The Writing Life

Friday, May 27, 2005

Trace and Ilsa

In May of 1991, I decided to get a kitten. I had a new apartment; I wasn't with Bob anymore; I got my own place and he got custody of the cat. A pet adoption service, Lifeline for Pets, was holding an adoption day at a local pet shop. I went early. As each new batch of kittens came in, I looked them over eagerly. I talked to them, held them, cuddled and waited for a sign. Nothing. Where was my cat? Bob had come with me to help me look and he went back to his apartment having recognized that I was going to be there all day.

After hours of looking, I sat down on some sacks of food, despondent. I could have sworn my cat was supposed to meet me there that day. Cats are like that -- they have powers we can only imagine. And I had received a clear message to be there.

As I sat pondering the fact that maybe I'd just eaten some bad chicken and it had never been a message at all, I looked up. Clinging to the wire of her cage was a tiny black kitten with a white stomach, four white paws and a paintbrush at the end of her tail. Never saw a tail like it before or since. This black tail had a bright white tip and inside the tip, was a coal black center. I watched as this tiny acrobat climbed the walls of her cage, getting higher and higher, reaching for the wire ceiling just because it was there. The rest of her littermates were fast asleep, but this little one would have none of that. Not when there were things to explore.

I asked to hold her. The moment -- the very instant -- she touched my hands, I knew she was mine. And she knew I was hers. She adopted me quite clearly and wasn't going to let me go. Where other kittens had squirmed, this one snuggled and purred. Where others looked at me like a stranger, she looked at me as an old friend. I had my new best friend. Time to go.

But something held me there. As I was petting the black kitten, I looked up and saw the most adorable face I'd ever seen in my life. A little grayish puffball with black and white striping, she resembled her sister in many ways. She had four white paws and a puff of white (without the drama) on the end of her tail. Her eyes were huge and they stared at me, watching my every move.

I asked to hold her. Dammit! I came for ONE cat. And now I had two and I didn't know which was my kitten because they both claimed me, they both purred and cuddled, they both looked at me with unconditional love.

"Take them both," said a female voice.

I looked up to see the woman from Lifeline For Pets, standing over me, a knowing smirk on her face.

"Oh, no. I just want one," I said quite firmly.

"Yes, you told me. But we only do this on the weekend, and we need people to give foster homes to the kittens in between adoption days. If you'll just keep the extra -- whichever one that is -- until next weekend, you'd be doing us a huge favor."

You're laughing, I can hear you. But I was so blindly in love that I was willing to accept anything even close to logic, as long as I got to take both of them home. So I agreed. Foster home. Juuuuust a week. I signed the papers for both. Paid for both (donation, refundable next weekend). Got supplies for both. But I was only going to keep one kitten. Yup.

I called Bob, told him what I had done and he said, "I can't believe you got TWO cats!"

"I have one, the other is a foster cat."

He laughed for quite some time then managed to say, "Just keep telling yourself that."

Later that night he called, asking me how many kittens I had. "Just one, but I can't figure out which one. The lady at Lifeline said this would help me decide, by taking both, but it's really tough."

The next morning he called again, asking me how many kittens I had. "Two. I was a fool. Leave me alone."

It was probably, in all my life, the least foolish thing I've ever done. These two kittens gave me unmeasured doses of love and laughter and cuddles and kisses. I could be in the deepest depression, look at Ilsa's face and I'd be uplifted. I could be wrapped in dark clouds, hear Trace's tiny cry and that's all it would take.

Trace (the black cat with the dramatic tail) and Ilsa (the world's sweetest face) and I (the human) spent the next 5 years in a 3-way love affair. The two sisters groomed each other (and me), slept in a kitty ball (a tangle of limbs and tails that made me smile every single time I saw it), played with their favorite toy (me) and gave my every waking day comfort, affection, and laughter.

