When I was about three, I conjured up a fear of exactly what happens at the end of this video. There was a mirror in my bedroom, and my parents had to cover it with newspaper.
JacJac is at a Bengal rescue outside Chicago. He’s three years old and very athletic. A friend here would love to adopt him, and asked me if there was any chance at all I could bring him back with me when I go to Chicago mid-month.
This is the sort of arduous caper others underwent for Jacques and me—rescuing an orphaned kitten on a Korean mountainside, feeding him protein powder with an eyedropper in a karate dojo, and entrusting him to a young Canadian English teacher who took it upon herself to bring him all the way back from Seoul to Kingston, Ontario on the plane—truly heroic. (We drove from New York to Kingston and picked him up.) I can feel Jacques glowering at me, willing me to pay it forward. Don’t think the JacJac fantasy mission didn’t cross my mind even before I was asked.
It’s all but impossible. The cat is not in Chicago but in Indiana, and I don’t have a car. My time belongs to my mom, who, if she knew I was even contemplating such a quixotic ordeal, would pitch a fit. I’m a stranger to JacJac and I don’t know if he’s ever traveled before; he could be screaming inconsolably the whole way. He looks pretty rangy and I don’t know if he’d fit into a carrier under the seat; I won’t put an animal in the cargo compartment. The fosterers would pretty much have to meet me at the airport with cat in carrier, presuming I could even reserve a pet space this late.
Nope. My friend will have to find his cat here. If you, by any chance, are in the Midwest, and have a home to offer this beautiful miniature tiger . . . he could be yours.
(There was a time when Jacques and I would totally have done it. We’d have driven to Chicago and back if that’s what it took. And then, like the surrogate mother who changes her mind, we’d probably have refused to hand him over.)
One of ours was obsessed with playing tug-of-war with a stubby old broom. Another, fine-skinned as he was, wanted to be brushed with a wire brush forever. They fixate. And they worry. They are pixilated. Anxious. Goofy. Emotional.
Because Buzzy is seventeen and has imperfectly controlled diabetes, he gets very hungry very often, sometimes because his blood sugar is on the high side, and sometimes because it is on the low side. Because he has an anxious and doting—not to say obsequious—human slave, he is also “spoiled,” as they say (note to self: post on that word sometime), and it is fresh food he is hungry for, thank you very much. Put with less petulance (it’s 5 f*king a.m.!) and more compassion, his inconsolable hunger, which may also signal some enzymatic insufficiency that squanders much of his nutrition (chronic pancreatitis?), is only tempted and assuaged by the contents of a just-opened can. Because he is very bright, and very dominant (yet also sensitive and sincere: if I hurt his feelings his nose turns bright pink), he has figured out surefire ways to wake me at the first sign of dawn.
Just now, he knocked over a small but noisy tchotchke with a clatter of metal, then jumped with all fours on a large empty paper bag for a plosive crash. (If cats have you, you will not ask why there is a large empty paper bag on the floor.) When my hair is long, he walks on it; when it’s short, he grabs a hank in his teeth and yanks.
How bright is that? How mad can I be? He is a major contributor to my being sleep-deprived and broke (the insulin, the syringes, the test strips, the live-in vet tech cat sitter when I travel, the convoy of high-end food, the new filters for the water fountain he sticks his paw in right out of the kitty litter, the carefully triaged vet bills), yet I contemplate him with helpless admiration. This is a cat who once taught himself to pee in the toilet by carefully observing another cat who had taught himself by observing us; then (in what was unmistakably a higher-order observation and a masterpiece of reasoning) pawed half a roll of toilet paper into the bowl; and then, when I reversed the roll, was so offended—his nose flamed pink—that he never used the toilet again.
Last Wednesday or so, Rainy caught one of his overcurved claws on the knit bedspread that covers the loveseat. When I tried to go gently to his aid, he panicked and pulled until he pulled free, then ran under the bed. (Siamese cats’ genius is not cerebral, it’s emotional, with all the drawbacks thereof. They go with their gut for better or for worse. One of the most brilliant cats I ever had—their intelligence varies wildly—would hold preternaturally still when I clipped her claws. She understood. If anything hurts or alarms Rainy, he reacts as if the world has betrayed him and turned suddenly hostile and punishing.)
