Who would ever have thought that a sixteen-pound, nine-year-old rescue cat that talks would make all the difference in helping to achieve a fulfilling and positive life with cancer?
I first heard her speak when the black-and-white cat swiped my arm with razor-sharp claws during one of her periodic lapses into senior-style crankiness. There’s only so much petting she can take. I drew my bloodied arm back, instantly imagining a painful death from infection. I’ve battled Hodgkin’s Lymphoma for more than three years, and two stem cell transplants, years of chemotherapy and immunotherapy, and numerous post-transplant hospitalizations had left me susceptible to infections from everything from the common cold to inhaling construction site dust. The list of what I can’t do if I want to stay healthy rivals Tolstoy’s War and Peace for volume, and my new normal has been extraordinary caution. And heapin’ helpings of anxiety.
“Darned cat,” I muttered darkly, holding up my bloodied arm. “Look what you’ve done! I may end up dead because of you.”
She stared at me.
“Okay, now I have to disinfect this. Who knows what bacteria you’ve left in me?”
She continued to stare. Then, as I turned and got up to leave, I heard a voice.
I stopped. She stared at me, as only a cat can do.
I shook my head. “Wow, the bacteria have already affected my brain. Thought I heard you talk.” Again, I turned away, intent on pursuing my usual routine for a cut or scratch: Wash with soap and water, pour alcohol over the cuts, coat with a prescription antibiotic cream, bandage, and watch the scratches for evidence of a life-ending infection or, at best, the loss of my arm. Worry, worry, worry.
“I did talk,” came the reply from the languid cat. She lay there, on the chair, her head stretched around, looking intensely at me.
“I called you Chicken Little.”
A talking cat? You’ve got to be kidding me. “You’re not talking. I’m imagining this.”
“Yes, I’m talking, and no, you’re not imagining this. And you’re a Chicken Little. A few scratches and the sky is falling,” she said, lifting a furry white chin. “An acorn dropped on Chicken Little’s head, and she panicked, kept on screaming about the sky falling. You’re the same…without feathers, of course.”
I pulled a chair over and sat next to her as she sprawled on an ottoman. “Pardon?”
“Don’t turn into a Chicken Little,” Hope took a quick lick at her paw, then put it down, and continued. “She was the original ‘Karen,’ you know. Always screaming about something, telling everyone what to do to keep them safe from the falling sky. I knew her well.”
“Well, in my case, there’s a lot to worry about,” I pointed out. “Cancer, the ‘Big C,’ is devastating. After what I’ve been through, my body is fragile.”
“Sure,” she agreed. “But so is your mind, and it needn’t be. You still have to live—not to mention take care of me. Food doesn’t put itself in my bowl, you know. And the litter doesn’t clean itself.”
“I can’t believe I’m sitting here talking to a cat,” I said.
Her whiskers twitched. “Why not? You need help, and I’m helping. You have a lot going for you; live like it.”
“What about Covid?”
“What about it? That’s no reason to hide inside. Do what the oncologists told you: take reasonable precautions, but live! And reasonable is going out, living your life. Mask or maskless, your choice, depending on the situation.”
“You know about their advice?”
“I listen, I know things. I’m smart. What do you think, I’m a dog?” She stuck her tongue out, pantomiming a dog. “Pant, pant, pant. Slobber, slobber, slobber. Now, there’s brainless for you. Eating poop, knocking things over, don’t even have the decency to use a litter box.” She took a quick lick at her other paw. “But they have their place, and they can be reassuring companions—I’ll give you that.”
“I can’t be near dogs. The bacteria in their mouths could kill me.”
“Lucky you.” She rolled away, then rolled back. “Well, you have me, the experts who are treating you, and Mom…”
“Mom? She’s your mother?”
“Not literally, of course. Figuratively, as the two of you adopted me, for which I’m grateful.” She slowly blinked in satisfaction. “And now it’s time for me to return the favor. Cancer has weakened you, yes. But you have a loving wife who is also your caregiver, and the oncology specialists and staff at the University of Virginia. All that can be done is being done. Stop envisioning disaster around every corner. Time to live!”
I thought about it and nodded in agreement.
“I’ve listened to your fear of further crippling attacks, the return of cancer, even death.” She stretched, one paw hanging over the ottoman on which she lay. “Trust in God. Go about your day, relax, take reasonable precautions, and live.”
“You, a cat, talking about God?!”
“He made us both, you know. He made me a cat, and you sort of strange. But, thanks to him, you can live with reassurance in this troubled but wonderful world,” she said philosophically or, perhaps, theologically. “Be confident that your ongoing fear of cancer is, in fact, just another version of Chicken Little’s acorn.”
“Did you give the same advice to Chicken Little?”
She smiled a cat smile that said, ‘I’m amazing, a pleasure to have around,’ and then spoke: “Sure did.”
“And has she lived a better life without anxiety?”
“Dunno,” she said flatly. “I’m still a cat, you know.”
“I ate her.”