More Than One Heartbeat

“Some would say cats don’t care about anyone but themselves (I once heard someone say if cats had fingers, they’d all be middle ones). But they don’t know Dusty.”

A cat getting its head scratched by its owner as it sits on a rug

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My cat has no sense of rhythm.

No matter the strain of music rocking our walls at two in the morning — be it Bacharach, Buzzcocks or Beyoncé — she lurches uncertainly and ungracefully, perplexed and perhaps even a little annoyed as I clutch her forepaws, trying to teach her a basic box step in our cramped living room. Now you could say I don’t lead well, and you’d surely be right, or you might blame the substantial and awkward height difference. But the way she totters about on her hind legs without regard for tempo or time signature, you’d think she was the one who was drunk.

Now, naturally, of all possible shortcomings, lacking a good sense of rhythm hardly relegates you to an unhappy or unproductive existence. And little Dusty has lived a pretty good life, having dined on mushy food from a can and crunchy food from a bag and whatever she can pilfer from my dinner plate (there’s nothing quite so simultaneously annoying and endearing as to see her lick the butter off your corn on the cob while you’re busy saying grace). You’ll never meet anyone better-rested, for she sleeps a minimum of 18-hours each day, and in all the coziest spots — sunbeams, sock drawers, still-warm laundry straight from the dryer (giving her the spring-breeze scent of a dryer sheet). She remains undefeated in wrestling matches with my right hand over a career spanning some 2,000 bouts, using a biting/scratching one-two punch that invariably draws blood and submission. She’s chased dogs 20 times her size off our lawn, and terrorized squirrels and chipmunks, and even preschoolers who dare ring our doorbell in costume on Halloween (hissing and hurling herself against the screen door to get at them — probably mistaking them for raccoons). She has endless sources of amusement, from a cache of catnip to an assortment of practice mice (the kind that rattle are best — at least I like them), all the Q-tips that missed the waste basket, and practically half an acre of grass to eat and promptly throw up. So you can see that her lack of rhythm really hasn’t held her back at all. It’s just that when I’m feeling fine and warm from wine — with music, moonlight, and magic in our living room — how can I resist wanting a dance with my furry little friend? Call me a romantic, and I won’t kick you.

While we’re on the foibles of a particular feline, I might mention she has little respect for property lines. My next-door neighbor thinks I’m a peeping tom. I tiptoe furtively to retrieve Dusty from her patio to find the woman in a quilted housecoat, wielding a knife and a kiwi, scowling through her screen door at us (well — me). I hold the cat up by way of explanation and — finding my neighbor’s orey-eyed expression unchanged — scurry away, scolding my cat while simultaneously kissing her on the head repeatedly, sending her mixed messages. She should know by now the difference between our backyard and those of our neighbors. (Hint: the grass is greener on either side of us — not everyone can afford fancy lawn chemicals.) But greener grass doesn’t mean the grass is greener, necessarily. For one thing, those lawn chemicals can be dangerous to pets — especially ones hell-bent on eating and throwing up grass. Plus, I’ve seen that lady commanding one of those dangerous riding lawn mowers with a menacing glint in her eye. And in any case, trespassing is a misdemeanor. So do I need to build a fence? Do I, Dusty? She’s not listening. She’s halfway back into the neighbor’s yard, heading for her patio.

To be fair and frank, my cat and I are cut from much the same scrap of cloth — I’m a bit of a wanderer myself. Once I walked all the way to the fire station. So I can appreciate Dusty’s wanderlust. Who wouldn’t want to know what lies beyond one’s own yard? I would love to see the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, the dark side of the moon. So roam if you want to, Dusty. I just ask that you stick to the public sidewalks, and take me with you wherever you go.

Another thing you should probably know: My cat has no civic pride. For our town’s centennial, there was to be a big parade. I set up a pair of lawn chairs on the front yard so we could watch the procession together, seeing as the route included every street in town. As I explained to Dusty, soon we’d get to see the mayor and a marching band and Miss Maple Plain, plus floats and fire engines, clowns and candidates for office (one and the same — ha ha), Princess Kay of the Milky Way, American flags and honor guards, Boy Scouts and business owners (one who’ll walk a wiener dog advertising her nail salon on the canine’s tiny sandwich board), veterans and vintage cars, and horses and horse-riders and horse cleaner-uppers. As the neighbors gathered curbside in shorts and shades, I set Dusty in her chair and took the adjoining one. A perfect day for a centennial parade, it was the balmiest of blue afternoons with cheerful breezes swaying all the tall trees. But things turned south quickly when a fire engine leading the procession rolled past with its siren blaring. As it turns out, Dusty’s not keen on sirens at all. Nor did she like the steel drum band on the float that followed. She thrashed as I tried to console her and convince her that centennials don’t happen often, and that she should relax and enjoy the festivities without further fuss. But my cat had a crazed look in her eyes, as if the parade were really an army of veterinarians coming for her. So I had little choice but to bring her inside, or risk having my face torn off (whether or not that would be an improvement is beside the point).

