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My Own Personal Pussy Riot

After what should have been a trip to the vet turns into a trip to the doctor, Jim Gabour ponders a strange concatenation of human and feline ailments, and describes the succession of stray cats who have called his home their own.

Jim Gabour
26 August 2012

Sounds ridiculous but, three weeks after the “minor” injury, I am still recovering from an infected wound, just finishing a lengthy period laced with the nausea of twice-daily doses of major antibiotics and the pain of thrice-daily major rehab.

It was so simple to accomplish all this misery: one Monday afternoon I decided a very sick orange tabby needed to go to the vet. That is all it took.

I gently picked up the obviously ill and limp McMuff – no, I have no memory of the name’s origins – to put him into the pet carrier. He is one of the sweetest, gentlest, and most relaxed cats I have ever known. Naturally, he proceeded on this occasion to bite the absolute hell out of me, tooth going straight through my thumb and out the other side. Chipped bone. Ripped me up. Bleeding all over the place, which at first I hoped was good, purging whatever nastiness the tooth may have left inside my flesh.

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John Wayne lied, by the way. I know a .45 slug is much larger and more violent than a cat tooth, so the whole idea of his line “It’s nothing, friend, just a flesh wound,” now resonates on a much higher plane. My flesh wound really hurt. Of course, Wayne’s outlaws were probably required to have clean ammunition.

As it turns out, cat teeth are not so clean at all. They are, in fact, notoriously filthy, so despite peroxide and alcohol and Epsom-salt soaking, the wound went south and turned seriously black by ten o’clock the next morning. My termite inspector, already scheduled to come by at that time in his annual search for domestic insect intrusion, grabbed and shook my hand in greeting before I could say anything. He jumped back as he heard me howl, watched me jump up and down in pain, and saw the source. He also immediately said the magic words: Emergency Room.

There I went, and the ritual proceeded, a handsome young Croatian doctor examining, then probing, and finally squeezing the hand again: “Does this hurt?”

Two nurses with a step ladder had to coax me off the ceiling. It hurt.

Thus came a tetanus shot. Alcohol swabbing and bandaging followed. Antibiotics were prescribed, very strong and large pills to be taken twice a day. But in spite of the hours of medical attention, at the end of the second day, the deep and continual pain was worse. There was to be no sleeping, as the slightest brush against the appendage brought me instantly from struggling slumber into massive painful reality, punctuated vocally on each awakening with an amazingly loud shriek. I found it hard to believe that such a minuscule portion of the body could demand such attention.

A combination of the injury and the cure kept me a tad feverish and constantly nauseous through three more days. Maybe that was where the rather pugnacious tenor of both my bank and gun stories originated. I went to faculty interviews on the fourth day and almost passed out. I was too embarrassed to admit the source of my pitiful physical state.

On the seventh day the thumb was still draining nasty stuff. I had been ordered by the M.D. to keep squeezing it (most painful) every couple of hours to dissipate the pressure buildup behind the thumbnail, pressure which is also absolutely excruciating and to be avoided.

On the tenth day all the skin peeled off the thumb, which was finally finally finally shrinking and drying up.

The two-week mark meant my last day on the horrible antibiotics. I had lost ten pounds, at least one positive result of a bad stomach.

Ironically, the cat was getting better, without a vet visit.

But I could still see myself in the process. There I was, trying to do a good deed, and then, of course, this body in which I am fated to live got punished for it. Incredible.

Just like real life.

* * *

My right hand was incapacitated by a cat. As if my eyes, and their feline connection, weren’t trouble enough.

It is my vision, you see. These dots that swim sometimes languidly sometimes frantically in my right eye, they will never dissipate. They will never go away. That’s what the doctors tell me. There are some sort of crystals suspended in the liquid that won’t dissolve. Ever. They told me that I have to learn to live with them.

So I am prone to these occasional swats at a shadowy New Orleans mosquito that is not really there. I am regularly pulled from a deep read by a reflexive glance right or left, as the fluid in my eye moves one way or the other. Only to realize the joke is again on me.

Trick of the eye, the phrase goes. In this case, the same eye that also not so long ago secretively harbored a malignant melanoma and tried to kill me. The two surgeries to remove the cancer on my iris were almost as painful as the thumb wound, though shorter lived.

It is healthy now, though it remains a vagabond eye, a rogue organ, and it persists in its demands for dominance. It wants a bigger say in what happens to this body, how it is administrated. Even with its attached nerve, it can’t comprise more than an ounce or two of the two hundred plus pounds comprising the physical me, but my right eye wants to be noticed at every waking moment.