Ilsa owned the bedroom. It was her domain, and she summoned me there like the empress she was, when she wanted attention. It was no good to pet her in the living room, only the bedroom would do. Treats? They must be served on a down comforter. Games, toys, kisses, rewards, anything and everything counted only if it was done in the bedroom.

There were times when I would be diligently working on the computer for hours, rarely looking up, just concentrating on that day's project. Something out of the corner of my eye would eventually steal my attention. I'd look down and there was Ilsa, sitting patiently, staring at me, giving a small cry (actually, she would say my name. In cat. I can always tell my name). She would get it in her mind that I simply must come lavish attention in her throne room. The way to get me in there? By enticing me with toys. Every toy she owned would appear next to my computer chair, regardless of its size. She would find them, carry them to me, and stare at me, waiting for me to notice. One toy in particular was her "talking toy."

Trace and Ilsa both had a talking toy. No, the toy didn't talk. The cats did, through these toys. When either of the talking toys appeared, its owner had a serious matter to discuss. Immediate petting was called for, treats had to be served, and games played. In every way possible, I had to instantly reassure the bearer that she was the center of the universe.

The talking toys were also magic. They could conjure me out of thin air if I'd left the apartment. Many a time I'd go to the store, return and find that Trace's talking toy was on the couch, or Ilsa's was next to the computer. Anywhere I usually sat was fair game for a talking toy to materialize. They were magic. I know because every single time they appeared, I returned home.

When Ilsa was around five years old, she began to sneeze. The vet called it a sinus infection and gave her antibiotics. But she continued to sneeze. There were a lot of trips to the vet. And lots of vets (they were having a staffing problem). Ilsa was getting more and more tired of it. Medicines and poking and prodding and well, a girl can only take so much. Yet another vet walked into the examining room and he decided to take a sample from Ilsa's nose. He had one of those long q-tips and he started to go for her when suddenly, half the q-tip just vanished. I mean it was there and then it wasn't. Startled, the vet, his assistant and I all looked around -- on the gleaming steel table, on the floor, on our clothing, it was nowhere to be found. Then as one, we all looked at Ilsa. Very deliberately, she spat out half a q-tip, and then glared at the doctor. That was that. Nobody needed a talking toy to hear that message.

It took several vets and well over a year's time, but eventually, after a tiny growth was found in her nose, we got the correct diagnosis: Ilsa had a rare fungal infection. I gave her medicine, and it seemed to go away. A year passed. She started to sneeze again. More medicine. Three months clear, and then the sneezes. This continued. Each time we gave her more medicine ($500 a month the damn stuff cost) yet it was less effective each time. Then she grew listless and sickly, I raced her into the vet and she was diagnosed with chronic renal failure. The fungus had ruined her kidneys. She now officially had two fatal diseases. What an overachiever.

I have a friend who says our pets take on difficulties so that their owners won't have to. So if a cat or dog gets ill, they're taking on a disease that would have struck their owner. Not the same disease, but something equally bad. If so, Ilsa took into herself two deadly illnesses, so that I would be okay. Do I believe this theory? I don't know. I wouldn't put it past Ilsa to have done it, that's for sure. There was no creature on earth, animal or human, who looked at me with the kind of love those two cats held in their gorgeous green eyes.

But lofty theories really don't help the down and dirty practical side of caring for a sick pet, do they? Renal failure means only one thing: I had to learn to give Ilsa subcutaneous fluids. I lived alone so there was no one to help, and she fought me for a full week, unwilling to undergo the process (needles poking, water flowing between her skin and muscles, she hated it). Finally, I talked to her. Told her I needed her help. Had to have her help if she was going to live. The next time I tried it, she sat quietly and let me do it.

With the help of the sub-q fluids, the kidney problems were temporarily at bay. The doc said we caught it early, so she had another 2-4 years, with care. Care? No problem. I had all the care in the world.

For almost a full year, we lived happily, the three of us. I had a business taping audio books for amateur writers. I would sit on the floor, talking into my microphone and usually had two cats curled up in my lap as I did so. Trace and Ilsa talked on almost every tape, being just like me, they were total hams. Ilsa was especially fond of interrupting taping. Her small cries (my name again) can be heard on every tape I've ever done. I think she wanted to join SAG and AFTRA, so she was working on building her resume.

