Guest Post: The Cat & the Coronavirus


One of our cats, the gray tabby female, hasn’t been eating well lately. We’re not sure how long this has been going on. Has it been since late February, around the time the first victim of COVID-19 in Washington State died in a hospital 10 miles from where we live in Seattle? Did it start earlier, in the last days of January, when the country’s first coronavirus infection was diagnosed in the next county to the north? It’s difficult to keep track these days.

On a Friday in mid-March I take my uncertain timeline and both cats to the vet for checkups. She pronounces our other cat, the orange tabby male, healthy as the proverbial horse. But she lingers over the gray tabby, feeling her abdomen as a concerned look comes over her face, and that’s when I know everything has changed.

The vet feels some kind of mass. “It could be an enlarged kidney,” she offers, and I nod, but we both know it isn’t.

Driving the cats back home I wonder how I will tell my husband and, especially, my daughter. I run through my expanding list of other worries: my parents in Arizona, where no one in charge seems to be taking this virus seriously, my stepfather-in-law with chronic lung disease. Will 2020 be the year we lose everything? I wonder to myself, maudlin.

***

The gray tabby’s name is Daisy. She was a neighborhood stray we took in the summer my daughter turned two. I asked my daughter what we should name the cat and she pointed to some plants in the yard and said, “Flowers.” I don’t think she was really responding to my question but I felt obliged to honor her answer. Flowers is a pretty ridiculous name for a cat, but it was only a hop and a skip from there to Daisy, which suited so well it soon felt like it had been her name forever.

Maybe it’s the stress of the journey or maybe it’s just that now we know something is wrong, but Daisy seems much worse after returning from the vet. She hardly eats or moves all weekend.

My husband has been working on stocking our pantry, adding canned soup and four kinds of beans to a grocery order to be delivered late next week. He’s good with emergency supplies. He fetches a container of dry cat kibble from our earthquake kit in the garden shed. I didn’t even know we had it. It’s the worst, most junk-food-y kind of stuff, little poultry-flavored bits in a variety of different shapes, like kitty Lucky Charms. Daisy is ravenous for it. My husband weeps as she eats it out of his hand.

***

By the time the abdominal ultrasound we’ve scheduled for the following week arrives, our veterinary practice has instituted some new rules. No human clients allowed in the clinic. You call from the parking lot, and a tech comes out, masked and gowned, to pick up the cat carrier you’ve set on the ground six feet away from your own body.

The ultrasound confirms that Daisy has a six- to eight-centimeter mass in her jejunum, a part of the small intestine. It’s causing some blood to leak into her abdomen, and there are “infiltrates,” a medical term for ghosts of something-or-other, near her spleen.

The radiologist took a sample of the mass with a long needle, and now the vet asks if I want to send the biopsy to the pathology lab for examination. Why wouldn’t we? I think. The vet mistakes my confusion for hesitation. “You’ve already paid for it,” she says. So I say yes of course, go ahead.

The next day, confirmation: the mass is a large granular cell lymphoma – basically an aggressive form of an aggressive form of blood cancer.

One of my favorite things is to pick Daisy up, hold her on her back and bury my face in the thick fur of her belly. I won’t claim that she enjoys this, but she tolerates it, bless her. Of course her belly was shaved for the ultrasound, and now belly kisses have become one more in a series of small, everyday pleasures suddenly lost to me. Kissing her bald skin seems wrong, too intimate. And I don’t want to kiss the tumor underneath. How do we separate the body we love from the monstrous thing growing inside it?

***

Due diligence must be done, so I set up a consult with a veterinary oncologist. Under the circumstances, telemedicine will suffice. The oncologist offers options, quotes statistics: six months median survival with aggressive chemotherapy, two months without. How long is either one of those possibilities? I’ve lost my ability to gauge time. “With that said, there are always outliers,” the oncologist says. But her message is clear: the only real option for Daisy, as for us, is to shelter in place for as long as it takes.

These days there’s a feeling of being simultaneously in solidarity and out of synch with everyone else in the world. Other people are adopting and fostering cats and dogs from shelters during their self-isolation. Not us. I’m worried that if Daisy dies before this is over, our one remaining cat is not going to be enough for a family of three to get through a global pandemic. I wish I had stocked up on cats.

***

I joke that developing a terminal illness when all three of her people are stuck at home full-time is extremely on-brand for a cat. And in fact, taking care of Daisy brings structure to our days of suspended animation. A quarter-tablet of anti-nausea medication in the morning. An anti-inflammatory steroid just before bed. Tiny aliquots of painkiller squirted into her mouth to begin and end the day.

 She has kibble in a little blue dish, water in a little glass bowl. Sometimes she drinks more if we put her on our lap and pet her shoulder blades. Sometimes she wants to eat but doesn’t want to get up, so we nudge her food bowl up underneath her nose.

We play musical cat, shuffling her around among the three of us as we get on Zoom meetings for work or school. In our isolation she’s never alone.

