The week it happens is a week like any other: you work, you write, you take some photos, you film. If you lived this week and could warn yourself how bad it would get, send a message in a bottle through time to tell yourself to brace yourself for what was coming, would you? Would it even have helped?
You wake up one morning before work and get ready for your routine. You stretch in bed first, yawn a great gaping yawp into the morning sun. You close your eyes and concentrate on stretching the parts of your stiff body; you roll your neck, then tense your arms, your torso, then flex your legs, strong from a summer of riding your bike more than you ever have. Your body wakes up in waves, and you get ready for the rest of your morning pre-work ritual: coffee made in a French press, dark and loamy. Making your boring turkey sandwich to take to work. Feeding your cat-You stop short. Where is Ned? He’s part of your ritual too, your stocky Russian Blue who stretches with you in the morning. You’ve had him a few years and now his age in cat-years approximates yours in human ones. You could swear sometimes you look at each other knowingly when the weather gets cold quickly and both your bones get stiffer.
You pull on your sweatshorts, pad out to the living room. There he is, under the chair in the corner. It’s then you get worried: he never goes there, he is always clamoring for food in the morning. He looks at you slowly, almost wincing. His face looks swollen on one side. You back away, go to the closet, look for the cat carrier as a spike of fear pierces your chest slowly, deliberately. Is this how it happens? you think. I am not ready for this.
You knew you wanted to rescue a cat back then in 2010, you told your coworkers as much one day at lunch. They shared a look with each other, then one of them said softly, “You should ask Jude about his cat.” You laughed. “Jude doesn’t have a cat, he has three pitbulls!” She just smiled a small smile and said again, “Just ask him about his cat.”
You saw Jude the next day at work. “Jude, tell me about your cat!”
He seemed surprised you knew about him. “He’s great. A Russian Blue, a couple years old. He’s two now, I’ve kept him in the bathroom for the past couple of years so the dogs won’t get at him.”
“Oh. Wow. What’s his name?”
“Ned. It stands for Nasty Evil Dog.”
“Haha. Hey, do you want to give me your cat?”
And that’s how it went, and you kept looking at shelters’ hours, planned to go in on your next day off. One day at work, Jude sidled up to you. He was quiet for a moment, then:
“Uh, my girlfriend thinks we should give you the cat.”
Back in the present, you get the carrier out, pack Ned’s favorite towel in it, coax him from under the chair. When he’s in the light that’s when you see the blood. On his cheek, near his ear, on his hind paw. He’s been scratching at his face. How long have you been in pain, old man? you think. You know it’s the tooth: one of his upper canines, pronounced and longer his whole life, but recently inflamed and sensitive. He was trying to scratch a pain that was deep inside his head, how long would he have tried to scratch it out had you not been around?
You scoop him up into the carrier and start walking to the vet. The air is thick and smoky from the nearby fires in the Gorge. This has already been making your heart heavy this week, you’ve been acutely aware that you’ve been breathing in the forested paths, the waterfalls you showed someone you loved once, you’re literally breathing in the hiking trails you trekked to heal from a broken heart.
You get to the vet, Ned is charmingly disoriented. The veterinary technician takes his temperature and Ned stares at you, you swear he is plotting his revenge, one eyebrow of his is arched, yes? as they read the thermometer after taking it out of his ass. They agree it’s the tooth, maybe more teeth, you make the appointment for surgery as soon as possible.
Back to seven years ago, you and your boyfriend at the time, Kevin, make the cat exchange in a dark Walgreen’s parking lot in Beverly Hills at 10pm one night like a drug deal. Jude and his girlfriend get out of the car, they have a fake Louis Vuitton cat carrier that they hand over. At this point you’ve only seen a photo of Nasty Evil Dog’s face, but when you and Kevin let him out of the carrier, you’re startled. While usually stocky, this Russian Blue is slender, almost skinny. He is missing fur in a ring around his neck. He has an open wound on his back. He has fleas, has never been fixed, has never had shots. You and Kevin spend the next month taking Ned to the vet and spoiling him silly.
The two of you go to Las Vegas for a long weekend, and can’t find anyone to watch or feed Ned. You decide to leave a ton of food and water for him. You return, and the first thing you notice is that all the cat food is gone. The second thing you both see is that the cat you got has vanished, apparently another almost identical Russian Blue has come and eaten Ned whole. This new cat is stocky and strong, he barely lifts his head when the two of you enter the bedroom where he’s at, he just mutters “‘sup guys?” and goes back to sleep.
The day you drop Ned off for his oral surgery you’re a wreck, but he seems calm in the carrier. The staff at the clinic reassures you and you head to work. That’s their job, they’re supposed to make you feel calmer about it, you think as you’re working as if in a fog. The doctor texts you and lets you know that while surgery is going fine, they discovered more bad teeth than they originally assessed…a lot more. They take out nine teeth in total, and not only his signature snaggletooth, but two other canines.
You go straight to the vet after work, whisk him home. He gets out of the carrier and is high as fuck. He goes to the couch, picks a spot on his favorite blanket, makes a couple biscuits, and stays there the rest of the night. You get your sheets and pillow from the bedroom and sleep on the couch. You sleep terribly and have to work early the next day, but you do not care. You are watching over him, protecting him from predators. You know now how your parents felt when you were growing up, when you had your neck sprain, when you were very sick.
The next morning he still has not eaten, which means he isn’t ingesting his pain meds or his antibiotics. You take him to the vet again. They’re concerned. If he has not eaten or used the bathroom by that evening, then his liver may start digesting his own body fat, he may go into renal failure. The vet injects a painkiller, an appetite stimulator. You spend the rest of the morning staring at Ned, willing him to eat. He does not.
Your anxiety has never been higher than it is that day at work, but you manage it the best you can. You ride the bus home exhausted. The bus stops, you run-walk to your front door, throw it open. Ned does not meet you there. It’s then that you see the shape on the blanket on the couch. It has not moved from the morning, it is still, smaller than it should be. Its side does not move with breath. You move to it, kneel before it, gently cradle it. Your patronus has passed beyond this world. Your tears soak his soft pelt like they have countless times before, the time your mom was in the hospital, the time you moved to Portland and lost a friend, the time you mourned the loss of your love two years ago and ever since. You can’t seem to keep anything you love alive, can you? The body is tiny and fragile and you have failed him, you were supposed to prote-
The bus stops with a lurch. Your eyes fly open from your nap and you rush off just before the doors close. You fling your door open and Ned is not there on the blanket, he is groggily prancing around the living room for more food, his bowl is empty! Just to add a morbidly adorable layer, he is batting around the vial of his own canine teeth that the doctor saved for you! He has pissed in your shoes! You don’t care, if someone took a third of your teeth out you would piss in their shoes too!
A week later he meows, meek and timid, for the first time since the operation, he yawns for the first time and you see his new, ogre-like smile. It’s a rebirth of sorts, him learning to eat only wet food from now on, you getting to know this new cat who now seems more agile, younger than he was before.
Maybe you really are connected somehow, being the same age but not really feeling it. It’s inevitable you’ll outlive him, but not today, and now you’ve bought him more years. You pour a glass of wine to his good health, and the two of you, you the crazy cat lady and he, your stoic, silver-grey patronus, groggily dance together, in your imagination he is on his hind legs with his own glass of cat wine, the two of you dance the night away, dance the rest of your lives away.
Bottom photo by Hannah Brady.