Throwback Thursday: Mr. Biscuit’s Rotten Summer

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This post originally ran on February 4, 2015. Read old comments via the Wayback Machine.

Mr. Biscuit is my best friend. Every morning around sunrise, I wake to his soft, staccato chirp at my bedside, and I peel back the covers to make room for him to join me. With a tiny grunt he springs up to the bed’s surface; it’s about the highest leap he can muster with his lone rear leg. I touch my left-hand fingertips to my side, making a ring of my arm and ribcage, and he curls himself therein. I pull the covers over him. He purrs happily. I go back to sleep until my alarm sounds.

When the time comes, I reach over B — I call him B for short — to silence the buzzing on the bedside table, which he takes as a cue to hop down and trot into the next room for breakfast. He waits patiently in the doorway through my snooze alarms, and when I finally arise he chirps and arches his back in excitement. Unable to sustain the arch on three legs, he leans against the doorjamb as a crutch until I walk past him, then beelines to his food dish. I fill the dish, change his water and scoop his box, and finally tend to my own morning routine.

I work from home, so B and I are seldom far or long apart. By the time I settle into my desk, he has already assumed his window-side perch just behind my laptop. Our third-floor corner apartment is an ideal vantage point over the small-animal action in the back yards of adjoining houses. Throughout the day, B moves between the east-facing view on my desk and the south-facing view on the couch, keeping close watch on birds, squirrels, neighborhood cats and the odd raccoon. I’m sure he dreams of frolicking beyond the glass pane, but, being disabled and extremely skittish, he is not physically or emotionally equipped for the outdoors.

Since B’s apartment life is confined, I do my best to keep it varied. I often build blanket forts on the couch, in which he’ll sit contentedly for hours. We play games on his cat tree, watch squirrel videos on Youtube, and explore the interiors of paper bags. I chaperone trips to the outside hallway, where he enjoys new vistas from different windows, and I boost him to the top of the kitchen cabinets, where, in the spirit of his Himalayan breed, he roams like a snow leopard on a mountain ridge. It seems that B appreciates my efforts in this regard, and that he finds happiness, as I do, in our simple routines.

When I adopted Mr. Biscuit two years ago, I knew I was signing up for a not-too-distant heartbreak. He was in good health, but as an eleven-year-old cancer survivor, he clearly didn’t have much time ahead. Still, I was happy to provide a stable place for him to live out his golden years, especially considering that he’d spent nearly a year unclaimed at the adoption center. I drove him home on a rainy October night. He huddled in his carrier on the passenger seat, frightened and mewling, next to a plastic grocery bag holding remnants of his old life — a bell collar, a frayed catnip mouse, two combs and a half-empty tube of hairball gel. We soon bonded, and enjoyed a year and a half untroubled by any sad inevitabilities.

The trouble, when it eventually came, began with an itch. When B gets an itch on the left side of his head, he tries by instinct to scratch it with his phantom leg. His little nub vibrates helplessly, while in his facial expression I see the anticipation of relief quickly give way to frustration. These moments, when I kneel down and scratch his unreachable itch, are special moments of communion, rich with a sense of mutual empathy. I like to think that that statement is not anthropomorphic.

In May, we started going through the itch-and-scratch routine with alarming frequency. I took him to the vet, who diagnosed him with a common ear infection, and for the next two weeks B and I struggled twice daily through the administration of an antibiotic ear drop. At his follow-up appointment, the vet found that the infection had diminished but not fully cleared. A second course of treatment again fell short, so she prescribed a different drop that finally did the job.

The timing and tenacity of B’s infection were providential. The vet weighed him at each visit as a matter of routine, and in the final follow-up she noticed a sudden, half-pound decline, totally incidental to the infection. A half pound is a significant chunk of B’s six-pound frame. The vet drew blood for analysis. In retrospect, I recognize the extreme concern in her expression, but in the moment my mind was unwilling to entertain the idea that B could be seriously ill. Until the results came back the next morning, I carried on as if nothing had changed.

The vet’s phone call began with a stream of medical jargon. The gist of it was “elevated liver enzymes,” which indicated a problem but didn’t pinpoint a cause. Given his history of cancer (in his thigh bone; the reason the leg is gone), she was concerned about relapse, but needed further tests to make a diagnosis. We scheduled a radiograph for the following day.

As if cued by the blood test results, Mr. Biscuit slipped into a deep malaise. He refused to eat, and spent all day and night on the floor under the end table by the couch. My state of denial rapidly ebbed, giving way to anxiety that kept me up to the wee hours. I eventually fell into a broken sleep, and woke up around sunrise to a conspicuously silent and empty bedroom. B lay listless in the same spot, ambivalent even to the sound of a food can opening. I let him rest until his appointment. When I lifted him, and he slumped silent and motionless in my hands, I felt the first pangs of panic.

