Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Secret I've Never Told My Daughter

I've never told my daughter this story and I've no plans to, so read this while you can. I won't leave it up here forever. This is an excerpt of a chapter in an unpublished book I wrote years ago, a travelogue that I am now editing (for no real purpose except to relive the summer in my life when my children were 2 and 4). I'm sharing this chapter because I think it can be educational for many different reasons, whether that be to remember to keep your pets' vaccinations up to date or to know that if you've made huge irreparable mistakes in your life, you are not alone.


            It was Friday afternoon, and we were leaving the next morning for our trip to Mackinac Island in Michigan. I still had plenty of things to do, including laundry, packing, bagging snacks for the road, cleaning our filthy truck, and so on. I was in the middle of these chores when I heard Lucy comment that our kitty was sitting on the computer chair behind Kaden. Kaden told her, “Yes, see, Mommy said I can turn around and pet him in between my computer games.”

            A couple minutes later I heard Lucy howl and she came running to me. She was crying and had a little mark on her arm, which looked like a small scratch from one of Kitty’s teeth. She must have been poking at the cat and he chomped down on her arm, and then she got scared and pulled it away, leaving the little scratch mark. I made a scene of telling Kitty to go to the naughty corner and giving kisses to Lucy’s owie. But that was it. It was not the first time she had been bitten by our cat because she was irritating him, and I never imagined it would be the last.

            I put the kids down for their naps so they would be well rested for the evening. Grandma and grandpa were coming after dinner so we could leave bright and early the next morning for our vacation with them. The kids woke up from their naps and found something on TV that amused them and I checked my e-mail quickly at the computer while warming meatballs on the stove. As I sat on the edge of the chair with the cat still napping on the chair behind me, I was shocked to feel a claw strike my backside. I hopped off the seat and looked back at the cat. He was thrashing on the chair as if having a bad dream. But I was the one about to enter a nightmare. Kitty fell off the chair onto the floor beneath the computer and started running in circles while lying on his side, flopping frantically. The kids stopped to look over at him and I jumped up on the window seat nearby. I was afraid. Something was definitely wrong.

            After about thirty seconds of this seizure the cat managed to come out of it and limp his way under the big recliner in the office. He meowed a long cry for help but I was afraid to reach under for him. I ran into the kitchen and called Jeremy at work. He was on the phone so I left him a voicemail.

Then I noticed that the cat had come out toward me in the kitchen. He was walking with a severe lean, as if someone were pushing on one side of him. He passed me and looked around the mudroom and then crossed through the kitchen (where I was perched with fear on the counter) and sat on the rug by the front door. He was quiet now and still, and he looked normal, at least for the moment.

            I picked up the phone and called Jeremy’s cell phone number, thinking that it wouldn’t be busy if he were on the other line. He picked up right away and told me he just finished his other call.

            “You have to come home now!” I yelled, my voice shaking.

            “I will, but I have a couple things to finish up first,” he tried to explain. He thought I was upset that I had so many things to do before leaving on vacation and his parents were on the way.

            “No, you have to come home now. Something is really wrong with Kitty. He is having seizures. I don’t know if he got into the Round Up weed killer or has rabies or what.” I knew as I was saying the word “rabies” that all of Jeremy’s alarms would start going off. He probably did not have rabies, but I didn’t know. I wanted Jeremy to know how serious it was and to come home. I questioned myself for saying those words, and I will always question myself for it.

            So Jeremy left immediately. While waiting for him to come home I took a bowl of water and set it down in front of the cat, hoping he would drink from it. He did not. He just sat there as if he were relaxing. The kids left the cat alone and stayed by the TV per my request.

Jeremy was home within 15 minutes. I had called around while waiting for him and found a 24-hour emergency animal hospital not too far away. We then had to undergo the battle of trying to get the cat in the carrier. At this point, Kitty was walking fine and acting normally. Jeremy had not yet seen any of the strange behavior.

Jeremy called me from the animal hospital. He had me check our records for the cat. We had not gotten the cat a new vet since we moved just over a year ago, and even then he was overdue with his annual check-up by a couple years. His last rabies vaccination had been 3 years and 3 months ago. A rabies vaccination is good for 3 years. We just missed the window.

            Our cat was an indoor/outdoor cat. He loved to go outside and chew on the tall grass and weeds around the house and to chase after bugs and mice. He had never killed a bird although he did manage to catch a mouse now and then, even with his front paws declawed.

