The thing on her face appeared suddenly. She went on her typical evening snoop around the garage, poking in the same boxes and sitting on the same car she always sit on, but came back in with a bump on the ridge of her nose, near the left eye. I thought she’d run into something and poked it. Bloodless though bald, it seemed like a bruise. She had no comment on it.
Over the next week it increased in size, then seemed to shrink a little. Fur regrowth could have been part of it, or fluid returning to lymph. She never poked or brushed at it, and not being that specific mothering type that sticks a finger everywhere, I made no palpitations. The shape and outline seemed to change, though it stayed approximately the same.
Being an accused hypochondriac, with those impulses projected outward as much as sensed within, I decided to leave it alone. Two and a half years ago I lost at cat that had persistent and baffling problems which the vet claimed were common but I had never heard of, making vet trips the same prepare-to-be-cleaned-out experience as giving your car to a mechanic. Still troubled by that loss I examine feelings and motivations carefully. What am I saving by treating the cat for this and that, versus not? Does either truly effect the outcome? Where does prudence become neglect, action become pampering? We spent a lot on my old cat, and I think my ex is right that we doubled his life, but at the end it didn’t make any difference. Hard stares in the mirror want to know if I should have acted sooner, faster, differently. I don’t know. The cat’s only comment is she hates the carrier, the car trip, the vet.
Last Saturday I decide the vet must be consulted. Despite feeble protests the cat is loaded in her purple carrier and driven across the bridge to the walk-in clinic. Vet techs hardly out of high school–always medium to a-few-extra-pounds white girls–have me fill out forms, look up the cat’s chart. Kah-shee? No, it’s Koh-shi. Not like the cereal. The girl, pale with ink-stained fingers, laughs a little.
Across the broad, blank linoleum expanse is a woman with a floppy little dog; to my right a young couple with a different kind of floppy little dog. Both, thankfully, are quiet. I talk to Koshi sulking in the carrier; she has no interest. I read my magazine. Mounds of snow shrink in the parking lot, covered with fine stone grit and black grime, white crests shining and dripping out.
A couple comes in: the man older, tall, a beat-up brown coat hanging over him like bark taken from a tree. The woman is smaller, somehow hard to see. I hear her light, older voice clearly but without words, the tone one of business, things made up and done, now committed to what the corporate types call execution. They have a carrier with a cat inside: large and grey, with large yellow eyes, the pupils stretched to black nickels. The cat yowls in long, trailing P waves, starting high and falling to a long, hopeless tail. The man goes in and out while the woman and the cat stay at the counter, talking to the tech. They are discussing charges, how the procedure works. They can do it now. We have a towel and you can hold him for a while.
My cat is silent while the other cat yowls, less frequently now. The couple next to me talks in a hush, the mood of their conversation unchanged and about features of their phones. The woman across from me sits within the line of her chair, neither happy nor sad, quiet and holding her floppy dog. I know she hears what I have heard. I know all the humans know what the man and woman are discussing with the vet tech. My cat has no comment and sits behind the wire door looking at nothing as animals do.
A different tech calls my cat’s name–not mine. The exam room exemplifies the ideal of a place called Value Pet Clinic: utterly spare but immaculate. The tech gives the cat the once over and gives the thing on my cat’s face a name: it is now a mass. Temperature: normal. Weight: down two pounds, which is halfway to where she should be. Bowlside complaints about insufficient food are showing results. The doctor will be in soon, and the inner door closes. The cat sits close to me on the metal table. I tell her I know she hates this but it’s not a big deal. The only other things in the white white room are a purple plastic chair and a chart of ideal dog weights by breed courtesy of Royal Canin.
Yowling comes through the wall and the man’s voice. He asks practical questions and makes measured statements. I do not hear the woman, but a different female voice explains and answers. The big grey cat does not yowl much, just a little. That is going on right there, right there, in that little room, and I imagine the parking lot, the Harbor Freight Tools across the street, the suburban Bellevue retail miasma all around where all that is going on. It is another day and there are vet clinics like this everywhere, with people like those and a cat like theirs, and that is how the world is.
I do not listen and read the magazine I have wisely brought. I end up reading quite a bit of it, my legs hurting from standing with the cat. The cat does not move. I do not hear anything next door until the man starts arguing, accusing something, I think. The female voice explains again. I pet my cat. She sits.
After a wait that is long but not too long the vet comes. A nice lady with firm hands, she talks softly to the cat and to me as she looks, turns, considers. She starts to talk and I realize it is not the standard it’s not serious talk I had presumed. Cancer is in the possibilities list–serious and not so serious, along with the desirable nothing. It can be sent off to pathology to be sure. I can remove it today. Do you want to do that?
The tech that did the weight and temperature returns with an estimate. The amount is not trivial but manageable, and for once the lowball pet insurance might cover something. Yes, I say. Yes. She should be ready by two, the tech says. The cat is taken away.
Sun has emerged and I drive home. Cancer rolls over like a sensitive tooth. The vet said radiation, since there wasn’t a lot of extra room to take a big area off. Pathology will be at least midweek. Until then I will be waiting with the dull hole of knowing something is out there and the knowledge divides realities.
At home I am not as productive as I would have liked, picking up and putting down papers, turning the radio on and off while looking out at the brilliant sunlit world. I call the friend I’m going out with later to try and coordinate. Do things in this order, she says, though with the kind confidence of a friend who recognizes you’re a little rattled. I build a route like a delivery driver: meet the guy with my old hard drive, get the cat, get my friend, bring the cat home, proceed. It is all logical and manageable. It is a way to give myself time to go walk in the sun, which will help.