The radiograph results read, “Heart appears enlarged. No sign of congestion, no sign of metastatic disease. Liver appears small.” The findings were insufficient for a diagnosis, or even to categorically rule out cancer. The vet wanted an ultrasound, but needed to procure the equipment in advance. This was a Wednesday afternoon. The vet’s office is closed every Thursday. Friday was July 4, and they were closed for the long holiday weekend. We scheduled the ultrasound for Monday.

The vet assured me, as I struggled to withhold tears, that B could tolerate the delay, but he would need special care in the meantime. She administered a fluid injection and sent me home with the IV bag, which I would use to hydrate him twice daily, and a plastic syringe to force-feed him a high-calorie canned food. She offered the hope that B’s symptoms could be of a treatable disease, but I believed she was only comforting me. My thoughts turned bleak.

B had become very decrepit very quickly. His ribs and spine were pronounced to the touch, his flesh had a thick, dough-like texture, and he did nothing but lie torpid under the end table. My first childhood cat, Nabber (I named him when I was four; I had wanted to name him Chair because he was black and we had a black chair in our living room, but my parents balked, so I stood firm by the nonsense word “Nabber”), had followed a similar trajectory before he died while I was away at summer camp. I felt certain that Mr. Biscuit, likewise, was weeks or even days away from crossing Rainbow Bridge.

We began a gloomy regimen. I coaxed him from his spot at regular intervals to squeeze food into his unwilling mouth, aiming for a prescribed number of milliliters per day. Once in the morning and once at night, I wedged the business end of a metal spatula under the bottom rail of a high window and hung the IV bag from the tip of its handle. I fit a fresh needle onto the tube, sat on the floor with the soles of my feet against the wall, gripped B between my thighs and gently pricked his scruff. I watched the bag, while he groaned and feebly resisted, until the fluid level dropped 150mL. All with tears on my cheeks, on my shirt, in his fur.

The sudden dissolution of our normal routines, along with the unusual stillness of the apartment, served as a window into a potential life without him. I started to consider what I would do when he passed. I didn’t think I would want quotidian reminders sitting around after the fact, so I gathered his belongings — toys, combs, nail clippers, an unopened bag of treats — into a pile, ready to donate to a shelter. I found the phone numbers I would need to deal with his body. I decided I would scatter his ashes in the wilds of the Cascades, on a ridge line with views to the east side where he was born and raised, and to the west where he lived with me.

I realized I was firmly in the territory of self-pity when I started mentally composing the opening sentence of a hypothetical Cat Fancy obituary. Dwelling on future logistical details, especially nonsensical ones, was a simple avoidance of the present reality. Worse, I was ashamed to find myself examining silver linings. I would be less encumbered without him, I thought. His death would be an impetus to cultivate a life beyond the mold of a cat-crazy homebody.

When my other childhood cat, Marshmallow, was put to sleep in the winter of sixth grade, I couldn’t bring myself to stand by her during the lethal injection. I sat in the waiting room with my face in my hands while Dr. Garrison, alongside my mom, turned Marshmallow into memory. I knew even then that I had acted cowardly, and I still regret it. In the light of that recollection, I tried my best to bury the fear of my future grief, and to be an attentive friend to Mr. Biscuit through his hardship. I dismissed the silver linings as coping mechanisms against the awful prospect of his permanent absence.

Monday’s ultrasound revealed a “thickened pylorus” constricting the outflow from his stomach. The potential diagnoses were thus reduced to two — cancer and inflammatory bowel disease — but we needed another test to narrow them to one. The following day, I drove B to a referral center specializing in grim pet situations. We sat in the waiting area among two other puffy-eyed pet owners. They both sobbed quietly, one alone and the other running her fingers through the hair of an elderly Cocker Spaniel. I readily acquiesced to the mood in the room. I cried and rubbed B’s head until the time came to hand him over for the afternoon.

Back home, bracing myself for bad news, I received a mid-procedure call requesting permission to insert a feeding tube while B was under anaesthesia. My instinct was to refuse, imagining that a feeding tube would only prolong his suffering, but the vet encouraged it as a means, possibly temporary, to restore him to health after a best-case diagnosis. I reluctantly consented, and passed another anxiety-ridden hour before picking him up.

