“This Ragged Cat is Not My Heart” by Charlotte Gullick

22 February 2019 on Nonfiction   Tags: ,

Banjo, the cat, looks rough. Thinner. No, too thin. Maroon inner eye sockets that take up more space each day.

I hold him while I look at his litter mate, his brother. Both are black and sleek and almost too soft to touch. I put him down and watch him walk away. There’s a hitch in the hips that makes me think ancient, makes me think dying.

I ask my pre-teen daughter to take a look. She’s known them since she was four. “We need to take it to the vet, Mom.”

These two cats are only nine years old — one of them had a significant scrap with an outside creature when we still lived in California. A raccoon or a fox. When we moved to Texas, we decided the felines, new to the suburbs, used to the wild of a rural county, should stay inside. They’d live longer we were told.

Plus, the vet bills for the outdoor brawl were so expensive.

*

I grew up in a rural place. Town of two hundred. Graduating class of six. My parents lucked into a caretaking gig when I was a baby — they moved into a drafty, two-bedroom house, with no neighbors other than nature. Mountains, streams, valleys, meadows, a garden, an orchard. My four siblings and I had 3,200 acres to roam and range. We had horses, ducks, pigs. My dad was finally able to get cattle of his own.

And we had deep practicality, for the most part.

When the pig had piglets, we children went inside the pen and spent as much time as we could with the grunty, little things. One summer morning before we went off to see the tiny, curly-tailed cuties, our mother stood with us on the porch, the fog rising off the pond with ghostly trails.

“Kids, just so you know, those baby pigs’ names are Bacon, Sausage, Ham, and Pork Chop.”

She went inside. We didn’t look at each other or make comment. She wasn’t being harsh, she was saving us from the suffering that comes with loving something that is destined to be our food.

*

The cat is worse each day. I find the baby blankets and fold them in the places I think he likes to rest, but Banjo hunkers only in one spot: on the back of the couch, curled into himself like a painful question mark. When he does move, it’s to the water bowl to drink and drink and drink, his lapping tongue loud and distinct.

I ask my husband what he thinks. “That cat is unwell,” he says.

I ask a friend who knows animals to come look. She examines the cat and within two minutes, says, “This guy is really sick, you should take it to the vet.”

I reach out to a mobile vet we’d used three months before. She comes while I’m at work so my husband reports back: “She thinks it’s probably feline diabetes."

*

The first time I saw my father cry was over a horse. One he’d rescued from malnourishment and abuse. I can still see the pictures of Bonnie the day he took her from the negligent owners. It’s raining in the two photos and even though she’s a bay, there’s a grayness to her skin that matches the weather. Her ribs so prominent I wondered how she still lived and breathed. Dad nursed her back to health, checking on her morning and night where she grew healthier in the corral. Then the two rodeoed their way to winning the red and blue ribbons that decorated the barn wall.

But she’d gotten sick, and he’d been up with her all night.

On that morning, I woke to a strange noise — I knew the sound of tears and the ragged breathing that comes with them — I’d heard my mom make that sound too much. But, this was deeper, throatier, terrifying.

I sneaked to the hallway and peeked out in the living room. And there sat Dad, his head hung, hand over his face. Crying. Not quite keening. But deep in the grip of grief.

Over a horse.

She’d come down with pneumonia — and I cannot tell you if the vet came. Most likely not, because we were people who didn’t go to the doctor or hospital ourselves unless it was for a birth or a broken bone.

*

I call the vet and she confirms Banjo has diabetes. His pancreas is underfunctioning, and if we decide to take this illness on, we will need to take blood sugar levels four times a day and give insulin shots twice a day. I ask, “Do you have a sense of the costs?”

“In the beginning, it can be a lot.”

A few minutes later, I am driving, and a terrible sadness swoops down. I know our animals will die — this fact has never been outside of my knowledge. But, to live with a pet with illness is a shift that pulls me in so many directions. There’s the privilege of choosing to tend to the animal in the way it needs. There’s the opening of the heart that says, this creature is a pet, this creature is part of our family. There’s the shifting of self to accept all the vulnerabilities life has to offer.

All the other losses — my grandfather killed by a drunk driver, all the people I went to high school with who died, my writing mentor who committed suicide, my father’s death—they pool inside, little pockets of grief that simultaneously implode at the same moment, and I am weeping.

Over a cat.

I call my husband. “The cat has diabetes, and I don’t love you anymore.”

It’s a great thing he’s so even-keeled. He says, “I see you’re having a rational response.”

Through tears, I say, “It’s just easier if you just don’t open your heart to anything.”

*

There is the part of me that remains practical — perhaps too practical. I don’t think anything should suffer. This same response lives with my siblings. When my sister was driving in upstate New York, she came upon a deer that had been hit. It was thrashing and bleeding and definitely not going to make it. She told me she wished for a knife or a gun. When she told this to one of her friends, my sister was told she was the most gangster person the friend had ever met — and she had lived in some hard places. Being able to know when a being needs help in dying is one of our strengths, but maybe it’s too strong a knowing. Maybe it’s both practical and gangster.

