Thursday, January 12, 2012
Learning from My Cat
My cat, Tabitha, is probably dying of cancer.
We don't know for sure. She has some tumors growing on various parts of her body, and when the vet examined a sample under the microscope, she confirmed that they looked cancerous. Tabitha has lost her appetite, and we're only able to keep her eating by giving her appetite stimulants. Blood tests have ruled out non-cancer-related causes of appetite loss (such as thyroid dysfunction). Thousands of dollars more of testing would reveal exactly what the problem is. But the vet tells us that, at this point, it is most likely cancer, that the likelihood of a cure is slim to none, and that treatment would be costly without necessarily extending or improving her life. So we're just watching and waiting, doing what we can to keep her fed and making sure she's not in any pain.
This is really hard for me. We've had Tabitha for 17 years. She's always been "my" cat. I work at home, and a good part of every day, she sits purring on my lap while I work at the computer. (She's there now, purring away!) I can't really think too much about her not being with me any more.
Anyone who has lived in close quarters with an animal knows how incredibly intelligent they are. It's actually impossible for me anymore to think of animals as having an intelligence that is different in quality from the intelligence human beings have. Our cats definitely have reasoning, problem-solving intelligence. They are able to communicate very effectively with us, letting us know what they want, and finding ways to get what they want even if we don't want to give it to them! They are emotionally intelligent too. They have complex emotions and they express them.
As Tabitha's health has declined, she has sometimes looked at me in a very unusual way, as if to ask, "What's wrong with me?" I know people will say I'm projecting my emotions on her. But if you've lived with cats as long as I have, you know that they have many different, very expressive facial expressions. I can tell when she's mad about something. I can tell when she's content. But this facial expression is something much different. Perplexity.
Our other cat, Cleopatra, died of cancer about six years ago. When Cleo got sick, she pulled away. She would go hide in the basement. (Except the last night that she was alive. She sat down next to me on the couch and let me pet her all evening... Something she rarely did when she was well.) But just as people respond to the same kinds of adversity in very different ways, so do cats. As Tabitha has gotten ill, she's turned to me for comfort. She wants to sit in my lap more often, and when she sits there, she purrs louder. It's as if she's saying, all she wants from life at this point is to feel close to me.
One of the symptoms she's exhibited is frequent coughing. The coughs produce nothing -- no food or vomit or hairballs. Just a long, dry cough. It's painful for me to listen to. This morning, Tabitha had a fit of coughing, and then afterwards, she hopped back up into my lap and started purring again. And it was then I learned that she has a quality I really admire: patience. When I have to be away, she just waits for me in the chair where I work. She is able to experience pain or discomfort as a passing thing, and once it's past, she lets it go. I need to learn to do that better.
She also loves unconditionally. I need to learn to do that better too.