B blinked heavily at me from his carrier atop the reception desk. A blue bandage enwrapped his neck, and a plastic tube protruded from its left side. My heart sank. I poked my finger through the wire door to scratch his brow while the vet explained her findings. His liver biopsy showed no evidence of liver cancer, but the results of his stomach and intestinal biopsies, due back in a couple days, were expected to reveal either inflammatory bowel disease or small cell lymphoma.

Before I took B home, the vet’s assistant demonstrated how to pack food into a large, plastic syringe and plunge it through the feeding tube into his gullet. The prospect of doing this indefinitely was depressing, but the tube didn’t seem to make him uncomfortable, and the process turned out to be oddly intimate. He calmly accepted the feedings as if he understood their necessity. In the ensuing days he regained some weight and strength, and then came the call with the final diagnosis: inflammatory bowel disease.

IBD is incurable but manageable with a daily dose of prednisolone, a twice-monthly shot of vitamin B12, and a special diet. It may ultimately lead to cancer, or it may keep B alive long enough for some other affliction of old age to finally do him in. At the very least, he can live a comfortable life for another year or so. The wave of bittersweet relief that came with the diagnosis made me wonder if I had been silly to become overwhelmed by hypotheticals. I wonder if I’m being silly now for writing this dramatic story about my cat’s non-death.

Watching B improve over the following couple weeks, I was grateful that I had been convinced to have the feeding tube placed. As he ate more on his own accord, I gradually reduced his intake of tube food until he didn’t need any at all. His old habits and loving personality began to resurface. I was happy to have Mr. Biscuit back. The vet was pleased with, and even surprised by, the speed of his recovery. I discontinued his fluid injections, and we scheduled an appointment to remove the feeding tube the following week.

And you won’t believe what happened next.

My kitchen window is unscreened, so I keep the area clear of objects that B might use to reach it. In the warmer months when I have the window open, I often find him peering up at it, probably envisioning some exotic world beyond. In the wake of his medical tribulations, in the spirit of enabling him to live his remaining life to the fullest, I decided to indulge his fascination and place his tree in front of the window. This was a bad idea.

B was thrilled, of course. The third level of the tree lined up perfectly with the windowsill, so he could sit in the carpeted tube and take in an unfettered view of a slightly different angle on the back yard. At first I stood right beside him, poised to grab if he seemed ready to jump or slip, but he never did. After a few sessions I felt comfortable that he could safely enjoy himself, but only when I was nearby. On Sunday, the night before his scheduled tube removal, B sat placidly in the window, basking in the warm summer breeze while I read nearby on the couch. Around 10 p.m. I heard an odd noise, faint and distant-sounding, like fingernails scratching across a hard surface. It took about ten seconds for that sound to sink in.

I looked up to find the cat tree vacant, but it didn’t immediately occur to me to look outside. I opened all the kitchen cabinets — he once pawed one open and got himself stuck inside — but he wasn’t there. I looked around the apartment, but he wasn’t in any of his usual spots. I checked the kitchen cabinets again. I looked out the window, down at the rock-covered ground three stories below. “There’s no way,” I told myself, but still I grabbed a flashlight and hurried outside.

I combed every inch of the back yard and the shrubbery around my building, several times over. I shined my light into the adjoining yards and was overwhelmed by the endless number of obscure nooks where he could possibly hide. Denial took hold, and I decided to re-check the apartment. Then I sat down to read, and soon after went to sleep, content with the impossible notion that B would come back, or that he was somehow still in the apartment, and that the situation would resolve itself.

As I slept, my brain arranged the facts and deposited the only possible conclusion at its forefront. I bolted awake around 4 a.m. My thirteen-year-old cat with three legs and a feeding tube, dependent on medication and in a compromised state of health, had fallen three stories onto rocky ground, and he wouldn’t come back unless I found him. I ran outside with the flashlight, and after a frantic and fruitless hour decided to wait for daylight.

In the meantime, I made LOST CAT posters and considered the potential outcomes. A cat could survive that fall, but what about this particular cat? I could only imagine that B had broken a bone or damaged some organs and crawled into a dark hole to die. Even if he wasn’t badly injured, it would be impossible for him to simply return to our apartment; its entrance is on a heavily trafficked street, and anyway he couldn’t possibly conceive of the link between the building’s front door and the room he knows as home. I expected to find him, if I found him at all, in dire condition.

When dawn broke, I emailed out of work, citing a vague “emergency.” I spent the day knocking on doors, meeting all my neighbors and becoming intimately acquainted with their yards. With dirt-stained knees and a bag of treats I crawled under every porch and deck, investigated every shed and bush, and peered under every parked car. I notified local shelters and tacked my posters on utility poles over weathered concert flyers. There was no sign of B. As the day wore on, I began to visualize myself in a black veil (the image afforded me a smidgen of perverse levity), mourning rather than searching. In the late afternoon, walking down the sidewalk towards my building, a neighbor I had just met that morning approached and asked how things were going. My voice cracked a few words into my reply. I tried again, but I broke down, and she gave me the warmest and most welcome hug I have ever received from a near-stranger.