Stupid me: when he came out, I caught him and tried to clip his claws to prevent that happening again. I got through the first paw okay, but when I got to the second paw—the one that had been caught—he freaked and struggled. Of course—it still hurt! DUH. Idiotically, I kept trying.
Maxim of widowhood: you don’t really know you’re alone until you try to fold a sheet . . . or treat a cat. Three hands are required, one to hold the scruff, mama cat–style—which, like Spock’s Vulcan knockout grip, seems to pleasurably paralyze and calm the patient, maybe via the vagus nerve—
—and the other two hands to open the mouth and pop in the pill, or express the claw and clip it, or whatever. But I was alone, so I tried to pin Rainy in my lap, or on the floor between my knees, talking to him softly and calmly as I tried again and again to get some purchase on the second paw.
He would have none of it. He struggled powerfully, clawing my arm arm and gouging my thighs with emphatic rabbit kicks. He snagged a nerve in my forearm and even as I howled to the ceiling in pain and frustration, I had to admire the survival instinct of this shy, slender, sensitive creature, pulling such unsuspected physical strength and determination out of the hat. I felt the satisfaction of knowing no one would ever get the drop on HIM. He can take care of himself! Good for you, Rainy!
(When he was a 3- or 4-month-old kitten, he once hid in a rumpled blanket on my futon, unknown to me, and I sat on him. I still cringe in horror at the memory, but as a matter of fact, he was out of there before even a fraction of my weight had descended. I had to grovel for half a day to turn myself back from monster to ally, but he was physically unscathed. Their survival reflexes deserve jaw-dropping awe.)
So I gave up on clipping that paw and mopped up my own blood. Strangely, this time Rainy forgave me quickly and came back for cuddling, maybe because (except for that one yowl of pain) I had kept calm the whole time. I think cats are mostly freaked out by others’ freakouts—by the smell of fear or rage. The reason they will accept a young kitten within days is that when they hiss and growl, the kitten, unlike a grownup cat, does not react in kind but just scampers goofily out of reach, like, “Wow! Cool game!” This comically deflates the resident cat’s dudgeon and makes it wonder what all the fuss was about. Likewise, if you have to do something unpleasant to a cat (who knows and trusts you), if you don’t get frightened or agitated when the cat does, the cat may take its cue from you and stay calm . . . or at least calm down faster afterwards.
To pull off this trick, though, you have to have a special trait, one probably shared with veteran lion and tiger tamers: you have to be unafraid of getting scratched or bitten (by your own cats, that is; I would never risk being attacked by a strange or feral cat). I am blessed with a high pain threshold, a tough and trusted immune system, and lots of history getting scratched and even bitten, usually in the process of medicating or grooming a cat or washing off someone’s shitty kitten (at which point the otherwise loving parent cat will rush over and sink its fangs into your calf muscle). Bites, as puncture wounds, are rarer and worse, and everyone will warn you about the inevitability of infection. For the record, it never happened to me or Jacques. What does happen is an acute inflammation—red, swollen, painful—for the first 24 hours or so. Cat saliva, which is variously said to have antiseptic and dangerously septic properties, and which is said to be the actual allergen, deposited by grooming on the fur and dander, definitely has proinflammatory properties, rather like catfish or stingray slime (some sadder-but-wiser fishermen and beachcombers will know what I’m talking about). I suspect people panic at this throbbing, aching inflammation, assume it’s infection, and get on antibiotics right away. I can’t promise you that the inflammation will subside on its own in a day or two, but it always did for Jacques and me—”always” meaning the handful times one of us was seriously bitten.
Here’s the strange thing: not only do I stay calm when a cat freaks out on me, my immune system does too. The gouges Rainy inflicted on me last Wednesday never even got red, sore, or inflamed, much less infected. I didn’t put anything on them but water. They just healed, faster than a kid’s skinned knee. It’s Monday and the last traces are fading. So it must be with old lion tamers (short of an injury as drastic as the one suffered by Roy Horn).
I have to think that I’m immune to my cats. Here’s an interesting question: Does my lack of fear cue my immune system not to go into overdrive? Or am I unafraid because on some level I know my immune system recognizes them as “self”? Living so intimately together, we probably share a broad spectrum of our microbiomes. Underneath the fur, we are one flesh.
h/t: Ron Fisher