Watching the parade from the picture window in the living room was a reasonable compromise, I suppose, though things were muffled (Dusty wanted all the windows closed), and, obviously, we didn’t get any of the candy tossed by the cavalcade of clowns. But how long can I hold a grudge against my harried little housemate? That very night, Dusty roused me from my slumber, dropping a warm, dead mouse on my chest. That mouse was almost certainly the same one that defecated all over our silverware drawer, with potential plans to chew all the electrical wiring in the walls and ultimately burn the house to the ground, if heroic Dusty hadn’t taken action. After bounding out of bed with the most masculine of shrieks (like any man who suddenly discovers a dead mouse on his chest), I ultimately disposed of the little carcass into the trash bag with the help of an oven mitt, while Dusty looked on encouragingly. Afterwards we bonded over vanilla ice cream under the soft glow of the stove light. Happy centennial, you marvelous little parade-hating, rodent-slaying beast!

By now you might be wondering if a cat like mine possesses any sense of whimsy. The answer is a resounding no! She won’t wear party hats, regardless of whose birthday it is. And forget about Halloween costumes or Christmas sweaters (or reindeer antlers!). I try coaxing without effect, even admonishing her that she’s lucky I’m not some little girl, dressing her in doll clothes against her will, swaddling her in small blankets and pushing her about in a plastic baby buggy. But Dusty is her typical skeptical self. To her impervious, pigheaded mind, there’s no such thing as little girls, let alone doll clothes or plastic baby buggies. And so, no matter how much I cajole, I’m always the one wearing the party hat and blowing the horn, while she licks the frosting off the birthday cake I baked for myself, with little regard for all those whisker-singeing candles.

Dancing, whimsy, etcetera aside, she’s a pretty good cat. Uses her box conscientiously and consistently, keeps the shedding to a reasonable level, doesn’t make a lot of racket (she was already spayed when I got her). One of the wonderful things about cats is the instantaneous friendship you have. You pick them up from the shelter, pay the reasonable fee, purchase the plastic litter receptacle, some litter, a bag of kibble, some practice mice that rattle and — voilà — new roommate, bedmate, rodent-hunter, and BFF. Lonely? Not anymore, you’re not!

Mine popped her head out of the cardboard carrying box she came in and, looking about my living room for the first time, began purring like a Geiger counter gone berserk. And she hadn’t even seen the rest of the house yet!

So we wrestle and snuggle and sometimes attempt a late-night box step, Dusty and me. Who needs dating services or softball leagues or drinking buddies when you’ve got a cat — friendly, frisky and warm (and stuck with you, anyway)? She may not dance well, but you should see her leap from the kitchen floor to the counter to the top of the refrigerator in two swift, self-assured bounds, just like the bionic woman. I must remember not to set the greasy pizza box up there.

Speaking of pizza — my cat is making me fat. No matter how good I strive to be — doing sit-ups each night after work and eating at least one vegetable with every meal except breakfast (unless you count the green clovers in the Lucky Charms) — she gets me at my most vulnerable, the middle of the night, when I’m not thinking straight and prone to sleepwalking. I guess it’s my fault, as I’m the one who taught her the joys of midnight snacking. This was before I started trying to be good — umpteen years and unmentionable pounds ago. So now it seems I’ve created this nocturnal nuisance. “Come on, Papa,” she says wordlessly at two in the morning, pulling the covers off of me with her little paw while I try to sleep and — if that doesn’t do the trick — swatting me in the face with that same paw — “time to eat.” Ignoring her merely leads to more face swats, and the occasional eye gouge. So I get up, and we share more ice cream under the soft glow of the stove light, or cold cuts or string cheese or maybe a bowl of Lucky Charms (she likes the sweet, iridescent residual milk once the cereal is gone). Half the time I’m not even hungry, but I eat with her because Dusty is not the sort of cat to eat alone. So I’m gaining weight and losing sleep, but keeping our codependency intact. Somehow, in spite of all the midnight snacking, she manages to maintain her dainty, six-pound frame while I’ve added around six inches to my waistband. If only we could do more dancing.

But here’s the God’s honest truth: I don’t know what I would do without her.

And I’m afraid I’ve saved the worst for last.

