Late Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I found myself sitting in the waiting room of an emergency veterinary office. Our sixteen-year-old cat Jack has developed a tendency over the past year or so to become so constipated as to be close to death, and the only thing to do about it when it gets that bad, unfortunately, is a series of enemas at the vet’s office. The flare-up came on quickly this time—Jack seemed fine that morning, but by dinnertime it became obvious that he was not going to make it through the holiday weekend without intervention.
So with little advance preparation, we packed the cat in his carrier, and, leaving my husband and kids at home, I got on the highway with Jack yowling from the backseat floorboard. The only emergency veterinary office in our area is about thirty miles north of us, and we arrived at about 7:30 p.m. This was the latest in the evening I had been out of the house for a non-work-related event in a very long time, and it all felt strangely spontaneous and new, though that feeling dissipated after about half an hour of sitting in an overly air-conditioned waiting room. They took Jack back to the exam area fairly quickly, but I sat for several hours before he was actually seen by the vet, watching the goings on in the waiting room, which, if nothing else, was good people and creature walking.
The majority of the patients were dogs. A spaniel came in with a fishhook stuck in her chest, another dog was gagging and dry heaving, a golden retriever emerged from the back around 10 p.m. after a slew of blood tests. Some kind of toy breed, named Baby Love, was discharged to its owner, a very tall and creepy looking man, and the reunion was so heartfelt that even I had to crack a smile. At one point, I heard the vet techs saying they needed a gurney to bring in an unconscious German Shepherd. I must admit that I perked up at this; I’d been there about an hour and things were getting slow. But a few minutes after rolling the gurney out, the two techs rolled it right back in. “She’s up and walking,” they said (dejectedly? I thought I sensed dejection). I felt a little better about myself when whole room deflated in a collective sigh of disappointment that the large dog gurney show was not going to go forward this time around.
When the gagging dog went in for emergency surgery, his owner’s credit card was declined.
“It’s not working,” said the woman at the desk. “Should it work?”
“Probably not,” said the dog’s owner. They were both very matter of fact, and neither showed surprise or annoyance either at the fact that the woman had tried to pay with a bad card or that it had been declined. The emergency vet charges hefty fees, but it is all pretend money that is magically produced when one starts throwing all of their credit cards and all of their relative’s credit cards and maybe some random bitcoin and a firstborn child at the woman behind the desk. No one is expected to actually have the money to pay; one is simply expected to pretend to have the money to pay. It is all for show and it is assumed that we’ll figure out how to untangle ourselves from financial ruin someday—but not this day. The woman with the bad credit card left the building to make a phone call and came back with a piece of paper with someone else’s credit card information on it. I found this to be a little—I don’t know, questionable?—but the desk attendant accepted it without flinching.
Meanwhile, a man came in to pick up one of the handful of cats that came through.
“You should take off the IV bandage in about an hour,” the vet tech told him.
“Can it be longer than an hour?” he asked.
“Well, their paws swell up If you leave it on too long,” she replied.
“Alright. I was just asking because it’s not my cat and I don’t live there,” he explained. Which definitely brought up some questions as to why he had gone to the trouble of picking it up from the emergency vet at 10 p.m., and how, exactly, the cat had ended up there in the first place. And also brings me to this: The ways people relate to dogs and ways people relate to cats are clearly different.
Dog owners behave as if their dogs are very lovable and cute toddlers—little rascals who are constantly in motion and getting into things. They also behave as if everyone else also recognizes that their dogs are very lovable and cute toddlers. I witnessed at least three people say with an indulgent laugh “That’s going to be hard to do!” when the vet tech read the exit orders, which included keeping the dog from engaging in too much physical activity. I also witnessed at least two people say, about rascally dogs, “He’ll sleep well tonight!” which is exactly what people tell me after my kids have had an eventful day (it is, incidentally, an inaccurate assumption that children, and I imagine, dogs, will immediately fall into deep and restful sleep after a day of overstimulation). These comments were made for the benefit of the room, which, since it was filled primarily with dog owners, responded with several knowing smiles.
Cat owners, on the other hand, are more like the parents of teenagers. We love our cats, but we do not automatically assume that you, too, are able to look past their loud yowling, hissing, and clawing and see how cute their little faces are. We acknowledge that many of our cats ended up here through their own bad decision-making—excessive food, territorial fights, refusing to poop until it stopped raining outside and then realizing that it was not going to stop raining for over a week, and we aren’t making excuses for their behavior, only hoping you’ll tolerate it as we do. I realized as I waited for Jack to be taken back for examination that no one was going to peek in the carrier at the filthy, yowling creature inside and tell me how cute it was. So, even though, like the parent of a hormone and acne ridden teenager, I could see beyond the demonic exterior to the sweet chubby cherub inside, I knew it was best to keep my indulgent smiles to myself.
Jack really was cute as a kitten. There is a photo of me holding him on the car ride home from the animal shelter—the pound, really—when he was two months old. I was looking for it a few days ago when my husband reminded me that he took it with his phone at the time—one of those newfangled camera flip phones. So the picture is lost, but I remember it clearly. First of all, we are both tiny, and young. I am twenty-three, though I look about twelve, wearing this terrible car coat thing I bought at TJ Maxx that is both unattractive and not warm. Jack is two months old, flea ridden, and has a round little belly that is endearing until you realize that it is full of worms. He fits in the palm of my hand. His face is an adorable blank slate—he has only been on earth two months, and he’s got no clue what is going on.
In the picture I have a bright smile on my face, but I remember at that moment feeling terrified with the burden of responsibility. These days, I tend to find the things that scared and stressed me out in my younger years to be pretty dumb, as I am sure I will find many of the things that irk me now to be dumb when a decade or two has passed. But despite the fact that I have now taken on what would seem like the much more frightening commitments of marriage and three children, I still think I would feel exactly the same terror now should I give in to my daughter’s request for a kitten.
Bringing Jack home was a promise to care for him and become attached to him, even though the best end game I could hope for in sixteen years was exactly where I found myself Memorial Day weekend—sitting in an emergency vet’s office at 11 p.m., waiting for news about a grouchy, stopped-up cat. I didn’t know that’s where we’d end up on that car ride home in 2006, of course. But I sensed that if all went as well as it could possibly go, if he didn’t sneak out at night and get hit by a car or eaten, or come down with a prematurely fatal illness, I would find myself caring not for an adorable kitten, but an aging cat with a body that was slowly shutting down, and that this was the result that I should hope for, even if it seemed like it was not enough. It is similar to having a baby, where the best possible ultimate outcome is for that child to be there as you, the parent, decline and eventually die. Making it to the mundane tragedies of life means that you have somehow escaped the horrific ones.
Jack ended up developing some issues secondary to the constipation, but he was alright in the end. Three days and a maxed-out credit card after that first late night, he came home, and with the help of a laxative and, based on his behavior, what seem to be some pretty bitching pain meds, he is himself again—at least the latest iteration of himself—an old, asthmatic, arthritic cat whose raison d’être is mealtime. It is painful for me to watch him suffer through aging, to know his body has already begun the process of dying. It is painful because I love him, and because in my mind even a long life for a cat is still not long enough for him. It is also painful because of the accelerated and perverse life cycle that caring for pet inevitably simulates—sixteen years ago I was a young, doting mother of a cute little baby cat, and now I find myself the middle-aged caretaker of—and this is, of course the perverse part—my own geriatric child. It is painful because I described all of this as accelerated, and perverse, and a simulation, when in fact it simply time passing as it does, in the way it does, and it is not a simulation at all. It is life.
We have been lucky with Jack. We have weathered literal storms, and the loss his older cat companion, and moving, and the births of babies, and the introduction of a new cat companion, and steroid shots for asthma, and late night runs to the emergency vet. And we have ended up here, with a grumpy cat purring on his favorite chair, tolerating our petting and kisses in the hope that eventually we’ll fill his food bowl. When Jack does die, I hope it is sneaky, and quiet, and peaceful. I hope it does not have to be at the vet, but home, where he feels safe. I hope he experiences little pain—that the actual moment he goes is nothing more dramatic than a faint sense of waking from a dream. It will not be enough. Nothing ever seems to be enough for me; I have a greedy soul. I will always want more. But it is the best I can hope for–a mundane life that was all the same its own adventure, an anticlimactic ending to a story that was still a good one.