The empty spaces of the apartment seemed to resound with B’s absence, like actual vibrations in the air. In particular, the vacant cat tree by the open window radiated a doleful energy. It was difficult to accept that B’s long medical ordeal might end like this, and that by allowing him in the window I would be responsible for it. I had called the vet in the morning to cancel our appointment and explain what happened, and though they tried to be positive, I could tell they weren’t optimistic about his surviving the fall. I wondered how many days or weeks I could search before giving up. After another late-night round with the flashlight, I lay in bed and plotted my approach for the next day.

On Tuesday, after an early-morning sweep of the neighborhood, I had to go back to work, but I shifted my desk so that I could keep a constant eye on the back-yard scene. I assumed a best-case scenario, that B was still mobile but hadn’t gone far, and that my best chance of finding him was to watch from above and wait for him to emerge. Throughout the day I moved with my laptop between the east-facing view at my desk and the south-facing view on the couch, attuned to every faint twitch of movement outside.

Around 6 p.m., after nearly 10 hours of unbroken watch, a little puff of white materialized from beneath a fence into my next-door neighbor’s back yard. It was Mr. Biscuit. His fur was dirty and neck bandage tattered, but he was alive and moving. He was clearly not, however, enjoying a whirlwind outdoor adventure as some optimistic neighbors had suggested. Even at that distance I could see he was wide-eyed with fear, and moving very deliberately. I ran downstairs, around the block and up the neighbor’s driveway, anticipating the joyful relief of our reunion.

B’s back was turned to me. Not wanting to spook him, I crouched and gently spoke his name. His ears flattened. He turned his head just enough to see a large human figure in his peripheral vision, and took off at full speed. My calls didn’t stop him as he squeezed under the fence into our apartment’s back yard. I climbed over to find him running much faster than I ever thought he could, with the feeding tube wobbling in time with his gait. A crisp, wooden bonk sounded as he hit his head on the underside of the fence door on the far side. By the time I reached the door and got through, he was gone, ensconced in some invisible hideaway. Like I said, B is extremely skittish.

I was hugely relieved to see B alive and apparently uninjured, but his evident terror presented an unexpected difficulty. Not only did I have to find him, but I had to catch him. The next morning, I set a cardboard box at the scene of our encounter. I baited the box with treats and surrounded it with his favorite blankets, hoping to lure him with scents of home. Again I spent the workday on watch — twice I had to shout and throw ice cubes from my window to chase other cats from the bait — but B didn’t resurface. I worried that I had botched my only opportunity.

Later, just as the sky began to dim, almost three days to the hour since his fall, I saw B’s little head poke out from behind a trash can in the next neighbor’s driveway, just beyond the booby-trapped yard. His nose was raised, sniffing the air. I ran down and out and around, and approached the driveway with the utmost delicacy. B was still there; he had creeped a couple feet from the trash can. Our eyes met, and there may have been a glimmer of recognition, but his whole being emanated fear.

I advanced slowly. B slinked backwards, then turned and scuttled under the neighbor’s wraparound porch. I followed him through a small opening, cornered him and reached out my hand. He gave me a weary look of submission, then completely succumbed to my grasp. It wasn’t the reunion I had naively hoped for; he was a scared animal, and as far as he was concerned, it seemed, I could have been anyone. I carried him home and filled his bowl with food, which he promptly gobbled. I brushed the dirt and debris from his coat, and let him rest in his tree, far from the open window.

In spite of my worst-case suppositions, B suffered nary a scratch from his fall. He spent his first day home in what appeared like shock, but we soon resumed our usual routines. The vet replaced his bandage, and after a couple weeks she removed the feeding tube. Life was back to normal, more or less.

My best friend’s time is short. He hasn’t fully regained his old, healthy weight, and I don’t know if he ever will. He’s a little frail, a little less energetic, and looks much more like an elderly cat than he did last spring. I’m not sure if having twice mourned his hypothetical death will make his eventual, actual death any easier. Until then, I will relish and reciprocate his affection, anthropomorphized or not, and I’ll keep our windows extra clean, inside and out, so that he can take in the world as best he can, while he can. And if I should somehow die before him, alone in the apartment, I can only hope that the memory of our relationship would persist long enough in his brute brain to keep him from devouring my corpse. But I know that it wouldn’t.

William Foster loves his cat.

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