My cat is terrible at immortality. The first veterinarian — a small, sweet, grandfatherly man with a coppery hairpiece and pond-water eyes — cheerfully sells me a tube of laxative for her chronic constipation and shows me an X-ray of another poor cat he’d treated that had the Goodyear blimp of turds lodged in her colon, suggesting how lucky Dusty is by comparison. But the second veterinarian — the grim Germanic woman at the farther-away clinic — holds up a tiny vial with Dusty’s diluted urine and delivers the prognosis for the deadly disease I never suspected she had. But … but … her lab scores were normal four months ago! The doctor points solemnly to a framed picture on the wall of her own beloved calico who passed away one month ago, her creatinine and BUN scores in the normal range to the very end. On the stainless-steel examination counter, Dusty huddles and vomits up some frothy pink saliva, which the veterinarian wipes up with a tissue, telling us we likely have just a few days to a few months left, and — because we’re new clients to her clinic — we’re offered our choice from a small basket of practice mice. I pick up several in succession, shaking each one. None of them rattle, but Dusty doesn’t really play with cat toys anymore, anyway. I choose the littlest one, so that Dusty will feel big in comparison. It’s the least I can do.

When we get home, I drink three scotch and sodas, and lock myself in the bathroom to cry.

No one lives forever, I suppose, but cats are supposed to have nine lives, and I had been under the misconception I might have a full lifetime with her. Turns out — and I hate to break this to you — the “nine lives” thing is a myth. False advertising. Hyperbole.

The vet and the internet both say her condition is chronic, progressive, and irreversible. I can perhaps slow things down but can’t stop them from happening, no matter how much I hope or pray. So I purchase bags of lactated ringer’s solution and the administration sets and needles needed to keep her hydrated (which unfortunately entails sticking her daily — making her probably reconsider our relationship at this late stage). And famotidine in the form of an expensive transdermal gel once it becomes apparent that Dusty will outsmart me every time I try pilling her with the inexpensive generic over-the-counter stuff (faking a swallow, then spitting out the pill once she’s off my lap and leaving the room). I try buying flavorless prescription food that she won’t eat, and so go back to the regular stuff, and supplement it with all her favorite snacks — turkey hot dogs cut into little bits, chicken-flavored baby food, vanilla ice cream. She no longer has the spring-breeze scent of a dryer sheet, but rather smells somewhat like the chemical refinery just outside of town. Scrawny and sluggish, she’s stopped hunting the mice that have overrun the place, stealing her food while she’s sleeping, leaving cruel souvenirs on her dish and in our silverware drawer, and probably chewing on all the electrical wiring.

And yet, she still greets me at the front door after work every night. She still wants to go outside, eat grass, and wander into neighboring yards (though with the lumbering gait of a drunkard now). She continues to wake me for midnight snacks, and still effectively wrestles my right hand (with somewhat softer biting and more licking now — which I’ll admit I prefer). I keep watching for the signs that it’s time — when the bad outweighs the good, and I’d be selfish to let things continue. Once, I thought the decision had been made for me. On a sun-drenched Saturday morning, I looked up from my paperback to find Dusty sprawled awkwardly upside-down in a square of sunbeam, halfway off her heating pad, eyes rolled back in her head. I rushed over, crouching and crying “Oh, no,” repeatedly, my heart in my throat, stroking her fur without effect. And then, miraculously, she opened her eyes wide, gave me the Grand Canyon of yawns and scrambled to her feat, sniffing her way over to the saucer of mushy food that awaited her beside her pad. My heart found its way back to my chest and a more regular rhythm, and I scolded Dusty for scaring me like that, while simultaneously kissing her on the head repeatedly, sending her mixed messages.

If we dance anymore, it’s a slow dance, with the music turned down low, and me holding her in my arms.

And if there’s a point to any of this, it’s nothing more profound than this: You shouldn’t put all your eggs into one basket. Dusty’s going to leave me sometime soon. And I’m unprepared for life without her.

The way I see it, a home should have more than one heartbeat in it.

A single heartbeat is among the loneliest of things, like the moon or a broken-winged bird. So make sure there are enough heartbeats in your life.

Dusty naps on my chest as I write this. She’s outlived her grim prognosis, and I wonder if she’s hanging on for my sake, perhaps sensing she’s all I have. Some would say cats don’t care about anyone but themselves (I once heard someone say if cats had fingers, they’d all be middle ones). But they don’t know Dusty, and the bond we have.

I’m inclined to believe there might be another world out there — a warm, sprawling, sunny place where the grass is much greener than here, where there are no property lines and no one stops you from going where you want to go. Where tasty snacks can be found any time of the day or night. Where no one will ever again stick you with a needle. Where bodies function exactly as they were meant to. I pray that you find it, Little One.

So roam if you want to, Dusty. Whenever you’re ready.

You don’t have to worry about me — I’ll be fine. Me and my single but steadfast heartbeat.

For this heart can’t truly be broken, can it? Not when you will live in there forever. And I refuse to give you a broken home.

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  1. I felt a million different emotions reading this! It made me so happy but so emotional at the same time. A very fun quirky read but also heart warming and touching. Thank you for sharing this

  2. I agree with Christine’s comments. In addition I like your writing style in the telling of this story. If it is in fact more non-fiction than fiction, you’ll get a new cat, in time, (shelter or otherwise) that you’ll come to love with his or her own interesting quirks.


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