And so it is. Rather like my thumb these last weeks.

But yet another odd coincidence ties the resident cats to this ongoing optical allusion/illusion.

I have had three feral tabbies wander into my home over this last extended decade, and remain to stay. Shortly after the passing of each cat, another would arrive, as if summoned. These cats bore a particularly unique physical trait in common -- each had only one functional eye.

One-eyed Fred was the first. He and his brother Rayon (aka Butch) appeared in a neighbor's trash pile as two very sick kittens during the first month of the restoration of this century-old house where I now live. The elderly resident cat-lady next door said the momma cat was dead, recently run over in the street, and that these kittens would follow her soon. She had at least three dozen others, so the loss of two new cats meant little to her. It was painful for me to hear this death sentence, much less watch it progress, as my kitchen window overlooked her patio where the animals gathered. Finally I couldn’t stand it. I climbed her fence, scooped up the two sick kittens, and drove the two to a vet, a simpatico friend.

Rayon, a perfectly white short-hair, had lung disease. Fred, an orange tabby, had one horribly infected eye bulging from his head. They were both stoic and braving their illnesses with only minor whimpers, and still acting excited about being alive. Kittenish. I couldn’t help myself. The money set aside for a backyard fence was invested on getting the two tiny creatures well.

After a huge amount of money and several months, they did return to health.

Rayon promptly was run over by a speeder, who did not stop. This was fourteen years ago.

Fred, on the other hand, did not leave, and indeed remained in place for seven years, an angry, defiant animal who urinated on any and everything within range of his prodigious bladder. In spite of this social problem, Freddy was something of a muse for me, and I told my friends who remarked at his nasty obsession that the tabby was a “Urinary Expressionist”. It was either consider him that, or strangle the boy.

In spite of Fred’s half-vision, as a matter of rote he attacked any other creature who dared come near his territory.

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Fred came to his end in a heroic battle with two much-larger terriers. He retained a sense of purpose to the end, Fred did.

Two months after his demise, another one-eyed tabby appeared in my life, again unsolicited, filled with an even larger life mission. And a larger story. He had already lived a long life when he arrived. I told Tigger’s story a few years ago, and it still breaks my heart to remember.

And you see, he was an orange tabby too. With just the one right eye.

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Time again passed, faster as it does for cats.

All the love in the world could not keep Tigger alive forever. One day, a year and a half after he arrived at my door, Tigger passed of a massive heart attack, suffered as he enjoyed his evening dinner dish. He left the world happy and knowing he was safe and loved.

I miss the old boy daily.

Then came Blackie, a Tuxedo rather than a tabby, a feral Katrina orphan who had been caught by volunteer veterinarians right after the storm and neutered before having the top half of his left ear cut off. Then he was released again into the neighborhood, still without a home, but alive. It was a humanitarian gesture by the vets, as the Army was instantly euthanizing every feral animal it found. But they left the “fixed” cats with the short left ears alone.

Unfortunately, Blackie had been stranded in the toxic floodwaters for too a long period of time, and as a result, he had completely lost the sight in his left eye, and had vision greatly reduced in his right. But he somehow could see well enough to find this house. He showed up for breakfast one morning, and never left. He now very happily lives here, and has the yard memorized well enough to find his way around without bumping into things. These days he and McMuff often assume the same relaxed supine pose, side-by-side.

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Six months further passed after Blackie’s arrival, and then, out of the blue, a tiny month-old kitten crawled out from under the back porch. I assumed she was dumped in the neighborhood, or simply lost from her mother. A female this time, and grey. But a tabby. With just a solitary working eye, the same as Fred and Tigger and Blackie.

I have no idea where she came from, how she got here. But Sterling is also now a permanent resident, and spends much of her time climbing about in the avocado tree.

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Four in a row. With the same defining physical characteristic. Came here, to this house, unbidden.

And meanwhile the life-threatening defect in my own eye, benign for decades but suddenly turned deadly, has been discovered and is removed. They tell me there is no more danger.

Just now, as I am documenting all this coincidence, typing away, I notice a small protrusion in my bitten thumb. I am able to grasp it with tweezers and pull it out. It is a small piece of bone, a chip of my thumb bone, that has worked its way to the surface. As I remove it, the lingering deep ache I have been enduring for the past three weeks begins to subside.

Another parcel of the feline life has passed for me.

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