Friday, August 17, 2007

The Lil'Bastard

My sister and I grew up with cats, but for most of my 20's, I couldn't have one. I was either living in a dorm, an apartment that didn't allow pets, or with an allergic roommate. So I was pretty excited that the man I was marrying owned two cats (though that's not the only reason I married him). The problem was that these were his cats, not mine. They came to him for food and affection, just tolerating my presence in their house. After being married a few months, I told Ted that I wanted my own cat.

He really wanted me to feel at home in this huge, new city we were living in, so if a cat would help with that, he was game. We found him at the Pasadena Humane Society after a couple of visits. He was four months old, and what made him stand out during our official visit with him in the getting-to-know-you room was the way he'd stop by to say 'hi' to us and then run off to play. He was constantly moving about playing yet always checking in with us. We thought he was a winner.

Convincing the crazies at the Humane Society that we were decent people, not prone to torturing and maiming helpless animals was quite a herculean effort though. The minute we said he'd be an indoor/outdoor cat, the "social worker" abruptly shut our application file and said we couldn't have him. Ted got mad at this, stood up, said "thank you" and walked out, leaving me dumb-founded about what had just happened.

We went back the next day to try our luck again, this time asking to speak to the head of the volunteers to discuss how we'd been treated and to see if we could get the cat. Ted waited outside her office while I was treated like a criminal, positively interrogated by this woman who seemed hell-bent on believing that our greatest joy in life was bringing kittens home to watch get squashed by cars and eaten by renegade coyotes.

I quickly grew tired of the darkened room and spotlight tactics, so I politely explained that I didn't like having to prove to anyone my decency and that I'd appreciate an apology for being treated like a kitten-stew eating witch. She was a bit taken aback but apologized and then I became human to her. I know how to put the humane back in the Humane Society, let me tell ya.

By the end of our meeting, I'd convinced her that though the cat would go outdoors sometimes, that we were good people worthy of taking home one of her animals. So a few days later, after he'd recovered from that little snip-snip surgery, we brought the newest addition home in a white box. This is what he looked like the day he came home:
Pretty cute, huh?

Our vet was shocked when she found out that the Pasadena Humane Society crazies let us have him. One of her clients went there to get a new cat but was denied because he had a college-aged son who came home on the weekends and the crazies though it would be too traumatic for the cat to have a stranger in the house on weekends. You see now why I call them "the crazies."

Despite it being a dorky name, Buddy seemed to be what he ended up with. We'd wanted something more clever or cute, but he just got stuck with Buddy somehow. He quickly developed a crush on Chitty, the fat one, and would follow him around everywhere staring longingly when he couldn't manage to get Chitty to play.
Chitty acted miffed that we'd brought this new being to his domain, but we know he secretly liked having the new one around. He'd even eventually let Buddy get this close...
...which made Buddy drunk on Chitty-love:
These moments were few and far between though. This is how Buddy earned his nickname, the Lil' Bastard. Despite his deep love for Chitty, he could never resist the urge to be rascally with him.

Chitty is a fat cat. He's so fat that he has this pocket of fat that hangs down in front of his hind legs that waddles back and forth when he walks, even faster when he scampers (because Chitty doesn't exactly run...scampering is the fastest he gets). The Lil' Bastard cannot resist this wabbling, swaying bubble of fat that Chitty has. He just has to reach out and grab it. Sometimes Chitty gets away...briefly.

Buddy quickly won all of our hearts. Then the trauma began.

Anyone who's spent any time in L.A. is familiar with coyotes and even knows a person or two who've had pets disappear in the early mornings. We had never seen one on our property though so weren't too worried, uh...until we saw one on our back deck one morning licking himself, taking it easy like he was right at home.

This began the period of chasing down the cats every evening before dusk. Chitty and Bang Bang were never a problem to get inside. The Lil' Bastard thought it was a game: he hides, we find him, he runs away, we chase him, he scampers half-way up a tree, we stand there fuming asking him, "Do you want to get eaten alive?" for hours on end. No kidding.