So the year passed, but all was not bliss. The fungus was still there. And this time, it launched a major offensive. Now came the worst of times. Like a cancer, this fungus grew in the membranes, causing tumors. It was out of control. We tried a new medicine and it almost killed Ilsa. We went back to the old meds, but they had lost their effectiveness entirely. Something else had to be done. Half her nose was blocked with a tumor and I was told that the next step was laser surgery. An expensive proposition. I needed money and fast, in order to give Ilsa her operation. So I killed my business so that I could get as many orders as possible and therefore get her taken care of. It worked. I made around $15,000 in three months – enough to pay for Ilsa's medicines, surgeries, and supplies.

In early December of 1999, she had laser surgery. It left her with half her nose intact, but a hole in the other side. The hope was that the fungus wouldn't be able to regrow very quickly. But within two short weeks, it was not just regrowing, it was doing so faster than ever before. Now we needed the nosectomy -- a complete removal of her nose. Horrifying. And the last chance. If this didn't work, there was nothing more. We'd already exhausted all the medicines. The holistic vets had nothing for her. Acupuncture, herbs, nothing would help. The nosectomy was it and there were no second chances, surgically.

So in January of 2000, I took her to the hospital. When I picked her up I recoiled. I actually recoiled. The surgery had left her looking like something out of a horror movie. She had a permanent snarl, with half her upper lip gone, a huge sore where her nose used to be, and eyes... well, eyes filled with love. She was still my beloved Ilsa and the rest could be ignored. I took her home and continued to care for her. Giving her sub-q's every other day, growing cat grass (a favorite treat), loving my little Quasimodo kitty.

And everything seemed to be okay. The vet said that no sign of the fungus had recurred at her two month check-up. He gave her a clean bill of health. I went home pleased beyond measure. I'd bought her some time. You see, she never acted sick or hurt or in pain. She played with her toys, snuggled, purred (it was a horrible sound, with no nose, but it wanted to be a purr. Took me a bit to figure it out, but it soon became music to me). She was a happy cat in every way, other than the damaged face.

In July of 2000, I noticed that her face was changing. The area around the wound, which had been healing nicely, started to bulge and bleed a bit. Tumors. Growing again. Out of control. Getting worse every day. Huge, scabbed, elephant man misshapen areas by her mouth and under her eyes. Oh no, no, no. I knew what this meant. Oh no, no, no.

I sat there, trying to decide if I had the guts to let my friend go. I knew what the vet would say. I had to hold her food for her to eat. I have to hold a cup for her to drink. The tumors were in the way. And they were growing.

I'd been waiting for two things. One, I had some money coming in but it wasn't there yet, and I couldn't afford the vet without it (he wouldn't bill or treat on credit). But that was just my excuse. The real reason was because I couldn't do it. I couldn't face letting her go when she still played with her toys, drank watermelon juice off my plate, ate her kitty grass and k/d pellets, summoned me with her talking toy -- in short, acted like a happy, healthy cat. I told her that she needed to tell me when she was ready to go. I would listen to her, I said. I couldn't do it unless she asked me to.

She didn't ask. When we went to the vet, he said, "I only kill animals when they're ready to die. Ilsa is not." Oh, joyous day!

The months crept forward, and Ilsa grew more frail. The tumors were still growing, but when I took her back to the surgeon, he turned me away. There was nothing he could do.

December of 2000 rolled around and I prepared for my annual trip to Wisconsin, to visit my family for Christmas. I arranged to board Trace and Ilsa at the vet's. Ilsa still needed her sub-q's, and a lot of care. I figured a vet would be the best person to take of her.

