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.


Holly said...

I am so sorry! I lost a beloved cat about a decade ago. I wept more than I did when I lost my grandmother, whom I really loved, but my grandmother never curled up and slept on my chest. It bothers me that we tend to think of physical relationships entirely in terms of sex, but our relationships with animals are physical in many key ways. The loss of a beloved creature who has spent so much time sharing physical space and physical affection is a visceral, physical loss.

I hope the time she has left with you is good, and that none of you suffer excessively.

GeistX said...

I'm sorry John. I've enjoyed Tabitha as well. When I had to put Muffy down 2 years ago after having her companionship and unconditional love for 18 years, I felt like I lost a chunk of myself. I miss her to this day.

J G-W said...

Holly, thanks. When Cleo died, Göran and I hugged each other and just wept. We cried all afternoon. We had to take the day off work. We had effectively lost a family member.

Anybody who's ever been to our house long enough to sit down has had Tabitha on their lap. She's one of the most welcoming and affectionate beings I've ever known. I'm glad that she's right here, sitting next to me or on me, and I'm really, really grateful for it now.

Shawn - we still miss Cleo too. There are still times when I think about her and wish she were here.

The thing is... Cats are totally individuals, just like human beings. They have their own totally unique quirks and personalities. And I guess when they leave us, we miss them like we would miss any person we've come to know intimately.

A.J. said...

I'm sorry. I lost my dear cat Chaos in Nov. he was 19. Tabitha is lucky to have a kind friend like you.

Anonymous said...

Yours is a very timely post for me....My Marty (a canine, and not a feline) just turned 16 today. Happy Sweet 16, Marty!

Marty's still doing fairly well, but he does have few health problems. Always in the back of my mind is the fact that he is getting older and eventually I will only have him in my memories. It will indeed be one very sad day when that happens!

Hopefully I will be blessed with Marty's companionship for many more months, even years, to come! If the inevitable happens sooner than I hope for, I will always be thankful for Marty's unconditional love and affection.

Jeff H.

Sulli said...

I am so sorry to hear this. If I love my little cat I would be devastated.What good lessons to learn from her though.

sara said...

I'm so sorry.

Anonymous said...

Little Christian children often ask if Fiddo and Fluffy go to heaven after they die; do little Mormon children ask if their pet gets to be god over its own planet after it dies?

(a little humor, hope I'm not being too insensitive).

J G-W said...

Yes, little Mormon kids want to know what happens to Fluffy or Fido in the next life. I know I did. Though it never occurred to me that Tabitha might progress to be like Bastet in the next life! ;-)

But, silliness aside, I actually think the question of what happens to animals when they die is an important theological question... Are animals saved by the grace of God? Will they have a place in the eternal scheme of things? It's actually a question I've given some thought to.

And without getting too deep into the theological or scriptural basis for my thinking so, my short answer to this question is, Yes, animals will have a place in Heaven.

And I also think our treatment of "the least" of God's creatures will factor into our own salvation/exaltation.

J G-W said...

Sara, Sulli, thanks!