We saw the coyote a few times over this period. One morning, the coyote shows up in the space between our houses, and we get a phone call from Ed, our 85-year-old neighbor. We look out the window towards his house and immediately wish the camera were closer by: there was our excited, white-bearded neighbor standing on his side porch with his red-plaid bathrobe hanging open for him to hike up his, uh... adult protective undergarments all while cocking the rifle, shouting, "Ted! I've got the 22! Where'd the coyote go?!"

The coyote got away and the day went on as usual, except when it started getting dark. We couldn't find Buddy. He had disappeared. We waited and looked for hours. We went all over the neighborhood. Neither of us slept all night.

I kept laying there in bed imagining dark, horrible things involving sweet, soft Bastard fur and horrible yellow teeth. I felt guilty for being reckless with our cats' safety. I thought about how the crazies at the Humane Society were right about us: we were irresponsible pet owners.

When I got out of bed in the morning, Ted was already up and there was still no Buddy. The oppressive reality of Buddy being gone, probably eaten, sunk deeper and heavier on my shoulders as I wandered the house. I was in shock at what had happened. I wanted to rewind time and bring him in earlier in the day. I wanted to go back and promise the crazies that I would never let him outside, ever.

I had to go with Ted that morning to his eye doctor's appointment, so on the way there, neither of us really talked much. We sat in the dark waiting room crying. We'd fall asleep for a few moments, then wake up and cry more.

This is when Ted started eulogizing Buddy. As we waited in the room for the doctor, Ted would say, "The best thing about Buddy was his innocence, how he went through life led by those furry white paws...." Then we'd both cry even harder. Then the doctor came in and was genuinely concerned with what was wrong with us. When we told him our cat had been eaten by a coyote, he actually sat down and listened to our eulogies and cries. He's a very kind doctor (if any of you ever have a retinal detachment, we can pass along his name to you--Ted's had three of these...a whole other long, dramatic story).

I called my mom on the way home from the doctor to tell her about what happened. She said that she would pray. Pray? I was convinced he was dead. She prayed that if Buddy was alive, that he would come home.

We got home and started the long trudge up the stairs. Half-way up, Ted stopped to talk to Hermalindo, the guy who was there doing some work on the house. I continued up the stairs, came into the house, looked at the landing of the stairway, and saw Buddy. He was just sitting there looking at me. I lost my breath. I screamed out loud for Ted as I joyfully ran to pick up the Lil' Bastard.

When Ted heard me calling him, he told himself not to get his hopes up, that it was probably just something else. He came running in the house to see me in tears holding our cat, and he joined me, grabbing Buddy and crying just as hard as I was and saying, "He's home! He came home! Oh thank you God!"

Buddy was having none of it. He had no idea what the hell was going on and actually started scrambling to get away from these two weeping and wailing lunatics squeezing him to death.

It turns out that Buddy had been locked under the house all night. He really liked watching Hermalindo, so he'd followed him under the house at the end of the day. Hermalindo hadn't realized he was there and just shut the door before he left. So when we'd been calling him the night before, he could hear us and was probably scampering about trying to get our attention somehow. I shudder to think about what would have happened had Hermalindo not been scheduled to come back the next day...
Buddy Trauma Part II
Time went by and things were fine. Buddy was a little more skittish after his night under the house, but he still would win people over, like he did when my Granny came to visit:
He also got a lot of attention after Trauma Part I. Many evenings after we'd successfully wrangled him into the house, one of us would spend time combing his fur, getting rid of any nasties that got stuck in his furry tail during his adventures outside during the day. He was our prodigal son come home, and we pretty regularly killed the fatted calf for him.

One Friday, we noticed that Buddy seemed to be going at a slower pace than usual. He'd still follow Ted around outside while he was doing chores, but he looked sluggish. The next day, we noticed him just laying limp in his favorite patch of dirt in the backyard. I went to get him, and he easily let me pick him up. I knew something was wrong.

He just hung limp in my arms. This was a Saturday evening. We waited all night and during church Sunday morning, I couldn't take the worry. I left during the middle of the service, telling Ted I was going to the emergency vet. Of course, these things always happen on the weekends.

