Monday, July 10, 2000

Out of the Woods- Exhuming $757's Worth of the Past

In the beginning there was
Cristabel the goat in the burned down barn
with Jazz the cat, who could silence her bell;
Before then was Caesar, a german shepherd,
steady as a three legged stool
and then there was Ginger,
the rediscovered cat let go in the same park
A walk around the river with Annie the retriever,
Toby who was a man trapped inside the dog;
and Cor a little girl's dream horse
Murphy who saved a life
Peabody I never quite met
but who must have been a white cat
Abby the wild one
who climbed up the drapes
and dear plump Lily;
It started with Lotus smart and shrewd
who proceeded Mr. Ralph
who lived up to his end of the bargain
Now there is Abaca who gives
lhasa apso a good name
Rose and Iris, more bunny than hare
Dear sweet Sammie, spinning in circles
and Ms. Mocha, gone too soon, touched by a rock
Kurbie the rat terrier who has seen more than most
But for me, none compare to Max
one wonderful idiosyncratic soul
who is puzzled now and again
but who knows more all the same
He's with me wherever I go
St. Francis may not get them to heaven,
but their spirit is stronger than most
Just ask those lucky enough to be touched
who don't know what they have
Until they learn what they have lost
that precious moment
when time doesn't matter
a look in the eye
like a lost skunk
that you'll never forget
in the end

We certainly didn't mean to mimic the orangutans at the Como Zoo.

Max is home now and everything is falling back into the routine. I was looking forward to the four day holiday weekend to spend time with my little friend. We haven't seen that much of each other this year (albeit more than the four times in six months that has been deemed "too demanding" by some). Unfortunately there was a little more excitement than we had originally planned. On our return drive home he hardly let out a peep which is highly unusual, and gave me the impression I'm in the proverbial doghouse. But hopefully the only pressing reminder of all that went down is the bottle of medicine I'm supposed to give him every eight hours. There's no greater joy than trying to get an animal to take medicine. They just love having their mouths pried open and have presumably "un-treat" like taste forced upon them. But at least he's home...

Ours is an Egyptian love, moving with an unconfident certainty through the unforgiving fragility of life's waves.

He managed to wedge his way through the strategically placed barrier of books, photographs and other deliberate clutter barricading the azalea plant. I thought I had heard something in the other room so I wandered to the kitchen where I saw him eating the plant. I immediately hollered at him as he scampered down off the table and ran into the other room. I followed him, pinned him down and severely scolded him. He is never allowed on the kitchen table and he knows he'll be punished if he goes near any plant I should happen to have. Thus he had broken two rules. His ears bent down in fear as I continued lecturing him.

I put him in my office with me and shut the door so he would have to remain in sight. He wasn't lacking for energy- he hopped up on the windowsill, he pranced over to the closed door, he hopped on the chair behind me. Eventually he threw up the leaves of the plant. We went to bed that night and he didn't lie with me, instead he chose to spend the night monitoring activities outside his favorite window.

I fed him in the morning after cleaning out his litter box. He had done his business.

I always said I wasn't going to be the type of pet owner who talked about his cat as if it were a human child. Living with an animal does not make one a surrogate parent. Those types of people always sort of annoyed me and besides a cat is too dignified for that.

But once Mr. Max became such a vital part of my life it was impossible to not become one who bragged about his exploits, laughed about his follies and shared his one in a million charm with those willing to listen. Think of all the songs inspired by pets. There's Henry Gross' "Shannon" and Paul McCartney's "Little Lamb Dragonfly" and um....

I remember the night I picked Max up at a small but spacious home off Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis. His soon to be ex-owner called out his name and into the kitchen strolled a very large dog followed by a confident short haired, gray and black striped cat.

Max wandered over to me a bit sheepishly and I saw what a handsome cat he was- snow white under side, crystal clear green eyes. I put him in an oversized cage, grabbed his food and water dishes, loaded it all up in my little Honda and drove on back to my impossibly small efficiency. On the way home he let out several questioning meows as if he wasn't quite sure what was next but still anxious for it all to get going again whatever it was.

That night as he lie on my stomach and I watched his curious eyes scan his new home, I noticed my T-shirt was becoming externally damp. I immediately sat up and held Max away from my body. I tried to determine what end he was leaking from. He was deeply purring and I heard him making some odd slurping noises as he tried to swallow his excess saliva. I had myself a drooling kitty.

It was immediately apparent. Pulling into the fender bending one car garage I closed things up behind me and I didn't see him looking expectantly out the back window of the house. The window was ajar but there was not a sound. There has been many a night he is so anxious for my arrival that his meow is clear as a bell all the way across the yard.

I unlocked my front door and there was no independent yet hopeful, no happy to see you yet indifferent that it is actually you, face to greet me. I went through my nightly routine, checking my voice mail and my e-mail, turning on the TV, getting ready for bed. I kept expecting his face to pop around the corner, still expected to hear his bellowing meow call out ready to be fed. But none of it was there.

I missed sleeping with Max. Sure there wasn't the usual worry of rolling over on him, and being confined to the side of my bed as he somehow inevitably works his way to the middle of the mattress to claim it as his own. But I missed having him lay his head on my forearm and listening as his deep breathing turns into his distinct yet distinguished drooling guttural purr.

The longest we've been apart (both in distance and in time) was the two weeks I spent in Japan in 1997. Max stayed with my parents. Every night as I wound down in my tiny hotel room in that strange but familiar land, I would say a little prayer that included wishing things were going well for my little friend back home. I was worried that he would cause trouble for his grandma and grandpa- escaping, hiding, acting up. I was equally sure that he was providing as many smiles for them as he does for me. Entertaining, inspiring, tenderly loyal- what more can one ever ask? My eyes were wide open among a population density like none I'd ever known before- and yet my thoughts were often occupied by the little 14 pound irresistible ball of fur with the disproportionate belly that I'd left behind.

