If Merlin vomits again, you will have to bring him in for surgery.” When I read the text message from my cat’s veterinarian, it was as if a bucket of cold water washed over my sleep-deprived, exhausted body. Merlin, who had thrown up thirteen times in a short span of forty-eight hours, had just chucked up his dinner, completely undigested. It was time for me to face the facts. Things weren’t looking up and that wasn’t likely to change anytime soon.
When It Rains
It was three weeks since I last had eight hours of continuous sleep. Between my ill cat and my brother who was diagnosed with dengue fever, I considered myself lucky if I caught a quick nap each day. When it rains, it really pours. In my case, the storm started when Merlin started peeing blood three weeks ago. I had to monitor him round the clock while he was on antibiotics to check if he still strained whenever he went to his litter box. My heart broke a little each time he did. Even before I could see him recover, I got an urgent message from my mom: “Your brother tested positive for dengue. His platelet is plummeting. Can you come home?”
Living in Manila—more than 200 kilometers away from my family—made things complicated. I tried to make light of things, figuring out how to saw myself in two. Of course, I knew that I was using humor to temper what I truly felt: panic, worry, guilt. Part of me wished that a teleport machine had already been invented so that I could watch over both my only sibling and my only cat. The alternative left a bitter taste in my mouth: choosing between them. Asking my boyfriend to keep an eye on my cat, I finally packed my bags.
“Sister, you look like hell.” My brother Adrian looked at me with mock disappointment when I finally sat with him in his hospital room. “There must be a sickness in the family.”
His handsome face was pale and gaunt—it wasn’t how I remembered him. Despite the fact that his platelet had dropped to a seventh of what it used to be, he was still trying to be chipper. He really takes after our mother, I mused. Almost immediately, I regretted the thought. It reminded me of how I was faring as a fur-mom. I wasn’t even capable of staying with my own fur-kid—the normally grumpy, incredibly proud Merlin—as he battled his own illness. After a week of sleepless vigil over Adrian, I finally heard the news I’ve been hoping for: his blood tests were improving. The next day, we cursed all mosquitoes to high heavens after we cut off his hospital wristband. My brother was going to be okay. Choking back my tears, I knew it was time for me to leave my brother once again. If only that darned teleport machine already existed, I thought bitterly.
Right after I arrived in Manila, I found out that Merlin had thrown up five times in the past few hours. My boyfriend pointed to the scattered evidence, taking me for a tour in my own apartment. Merlin had been coughing up hairballs lately; could it be that this time, one particularly stubborn hairball got stuck in his gut and won’t come out? It was past midnight and Merlin’s usual vet didn’t start clinic until morning. Fueled by worry, I brought him to a pet emergency room. There, he sported an I.V. drip and an Elizabethan collar. I saw copies of Animal Scene displayed in a rack by the reception desk. It seemed ironic at the moment. We waited for the attending vet to finalize Merlin’s hospitalization papers. Finally, I saw her running at full speed towards me.
My pulse started to quicken. I knew something was wrong. The vet rushed past me, a small dog cradled in her arms. Somewhere in the dark, small rooms of the animal hospital, someone was crying. She could not be appeased. Her haunting wails echoed my own emotions: anger and disbelief. I could hear her saying she wasn’t ready to lose her eleven-year-old Chihuahua. Feeling her grief, I couldn’t hold my tears back anymore. The dam burst. Spent, stressed, and worried sick about the feline whom I loved fiercely, I knew I could no longer grin and bear it. There was nothing quite like death to exponentially multiply one’s apprehension over a sick beloved. Refusing to keep still in the waiting area lest I break down further, I walked to where Merlin was confined. There, I reeled as I saw the state he was in. I saw Merlin hunched over in a small square cage about two feet across. There was no litter box in sight; nothing else could fit in that hole. My Merlin, peeing and pooping where he was supposed to sleep? Even if I allowed it, he wouldn’t.
“Aggressive animals have to stay in small cages. Otherwise, they hide in a corner and we can’t take them out,” the vet explained. I let the remark about Merlin’s behavior slide. He was, after all, particularly challenging as a patient. “But where is his litter box?” “He won’t have one.” She pointed to the wee pad covering the cage, explaining that I could have cut-up newspaper added for his comfort. To me, stuffing a cat in a cage without a litter box was like asking an adult in his right mind to pee in his pants. I looked away, mortified that it was the best Merlin could get. It was then that I saw the hospital census board on the wall. There were too many animals – twenty-two, if I counted correctly – and there was only one vet on call. I knew it wouldn’t be right to leave Merlin there. “I know I’m not a vet, but I’m hoping I could use my being a doctor to good use,” I said, negotiating with the vet. “I know you’re understaffed at night and I understand. Maybe it’s better if I took Merlin home and monitored him overnight. If something happens—if he throws up or his I.V. line gets pulled out—I’ll come back here immediately. Is that okay with you?” The vet agreed to my request. Thankful, I said a small prayer.
The Long Wait
I prepared makeshift quarters for Merlin, made of a big, favorite box of his and a metal wire rack. He wouldn’t have any of it, breaking the wire rack in under an hour. I kept an eye on him, making sure he didn’t walk farther than his I.V. line permitted. Six long hours later, the sun rose. Finally, my boyfriend and I could bring Merlin to his old vet.
He was admitted for two days. I set up camp on the floor beside him. He crawled up to me, resting his Elizabethan-collar-framed head on my crossed legs, and slept promptly. It was something he never did before. I realized how much he must have been suffering. Merlin was majestic and dignified; he was never one to grovel or cling. In his pain, he forewent his usual pride, coming to me for a moment of respite. I was starting to have cramps after five minutes but I didn’t dare move. At least one of us should have a decent night’s sleep.
A series of x-rays with contrast revealed no apparent obstruction. His liver enzymes were elevated but not by much for his vet to suspect liver disease. His amylase levels were slightly higher than normal but he tested negative for the more specific pancreatic lipase. His urine had a high pH, showing a few white and red blood cells. Eighteen thousand pesos worth of laboratory tests and medical procedures later, we were still unsure about what was ailing him. It brought me no peace of mind. I knew I would need to dip into my savings to pay for rent, but I also knew I would have spent much more than I already had if it meant finding out how to nurse Merlin back to health.
What else could I do? I felt helpless. “I was like that with you when you were little,” my mom said in a long-distance call. “Despite my being a nurse, I felt absolutely stupefied whenever you fell ill.” I cried quietly as she comforted me in a way only a mom could, reassuring me that Merlin would be okay. I thought about how strong she was, mothering someone like me who was constantly ill as a child. She was a benchmark in motherly perseverance and dedication, one that was yet to be outclassed in my eyes.
Merlin finally moved his bowels. He deposited a rather big, stinky batch of poop. However disgusting that may sound, to a fur-mom like me who would hold her breath until her feline child could rest easy, it sure looked a lot like gold. He is not out of the woods yet. He hacks occasionally but three hours from now, it will be twenty-four hours since he last threw up. It is no trivial milestone, one I will celebrate in the days to come. Here’s to better days. This story is dedicated to all beloved felines out there who are sick, in pain, abandoned, or in any kind of suffering. May the humans who choose to love and care for you live long and happy lives in your wonderful company.
This appeared as “Better Days” in Animal Scene’s October 2015 issue.