He Was Such a Good Sport

September 25, 2017

One day, several years ago, I opened the door to my apartment and there, perched on the top of my ladder-back dining chair was a bird. He was very still, just staring at me. Neither my cat nor my dog had attacked him or eaten him, and in fact they seemed very calm, as through this little guy was a natural part of our menagerie. My immediate thought was that someone must have broken into our apartment or smashed a window, enabling him to fly in. I felt like I was in a dream as I quietly walked around my apartment inspecting the windows. They were all in tact, closed and locked. The cat and dog followed me around the apartment as I tried to solve the puzzle. I have an air conditioning vent in the wall with tiny slats in it and I concluded that is how he must have gotten in. I was struck with an unusual blend of feelings: wonder, awe, compassion, fear. I searched for a meaning to this encounter. Did this bird have a message? Was it a sign? I felt he had come expressly to visit me. I set about releasing him from the confines of our apartment by climbing up on the window sill to open the top of the window for him. I spoke to him and pointed to the window and he flew right out, leaving me bewildered and ecstatic.

I have thought of this strange encounter several times this week, because my cat died. And the overwhelming sorrow I have felt at his loss has stunned me. I have been so profoundly changed because of relationships with my animals and I am only beginning to realize the role they have played in my life.

After 9/11, I began to long for a dog. That day was life-changing for everyone and I noticed that many of my friends reached towards marriage or having children in the aftermath. I think we all were reaching out for a tangible connection to this world. Career ambitions began to take a back seat to building relationships and creating families. As for me, I wanted a dog.

It took me about two years before my life was arranged to accommodate a pet, but I brought my dog Baby Fish Mouth home in August of 2003. I was immediately changed. Where I had once been insensitive and unfeeling, I was suddenly expressive and compassionate. My heart just melted and I began to see the world around me in a new way. A few years later I adopted my son and of course that change was even more profound. Becoming a mom changed me. Like a phoenix, I was destroyed and reborn as a Mother. And I loved it so much that I wanted to “mother” everyone. Jesus once ended a passionate sermon with, “O Jerusalem…how often I have loved to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…” That is how I felt about everyone I saw. I longed to adopt more children and fantasized about having a large family of ten.

Then about two years after I brought Rahul home, my apartment became infested with mice. I battled them with every weapon I could think of, but to no avail. (I guess I didn’t have much compassion for them!)  I thought about borrowing a friend’s cat–a tactic that has brought great success at mouse elimination in the past. (I’ve heard that the scent of a cat in a home can keep mice away). Then I was struck by a new idea: I needed my own cat! I had never had much affinity for cats, but suddenly I wanted one badly. I wanted one who would keep the mice out of my home, who would be a playmate for Rahul and a companion for my dog. I wanted another creature to nurture and to love. Within days, Rahul and I set out for the ASPCA.

I was concerned about Rahul’s reaction to being in basically an orphanage for animals (since he spent some time in an orphanage himself) and tried to prepare him for the experience.  I didn’t want him to fall in love with every cat we saw, only to have to let it go. When we arrived we had to fill out reams of paperwork and I answered their questions as carefully as I could in order to streamline our process. However, the volunteer assigned to show us the cats didn’t read any of what I wrote and ended up showing us literally every adult cat in the whole joint. Rahul fell in love over and over and after being rejected as a match for every cat,  Rahul was in tears and we stormed out. On our way out the door, as I was hurling insults at their procedures they said, “Why don’t you try the kitten room?” Well, it was too late to try again that day, but I came back by myself the next day and introduced myself to every kitten they had. The volunteer and I opened each cage, one at a time, and if the kitten hissed or cowered, I knew it wouldn’t be a good fit. There were a few that allowed the volunteer to pick them up, but they wouldn’t let me hold them. Then there was a beautiful 5 month old black cat that had only recently arrived at the ASPCA. Well, he just bounded out of the cage when we opened it. We both exclaimed that here was a cat that should do well around a child and a dog! I picked him up and he purred, so I knew there was just one final test. I grabbed a toy that looked like a mouse and threw it on the ground. The cat bounded out of my arms and chased it around the room. Sold! I took him home that day.