The most important life lesson I ever was exposed to came from my mom. It was during the time that she was undergoing a series of tests to determine why she wasn't feeling well. Those tests eventually diagnosed the terminal cancer that had spread from her colon to her liver. It was during this time that Max the cat also was not feeling well. A blood test had revealed his white blood cell count was abnormally low and there was a concern that he either had leukemia or he "only" had a feline version of AIDS.

As she was undergoing her own tests I remember how my mom asked me how Max was doing, expressing a deep concern over his health. The world was unraveling and yet that simple heartfelt concern for another was what came naturally for my mom.

It was late afternoon when my father called to tell me what they had diagnosed in mom, and that she probably had no more than half a year to live. After getting off the phone with dad I curled up in a ball on my sofa. Max who had been sitting at my feet immediately came to my side. I began sobbing and Max put his face right in mine. He lay down beside me. I couldn't move, couldn't even stroke his fur like usual, and yet he didn't leave my side. We sat there for what seemed forever as I tried to gather myself.

Coming home after visiting mom during the final few months of her life was hard. Coming home to an empty house would have been unbearable. To be greeted by Max was a small comfort but it was a comfort. He knew something was amiss, our usual routine had been blown to bits. I wasn't spending much time with him but the time we did share helped me endure the rest of the time. Our partnership, now eight years old had withstood many a dark night and a few apprehensive happy times too. He had seen me during my deepest despair and through my moments of triumph and had somehow remained consistently the same, steadfastly Mr. Max.

We have our quirks. On laundry night as I take the sheets off my bed Max will zoom onto the mattress. As I put on the clean sheets he'll hide underneath each layer, paw and bite at me as I try to rub his belly underneath the material. There are those unexplained times when his eyes will get as big as dimes and his tail starts to swish and for no apparent reason he'll race from room to room. I of course take this as my cue to play Inspector Clouseau to Max's Kato. I'll chase him from room to room, hiding around corners, flying, leaping lunging as he narrowly eludes my grasp. When we lived in our carpeted apartment Max could tear around at such speed that there was no way I could catch him unless he wanted me to. Now that we have a house with hardwood floors the traction isn't there and when he is in a hurry he spins his wheels like the roadrunner giving me enough time to sometimes reach him.

An old walking acquaintance told me she used to walk her cat, Jazz, on a leash. The picture of the two of them still rings inside me. Years later Max and I became famous in our own neighborhood for our strolls. He did his best cow imitation, munching on grass, while I, decked out in my wackiest hat, followed behind puffing on my pipe. Max loved the relative freedom of being outdoors, of finally being able to investigate the area he could only previously watch from his window. I was quite proud to show off my handsome friend.

My favorite Max story relates to my friend Alex who used to pick me up in her sporty Toyota MR-2. Max never got to ride in the car (not that he would have wanted to) but he certainly became part of the interior. I transferred his hair from my clothes to the otherwise pristine passenger seat inside Alex's car. When I got my first computer I shipped off my old electric typewriter to Alex who had just started grad school. She said when she opened it up and turned it on the first time a single solitary cat hair flew into the air- a little hello from Mr. Max.

Our newest "stupid pet trick" was discovered near my last birthday. We now both have hair growing out of our ears (only in Max's case it looks damn stately).

Nightly he'll come into the room where I'm working or watching TV or listening to music. He'll look up at me with his quizzical blank stare, simultaneously letting me know he's curious at what I'm up to but he doesn't really care one way or the other. "Just checking in," his furry feline face says.

I could tell the digested azalea plant was making him not feel well. He was moping around and when I tried to pick him up and keep him on my lap he sat there uneasy. I looked up information on the Internet and found something that made my own heart stop. It was a web page about plants that are toxic to pets and azalea was listed as one of the most poisonous to cats. I called up the vet and they gave me a number to an animal poison control center. The doctor there advised me to bring Max in to the vet immediately.

Max's usual protest about being forced to endure a car ride wasn't there. When we got to the waiting room he let out a few timid meows but unlike usual, he didn't want to leave his carrier. A vet student examined him and asked me questions. They took him in back and led me to another waiting area. After a long wait a vet finally came back to me and told me that they had started an IV to flush out his system. "50-50 chance," she grimly said trying to sound a little bit hopeful that his heart-rate was still normal.

When I came back the next day to visit they brought Max out and he had a tube in his nose to deliver the activated charcoal they were giving him to isolate the toxins in his body. He looked like he had been assimilated by the Borg from Star Trek. As I held Max in my arms for about half an hour he never once looked at me. I whispered to him that everything was going to be all right and that soon we'd both be home again (trying to convince myself as much as him). The sounds of the hospital- of doctors being paged, of the wounded howling out, mixed in with the pungent smell of sick animals. It somehow reminded me of my own haunted stay in a hospital years back. It was that experience that led to a lack of faith in the medical profession that I still carry with me. Max was shaking like a bunny and I felt an awful tightening of my stomach as I handed him back over to the student to take him back to the intensive care unit. "He has been so sweet," she said.

The three nights without him were difficult. I lie there in fear that the phone would ring. The vet told me they would call me if things were to take a turn for the worse. I lie there thinking of Max, of how scared he must be- of the pain he was in. I wanted to go to the hospital a mere few miles from my house, but I knew that there wasn't anything I could do. So I said another prayer.

No comments: