If Angels Exist

December 27, 2008

Boppho, The Greatest Cat of All

Boppho, The Greatest Cat of All


The thing I most don’t want to write about, the subject I most want to avoid, the topic I will do anything to ignore is that of my cat.

My beloved, my baby, my little guy who found me (I believe that animals always find us as opposed to the human-centric idea that we actually have a choice in the matter) when he was three weeks old and I was 34 and living in Washington, D.C., newly and unhappily married (I married for friendship not for love and learned quickly what my heart demanded more of me – but we’ll save that for another post), I had just quit my job of six years and had three months to pack up my life and move myself and my husband and our pets out to Portland, Oregon where I would be starting a new job in television.

I met Boppho (original name Fleurpo and over the years morphed into Boppho) sitting in the waiting room of the vet’s office in Takoma Park, Maryland. I had stopped by the vet that morning to pick up senior pet food for my Akita Emma and my husband’s cat Phydeaux (prounounciation: Fido of course). They were, of course, on special diets given their ages and eating habits so frequent trips across town to the vet to buy the most expensive prescription food we could find was a given.

Three lovely young women stood behind the front desk completly enthralled by the contents of a brown cardboard box. They made small whispery sounds to the box and exclaimed in soft, breathy voices “ooooh, soooo cute,” “he’s soooo little,” “tiiiiiiiny,” “the baaabeeee.” The kinds of sounds that women make in the presence of a newborn swaddled in pink blankets and wearing a hand-crocheted caplet on her tiny bald head.

I am not a baby person. I don’t “ooooh” and “aaahhhh” over little humans in basinets or strollers and when a friend asks if I want to hold their new Curtis or Ally or Gerard, I quickly back away from the baby with hands held in front of my body to shield myself from the humiliation of holding the child only to have it start crying within 20 seconds of finding itself in my arms. Perhaps they sense my fear and know they are not safe and quickly call for help with piercing cries that alert everyone in the room that I am not good with babies.

Babies scare and confuse me, but baby animals steal my heart, my mind and most often the money from my checking account because no amount of money is too large for me to spend on helping a puppy, kitten, baby bunny or newborn squirrel survive the perils of the human world. It’s hard enough for me to survive this world, I can only imagine what it must be like for our creatures great and small.

And so it was on a weekday afternoon in D.C., that I overheard the conversation that would change the course of my life. As the front desk girls continued to twitter and whisper I caught the sentence that my animal-mom’s heart found irresistible to resist. “He needs 24-hour a day care. Who could we possibly find who could do that?”

And at that instant, having for the first time in my adult life 12 full weeks without work, my fate was sealed and I was hooked like a fish going for the giant worm that the fisherman dug out of his garden that morning to entrap an unsuspecting perch.

Next thing I knew I was standing next to the box looking in, only to discover a three-week old kitten, not yellow, not white, but kind of the color of a very light latte with a little pink added in to give him a salmon glow. He was so small he could fit in the palm of my hand and his eyes and nose were bright and fiery red, the result, I learned from the girls, of a serious respiratory infection that could in fact lead to his demise unless they found one person in the world who had nothing else to do but to care for him 24/7, to feed him formula from a small eye-dropper, to cradle and keep him from harm’s way, to devote themselves fully in the hopes that with the right kind of care and love and attention, the little tiny guy would find his own way into a long and happy cat life.

I was a goner from the time I walked in the door. They had me at the first “ooooooh,” and I knew my fate was sealed when I looked into the box and heard tiny mewing sounds, so soft but so insistent that every maternal instinct in my body woke up and started cat dancing. I forgot that I was allergic to cats and it never occurred to me to call my husband. All I knew was that finally something somewhere needed me as much as I needed it and so he joined my rag tag family of pets and dreams and traveled with us across country to begin his live as an Oregon cat.

I would love to tell you that in the 15 years we have been together that it was pure joy, simply wonderful, that we bonded like cat mom to cat son and shared many restful hours purring together on the sofa, watching the birds fly by the picture window, trotting into the backyard together, playing with string and enjoying our catnip (mine in the form of chocolate, his a high-end organic brand) together as the years went by.