I went to the airport on Thursday evening for a red-eye flight. Unfortunately, the plane was grounded due to fog. After waiting for about 8 hours, they finally sent us home early Friday morning, with tickets for Sunday's flight (Christmas Eve). Later that Friday, I went to the vet's to visit my cats. I couldn't take them home because the vet was closed on the weekend and there'd be no way to return them before my flight on Sunday. So I played with Trace and Ilsa on the floor of the narrow space where the boarding cages stood. Both were overjoyed to see me, and Ilsa appeared happy and content. I hated saying good-bye, but the vet had to close.

I flew home on my much-shortened trip, and returned to L.A. on Thursday, the 28th. I had an absolutely terrible case of the flu, and felt barely alive on the flight. When we finally landed, all I could think about was picking up my cats and going home to my bed. I had a temperature, a raging sore throat, and no voice at all.

I dragged my body into the vet's and whispered that I was there for my cats. They told me to wait. It seemed to take forever. I kept begging them to just give me my cats so I could go home to bed. They said I needed to wait until the doctor had arrived. They hadn't expected me so early. I didn't see why I needed to talk to the vet, and again, begged in my whispery rasp that I wanted my cats immediately.

They took me into a small office and handed me a telephone. The vet was on the other end. He "regretted to inform me that Ilsa had died just a couple of hours ago."

While I was on the plane.

Flying home to her.

But she didn't know I was coming home, and couldn't hold on any longer.

My darling, adorable Ilsa was dead.

They asked me if I wanted to see her, and I said yes. They led me into a room and there she was – her frail body and ruined face lying lifeless on a metal table. Her fur was still as soft as I remembered. But her spirit was gone.

I took Trace home and wept for days. Trace refused to eat, or leave my side. Her sister had died in the cage they had shared, and I could only imagine how traumatic that had been for her. We were both wrecks.

What I didn't know at that time was that my lost voice was not due to the flu, but rather to something else. 2001 was my "Silent Year". I had no voice at all for a week, for a month, for several months – it was just gone. I had a persistent, racking, dry cough that drove me out of my mind. It was so violent I threw up several times a day, dislocated a rib, and had numerous strained muscles. My life had become a living hell.

I took solace and comfort from the presence of Trace. She was my anchor. She was my constant, loving companion. Her eyes never held anything but unconditional love. We clung to each other, the two of us.

As the months of silence stretched on, the doctors and the specialists were ready to give up on me. They tried everything – CT scans, MRI's, even exploratory surgery. No one could figure out what was going on. The surgery told them that my throat tissue was so swollen, it was sitting on my vocal chords. That's why I couldn't speak, had difficulty breathing, and coughed constantly (that horrifying dry cough where I was literally trying to cough up my own throat tissue).

After every test had been made and the doctors threw up their hands in defeat, I had a choice to make. I could go on being depressed (at that point, I was in a very deep depression and had been for months), or I could decide to rejoin life. I chose the latter. Within a week of this decision, I managed to find the source of my illness. That's right, me. All by myself. Without the doctors, and their useless tests.

I discovered that I was allergic to the blood pressure medicine I had been taking (which had been switched in late December of 2000). Not one doctor had ever thought to check my meds. Not my GP who had prescribed the damn things, or the specialist, to whom I'd given a complete meds list on my first visit. As soon as I got off that poison, my throat and voice slowly began to heal.

With that crisis passed, Trace and I could return to the land of the living. The next years were healthy ones for both of us. I lived alone and worked out of my home, so we were always together. As she grew older, she became more and more affectionate, always wanting to be held and stroked, and talked to in that special voice that I reserved for her alone.

She loved to be brushed with her Zoom Groom (a funky little plastic brush that must've felt like heaven on earth). At her insistence, I brushed her several times a day. She had rituals that I always indulged. If I was on the couch, she wanted to be brushed. If I was at the computer, she would drape herself across my chest and purr while I rubbed her belly, and she kneaded my arm with her paws. We made it all the way to December of 2004 without her having any problems at all. Such a healthy cat. None of Ilsa's medical woes ever touched her. The only times she'd ever seen a vet were during annual checkups.