I registered him at the vet but was told that this was a triage facility and since he could pee and drink water, we pretty much went to the bottom of the list. Buddy was in his traveling basket beside me, panting harder as the hours rolled by. Yes, hours. After three and a half hours, I thought I was getting closer to getting my dying cat seen, but then a little Filipino lady walked in the door in tears, carrying a shoebox with a baby squirrel inside. It had fallen off her roof, and she wanted it fixed. Normally, I might have had some sympathy, but after spending so much time there, I was ready to punch her in the face for bumping me down the list even further for the sake of a wild, disease-carrying squirrel.

So we waited another two hours.

Finally we were called back, and after what seemed like forever, the vet brought me into the examining room. There was no Buddy with her. My heart sank. She put two x-rays up on the light-board to show me what was going on. She said, "He has one of three things, two of which are fatal and the other will cost you a fortune to have treated."

That's when I pretty much lost it. It turns out Buddy was in the back in an oxygen tent because he had developed a condition called pyrothorax, which normally dogs get, not cats. An infection was growing in his chest cavity, slowly suffocating him to death. He'd probably had it for weeks but his cat's stoicism kept it hidden from us until he collapsed the day before.

The vet explained that she could draw out some of the infection...let's call it what it is, shall we?...pus...with a syringe to give him room to breathe during the night, but that the next day I'd have to take him to the animal hospital across town.

So Buddy spent his first night in an oxygen tent. Early the next morning, we picked him up and paid what would be the first of many bills.

After taking him to the wrong vet, which is a whole other story I don't even like to think about, I ended up at the fanciest animal hospital I'd ever seen located directly west of Beverly Hills, with all the Beverly Hills ammenities you could imagine for pets. Automatic doors whooshed open as I approached them, and I was greeted by three smiling receptionists who were expecting us.

They took Buddy to the back while I filled out paperwork. I was able to drink all the complimentary herbal tea or coffee I wanted while waiting in the kitty waiting room, though I also had the choice of slumming it in the doggy waiting room if I'd wanted to. I didn't.

I got to know this place well in the next week. The first thing the doctors did was put tubes in Buddy's chest to drain the infectious pus accumulating there. That was to buy them time while they tried to figure out what was causing the infection. We were on the phone every day as they tried various antibiotics. Nothing was working. At the time, we had a couple of my former students from Slovakia visiting us, so I'd drop them off somewhere like The Grove or the beach while I'd go visit Buddy.

Let me tell ya', those were gut-wrenching visits. They'd bring him out all wrapped up in a towel, with that crazy white cone on his head to keep him from licking the tubes in his chest. He'd be doped up on pain medication, which made him have the nibbles, so they'd give me something to feed him. And I'd sit there holding him and cry like I didn't know I could cry. I remember telling myself that this is only a cat, for crying out loud, not a person, but it didn't seem to make it any easier.

As the days went by, the decisions got harder each day as to how far we'd go to keep him alive. Ted made the point that hospitals like this shouldn't make it so easy, with their offers of payment plans. There must be so many people out there in love with their pets who go into debt to help them.

The hard thing for us was that no one ever handed us a bill saying, "This is what the total cost is going to be." It was just this daily ticking, adding up slowly so that before we knew it, we'd already spent a chunk. So when the doctor says that there's a good chance this one next procedure or next medication could cure your pet, it's difficult to know what to do.

We'd both go visit him sometimes and both cry. We'd look at this helpless little creature and think that, despite this illness, he was the luckiest guy in the world to have been picked from the crazies at the Humane Society by us. How ironic that they almost wouldn't let us have him. It didn't make it any easier when the nurses would tell us that he was the sweetest patient they could remember having, that he'd actually purr when they went to handle him, never fighting them.

Finally, we agreed to "exploratory surgery." Yes, I said it. They opened up his chest cavity in one of these rooms, and found that one of his lungs had collapsed. Not only that, but it had hardened and started to adhere to his chest cavity wall. So they had to scrape it out. They think that some foreign body, like a piece of foxtail grass, had penetrated his skin and made its way to his lungs. Cats' lungs are not even: one handles 70%, the other 30%. Luckily (?!), it was the smaller lung that had collapsed. They washed everything out and sewed him up, sending him home with three different antibiotics to be given twice a day for three months.