At night she sleeps with my daughter, who’s 12 now and whom I refer to when talking to Daisy as “your person.” Daisy is an indiscriminately friendly cat, but it’s true that she is my daughter’s in that way cats have of really belonging to a single human. We’ve tried to be honest with our daughter about what’s to come, laying out the prognosis, avoiding euphemisms. But I’m not sure if she really gets it, that Daisy is certainly going to die, probably quite soon, but it’s impossible to know just when. In the same way, I’m not sure I’ve managed to make her understand the seriousness of what the world at large is going through.

Do I even understand it?

***

Daisy came into our lives in the summer of 2009. She simply showed up and began spending more and more time in our backyard. She was so friendly that we thought she must belong to somebody, but she was also skinny and slightly wall-eyed. To see if she was hungry, one morning I gave her a bowl of kibble, and that was that.

She started sleeping beneath the overhanging branches of a Japanese maple at the edge of our patio, and it only took her a few days to grasp our rhythms. I’d get up at 6 and shower; she could see the bathroom light go on from her little cave, and by the time I was dressed she’d be at the sliding glass door to the patio, waiting for breakfast.

We put a collar on her with a little tag, paper laminated in packing tape, asking her owners – if she had any – to call us. After two weeks we’d heard nothing, so I took her to the city shelter and told them we wanted to adopt her if no one claimed her.

 When I picked her up from the shelter’s spay and neuter clinic a few days later she was groggy with anesthesia. She came to in an unfamiliar space, suddenly transformed from a stray to an indoor cat sharing a home with two adult humans and a toddler, and two other cats to boot. I never thought about what that must have been like for her until just now.

As it turned out, the surgery hadn’t been necessary. When the clinic staff shaved her belly in preparation for the spaying they discovered a scar from a past procedure. She must have belonged to another family at some time before. Of course, this all happened during the Great Recession, so we imagined that her previous family might have fallen on hard times, moved away abruptly and left their cat behind.

 Now it seems likely that the cat who came into our lives in the middle of one global crisis will leave us in the middle of another. Even the smallest lives are inseparable from the largest events, which round our existence like tails curled about our sleeping bodies.

***

Schools are closed for two weeks, then six weeks, then the rest of the year. The enormous old cherry tree in our front yard blooms and snows.

My biggest fear is that when Daisy has to be euthanized none of us will be allowed to be there. I know so many people are in a situation much like this right now – dying alone, or unable to say goodbye to the loved ones they are losing –  and Daisy after all is only a cat. But I’m consumed by this worry. I want to be able to hold her when she dies. I go so far as to call around to different veterinary practices, until I find one that will let me.

***

Daisy has been confined to our home for a decade. Now, as our human world has shrunk to just the house and yard, Daisy’s world is expanding to the same parameters: we’ve started taking her outside for short, supervised walks. Some days it’s the only thing that seems to perk her up and some days she sits in front of the patio door waiting, like a mirror image of her long-ago self.

Today she trots after us when my daughter and I head out to the backyard to plant seeds in the garden: peas, kale, Swiss chard, spinach, arugula, three kinds of lettuce. This isn’t our first time gardening, but it’s nice this year to be part of this socially distant ritual along with countless other households. My daughter and I tag-team, taking turns keeping an eye on Daisy and putting the seeds in neat rows. Daisy walks along the edges of the raised beds and eyes a bush near the back fence, just starting to leaf out, that looks like a good hiding place. Back inside, the three of us watch the Steller’s jays descend on the garden to pick through the disturbed soil for potato bugs.

***

Sunday, April 5: A tiger at the Bronx Zoo has a cough and has been diagnosed with coronavirus. It is expected to make a full recovery. Meanwhile, Daisy has developed the sniffles: maybe allergies, or a latent upper respiratory virus activated by stress or immunosuppression from the steroids. It’s nothing to worry about, but she is not expected to recover.

I lie down on my back on the couch and settle Daisy on top of my breastbone. The bald spot on her belly is hot, like a bird’s brood patch. But no one knows what will hatch from this.

***

I’m typing this while sitting at one end of the living room couch at 5:30 one morning. My daughter is at the other end, reading on her phone. Daisy is underneath the couch. She woke up an hour ago and vomited repeatedly, and now she’s hiding.

In about 20 minutes I’ll get up and make myself a cup of coffee, and my daughter some hot chocolate. A few hours later, it will become clear that today is Daisy’s last day with us. And some time after that, I’ll find the words to explain why, these last weeks, I’ve felt compelled to write all this down: Even the luckiest of us will emerge from this with these small griefs, so minor in comparison to others’ that they seem not to count, and yet so difficult to bear in isolation. When we meet again, will we be able to tell each other what we’ve lost?

_________

Sarah DeWeerdt is a freelance science journalist and poet in Seattle, Washington. She writes about bats, killer whales, ancient sponge lineages, Antarctic ice shelves, and now, apparently, domestic shorthair tabby cats.