But late in 2004 I noticed that she was drinking more water than usual. Having seen these symptoms in Ilsa prior to her renal diagnosis. I knew that I had to get Trace checked out.

The vet (yet another vet, a woman this time) took an x-ray and showed me that one of Trace's kidneys was tiny and atrophied. She didn't know if this had just happened, or if Trace had been living on a single kidney her whole life. As worrisome as this was, the vet also told me that although her numbers were a little high, she wasn't in the danger zone yet. That one working kidney was still doing its job. I didn't need to do sub-q's or anything all that drastic. I just had to change her diet. Trace had been addicted to Fancy Feast (Savory Salmon) and that wasn't any good for her. So we struggled with that one for a while. It was a battle of wills as she refused to eat any of the vet-prescribed foods. After a week of protest, and yet another variety (Science Diet Senior formulas) hunger won out.

All was well until early March, 2005, when she stopped eating again. At first I thought she was just pining for her Savory Salmon again. But after a few days, it seemed different. She didn't look good. Wasn't acting quite like herself. There were subtle signs, but to one as attuned as I was to her every mood and action, they were there.

I took her to the vet March 5, and by that time I was afraid. She really wasn't acting herself at all. The vet took a blood sample and we found out her number had skyrocketed. It was time to do sub-q's.

Once again, I fell into the routine of heating the Ringer's solution, holding my cat, putting a needle under her skin and letting the liquid flow. For a cat who had never had to endure anything medical, she was surprisingly well-behaved. Then again, it shouldn't have surprised me at all. We had such trust and faith in each other; we had such a strong, endurable bond of unconditional love, that it was impossible for either of us to ever feel anything negative about each other.

She just sat there and let me do it. A sharp meow was the most she would do. Otherwise, she would purr while I stroked her head and let me do whatever needed to be done.

After the very first sub-q, within an hour, she was her old self again. It was amazing. Not a thing seemed wrong with her as she leapt about, playing with a piece of yarn, or jumped into my arms for a belly rub.

The vet had given me some pills to stimulate her appetite. She wasn't as accepting of the pills as she was of the sub-q's. I managed to get a couple in her (and they really helped), but as the week progressed she got wise to my wicked pilly ways and continued to best me in the battle.

The morning of March 14 was like every other morning. It was a Monday, and I had decided to run an errand to the vet's to get a pill shooter (a device that looks a bit like a syringe. You put a pill in one end, put it in her mouth and push the plunger. The pill goes down and she never knows what hit her) and some more needles.

I did a routine check of my bank account first and was shocked to see that my checking account had been drained of funds. Someone had stolen my bankcard number (I don’t use credit cards, just a bank card) and spent all my money, and a lot more, gambling online.

I called the bank, talked to the fraud dept. and got their assurance that they'd clear it all up within a week. I grumbled away about this for a while, then called the vet to see if they had a piller. They did. While on the phone, I told them about what had happened to me, because I needed to buy less than a full box of needles. I only had $10 in my wallet, and a box cost $25. They said that was fine.

Trace was sleeping in the bedroom, so I gave her a quick pet and good-bye and went to the vet. The errand didn't take long, and I was back within 20 minutes. When I walked in the door, Trace was sitting in the middle of living room, looking like she could barely hold herself upright. I picked her up and she seemed to settle down a bit. I decided to try out the new piller, since I had her captive, and although she fought it, the piller won.

However, a few minutes later she began to look listless again. I figured she needed a sub-q. I'd been doing them around the same time every day, and it was due. I did the prep, grabbed her and gave her the sub-q. But when I finished, instead of leaping off of my lap as soon as the needle was pulled out, she just lay there, unable to move.

I started to panic, wondering if I'd done the sub-q wrong. Whatever the cause, she looked very sick. I grabbed the phone and called the vet. They assured me that it wasn't the sub-q. I told them I needed to bring her in. They hesitated. They knew that all my money had been stolen – I had told them. And now they didn't want me to come in because I had no way to pay them that day.

