alone, and accepted that rubbing his tummy was asking for trouble. He often slept peacefully on my lap while I knitted or watched TV. The biting stopped for the most part, and we settled into the relationship of married people who know each other's habits and faults so well they know how to avoid triggering conflict, and when it's worth the fight.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


I got up early on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday to run errands. It was about 25 degrees outside, one of the first cold weekends of this unseasonably warm winter.

My first stop was the Goodwill in South Philly. The back entrance looked like a bomb had exploded. Piles of torn clothes of every size, shape, color and condition. Damaged furniture and discarded comic books. Cracked dishware and dirty comforters. Damn, I thought. If it's too shitty for you, why would you give it to somebody else?

I turned away in disgust. That's when I saw him: a black cat curled inside a tire. He’d gotten himself halfway into a plastic grocery bag and given up. He stood upright with his eyes partially shut, trying to get just a little bit of sun.

I smiled and walked toward him, but he didn't move. And when I leaned down to pet him, I could see he was gone. Frozen. Someone had obviously dumped him here like so much garbage.

"Poor kitty," I said, as my tears involuntarily fell. "Poor, poor kitty."

"Oh, that cat's been there for days," said a man. He looked to be in his 40s. He was walking a Pomeranian that certainly didn’t look cold and certainly didn’t look hungry.

"Didn't anyone call to have him picked up?" I asked, as the dog circled around me. "Did he belong to anyone?"

"Don't know," said the man, as he picked through the garbage/donations. The dog also looked quite pleased with himself.

I went into the Goodwill and talked to the woman manning the door. “Everybody’s been telling me about that cat. It’s been there for four days,” she said. “I’m not touching that thing.”

I didn’t know what to do, so I picked up a sweater from the pile. I walked over to the cat and placed it gently over him. “I’m so sorry, kitty,” I said. Then I called animal control to have him picked up.

I’m not naïve. I know animals die on the streets—and in shelters—every day. According to the Humane Society of the United States, up to 8 million unwanted cats and dogs enter shelters each year, and up to 4 million of those animals die there. The reasons for abandoning animals are varied, from allergies to moving to house soiling.

I've even seen hurt cats and dogs before, but something about this one got to me. I’m sure it was partially because he looked like Lancelot. But I also think it was the way this cat died—hungry, alone, unloved, anonymous—very unlike my Lancie.

Lancelot was one lucky cat. Except for 11 months of his life, he lived in a warm, safe, loving environment. For whatever reason, he was among the less than one-third of shelter cats who find a home; the remaining 71 percent are euthanized.

Later that day I walked past Morris Animal Refuge. It wasn’t open. But for the first time since Lancie died, I thought it might be time to go inside.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Letter to Lancelot

Dear Lancelot,

How are you, my sweet kitty? Is there a lot of tuna and catnip in Heaven? I hope so. The crematorium sent a card with your ashes. The message said good cats and dogs travel to Heaven on the Rainbow Bridge. I hope that means someday we will meet again on the other side.

The apartment isn't the same without you. It feels so sterile and cold. I still look for you when I walk in the door. I often sit down as soon as I get in, just so I can get used to the idea you're not there. Sometimes I say, "Lancelot, I love you. I'm home." Do you hear me? I no longer hear the little creaks and noises I noticed when you first went away. Maybe that means you're at peace where you are.

Every morning I visit Ruby and Purl, the mom and daughter duo at Sophie's Yarns. I feel a little less guilty now when I tell them how cute they are. Last weekend I hung out with them at the store. Purl sat on my shoulder while I shopped. Ruby, the mellower one, sat in my lap for a while. I shut my eyes and pretended it was you. But there's no kitty in the world like you.

I miss you so much, my little Lancie. I would do anything to hold you once more, to put my face against you and hear you purr. I wish I could take back all the times I scolded you or shook a coin-filled cup to keep you from misbehaving. I would do anything to have you jump on the kitchen table or groom my curly hair when I'm trying to sleep.

It seems so strange that all I have left of you now are some ashes in a box. When I held you in a blanket on the way to the vet, did you know where you were going? I hope not. But I hope you understood when I told you I loved you and that your pain was going to end.

