a cat, and cancer’s complicating curse

Last week, we put our first pet to sleep.  Gracie the orange tabby was with us for over ten years – through 9/11, our wedding, the arrival of Lucy the basset hound, cancer…the list goes on.  For a few weeks before that fateful trip to the vet, I was gripped with the sense that she was nearing death.  In an odd twist, my awareness of Gracie’s failing health put me in touch with a dormant anxiety about my own precarious state.  As I approach the four-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, I suddenly have begun to feel that my time on the clock of good fortune is due to run out.  I am, after all, genetically pre-disposed to other types of cancer.  Cancer has already struck once, and I am only 39.  How much longer can I possibly enjoy my current state of good health before the monster once again rears its fearsome head?

To those whose families don’t include four-legged members, to those who haven’t faced a life-threatening illness, this might seem the height of irrationality.  But the simple fact is, we invest an inarticulable brand of love in those closest to us, and their loss brings our own inherent vulnerability into a blinding kind of focus.  I felt a genuine heartbreak when I kissed our weary orange cat goodbye, and her absence is still acutely felt in our home.  Surely, she was a cat, not a human companion, and the challenge in carrying on after her departure is not of grand proportion.  Nevertheless, something we loved is gone.

Li'l Gracie loved her luggage

As the staff at the vet’s talked me through Gracie’s prognosis, as I watched her shiver on the exam table, tears flowed freely.  I took in the information, and accepted pats on the arm and offers of tissues.  At one point, as I felt my heart swelling with sadness and my tears gathering force, I was gripped by a sudden urge to divulge my own cancer story.  How peculiar, and seemingly absurd – watching my diabetic cat confront life’s end put me immediately in mind of my own tangle with the Grim Reaper.

What on earth would I have said to the unassuming veterinarian, or the compassionate technician?  It’s not like I needed to explain why I was crying.  Surely, this was a scene played out in the veterinarian’s office hundreds of times.  My emotion was nothing new to these people; bearing witness to it is an inevitable part of their job.

How on earth could I possibly have explained to total strangers how my cat’s death called up my cancer fight?  More precisely, why did I feel the need to?

The reality may be that I am incapable of facing the specter of death in any form without it connecting in some way to the legacy of my illness.  The fear, the sadness, the anger – all of it gets called up.  It’s a self-involved reaction, and one that shames me.  I hope eventually to untangle it from the never-ending cycle of life and death that surrounds us all.  It is a universal.  It is not about me.

As I watched my sweet cat decline, I felt the reverberations of my own mortality.  I saw our family lose a beloved member, and figured I surely must be next.  This, I have learned over time, is the unique logical fallacy borne of the cancer experience:  that we, as survivors, are ticking time bombs in a way that those have never faced cancer are not.  The truth, more accurately expressed, is that we, as survivors, by virtue of our own dance with mortality, may have a keener sense of the fragility of the human condition.  It’s an insight we never sought to bear.  Sometimes, when we are forced to say goodbye to someone we love, it manifests itself as a complicating curse.  Fortunately, on good days, it serves to heighten the sweetness that we’re blessed to know.



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3 Responses to a cat, and cancer’s complicating curse

  1. Beth says:

    Remember what the man says: Only love can leave such a mark.
    Why should you feel shame? I think a little self involvement over one’s own mortality is very healthy. I’d be more worried if you didn’t think about it.
    Just one nurse’s opinion. Lovie.

  2. Emily says:

    Thanks for the lovies, Lovie. Maybe ashamed is the wrong word. But sometimes I sit down to write and I feel like cancer has made me so self-obsessed. Self-examined/aware is more what I’m going for.

  3. Alli Ward says:

    As a single adult, my golden retriever Oscar was my constant companion and more a family member to me than some of my genetic ones, he was a much a child to me as a human one would be, but more so my soul mate. He was 8 when I adopted him and sadly I only had him for not quite 4 years. I feel so privileged to have him in my life for that short time. He had been ill for a while and then the fateful date of my own diagnosis came. I could not have weathered it without my precious pet. Six weeks after I was diagnosed, while recovering from my first three rounds of chemo and the loss of my hair, I had to make the horrendously difficult decision to let him go in a kind a peaceful way. I will never forget the ride home from the vet without him and it made me wonder whether I would win my personal health crisis. That was 4 years ago and not a day goes by when I don’t think of him and am thankful that I was able to share part of my life time with him.

    Emily – I am saddened for your loss, but at the same time celebrate all the wonderful years, experiences and memories you had with Gracie. I believe that as a survivor all of us have time when we witness death or illness of a person, pet or for me even my favorite rose bush as a reminder of our own short time on earth and it is natural for the fear to creep in that we can often keep under control. Oscar often comes to me in my dreams to let me know his spirit is still with me, I hope that you might also experience a visit from Gracie.

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