Better than Medicine

Against my better judgment, I visited the cat room at the shelter. Given free rein, I would have filled my pockets with kittens. Our cat Abby had recently died. I saw how much my husband John missed her.

We took her remaining food and litter to donate to the shelter. I ventured into the cat room, where three white-mittened black kittens climbed the cage bars and reached out as kittens often do. Sitting primly in the midst of the chaos of the three boys was their sister, a white, gray, and sand-colored calico, a pastel version of Abby. She looked like a real lady, not inclined to climb curtains and upset houseplants.

I coaxed my husband, John to come and look at the little calico I had spotted.

“If you want the cat, get the cat,” he said.

I took her out of the cage and handed her to him.

“What’s this smudge on her nose?” He rubbed her nose with his thumb and then handed her back to me. “If you want the cat, get the cat.”

“That’s not dirt on her nose. It’s a little spot of gray fur. Do you want to think about it over the weekend?”

“Here,” said John as he reached for his wallet. “She may be gone on Monday.”

Smudge promptly proved me a bad judge of kitten character. Her prim lady act in the shelter cage could have garnered an Academy Award. One evening we heard her crying but couldn’t find her. Somehow she had opened a bathroom vanity drawer, climbed in and wiggled until it glided shut. Several days later, she opened the same drawer, but this time it didn’t shut. It blocked the door and barricaded us out of the bathroom. We kitten-proofed the drawers. She pulled towels off the rods and piled them in the sink to use as a comfy bed. She hid her toys in our slippers at night, pushing them down into the toes so we would have a real wake-up call in the morning. John encouraged her wild behavior, like her racing up and down halls and stairs that we dubbed “the evening zips.” He would put her in a plastic grocery bag and drag it on the floor. She loved it.

Several weeks after Smudge’s adoption, severe back pains felled John. Medication and rest did nothing to improve his condition. After two weeks, he could no longer go to work, even for a short time. Stoic, John spent the day lying on quilts on the den floor. Before I left for work each morning, I would assemble a box of Smudge supplies: sheets of aluminum foil for John to make into balls, ping pong balls, shoelaces, and a yardstick notched for a string, to which John could tie ribbons or feathers for his kitten to chase. When I came home at noon to get John’s lunch, I would crawl around to retrieve and re-box the Smudge supplies.

John’s condition worsened. Physical therapy exacerbated the pain that was misdiagnosed as sciatica. A month went by and the pain traveled to his leg as well as his back, and narcotics helped him rest at night. Smudge grew and slept with John on the floor. Tucking herself between his arm and chest, she snoozed when he did and played when he needed diversion. Several more weeks passed with additional X-rays, an MRI, and then the true diagnosis. The head of the femur was dying and collapsing in a condition called aseptic necrosis. He needed a hip replacement, but his loss of weight and muscle strength over the preceding months forecast a lengthy recovery.

The day after surgery, John had a bad reaction to the medication and stopped breathing. After two days in critical care and further complications, his physical therapy was behind schedule. I stayed with him fourteen hours a day, sleeping in a motel near the hospital, dashing home to tend to mail and to check on seven-month-old Smudge. I would find her in the sphinx posture on John’s recliner or on his quilts on the floor where they had spent the days. She ate but had no interest in her toys or in me. She mewed when I called to her but held her position on John’s territory. I could have cried over her obvious distress at the change in her life. Ten days after surgery, John was transferred to a nursing facility closer to our home to catch up on rehabilitation. The next morning I walked into his room.

“Good morning,” I said.

“Where’s my cat?” he answered.

I felt cold fear. Was there lack of oxygen after surgery? Did he have brain damage? Didn’t he know where he was?

“John,” I began quietly. “Smudge is at the house. You’re in a nursing home.”

“I know that,” he said. His eyes had a touch of the old mischief in them. “I checked. If a pet has all its shots, it can come and visit. Go get her.”

I raced home, grabbed health papers, put Smudge in her elastic harness and then in her carrier. The harness would ensure I wouldn’t be chasing her down the hall or fishing her out from under the bed. But how would she react? Would John be upset if she panicked? I put the carrier on John’s bed and opened the door. Smudge crept out cautiously. John spoke to her and extended his hand. Smudge walked up to him, sniffed his face, and then lay down at his side between his arm and chest, just like she did during those long weeks on the floor at home. She spent the next four hours on his bed catnapping with him, chasing a ribbon, and amusing the staff. John’s blood pressure dropped to a near normal level. He needed fewer pain pills. Smudge made several more visits before John came home to continue treatment as an outpatient. It was May. Smudge had been his emotional therapy since January. A month later John was back on his garden tractor.

And Smudge? She is now six years old and regularly clears counters of anything she is capable of moving. Jar lids become hockey pucks on the hardwood floors. Shake out a plastic bag and she leaps into it for a ride, still not in the least inclined to be a lady.



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