I love you, Lancelot, and I always will. Be peaceful, my sweetheart.


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Choice

Five months after Lancelot came home with me, we took our first trip to the emergency room.

It was an unusually warm April day. I rolled aluminum foil into a ball and tossed it over to him. He looked bored so I pulled out his favorite toy, the cat dancer. Off he went, chasing imaginary mice. Soon he was panting. He looked cute with his tiny pink tongue hanging out. But when the panting didn't stop, I got worried. I rushed him to the emergency room, where the vet told me Lance had "overheated."

This minor incident was followed by a litany of health problems: respiratory infections, colds, dehydration, fleas, obesity, kidney stones and "inappropriate elimination." He got frequent urinary tract infections. As a first-time cat owner, I was unfamiliar with the tell-tale signs of UTI. Over the years I learned about the dangers of his spending extra time in the litter box or drinking extra water. But I was pretty naive in those early days. One morning, as I stretched in bed, I felt a warm sensation on my leg. It felt good at first, like ocean waves lapping at my thigh. Then I realized Lancelot had urinated on me.

Poor litte guy. He wasn't a healthy boy. His worst health crisis came in 1999, when he was diagnosed with hepatic lipidosis, also known as fatty liver disease. This condition, which occurs in overweight cats who stop eating, causes fat cells to attack the liver. If left untreated, the cats become jaundiced, go into liver failure and die.

At the time, I was studying journalism part-time and working 40 hours a week at American Forests. One of my closest friends, Maia, was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. I was doing what I could to help her, but I often felt scared for her and inadequate as a friend.

When the vet told me Lancelot might die, I didn't think I could stand it. I had a choice to make, she said. We could treat his pain or he could have surgery and several months of medical treatment. Treatment would be expensive, but if Lancelot recovered he probably would live a normal, happy life.

I felt confused and uncertain. Would choosing surgery be selfish? Or was it more selfish to put Lancelot to sleep when medicine could help him live? I also held an uncomfortable (and irrational) question in the back of my mind. If I gave up on Lancelot, would I be showing Maia I was capable of giving up on her?

In the end, I decided I needed Lancelot as much as he needed me. He had surgery, and the vet inserted a temporary feeding tube in his gut. She instructed me to feed him through the tube three to four times per day, then flush it out with water. I was also to tempt Lance into eating on his own by giving him fresh tuna, sirloin steak, ground liver and the like. The tube would be removed as soon as Lance started eating, which could take two weeks, two months...or longer.

For more than two months, "the tube" ruled my life. I woke up at 5:30 a.m. so I could feed Lancelot before going to the gym. At noon, I rode the 42 bus home, filled his tube, and hopped back on the bus so I could return to work on time. I arranged visits to Maia and evenings with friends around tube feedings.

In the meantime, I tried to get Lancelot to eat real food. I warmed it. Added water. Cut it up. Left it whole. Sang to him. Pet him near his food. Left him alone. Begged. Pleaded. Finally, I cried.

To keep the tube in place, the vet outfitted Lancelot in a kitty t-shirt. She wrote messages on it to keep my spirits high, things like "Feed Me" and "Love Me, Love My Tube." But I was miserable, and Lancelot wasn't real happy either. One morning I heard a loud pop, like a cork springing off a Champagne bottle. I saw Lancelot, but I saw no tube. Back to the vet we went for yet another surgical procedure.

As frustrated as I felt, I never questioned my decision. My friends supported me, although some must have thought I was nuts. Maia, who had her own health to worry about, comforted me like I was a mother with a sick child. She nicknamed Lancelot the "Million Dollar Cat" in honor of his healthcare costs. She assured me I had made the right decision, that my love for Lancelot left no other choice.

Maia recovered, and she continues to be my wise and knowing friend to this day, more than five years later. Lancelot got better too. I realize now that I had no other choice in his treatment, not just because I loved him, but because I needed him at that moment in my life. His recovery gave me hope that anything is possible and that maybe, with a little luck and a lot of love, everybody I loved would be OK.