Rahul named him Sport, and I always thought that was such a fitting name because he was such a good sport. I have never seen another mouse in my home since the day he arrived. He got along with Baby Fish Mouth and was never any trouble. I spent a few nights up with him when he first arrived, training him to sleep at night rather than bounding around the house. And after those first few nights of cuddling with him and coaxing him to snuggle with me we developed a close bond and he would find his way to my bed every night to snuggle up in an elbow or knee crevice. He was very independent and never needed too much from us. He scratched up some furniture and hissed at Rahul about once a day, but he brought us a lot of joy and comfort.

Then this past Spring he got sick. At first I thought he had a virus or food poisoning because he couldn’t hold any food down and he would hide in corners of closets. Once when I found him in my bedroom closet, he turned his face to the light and it was covered in mucus. His eyes and nose had been running and he had vomit on his chin. My heart just broke. When I took him to the vet he too thought it was a virus, so gave him some treatments and he seemed to get better. But soon enough he was sick again. More vet visits revealed kidney disease, but the treatments that should have alleviated his symptoms never really worked. Over the months that he was ill, Sport and I grew even closer. He became more still, more affectionate, more responsive to my voice and my attention. I spent the summer grieving with several friends through very difficult circumstances. The death of a parent, the death of a child, surgery, a custody battle. There were several days when every client I saw would cry over a loss or a struggle. My toilet broke. My stove broke. My father collapsed and had heart problems that led to him receiving a pacemaker. And all the while my cat was fading away. I sunk into depression and the drone of pain that lay beneath all the other pains emanated  from not being able to heal my cat. He lost weight until he was half his normal size. He would alternately become ravenously hungry then lose his appetite. By the end of the summer my vet concluded that he had intestinal cancer. I knew by that point that he was going to die, so it wasn’t a shock. We changed tactics with treatment and just flooded his body with aggressive medicines in an attempt to improve his quality of life for whatever time he had left. I learned to administer subcutaneous fluids and liquid medicines. My days became timed around all the treatments he needed, and he improved. I knew it was temporary, but I was so grateful that his last few weeks were comfortable.

I came home on the afternoon of my birthday and when I saw Sport I knew he was at the end. He hadn’t eaten in a few days and had begun to lose the ability to walk. He was curled up on a bed I had made him at the back of my closet and wasn’t very responsive. So I made myself a bed next to him and snuggled in for a few hours. When I reached my hand over to pet his head, he turned over and rested his head on my hand and reached out his paw to rest on my arm. He knew I was going to be with him on this journey. Later that night I picked him up and put him on my bed and lay next to him, keeping vigil through the night as he faded away.  He moved around a little throughout the night and in the morning he was still breathing so I lay face to face with him for a while. Then with the last of his strength, he flipped himself over so his whole body, from the tip of his head to the end of his tail was pressed up against me. My tears fell on his head while I whispered my goodbyes to him and soon he was gone.

I have thought of that bird who visited our apartment as I grieve for the loss of my dear Sport because I am realizing that I have had many strange and profound encounters with animals over the past few years. A praying mantis landed on my head in a hotel and allowed me to release it back into the wild. A baby skunk was waiting for me outside my door recently with a yogurt container stuck on his head that he allowed me remove (without spraying me) so he could go back to his home. And Sport allowed me to accompany him on his transition out of this world. It was one of the most profound things I have ever experienced. Animals are incredible beings. Many religions see animals at embodiments of their gods, spiritual guides, sacred. I have regarded my pets as angels, entering my life to comfort me, teach me and accompany me. I see the animals around me as reminders to tune into the world around me. Not to rush past God’s creation, but to see it, hear it, experience it fully. With openness of heart comes enormous joy, but also profound pain. It is easier to live with a closed heart, in numb observation of the world around us, but it is not better.

Thank you, kitty, for teaching me this. You were such a good Sport.

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