What is Rue de Puss?

Rue de Puss is the literary and multimedia repository for all things cat - drawing from my experiences as both a veterinarian with a passion towards feline medicine and a member of a multi-cat household.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Lessons from a Gentle Teacher

A loyal friend has died, and heaven gains a cat.  A piece of me went with him, and a piece of him stays with me.

Phoenix was no more than any of those that preceded him.  And he was no less, either.  But let me tell you he was one very special cat.  I know that every cat that burrows into it’s owner’s hearts is special, and the love and grief I feel now is no more profound than anyone else's.  Yet he was truly unique, and the gifts he gave me – the things he taught me – I shall always have.

He literally stumbled into my life half conscious – bleeding from his mouth, eye swollen shut, covered with snarls and blood and excrement – on a very hot June morning in 1994.  I was living in Elizabeth, NJ and walking to my car to go to work, when he tried in vain to run from me.  But he could barely stagger and kept falling over.  I picked him up and put him in a box to take him to the local vet to be put to sleep.  Or so I thought.  When I arrived, the doctor removed him from the box and ran him into the treatment room in the back of her clinic.  I waited several minutes, and when she emerged, she said something that would change the direction of my life forever.

“I think I can save him.  If I do, can you find him a home?”  Sure, I replied – not having a clue who would take this mangy cat.  I knew our calico Checkers would likely not appreciate a permanent feline addition, so his stay was intended to be a temporary convalescence.  He arrived back at our apartment, neutered, inoculated and his broken jaw wired.  Despite my efforts, I could not find a home for this frightened, hiding creature.  He lived in a large four-foot square kennel cage with a hiding box inside, all set up in our apartment living room.  For weeks I had little idea of what he looked like – I would see green eyes peering out from the dark recesses of the hiding box.  But never a growl.  Never a hiss.  Ever.  I would do my schoolwork by his cage and acclimate him to my presence.  And then one day, just like that, he emerged from the open door of his cage, sat right on my lap, and took possession of my heart forever.  He rose from the ashes, and so we named him Phoenix.  We moved that same year from Elizabeth to the Pennsylvania countryside, taking Phoenix and Checkers (who was reluctantly adjusting to this new guy) with us.  Bearing the scars of his urban misadventure for the rest of his life, and suffering a right-sided facial palsy, he wore his traumatic past like a crusty old shell he could not quite shed.  But his spirit and character were free from that shell – it was merely a remnant of another life.  And my first lesson was learned – that in devastation are the seeds of rebirth.  You only need to look for them and nurture them.

Phoenix was the perfect foil for Checkers, who quite preferred to be the only cat in the household.  She eliminated a few potential cat-mates through sheer bitchiness (a side she never showed to us, but had unlimited reserves for fellow felines).  Yet unlike previous suitors, Phoenix responded with a friendly respect, sidestepping her as needed, yet slowly and gradually winning her over with his gentle way.  She never really loved him in a "cuddly" sense, but she grew quite beyond even tolerance, even occasionally accepting him as a sitting partner on the bay window sill overlooking the trees and birds.  And he was just fine with that.  Lesson two – be gentle, and remember it is always better to win hearts than to win fights.

Watching this little creature transform from total wreckage to an actual semblance of a cat, from a homeless, scrappy fighter to a warm and pampered house pet, from a frightened animal to a gentle and trusting soul absolutely fascinated me.  At the time my profession was technical, yet I felt a powerful motivation to see this magical transformation recur in other households and with other cats.  And one day I just decided to do it.  I stood in the dining room and said, "I'm going to become a veterinarian".  And I did.  Lesson three – simply and determinately live the inspired life of your imagination.

Soon Phoenix was to have another health crisis.  I volunteered him as an example of a “normal animal” with facial palsy in my first year at vet school, when one of the doctors noticed he had a lesion on his tongue.  The biopsy revealed a rather aggressive cancer, requiring equally aggressive surgery.  His tongue was amputated to the frenulum – which essentially was the entire first third.  He had a feeding device called a PEG-tube surgically attached to the side of his abdomen, where he was fed liquid diet directly into his stomach via a syringe.  While biopsy results indicated that the cancer was fully removed, would he ever be able to eat again?  Would he be able to taste his food – an essential element to building his appetite?  He could not remain on the PEG-tube forever, and we tried in vain on many days to get him to eat.  He would put his face down in a bowl of catfood and not have a clue as to how to ingest it.  It was heartbreaking to watch.  Then one day I suddenly recalled his love of Boar’s Head Oven Roasted Turkey Breast.  I pureed a small bowl of it and put it in front of him.  He recognized the smell immediately, obviously wanted it badly, and put his face down into it and just started chomping.  Within 10 minutes, he had figured out how to do it, and the food was completely devoured.  Feeding after that – even with canned cat food – was never to be a problem again.  Lesson four – big problems sometimes need only simple, tasty solutions.

Phoenix stood watch in our house every night, making the rounds of all the windows which afforded him a panoramic perspective of the property.  He loved to go outside (always under supervision), but often went into an incessant rage when he caught scent of the calling cards of trespassing cats.  This was often among a group of bushes in our front yard, and as long as we kept him from those plants, he was fine.  “Keep him far from the madding bush,” we would say.  But once he caught a whiff, one took his chances carrying Phoenix back to the house.  It wasn’t carrying, really, as much as juggling a hot potato of hissing, snarling, swiping, blurry fur.  His cool down period in the house often involved redirecting his aggression to any other creature than passed in front of him, but that quickly dissipated and he once again returned to the gentle soul we knew and loved so much.  One day he was in the yard and hissed.  I picked him up and held him so that we were face to face.  He stared at me for a moment, and then without warning he squarely and powerfully boxed my ears with his paws.  The shock of it was incredible.  It was the one and only time he ever used corporal punishment on me to make a point.  Lesson five – the lines may blur between instinct and love, but while the former is a guarantee, the latter is a gift.

A few years later we noticed our warrior was starting to lose weight despite having a ravenous appetite.  As a practicing veterinarian at this point, I knew this could signal certain health issues.  Sure enough, he had a hyperactive thyroid which, uncontrolled, threatened to literally burn his life out.  Fortunately, a medical cure for this condition can be had (at a price!).  He received radioactive iodine therapy at a specialty clinic 4 hours away, and was gone for almost a week.  He never regained the lost weight (cured hyperthyroid cats seldom do), but neither would he continue to lose weight.  Lesson six – it’s not how old you are or how many strikes you’ve had against your health – it’s about how much you are willing to fight for the life you have left.

Around this same time, we introduced another cat into the household.  Heidi was a shy but friendly black and white shorthair cat that I saved from death row at work (a stray).  She tried to play with Checkers, but Checkers was now old and frail and wanted no part of it.  Checkers hissed and railed against poor Heidi, who responded in kind, and soon the house was zoned to allow both Heidi and Checkers their own space.  But Phoenix remained the great ambassador, respected by both, practicing his own form of shuttle diplomacy between them.  Heidi and Checkers never reconciled their differences, and so Checkers was essentially given imperial quarter in the master bedroom, let out at her own whim, at which time Heidi was sequestered in the guest bedroom.  This arrangement persisted until the day she died.  Lesson sevenour true natures are reflected like a mirror in the regard of others.

Soon another cat entered the household – a scrappy young solid gray tiger whom we named Chadwick (after Checkers).  His lovable and playful ways won Heidi’s heart.  He would pick play fights with Phoenix, who after a tussle, would always end up standing over Chadwick with warning paw held high over the conquered cat, Chadwick on his back in respectful submission.  And in so doing he taught Chadwick the ways of jousting.  Lesson eight – like a parent teaching a child, a part of us will live on in what we instill in others.  Make it worthy of long memory.

Phoenix’ challenges were not complete, however.  He soon presented with a single, powerful seizure.  It lasted a full minute (each agonizing second like an epoch).  The post-seizure “aura” (called a post-ictal period) was especially prolonged; for hours he wandered the house, hissing at the furniture and meowing mournfully at the walls.  We wondered about the “imaginary raccoons” that must have been dogging him.  He would always fully recover by the following day.  But the seizures became more frequent, from once every few months to just weeks.  Despite medication to control them, the seizures proved too persistent, and one particularly difficult morning he had a cluster of seizures that would not end.  We rushed him to an emergency facility, where he was given intravenous anti-seizure medication that made him too “drunk” to even walk.  24 hours later, we took him home to recover and started a higher dose of his maintenance medication as we waited for the hospital-administered drugs to wear off – expected to take a few days.  He needed assistance just standing, and seemed drunkenly capable only of sleep, and sleep he did.  We set up some bedding by the fireplace and I essentially stayed with him around the clock – never leaving his side.  When I did leave to use the bathroom or eat or whatever, he would acknowledge my absence with soft little meows; when I returned and talked to him, he would relax and sleep.  As he started to regain his strength and his ability to walk, however, the damage gradually became evident.  The thunderstorms that passed through his brain left a cat I no longer recognized.  More importantly, he seemed lost in a nightmarish world.  He did not purr and did not eat, and continued to suffer tremors.  He would never again return to who he was - Phoenix was already gone.  And while he was by nature a fighter, it was my responsibility to keep him happy and secure.  It was up to me to release him from the shackles of his tired and sick body.  Lesson eight – you never know how deep the roots of a loved one travel within your soul until you are finally separated and only a gaping hole remains.

Phoenix found his release at the end of a needle at 9:45 AM on Monday, November 24th, 2009.  It was my final gift to him - a true gift that sees the giver ripping something intrinsic and dear from himself in order to give it.  I want to believe he now hovers around us as a transparent winged angel.  I want to believe he is now happy and free of those raccoons and other hallucinatory demons that may have plagued him in his final hours.  I want to know that he is safe and warm by some heavenly fireplace and that I still love him.  I want to believe that Checkers has reserved a place next to her at some celestial bay window, where they will watch the birds and patiently wait for us to follow.  I want to believe that I will someday see him again, because the thought that I may not is quite frankly too empty and cold to bear contemplation  I want to think that the kisses and tears I showered over him in his final days and hours gave him comfort and reduced his anxiety.  I want to believe he knew I was there with him right to the end.

Of all the lessons I learned from him, he never taught me why we allow ourselves to become so completely attached to others – whether they be fathers, brothers, spouses, friends, or pets – knowing that such relationships are ephemeral and heartbreak is pretty much guaranteed for either us or them, depending on who goes first.  Our tears seem to flow into the same dark mysterious abyss that our love ones have gone to.  But perhaps the final lesson is what I learned by looking into his eyes so many times – the windows to his own little universe.  And while I could only guess what thoughts lay within, I sensed a special wisdom – a knowledge of nature I could not hope to comprehend, and a full acceptance for the path nature leads us down.  It helps to know that he may have accepted his fate better than I have.  And if he is floating to heaven, perhaps it is on a boat cast upon a river of tears.

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