Walking I think about the sun, the straight but worn neighborhood lines of Sixties-laid streets, what I will do when my car goes. I have had the car since 1990. Most things work but I noticed the oil was low. There are no leaks, and it has had top-end chattering for a while. Cars don’t last forever, people say. I do not want the complication of replacing something I have had a long time.
The hard drive man irritates with his kindness, as described. I have the phone out for the vet’s call but none comes, and when I’m finished with him, safe inside the car’s glass bubble sunlight, I call them. Oh, yeah, she’s been done, the girl tech absently describes. You can come get her. Last pickup is at 3:30. It’s just before 3.
The man lives in a windy uptown part of Capitol Hill and I go north when I should have gone back south to the freeway. Neighborhoods are impressive, set back with trees and lined with steel and wood, but I cannot find the freeway entrance. The houseboat in Sleepless in Seattle is around here somewhere. I don’t know where that comes from. I am thinking about the freeway entrance and the clock.
3:30 has me in the same little room when the same tech brings out the purple carrier, the cat complaining inside. She’s doing fine. The doctor said it went really well. I’ll be back with your meds, okay? Inside the box I see only stripes and a bit of the plastic lampshade they’ve put around her. The cat has no other comment. The tech returns with a little baggie full of needleless syringes filled with happy anti-pain juice, a little box of liquid penicillin. She explains the instructions printed plainly on the boxes.
When she comes, the vet has an air of this job being satisfying. The mass was self-contained, easily removed. It doesn’t look cancerous at all, which is hopeful. It could even be as simple as a wart. Stitches out in two weeks.
The drive home is a floating question and a sunlight answer.
Home, the cat is unsteady but unfazed. She wants to eat but can’t get to the bowl for the lampshade, so I take it off. She’s more interested in purring and lying on the living room rug, squeezing her eyes in happiness. She is not concerned she looks like a cancer patient, leg shaved for the IV and stitches in her face. She seems fine. I am able to go out and have a good time.
For the next three days the cat and I share a little more than she likes. The meds are twice a day and involve sitting on her and squirting goop in her mouth, which she likes about as much as you would. I wonder how happy the pain juice makes her, because she’s pretty happy. The penicillin has that chalk sweet fungal bubblegum smell I remember from childhood. It is white, not pink. The cat knows what’s coming every morning and evening but doesn’t bother to run, satisfied with grumbling. Depending on the light, the sutures are hard to separate from fur. She purrs more than usual.
In high school, the band director made clear skipping Friday football games was verboten. Longwinded lectures about commitment and responsibility issued at regular intervals and the level of personal calamity acceptable as excuse. I don’t want to hear about how your goddamn dog died, he once said, neck veins bulging, dead fish eyes distended. Max was alive then. I watched the internal battle within myself: defy the rage of adult authority which was all around, or submit, were something to happen. I could not guess what I would have done.
Who would demand this now? I live in a town where friends buy jammies for their dogs and send them to day care. People openly refer to dogs and cats not only as family members but as furry children. Is this too far? Whatever its pathology, it is far better than North Texas in the mid-Eighties when affection for your animals had to be carefully metered. Or, I felt it had to be.
At times as a kid my cat was the one living thing I shared my most desperate fears with. Even kid fears are desperate enough and need sharing. Bullies are very big and very real, moreso when adults shrug and say you’ve got to learn to solve your own problems, an absolute brick of a message very different from Sesame Street. In Oscar’s attic I didn’t have long discussions, but we had some close, safe nights chasing strings, or sitting next to me while I read.
Sometimes I think what animals we buy toys for and consider family members is arbitrary: cats and dogs are lucky, at least in the West. Horses aren’t really pets but sometimes have a similar stature. When it’s occasionally revealed that they are shipped off to Europe as food some of the horsie set show up to offer heartfelt and irate commentary, but mostly we just know not to look. We eat the same for dinner as our pets who could serve just as well. The paradox of eating chicken is explained by the fact that we eat chicken, not A Chicken.
The cat has been one constant with me over the past year and some, happy to be pet, needing food, curing up to sleep and purr. The first months in the new place she was more anchored than I was, and she kept the place from echoing too much, the walls from closing in. It’s better now, shifty and empty sometimes, but mostly a good place to be. I want it to stay like that, not to have to keep an upbeat attitude by calling my cat Cancerface and hoping modern medicine works without bankrupting me. Everything changes all the time, and the vector isn’t interested in what you want.
Wednesday the call comes, and I miss it. The voicemail isn’t the standard everything’s fine I had anticipated. It was the more professional results are in, call to discuss. When the return call comes there is the bum’s rush out to the hallway where I can hear alone. The woman is clear and straight. The mass is cancerous but is a mast cell tumor, and was self-contained and entirely excised. These types of cancers don’t metastasize, at least in cats, so it’s unlikely to cause future problems. No radiation, chemo necessary. No follow up besides the usual watching for anything new.
That there is cancer but it’s not a problem takes a while to work through. As doctors are they don’t want to spend time reiterating what they already said, but I get her to repeat her answers to my slightly modified questions. I detect her impatience and the call ends.
When we want the sitcom wrap-up ending and instead get the best life offers–a guarded reprieve from mortality–there is the jarring, silent echo that will not be filled. A gap exists between the imagined ideal of stagecraft and CGI and the daily mess of blurry images and truth half-realized before it’s passed on. But that gap can exist, untroubled and unmolested. That gap is there for all of us, expanding and contracting, found earlier for a few of us and more prevalent for all of us later. It is there now, but it holds, the color washing out of it. The cat sits on the desk and chatters at the birds, the scar invisible from a distance. She is nine this year and there are many, many birds.