            The vet told Jeremy that Round Up was not supposed to cause seizures. But I know just because it’s not supposed to doesn’t mean it can’t. She also told Jeremy that the only way to test for rabies was to destroy the cat and analyze the brain tissue. She recommended to us that we take our daughter to the doctor, show them the bite mark, and see what they had to say.

            So Jeremy left the cat at the vet and we rushed the kids to the nearest emergency room. We called Jeremy’s mom, Ethel, and his step-dad, Clyde, and told them to meet us at the hospital. They would be able to put Kaden’s car seat in their car and drive him home when the ER visit got too long.

            When we reached the hospital, the emergency room was quiet. A doctor and nurse saw Lucy right away. They remarked on how tiny the scratch was, yet it had clearly broken the skin a fraction. They also delivered more bad news. There was no test for rabies. The only thing that could be done was to start the round of rabies vaccinations and monitor the cat for signs of rabies or destroy him and have him tested so we could stop the shots before the entire battery was complete. A complete vaccination would require tests on days zero (today), three, seven, fourteen, and twenty-eight.

            I felt trapped. Because of my negligence as a pet owner, I could not prove that the cat did not have rabies, although I strongly suspected he did not. It was the Round Up. I had sprayed it around the deck where he often bedded down at night before being let inside in the mornings. When I had sprayed the weed killer, somehow it just never occurred to me that my cat would be exposed to it. Stupid shortsightedness, I suppose. And now that the cat was having seizures, the only responsible thing to do was to start Lucy’s round of shots. And to put the cat down so that she didn’t have to have the shots any longer than necessary.

            We sent Kaden home with his grandparents and waited for the medical staff to bring in the first dose of the vaccine. I stared at the plastic bins on the rolling cart across the bed. They were all labeled, and my eyes gazed unseeingly at the words for many minutes before I finally realized that one of the labels read “Anal dilator.” It was the only genuine smile to cross my face for the next few days.

            The doctor and nurses finally came back with their dose of rabies vaccination. It was the only dose in the hospital. They said that they had only ever given one other dose of rabies before. In fact, a dose of rabies vaccination would prove hard to come by. In order for Lucy to get her shot on day 3, we would either have to come all the way back from Michigan in the middle of our vacation to get the shot that they would order for us, or we would have to walk into an emergency room and hope that a hospital up there would take pity on us and give us a shot. Or we could cancel the trip. None of this even mattered that much to me right then.

            Lucy had turned two less than a month earlier, and she had had her annual required vaccinations, which at two was one Hepatitis A shot. I told her at the time that she was going to get a pinch in the leg but then it would be all over. She lay back on the crackling white paper on the doctor’s examining room table and took my hands and stared up into my eyes while the nurse administered the shot. She never made a sound. As soon as it was done we told her it was all over and she sat up and we gave her some fruit snacks as a treat. The nurse was amazed at her toughness, and so was I.

            Now it was time for her rabies shot. The shot would first be administered under the bite mark in her arm, and then the rest of the shot would be put into her butt and thigh. I told her the same thing I had told her at her appointment earlier that month. She was getting a shot and it would feel like a pinch. She lay back compliantly as two nurses and I held her down and the doctor began administering the shot. Jeremy watched from above her head. The shot was not easy. He had to slowly inject the liquid so that the skin puffed up around the scratch. It felt like it took nearly a minute as he carefully squirted the fluid under the small slash on her arm, and Lucy’s face went from calm, to surprise, to painful agony. Her eyes became big and they beseeched me to make it stop, but she didn’t make a sound. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I asked her, “Lucy, does it hurt?” And she opened her mouth and said “Yes!” and began to bawl. And so did I. I put my head down by hers and my eyes filled with tears. Finally it was over. They let me pick her up and we shushed her and calmed her and they left the room. She had some blood on her arm so we put a couple of circular bandages over her wounds. After a couple minutes she was fine again. Then they came back into the room to finish the dosage.

            This time we had to put her on her belly on the table, and she knew it was coming and began to fight and scream immediately. The doctor was not needed this time, as the nurse could do the straight shots themselves. I helped hold my pain-riddled and terrorized little daughter down as they pulled down her diaper and gave the first shot in her buttocks. Just as the nurse began to insert the needle, Lucy bucked. I kept my head low by Lucy’s face so I couldn’t see anything, but I heard Jeremy gasp. In a couple seconds they had moved on to her thigh, and then, gratefully, it was over.

            Around 10:30 we were finally discharged from the hospital, after they waited a while to check if she were going to have any immediate bad reactions to the shot. Watching Lucy in that pain, I knew what we would have to do. Lucy fell asleep in the car as soon as we pulled out of the parking lot. When we got home everyone else was already in bed, so we changed Lucy into her jammies and put her to bed too. Jeremy left to head back to the vet hospital. I stayed behind. I thought it would just be too hard.

