This is Wee Cat. His real name is Keelan, but that became Kiwi and then just plain Wee. He’s my BCF (Best Cat Friend). I’ve had lots of cats, and many of them have simply been cats (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But Wee is different. He’s one of those who bonds with you, adores you, becomes your kitty soul mate. (I know—he’s supposed to be aloof, right?) Pets tend to show us unconditional love, something we can’t help but respond to, yet some are better at this than others.
On the night of March 11th, I’d just wrapped up some marketing stuff and sat down with Bob to watch an episode of Family Guy on our DVR. The day had started out sort of difficult as far as my work on Driven was concerned, but had finished up on a more positive note, and I was feeling confident. Even happy. And then Wee Cat started making this horrific wail in the back room. When I went to see what was wrong, he threw up. He’s thrown up plenty of times—with my cats, it’s practically a competitive sport. But the howling this time was different and disturbing. He stopped, though, and like most of us who don’t want to think anything bad can be happening, I told myself he was okay. I went back to watching TV. A few minutes, later Wee came into the main room of my office and stretched out behind my desk chair. Not his typical laid-back flop, but something that bordered more on a collapse. He stretched out on his side, drooling and panting, eyes wide. I yelled at Bob to find the number for Dove Lewis, the emergency vet in Portland, and while he fumbled around for a phone book, Wee started shuddering. Not a seizure, exactly, but like he was in a lot of pain. I remember this moment so precisely, and it’s like a knife every time it comes back to me. “Hurry!” I yelled. “I think he’s dying.” In that moment, I honestly thought I was watching one of my best friends leave me. It was so sudden, so shocking, so utterly out of nowhere, and I can’t begin to describe what it did to me then, or when I think of it now.
Bob found the number for VCA, which is another emergency clinic much closer to us, and we rushed Wee there. An X-ray revealed blood in his belly, so we consented to emergency surgery. At 1:30, three hours after we arrived, we went home. I didn’t really sleep. Every time I started to drift off, I went to a better place, a place where my cat wasn’t dying, and then my mind would pull back into consciousness where this horrible, shocking reality was taking place. The jolt of it was so awful it was better just to stay awake—stay where it was real. The vet called around 3:30 to tell us Wee was still in surgery. They’d found a mass between his pancreas and spleen that the surgeon was trying to remove, but the blood supply to his intestines and stomach was involved. Up until that point, we had hopes he’d maybe just swallowed something that had perforated his intestines. A dangerous situation, but one that could be fixed. Now we were looking at a worst case scenario. How could life go from happy to this in a few hours?
Another call told us Wee had made it through surgery but was critical. The tumor wasn’t like anything the surgeon had seen, and she couldn’t remove all of it. Over the next twenty-four hours, I dreaded another call, visited Wee twice, and tried to get used to the idea that my cat very likely wasn’t going to be in my life much longer. My Wee Cat who sits in my lap or lays across my legs or wedges himself between me and the back of the chair when I write. My Wee Cat who can’t comprehend that there’s not room for him and a laptop in my lap. My Wee Cat who looks at me like I’m his whole world.
Wee was in the hospital for three days, and once he got over the worst of it and was taken off the heavy meds, it was clear he was terrified. He’s a very timid cat with anyone but me and Bob. His last night there, I hated having to leave him, seeing how scared he was—the way he jumped every little noise. The next day I brought him home, even though he wasn’t completely ready, because I knew he’d do better without all that stress. He did do better. I didn’t. Taking care of a sick kitty who needs twenty-four hour supervision is a formidable task.
I slept on the floor with him (something he loved because one of his favorite things is to lay on my legs) waking up every time he moved. The first night, he tried to sit in my lap and his 8” incision started leaking, which made for a frantic call to the vet. That was when I learned he was supposed to be kept from climbing around and jumping on things. Ever try to explain something like that to a cat? The second night, he started licking his staples. In the time it took me to go into the other room to feed his brother, he’d turned one around and started opening the incision. Up until then, he’d shown no interest in the staples, so we didn’t have a collar on his neck. I put it on him, and because it was too big, got about three hours sleep that night. Even though he didn’t mind it much, he had a terrible time navigating. He couldn’t get into the litter box, which he desperately needed to do because they’d pumped him full of fluids in the hospital. I had to lift him in and out, being careful to grip him under the legs and chest so as not to hurt his belly. That meant sticking my hand right in a fresh puddle of cat pee. The next morning, we trimmed the collar so he could deal with it better, and he was okay until he decided to start jumping up on the desks. The collar made that almost impossible, so one of us had to be with him every moment to lift him up and down.
I spent a total of two weeks sleeping on the floor with Wee, living a roller coaster existence where I’d watch his every whisker twitch and be filled with relief or dread based on how he was doing at any given moment. Through all this, I kept writing Driven. I let myself slide on just about everything else, but I didn’t back off with that. And somehow, I managed to get my butt over to the Oregon Writers Colony E-Publishing Workshop to give a presentation on social networking with Stacey Wallace Benefiel.
For the first eight of those days, I stayed with Wee around the clock, leaving him only for a half hour here and there to take a shower or a walk while Bob watched him. Stressful as that was, there was something beautiful about it, too. And there was a part I marvel at—how a human being can be so stressed, so scared, and still reach deep and find an incredible well of strength right where you thought there was nothing left. There’s something sacred in those moments. Something words can’t touch.
The biopsy didn’t come back until the following Tuesday. Ten days of wondering whether it was cancer, telling myself to be ready for the worst but wanting to expect the best. Ten days of just not knowing what to feel or think or hope. The report came back with a diagnosis of pancreatic duct cystadenocarcinoma. Don’t bother to Google that. You won’t get any real hits. It’s a rare form of pancreatic cancer that tends not to spread the way the common form does, but none-the-less is cancer and will come back. The oncologist estimates he has 3-6 months to live without chemo and 9-12 months with chemo. He’s actually a very good candidate for treatment, but because they couldn’t remove all of the tumor due to its involvement with the arteries to his intestines and stomach, he’s at risk for having another bleed if the cancer erodes away those blood vessels.
Thirteen days after his surgery, Wee took a dramatic turn and started acting like his old self. I attribute this to him recovering from his crisis. He’s looking really good these days. But that’s deceptive. Now that I’m past the point of fearing that Wee is going to die today, I’m left with the challenge of figuring out how to deal with the fact that he’s going to die soon. There was a brief window of calm and acceptance. A gratitude that the crisis was over. But now I have to look at him knowing that I can’t ever relax and let go of my knowledge that he’s dying. How do I delight in the joy that he’s still here, and at the same time envision a world without him? How do I look at my happy, loving boy and imagine what it will be like when I’ll never see him again?
I’ve lost cats before, but it was always in a more gradual way. There was a fear that their condition might be terminal, but no certainty. Now I know for sure. I don’t know when, and I don’t know how. He could have another bleed, which would mean I’d have a matter of minutes or hours to say goodbye, or he could go more slowly, giving me days to lavish him with my final love. I’m the type of person who considers denial one of the best tools for dealing with life. That’s how I cope with having a husband eighteen years older than me. It’s how I’ve gotten through the last couple of years knowing Wee was approaching the age at which I’ve lost most of my cats.
I’ve had this little guy for almost twelve years, and I can’t imagine a world without him. But for now, I just go on loving him every day. When I was discussing chemo with one of the vets, I said if I went that route, it would be for me, not for him. He doesn’t know he’s dying. He doesn’t care. The vet agreed. “He’s here today,” she said. And I’m not sure she knew how comforting those words would become. I say them to myself all the time.
He’s here today.