But that would be a lie. I am not a great cat mom. I’m a great dog mom and have thrown myself into my dogs (after Emma passed, Gretel, Caleb and eventually Ramona found their way into my life). Their food comes first, kissing them, holding them, walking them, playing with them was always the priority. And Boppho got pushed to the back. Not ignored, well-fed, cat box cleaned, catnip mice for Christmas, but not put on the pedestal on which he deserved to sit. Like babies, cats are a mystery to me and my idea of loving a cat is to pick him up, cradle him and stick him on my lap, showering him with kisses until his tail begins to slap from side to side, the purr turns into a hiss and his teeth turn into little weapons that grab for my fingers and hands as he does his best to escape from the kind of love he never wanted.

And so I let him go, let him bite and spent more time cuddling Ramona the pit-mix on the couch then trying to figure out what Boppho wanted and needed from me. I was a mediocre cat mom at best and I will never forgive myself for the wasted years when my cat was ready and waiting to know me and I didn’t seem to care.

Until now. Until two months ago when suddenly my always healthy, nearly-chubby 15 year old cat suddenly began to be less interested in food. He had always eaten and eaten well and at one point several years ago we had been told by the vet that our cat was “over-conditioned” which I thought meant that he had been training too hard for the cat olympics until she explained that it was a nice way of telling a client that their animal was fat.

He began to look thin, drawn with his little jowls starting to hang down from his cheeks, the way my father looked in the photos I took on our last visit together. The photos that surprised me after they were developed because in person I had not seen what was so clearly caught on film.

Boppho began to look old and the inevitable trip to the vet was in order. My husband and I (the second husband, the best husband, the one I was waiting for all those years that didn’t show until I was in my mid-40s) spent the $1500 that had been reserved for our anniversary trip to somewhere warm in February on ultrasounds, X-rays, blood tests, scans, urninalysis and the services of a radiologist. We were told it could be serious – liver or kidney failure, pancreatitus, diabetes or the dreaded cancer – and Boppho’s entire life replayed itself in my mind and all of my failings as a mom, all the times I could have been there for him and wasn’t, every day I pushed him off the table because I didn’t want him up near the food, all those moments reminded me of how much I loved him and how little I knew how to translate that love to him. My Boppho, my baby, my Boppholopolous, my B-Kitty, B-Boy, my Boppleganger.

The tests were done, the tests were read and the worst of the worst was ruled out and I felt like the God of Cats had given me another chance to prove myself to Boppho. A chance to make ammends for my years focusing more on dog beds, gentle leaders, training treats and doggie day care then on growing my own catnip, mixing up a special raw meat diet and allowing him access to every room, every bed, every countertop in the house that his little cat heart desired.

The current diagnosis is IBD, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, a condition where the stomach or intestines are chronically infiltrated by inflammatory cells. It can be, in some cases, controlled by diet and medication, however the medication – cortisone – can be as bad as the illness.

He quickly responded to the steroids and was chowing down every bite of canned cat food he could find, licking out my cereal bowls and meeting me at the microwave as I went to heat up his daily portions in the hopes that warm food would leave a stronger odor to entice him to become a member of the clean plate club.

I took this opportunity, this second chance to adore him, feed him fresh cream and yogurt, hold him lightly so he could leave when he liked, dose him with catnip and run my hand gently along his back from head to tail, stroking him as he purred into my touch.

And suddenly we became friends. Cat and mistress seeking each other out for a head-butt or a taste of buttermilk. Sitting together at the kitchen table, we watched the great big flakes of snow blanket the Christmas scene outside our picture window.

He gets better and then he gets worse. There is no stabilizing the illness. I try to bring down the dose of steriods because they can cause other serious health problems. He is fine for a day or two and then his appetite goes away and I see the ounces falling off his frame as his face gets more pointed and his ribs begin to quiver.

And I don’t want to write about this because to write about this means it is real and he is sick and the sadness I feel when I look at him sleeping or hear his purr or cuddle his sweet, soft head between the palms of my hands, that sadness threatens to become a tsunami of pain and somehow I think if I don’t write about it or talk about it then it will go away. But it won’t and to hold it inside alone is worse.