            We got our Kitty in Nashville. We had only lived there a couple weeks when we first saw him. He was still small, but not a tiny kitten anymore. We would go on walks in our apartment complex and he would be outside, looking for a friend. After seeing him a couple times it was clear to me that he didn’t have a home. Someone had enjoyed him during his kitten days and then dropped him at our huge apartment complex, hoping that a kind soul would take him in.

That kind soul was me. Jeremy and I had been married the day before we left for Nashville, where Jeremy was to attend law school. The night of our wedding, out on the dance floor, Jeremy told me what my wedding gift was. He had asked my family if it would be okay for us to take the family cat with us. He had even gotten sleeping pills from the vet to make it easier to transport the cat in the car with us down to Nashville. But I said no. I loved the cat, which was already in his teens, but I knew that part of having a pet meant having to say good-bye someday. And I was just trying to insulate myself from that pain.

So, back in Nashville, I opened the door to our apartment one day and saw the black kitty of the complex sitting on my doormat. He immediately stood up and walked into our apartment, but with a limp. He had gotten injured, and instead of going to the closest person, he sniffed me down and climbed a flight of stairs to sit on my doormat.

I took pity on him and got him a bowl of water and some lunch meat. He was hungry and thirsty. Then I played with him for a little while before he fell asleep in the window in a patch of sunlight.

We took the cat to the vet to see if they could treat his injury. Unfortunately they couldn’t tell us what had happened to him and couldn’t do anything for the limp. I explained that this was not my cat but a stray, and they said that the humane society was next door. So we took him over, but it was closed for the weekend. So we brought the cat back to our apartment. I made a sign for the mailbox area of our complex, asking if anyone wanted the cat that was hanging around the area. At one point I saw that one of the pull tags had been ripped off with our phone number, but no one ever called.

After the weekend we talked to the humane society and they told us that they did not take in stray cats that were injured except to put them to sleep. So we kept the cat at home. I planned to only keep him until his leg healed, but things didn’t work out that way. He became my constant companion those first couple months when I had no job, no friends in a brand new city and brand new state, and my husband began the long hours of law school. I don’t know what I would have done without him.

Jeremy came home from the animal hospital around midnight. He was quiet. I didn’t want to ask what happened. I already knew and I didn’t need any details. We went up to get ready for bed. Right before getting in to bed, as I was walking out of the closet I heard a noise that sound like a loud, deep purring. I stopped dead in my tracks and strained to hear more, or where it might be coming from. But then it disappeared. It had probably been the sound of trucks on the road. I got in bed and tried to read myself to sleep. As soon as we turned off the lights I started to cry.

If only I had stopped Lucy from picking on the cat. If only I had gotten Kitty vaccinated. If only I had not sprayed that Round Up. But it all amounted to the same thing. I was clearly at fault for the death of my cat. Since I had my kids I had spent less time caring for him. I hoped he knew how much I loved him, even if I did not show it like I once did. I was just not responsible enough to own a pet. I had a hard enough time trying to keep the floor swept under my kitchen table every day. Sure I could say I loved him, but if I really did, then wouldn’t I have taken better care of him?

It was the worst thing I had ever done. Not the worst thing that had ever happened to me. The worst thing I had ever done. And it wasn’t the kind of error that you can work like mad to fix: pull an overnighter, throw inordinate sums of money at, knock on doors to beg for help, ask everyone you know for forgiveness. It was the kind of mistake that stands eternally, that you will never escape, that you can never rationalize. It was the kind that taught you how precarious life was and how important every action you make or don’t make can be.


The only reason I don't want my daughter to know this story (besides that it's sad), is that I wouldn't ever want her to feel it was her fault. It most definitely was not. In later chapters in the book I describe how our cat was tested for rabies and found not to have it, which I knew to be true all along. We continued on our vacation to Mackinac Island, where Lucy had a bad reaction to the shot in the middle of the night and we had to walk to the little clinic that was available to us. But it was just a blip and Lucy was okay. She is 9 now and has no memory of the events that summer. She has always loved cats more than anything else and asked nonstop for a cat for a couple years before she wore me down and we got another one. I take very good care of Perseus by not letting him outside and making sure we all take him to the vet together once a year. While I love the cat, I have instinctively put up a protective wall, not letting myself care too much, because I know that one day he will leave us, too.

Lucy and Perseus, November 2010

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