February 6, 2009

Learning from Eddie

By Saralee Perel

Eddie the Cat

Photo by Saralee Perel.

Day after day, I'd ask my husband, Bob, "Has the vet called with Eddie's results?"

"Not yet," he'd say.

On the day he answered, "Yes," I blocked his response from my brain. I had just come in the front door and went to hang up my coat. Bob touched my shoulders. "It's not good," he said.

I felt like something explosive hit me in my chest. "Just tell me straight," I said.

"Eddie has a very aggressive cancer. He has about two months at the most."

Now, I have worked in emergency rooms as a psychiatric consultant. I am used to trauma - that is, other people's traumas.

But I had the oddest reaction. I thought, "If I put my coat on and go back out the front door, as if I hadn't come home yet, I could go back in time and what I'm hearing will not have happened." I really believed that.

Bob had me sit on the couch. But I was still unable to take it in. I could only see his mouth moving as he told me about our cat, my little soul mate Eddie. Every few seconds or so, the thought sank in, "Eddie is dying." But instantly I'd go right back into never-never land, dismissing any intrusive thoughts of reality.

Finally, my tears turned to torrents. "He's supposed to be around for years. He is fine! He just saw the vet for a routine physical!"

In denial, I so needed to find a way to make it all untrue. I called the vet. "Are you sure?" was all I could think of to ask. He was sure.

I haven't told too many people about this. With so much trauma many of us have in our lives, I was afraid that friends wouldn't have compassion. And some that I did tell said, "It's just a cat."

We adopted Eddie from a shelter when he was 8 weeks old. From day one, he has spent his life destroying our house. We spend half of our time cleaning up broken pieces of china he's shoved off a table and the other half keeping him safe. We have ugly plastic outdoor fencing above our shower door. That's because Eddie had a grand old time flinging himself to the top of the door while I'd be taking a bath. Then he'd do a high dive into the bathtub.

He may hang in there for a while with treatment. He deserves that chance. We have several veterinarians helping us. I asked Dr. Tom Burns, who is the primary caregiver for all of our animals, "Do you have any advice on grief?"

"Take it one day at a time. Eddie doesn't know he has cancer. He's not thinking like a human would. He's just happy - in the moment. He doesn't think about what might be or when or how. We could all learn a lot from that."

I must say that I look at Eddie differently at this point. I wish that it had not taken a dire diagnosis for me to do this. When I hold him, I am acutely aware that he will die sooner than his time. Hence, I appreciate and savor each moment with him.

He's different with me, too. He runs a hundred miles an hour to greet me. Meowing and purring like crazy, he jumps into my arms, then closes his eyes in cat ecstasy while he licks my face. I'm so angry with myself. I agonize, "Why did this have to happen for us to develop a closer bond?"

From now on, I vow it will not take cancer to teach me this appreciation of loved ones. I wish I had learned this before I'm about to lose Eddie. I don't want his purpose in life to be the lessons he's taught me. But alas, he has been my greatest philosopher.

I tell him, "You've taught me that family bonds matter more than stupid pieces of china or scratched furniture. You've taught me to think twice whenever the choice is between picking you up when you want to snuggle, or walking right by you to do something that could easily wait. You've taught me that loving one another is always what is most important. And Eddie?" I whisper from my soul to his, "What will I ever do without you?"

Saralee Perel is an award-winning columnist and retired psychotherapist. You can reach her at sperel@saraleeperel.com. Her website is www.saraleeperel.com.

©Copyright 2009 by Saralee Perel