A Soft Cat eases a Hard Time
She appeared on the doorstep in December, a small black cat with golden eyes complaining about a cold, wet winter. We didn’t open the door.
For a week she circled from the glass sliders in the living room to the front door and then around to the back, tracking our movements through the house. She demanded to be let in. As water dripped from her fur, we capitulated.
It wasn’t adoption, we maintained. Just a toweling to dry and warm her, then back outside.
She responded with purrs and a comfortable familiarity with human companionship. Okay, we’d give her refuge from time to time, but not a bit of food. After all, we had travel plans for the coming month.
We packed our bags and flew south to sunshine, but my spouse and I carried that cat in our heads. We hoped she was finding a home.
We played with names one might give a pet cat--not that we would consider a pet. No, absolutely not. Not while the freedom to travel brought such pleasure in our lives.
By the time we returned the weather had changed. So had the biological season. At the end of March, the small black cat appeared again, trailed by clamorous suitors.
“Irma Jean,” I cried. “You poor thing!” It just popped out. A favorite name from our fanciful list.
What could we do? Clearly, this cat was helpless against the pull of hormones. Clearly, she ought to be rescued. What would become of a litter of kittens roaming the neighborhood?
It was a responsible act of a good neighbor, I told myself when I tucked her into a borrowed carrier for a trip to the Spay and Neuter Clinic. Responsible and also fateful. The clinic’s recommendation that the cat be kept inside a few nights after surgery provided an opening for feline persuasion.
I stopped for cat food and kitty litter on the way home from the clinic and Irma Jean settled in without a glitch, repaying services provided with an outpouring of companionship.
Sometimes You Need a Cat
Her timing was impeccable, coming at a tempestuous season in my life.
By April, there was no ignoring advanced arthritis in my right hip. A significant limp skewed my gait. Pain disrupted my sleep. Surgery for a joint replacement was set for early June.
Then, that same month my only sibling died when a tractor he was using to clear a garden space bucked and took his life. A strong, vigorous man, not long retired from veterinary practice in Salem, he was reveling in the bliss of life as a husband, father and granddad.
His death left me in the chilling position of last surviving member of our nuclear family. I had never anticipated how lonely, and endangered, I would feel.
The dual impact of my brother’s tragic death and a personal encounter with physical vulnerability, with the wear and tear of age, knocked the spunk out of me.
I took a break from writing this column and wrapped my sadness around the soft black cat that slipped into my house and my heart. The same cat who right now lies curled on a red pillow beside my computer.
I’m writing about the cat because I don’t quite know how to write about the grief and the emotional dullness that has muted me for three months. I’m only now, slowly and cautiously, peeling back the protective bunting that cushioned me from the perils and uncertainties of life.
My body has healed. My walk is strong and steady. I’m gratefully free of the pain that punctuated each step a couple months ago.
My spirit has been slower to respond. Recovery seems to lurch ahead in a jerky cadence of two steps forward and one back.
One day I might rejoice in my resilience, traveling the sidewalk in front of my home with a borrowed walker and a black cat at my heels. The next could send me into despair at the consequences of prescriptions that controlled pain but didn’t stop at that.
When the pain of surgery eased and I put the pills aside, my body succumbed to diarrhea and chills. I thought I had the flu. It took a Web search to reveal the symptoms of dependency. This malady was withdrawal. I had become another statistic in the “opioid epidemic” recently acknowledged by the American Medical Association.
I shudder still at the tenacity of medication that held no psychological gratification at all for me, but enmeshed itself in the chemistry of my cells. What was this but yet another assault of vulnerability?
Irma Jean and I went to bed. I seemed to float in timelessness—a perfect state, it turns out, for reading Oregon author Brian Doyle’s magical voyage of “The Plover,” and drifting off on seas of my own.
When I finally felt strong enough for a return to the gym, I promptly tweaked a shoulder muscle in an unfocused move and took a step backward again.
Confronting Grief on Two Fronts
By mid-summer, I wondered how much of the despondency still muffling me was due to the physical impact of surgery and recovery? What part grief?
How much could be linked to the emotional exhaustion of surrender? To the resounding absence of control in so many areas of life?
On a six-week check-up with the Eugene, OR surgeon who did my hip replacement surgery, I asked Dr. Brian Jewett about the psychological impact of the procedure he has made his specialty.
“Good question,” he said. He responded with questions of his own. Did I mean the emotional significance of losing a part of one’s body? Or of accepting a metal counterfeit?
“Yes,” I said, and he shook his head. To his knowledge no one locally studies the emotional side of a physical process that updates worn out body parts with high tech replicas.
And perhaps there’s not much to explore. Others have asked the same questions. A 2012 report published in Seminars in Arthritis & Rheumatism reviewed 35 related studies and concluded that mental factors had little impact on patient satisfaction one year after knee or hip replacement.
So here am I, not quite three months out from surgery and already finding renewed joy in hiking short sections of the Ridgeline Trail. Joy in standing to chat with a friend at the Farmers’ Market without a fiery stab in my right hip.
That joy is the light that wakes me in the morning now. The light that refuels optimism and leads me back to the computer. Irma Jean settles on her cushion beside me as I ponder the possibilities of a bright, white screen.
After a three-month retreat, I’m emerging to peer beyond the shadows—rejoicing to discover that I’m still Not the Retiring Type.
Carolyn Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer.
Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.