Sunday, November 22, 2009

What’s in a name?

Perhaps we sealed Joan’s fate by naming her after Joan of Arc, the doomed warrior who would die young.

Her recovery was short lived. It wasn’t long before I once again found her lying motionless and flat at the bottom of the box when the commotion and cat hair had settled. I lifted her warm, limp body from where it lay amidst folds of blanket and sat with her again, straining at first to feel if she was breathing, it was so shallow. This time, she didn’t respond. We took her to the vet that afternoon and saw the same woman who so enthusiastically and caringly treated Quincy.

I discovered then, vets play favourites. This woman who couldn’t do enough for Quincy, and gushed about what a great dog he was, looked down her nose at our kitten and advised us to have all six of them euthanized. Then added, blank-faced, we should box the lot up and take them back to the Humane Society, that’s what she would do. They were not our problem. We shook our heads, we wouldn’t do either of those things. The kittens were our problem, a problem that became bigger as she told us more.

Without trying to hide the fact she thought we were wasting her time, the vet explained the kittens most likely all had FIV - Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (similar to HIV in humans). It’s a condition many, if not all, strays have. With useless immune systems, she said, if any of them so much as caught a chill, they wouldn’t survive.

She reluctantly gave us some antibiotics for Joan and we left the office in silence. Our drive home was filled with unspoken questions and concerns, the car burst at the seams with them. A mild panic began to weave its way through me as I replayed the vet’s dire predictions in my head. The way she described it, I expected the kittens to drop dead at any minute and resolved to name them and keep them all because they couldn’t possibly live more than six months.

I reluctantly brought the idea up with Morgan, who lately had complained about the kittens wearing on his nerves. He was getting anxious to find homes for them, but he agreed with me. If they were going to live for just six months, we would make sure they had a happy life.

When we got home, I quickly named the other three. The exotic calico I called Broom Hilda, Broomie for short. Out of all the kittens, she was the only one who was fascinated by the broom; whenever I brought it out to sweep up dog hair tumbleweeds that scudded daily across our floors, her entire world shrunk to a five-foot orbit around the broom. She would run behind it with great purpose, shooting out her front paws to take swats at the yellow bristles. If I changed direction to challenge her head-on, she would stand her ground before rising up on her back legs, front paws spread wide, wriggling her body like a snake ready to strike, then launch herself at the broom full-force.

The other calico, the pretty one who distinguished herself from the group by disappearing into her own little world in her head, we called Cleo, after Cleopatra.

That left the orangey-beige boy with the white feet and stripy body, the one I had already secretly claimed as mine. He was the hardest to name. I wanted to call him something special, something meaningful. I put so much importance on it, it was impossible to come up with anything.

Eventually I settled on Chestnut Canoe, after the company that made the cedar-strip and wood and canvas canoes that Morgan idolized. I wasn’t crazy about the name, but canoes were an important part of Morgan and my relationship from the beginning. The very first day we hung out together we went canoeing. We spent the previous two summers looking for new and interesting places to paddle, a quest that eventually brought us to Thunder Bay and Lake Superior. I thought we might call him Canoe, but for whatever reason, it was Chestnut that stuck.

Over the next couple of days Joan’s condition didn’t change. Her eyes would open in little slits and she would try and push herself to her feet. But she was too weak and her head, when she picked it up, swayed around in the air as though she was drunk.

We returned with her to the vet, a tiny, purring bundle that, to me, seemed to be trying desperately to get better. The vet, a different one this time, watched her shaky attempts to stand and the way she held her head as though it was too heavy for her body and determined it was a neurological problem. There was nothing they could do. But she was purring, I kept saying, surely that was good.

Cats also purr when they are in pain or distress, I found out later.

We brought Joan home in a shoebox and found a spot beside a big boulder beneath a stand of pine trees to bury her.

I cried off and on for days and couldn’t imagine the hell that awaited us over the next six months as we had to watch each of the kittens succumb to FIV.

About a week later we found out from a friend that she knew someone who had a cat with FIV that lived to be 13 years old.


That changed everything.

1 comment:

  1. Some nice touches here, Heather: I liked the artistic harmonizing between your camera and your pen, between the cat's picture and the cat's story. The pic of Joan is grainy, washed out, giving the kitten an ethereal lightness, an insubstantial quality; the story of sick little Joan evokes our sympathy and, like the image, we see her fading away,slowly disappearing. Interesting appeal to irony by pointing to the link between her name and her destiny. I also liked the abruptness of that single interjection "Oh", leaving the reader with a small smile.