So from that point, if we had to go out of town overnight, our friends David and Kelly babysat for us. David would faithfully give Buddy his pills every morning and night. Those two are true friends.

Buddy was pretty skinny for a while afterwards, and you can see here his fancy mohawk which lasted several months. His chest and tummy were also totally shaved as well.

Two years later, his fur has totally grown back, as you can see here.

We're hoping that the rest of his life is uneventful in comparison to his first year of life. This is what also made the whole drama so difficult: all this happened to him while he was still a kitten.

We know that some friends and relatives thought we were crazy to go to such lengths to keep this cat alive, but in a way, we couldn't help ourselves. It's like Haven Kimmel said in her book A Girl Named Zippy, "Few can understand the love between a girl and her chicken." There's a bond between people and their pets, whether a cat or a chicken, that you can't understand unless you've experienced it. I really believe it's one of the greatest joys in life, that God created us with this need to offer security, warmth, and love to certain creatures.

When I was a kid and my mom's cat Ebony died, she mourned. I remember her actually sitting out next to the place they buried her for hours and hours. I knew not to disturb her, though I didn't really understand at the time why she was so sad.

Now I do understand. Sometimes Ted and I wonder how we'll react when one of our cats is gone. It's hard to imagine. With both of Buddy's traumas, I guess it surprised me how deeply I cared for this little creature in such a short time.

Even in the middle of the night, when Buddy wants food and tries to wake me by delicately and deliberately poking any bit of skin he can find with his claws, I still love him. Even when I open my eyes to see a little hiney-hole getting bigger and bigger as he's preparing to sit on my face to try getting me up that way (yes, he does that), I still love him. Even when he sleeps in the bushes for hours, ignoring me when I call him, I still love him.

Maybe few can understand the love between a girl and her Lil'Bastard.


Celia said...

Oh Lori! You're gonna be such a good Mama. I lost my cat Skitterbug (pics in my blog) earlier this year and it almost killed me. A story for another day but you're blessed to have the Lil Bastard.

Anonymous said...

Brought back lots of memories and emotion. When I think of how much anguish Buddy has caused you, I could kill the lil' bastard. Then I think of how lost I'd be without him, and I restrain myself.
Great story, sweetie. I was wondering who you'd ge to play Lil' Bastard, but choosing Buddy himself was billiant casting. He couldn't be more purrfect for the part, and he so stole the show.

I hope the adults out there read this to their kids, as they will eat it up.

P.S. Oh. And by the way, as a point of fact: I wasn't really crying all those times. It was just the inflamation from my detatched retina. And also the one time I had been cutting onions for a lasagna I was making. And the one other time it had been raining...on my face. Oh, and there were the eye drops that I needed for my detatched retina from which you are lucky I didn't become blind. Yeah that's right, BLIND!
What do ya think--that I'm some kinda cry baby or sumpin'? Not this dude.



erin said...

I totally understand that love. When my cat Ben died, I was grief stricken. I had already been ill, myself, but when he died, I totally succumbed. I always felt embarrassed by my intense sadness, but fortunately I know a good number of people who love their pets like family, so I know I'm in good company!

Long live Buddy!

Anonymous said...

I know and understand that kind of love. You met Kiska, right? He passed on in May 2005 at the age of 15 1/2, I'd had him since I was 15. It was pretty traumatic. If I can remember, I'll email you the story.

I'm glad I finally got to hear the Buddy story! Lucky cat.


Anonymous said...

Lori: Love your Lil Bastard. As a fellow animal lover, although I must confess I have crossed over to the "dog" (neah my cat would say "dark") side, I loved your story. When my cat Misty Lou was dying poor LLoyd had to take me to the emergency vet while Genesis "Find A Way to My Heart" played and I held my cat and cried. I think he is still traumatized by the experience and it was 15 years ago.

Thanks for sharing Buddy with us.


Jana said...

poor lil' bastard! glad he's okay.