I wake up thinking about him, go to sleep at night obsessing about how much he has eaten that day and if his little belly has at all grown bigger. My anxiety is the worst at dawn when I lie in bed wondering how much of his special E/D cat food I will have to scrape off the plate, the remnants of what his little body has refused to eat.

When he is good, he is good and my greatest joy is to hear him leap up on the dryer in the utility room and listen for the jangling of his bell as he scrapes it across the plate, plunging for more calories. I walk over to him, my heart doing jumpking jacks in my chest as I watch the wonder of Boppho sniffing, licking then going in for bites of his soft, warm food sitting patiently waiting for him to find it.

And when he is bad. . .I want to hear that noise of cat at plate so much that I start to imagine it even when he is asleep on his chair. I find myself hearing him eat, convincing myself that I can catch the jangle and the sounds of the little paw steps and I walk into the kitchen and sneak my head around the corner to look at the untouched plate on the dryer. My shoulders drop and depress towards the floor and I can feel the breath rushing out through my lips as my chest is sucker punched by the emptiness of the view.

Try wrapping yourself around the thought that a year from now he will be ______. Try filling in that word. Or don’t. And do your best to avoid the story, the topic, the inneivitablity of getting up one morning knowing you will never hear that purr again. Or that bark or that voice.

He is here right next to me now. Not eating as much as I would like, instead picking at his plate as a small child might pick at the remains of a bowl of brussell sprouts or lima beans. His motor is going and the rhythm of his purr is strong and steady. He just bit me when I tried to kiss him on his forehead and I am happy for an instant as he still knows how to attack me when I’m annoying him.

I will love him as much as I can in the time that we have left together. Until then, I will brush him, feed him scrapings from my fingers, buy him toys he won’t play with and let him sit on the kitchen table as long as he likes. I will be the best cat mom I can and be grateful for having a second chance to do it right.

I’ve believed for awhile that angels may exist. I am not religious, being raised a Unitarian sort of takes God out of the equation, however I have come to believe that there are special beings on this earth that are there to teach and guide you, to love and watch over you, to embrace you when no one else can and to accept you without judgement.

If there are angels, I believe them to be our pets, the special animals that find us at exactly the right moment and follow us through the passions and depressions of our so-called lives.

And although I don’t believe in heaven for humans, I do believe in heaven for pets and I know that once they have done their time on earth, they retreat to that great, green meadow in the clouds where it is always sunny and dogs chase tennis balls and never get tired and cats play with butterflies and birds but only for fun and never for prey and they sit up above and guard their humans as angels are wont to do.

And I know, from my fingertips scratching behind his left ear to my ears and my heart soaking up the sound of him grooming his little pink toes, that if angels exist, then Boppho is mine.

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4 Responses to “If Angels Exist”

  1. Karen Shimada Says:

    I just told Brad, wow. Rachel is a really really good writer. Not a particularly deep or profound comment for you, but from the heart. What I love from your blogs is when you talk about what something wistfully really means to you and it is there I connect, not with the story, but with that meaning, and share in the collective aha, or sigh, tear, or smile.

    • Bijou Says:

      i have struggled for so many years having little to no faith in my abilities or talent. my biggest fear is to post something and have people thinking “she is such a lousy writer” and here you are with your heartfelt words of praise. thank you for “getting” me.

  2. Stinkypaw Says:

    I so know what you mean. I often look at our cat, Tobi, and can’t help to feel this little pinch of my heart when I think that we will most likely outlive him… For having lost a pet, Cathy my beloved pooch, two years ago (which prompted me to create my other blog “Love is a Four-Legged Word”) I can only say to this day I still hurt when I think of her… If you haven’t yet, read “Rainbow Bridge” it’s reassuring in a way… Bon courage!

    • Bijou Says:

      I lost my beloved staffordshire bull terrier Gretel two years ago to cancer and nothing has been the same since. I’ve always been a total dog mom but it has been through my darling Boppho that I have learned to love a cat. Thank you so much for creating a site for pet-crazed people like me!


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