I have two sisters—one has a lot more money than the other. The sister with the money, the one who wished for a knife or a gun, takes excellent care of her cats. Some might call it extravagant care. I once helped her build a catio on the back deck of her Brooklyn apartment. And when one of her cats became too sick for any more interventions, my sister paid a vet to euthanize Lupe.

My other sister, the one who earns radically less than the Brooklyn sibling, has shot her animals when they’ve gotten too sick for expensive forms of care. “A .22 bullet doesn’t cost that much,” she has said to me. I imagine her eyes narrowing before she pulls the trigger, both to keep her aim steady but also to ignore the tears.

Are we hard or are we too attuned to pain?

*

This is the question I grapple with as we try to decide what we should do about the cat. One night, he looks just so miserable. He curls thinly on one of the blankets and his face is even more skeletal. The maroon in the inner eyes — what I think of as death manifested — has bloomed.

I think it is time to have a hard conversation as a family. I call our pre-teen daughter from her bedroom and ask her to look at Banjo. “Can you see how much he has changed?”

She runs a palm over the not-so-sleek fur, holds her fist out for the cat’s face. As usual, he rubs against the offered hand. My husband places his own palm on our daughter’s back.

“He’s purring,” she says. She makes me feel the vibrations—they are strong and vital and reach inside as if the cat were actually clawing me.

But still, I say, “I don’t think he’s doing well. And the insulin is kind of expensive.”

She nuzzles her head into the cat. “I’ll get a job.” My daughter is young and in an academically-demanding school and hates giving up any of her free time.

On the ranch where I grew up, every animal had a job — or they weren’t part of the workings our lives. Even Bonnie had regular tasks outside rodeoing — she had to help herd cattle in the spring when it was time to brand the calves. I say to my daughter, “I don’t know. I don’t know if we can do this.”

She turns to eye me. “Don’t you think he’d feel better if he has the medicine? Shouldn’t you make the decision after we try?” We’re at a turning point in my own story and as my daughter stands before me, I wonder if she’s the wiser one. The pull of our thin financial lives and the possibility of saving this pet grapple inside me.

My husband says, “She does have a point.”

It’s an argument that makes sense. But what if the treatment doesn’t work? Shouldn’t we just cut the potential pain right now? End things before there’s more suffering? Although I can’t tell if I’m considering the cat or myself in these questions. My father died over fifteen years before and my mother survived breast cancer — what kind of guidance would either of them offer right now? What kind of judgement?

I think of my dad on the couch, his heart breaking over his horse. Did that loss harden or soften him? When he saw that Bonnie could not stand anymore, that her lungs labored with inflammation, what inner reserves broiled inside of him?

“You’re right,” I tell her.

*

This morning, Banjo curls on the bed at my feet. His eyes look so much better. He might even be going into remission — it might be he will not need the insulin for a while. The distance from my childhood to this place feels vast, but also good, like maybe I am learning to live with the ragged things of life, seeing value where I hadn’t the chance or the opportunity or the privilege to before. We will pinch here and there, we will throw the extra we have toward the insulin, the needles, the test strips, the check-ins from the vet. We will decide to make the space for this being.

I feel the vibrations as Banjo curls into himself, right where my feet touch him through the blankets. It’s a warmth I didn’t know I needed.

---

Charlotte Gullick is a novelist, essayist, editor, educator and chair of the Creative Writing department at Austin Community College. In May 2016, she graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Charlotte’s first novel, By Way of Water, was published by Blue Hen Books/Penguin Putnam, and her nonfiction has appeared in The Rumpus, Brevity, Pembroke, Pithead Chapel, and The LA Review. Her other awards include a Christopher Isherwood Fellowship for Fiction, a Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship for Poetry, a MacDowell Colony residency, a Ragdale residency, as well as the Evergreen State College 2012 Teacher Excellence Award. For more information: charlottegullick.com.

5x7 oil on paper by Whitney Knapp Bowditch. Whitney was born in Connecticut, lived in Surrey, England for nearly a decade, and currently resides in Richmond, Virginia. She earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from Denison University, and her Post Baccalaureate Certificate and her Master of Fine Arts Degree from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Whitney's work has been exhibited nationally and featured in various publications. Her pieces are in private collections throughout the United States and abroad. She is represented by The Photo Dog Art Gallery and Jessie Edwards' Studio (Block Island), Beacon Art Shortwave Gallery (Stone Harbor), and Jeffrey Meier Gallery (Lambertville, NJ). She has taught drawing and painting courses at the high school and college level, and currently teaches at John Tyler Community College in Midlothian, Virginia. You can find more of her work at whitneyknapp.com and on Instagram at @whitneyknappbowditchstudio

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