I argued, I was put on hold, more arguing, then I was given to someone else and promised them that I would get the money. I told them I'd borrow it from my Mom – I would do anything, but I had to bring in my cat because she looked very sick.

Finally, they let me come in. I drove over and the small parking lot was full. There was nowhere to park at all. I finally parked illegally in an alley and raced the cat into the office.

"Is she still breathing?" they asked.

I gave a quick check, and said yes. Someone grabbed her carrier from me and whisked her into the back. I ran outside to park my car legally, then returned to the vet's office. I was sent to an exam room and waited nervously for the vet. She told me that Trace was very sick. She was panting like a dog, and that's a very bad sign in a cat. She wasn't sure what was wrong – it could be a heart problem, or kidney failure, or cancer, or whatever it was, it was going to be bad. They put Trace in an oxygen tent to try to stabilize her so they could take an x-ray. I was sent home to find the $600 I'd need to pay for a day's care.

The vet called around 7pm to tell me that they had gotten the x-ray and everything looked fine. No cancer, the heart and lungs looked healthy and her best guess was that Trace had had a panic attack. Although this sounds crazy, I understood how it could've happened. We were so tied to each other, that Trace would often protest loudly when I left the apartment. I used to have a writing partner and she told me that sometimes when I left to run an errand, Trace would wander aimlessly through the apartment, carrying her talking toy and meowing at the top of her lungs in a desperate, other-worldly sound. It used to freak my friend out.

Perhaps Trace hadn't realized I'd left and when she came out of the bedroom, she had panicked. Or perhaps this explanation felt a lot safer than all those deadly diseases the vet had talked about.

The vet did say that her temperature was low, and that wasn't good, so she was being sent to an overnight vet who could watch her until the next morning.

At 9:30 pm, I called the overnight vet to get an update. Trace's temperature had gone up half a degree, which was good news, but they still had her in an oxygen environment, just in case.

Still, it was great to hear she was improving.

At 11 p.m. the phone rang.

"We're very sorry but a few minutes ago Trace went into cardiac arrest and expired."

And that's when my world collapsed. She was dead. Just like that. I didn’t get to say good-bye, or hold her and tell her I loved her. I wasn't there with her. She was in a strange place, feeling so terrible, and then she just... died.

I raced down to the overnight vet's place and they brought her body into a little room. Her eyes were open, and she was still warm. I couldn't believe she was dead. I stroked her fur and I swear I heard her purr. I watched her and thought I saw her breathe. I cajoled her to just get up. Begged her. Pleaded with her. Wept into her fur. She couldn't be dead. It wasn't right. It wasn't fair. She was getting better. She was fine that morning. The last time I saw her alive was that quick look into her carrier to assure the other vet she was still breathing. I never said good-bye. I just handed some guy the carrier. That was it. My last moment with her.

The tears just wouldn't stop. I finally dragged myself away from her (and was corralled by someone wanting to know how I wanted to pay my bill – I told them arrangements had been made with the other vet. I really wasn't in the mood to argue about money at that point). Somehow, I managed to drive home.

And when I walked into the apartment, it was silent and empty. That second heartbeat was gone. Those loving green eyes no longer sought me out. There was no warm bundle of fur to comfort me in my grief. This wasn't going to last for hours or days – this was forever. I'd never have her in my life again. I'd never get to brush her, or talk nonsense to her, or play games with her. There would be no more cuddling in front of the TV or purring belly rubs at the computer.

Her echoes are everywhere in my home. Her toys, her plates of treats, her dishes, her litter box, her favorite sleeping spots and bits of shedded fur form a tapestry of her non-presence.

Little by little, tear by tear, I'm doing my damnedest to accept that she's really gone.


In May of 1991, I decided to get a kitten. Instead, I got two. They were Trace and Ilsa. They were some of the best friends I've ever had. Their presence enriched my life. Their spirits will live forever deep in my heart.


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