Lessons from Cats: Suffering to Joy
I have heard a few too many heartfelt and inspiring stories from dog and cat owners over the years. And I have watched an egregious number of online videos about pets doing remarkably maudlin things. In some ways, I was beginning to grow a bit numb to the idea of learning from the compassion of domesticated animals or being inspired by their decidedly human-like emotions. Then my neighbor’s cat came back from the brink of death.
Cats have always been there
I should clarify that I have been a cat owner since my early childhood. While I had a handful of dogs growing up, there was always a steady stream of cats in my life from the point where my family moved into the woods. To be fair, it was a nicely manicured subdivision and our house backed up to a golf course, but it was still a rural town and the house was surrounded by several acres of densely wooded oaks and maples. Among these trees lived a vibrant collection of wildlife and no shortage of stray cats.
Being at least semi-feral, many of these cats would get sick and wander off to die alone, or possibly just get eaten by predators, and I learned early on that felines were transitory in nature. Only a few stuck around for years, and only one remained a constant in my life throughout middle and high school.
Caring for Alex and Yauch
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties, living an urban lifestyle, that I had “indoor” cats, starting with a litter I helped save at just a few days old. I watched these cats develop distinct personalities and on occasion, surprise me with their behavior. Mixed in with my fully domesticated charges, a few feral cats also came to trust me and fully change their behavior.
One cat stood out for his compassion even in the midst of his own obvious pain. We called him Yauch for no apparent reason and he had been staring through our window for well over a year. His ear was messed up and he looked scrappy and mean and eventually he overcame his trepidation and let us feed him.
I still had Alex, the only one left from that litter I saved years ago, now old and frail. Yauch took to Alex as friend and protector in relatively short order once he decided we were okay. When Alex’s rear legs failed him and he could not climb onto his sleeping chair, I watched Yauch lift Alex onto the chair. On cold evenings, Yauch would curl around Alex to keep him warm. When Alex died, Yauch was an indelible part of our family. Meanwhile, Yauch’s messed up ear continued to get worse; it did not take long to discover he had a really bad case of cancer.
Had he come to us earlier, things would have been different for Yauch. We tried surgery and localized treatments, but because of the location, there was little to do to stem the progression of disease. For the short time he was with us, Yauch was a constantly loving companion. He was also incredibly patient with regard to his unfortunately futile care, focusing his energies instead on helping his fellow cat or pouring affection on his human companions.
Cordelia’s story of recovery
While that memory was already growing distant before my own cancer diagnosis, it was revived recently when my neighbor’s own feral cat, Cordelia, appeared on the verge of death. She was estimated to be 18 years old already, ancient for an outdoor cat, and had never let anyone come close enough to pet her although she was very affectionate toward my neighbor’s other, decidedly less-feral cat, Hal.
Cordelia was clearly unwell. Blind in one eye and probably deaf, she had lost an enormous amount of weight and was oozing something on the side of her face. I worried that she had cancer, too. My neighbor explored mobile vet options. We talked about what to do if I discovered the body while she was away (I fed her cats regularly). Everyone assumed Cordelia had a foot in the grave.
Then something remarkable happened. One day, Cordelia was stumbling about, barely able to make it to her food dish, much less eat from it. The next, my neighbor was holding her in her lap, brushing Cordelia’s fur, and Cordelia was actually purring. We had never heard her purr before — only hiss. A few days after that, while Cordelia enjoyed being hand-fed and endlessly brushed, an abscess on her cheek ruptured and she ceased to stumble about when she walked. By the end of the week, she was eating on her own and doing figure-eights around my feet when I came over to visit.
In the last ten years, I had maybe been close enough to touch Cordelia four or five times. Now she walked deliberately up to me and pushed against my hand, not only purring, but with a distinct “meow.” She clings to my neighbor’s arms when she is held, rumbling softly the entire time. She has, after years, truly come to life. But, she is old, ancient in fact, and entirely fragile in spite of her recent weight gain. We muse about how long she has left, grateful that she is, at least, making the best of the remaining days.
Living joyfully despite illness
Together, I think about Yauch and Cordelia, and how feral, instinct-driven animals may suddenly become loving companions. I think about the pain that Yauch had been living with and ignoring, seeming to be ever-joyful in spite of his aggressive cancer. And I wonder about my own behavior while facing the treatment for my disease, my irritability, my anger.
Well before we knew he was terminal, the vet commented on Yauch’s gentle nature, disbelieving that the cat was feral. And maybe that simply was his nature, after all, though I ponder whether the challenge of his condition somehow brought it out in him. All it took was offering a small amount of compassion to Yauch for him to reveal his innate gentleness to us.
Looking to our pets as role models
Whether influenced by their illness or not, both Cordelia and Yauch demonstrated a certain grace, gentleness, and unfettered love at a time when they were facing a painful existence. While Cordelia’s step away from death’s door has offered her a certain time to enjoy a more pampered existence for however long she has left, both of these animals will have given more in their final days than should have been expected under the circumstances.
My cynical-self tells me that we should not look to pets as role models. They are creatures of instinct, not intellect. And yet as role models go, I cannot help but admire their ability to overcome their suffering and live in the moment of joy.
Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.
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