The Earl of Grey

This piece previously appeared in the November 2011 issue of Kalliope Magazine.


This morning, Edgar wakes me.  Violet shadows blur the outlines of the walls and furnishings; all I see is the red light on the clock in the corner of my bedroom. 4:45 a.m.  I don’t need an alarm and never set one.

Like every morning since this cat joined my life six years ago, Edgar chirps a soft meow about 8 inches from my face, and then passes his paw over my cheek.  The pads on his feet are smooth and cool, his claws retracted. I open my eyes to find his whiskered face just an inch away from mine. No matter how many times he does this, I am still startled to see his face so near.

“Pooh-bah, no,” I say, pushing him back, wanting to stay in the cocoon of sheets and blankets.  It’s completely dark outside.  He chirps again.  His body slides along mine as he rubs his angora-soft coat against my uncovered arm. I roll over, longing to sleep just a few moments longer.  He settles in the cup of my arm and begins to purr.  His body quivers with delight.  He rolls onto his back, continuing to check and re-check for any indication of movement.  He watches to discern when I will swing my legs over the side of the bed and head to the bathroom where his empty bowl awaits.  He stares at me, black eyes fierce.  His hind legs push into my tummy, as his voice rumbles and rises.

“Edgar B,” I sigh, “Stop it.”  This vocalizing is quickly followed by the swish of a tail smacking my face.  He then begins a ritualized walk over my pillows.  He carefully kneads the pillows and pillowcases, spelling out his message with his feet: Feed me. This is his mantra – his singular, simple prayer – every morning of my life.

Most of my cats are quirky weirdoes that no one else wanted.  I’ve ended up with a cat found wandering in the wilderness, starving; or one discovered on the ninth hole of a swanky Paradise Valley golf course, where a good Samaritan rescued her, after some jackass “set her free” in early August.  I’ve found kittens in the local Feed and Seed store and discovered others on the side of the road.  Some wounded part of me needs these throw-away beings.  I relate to their situation – perhaps too much – but I relate nonetheless.

Prior to my referral, I’d never heard of Arizona Veterinary Specialists.  I had no idea what a pet dermatologist was, and I was curious to find out, although not happy to be sent to yet another doctor, trying desperately to “fix” Edgar.  My cat-woman-friend, Stephanie, who has been along for the ride on all this kitty medical care (since I don’t drive or own a car) stands in the examination room, stroking Edgar, as he makes himself mushroom small. “I just hope this guy knows what the hell he is doing,” she says.  She coos at Ed and scratches his chin. “I am just about at the end of what I can take.”

The doctor, Darren Berger, DVM, walks in.  His head and face are clean shaven, and he wears the requisite white lab coat, khakis, and tennis shoes.  A stethoscope hangs loosely around his neck.  He exudes an aura of confidence that makes me like him.  After reading the chart, he examines Edgar and says, “Well, the bad news is there’s a microbial infection in the wound on his leg.  The good news is that we have seen two other cases like this, and it can be treated, but it needs to be done aggressively with a long term commitment.  Typically, if you don’t treat it for long enough, it keeps coming back.  We treat for a minimum of six months.”

My eyes fill with tears of relief.  “So he can be treated?”

“Yes.  It’s difficult, but it can be treated.”

After dozens of visits to two different vets, an energy healer and a psychic, I have finally gotten an answer.

I found Edgar — my little gray ghost — in the summer of 2006.  Wounded and dehydrated, he was left in a cat carrier outside the closed office of my apartment complex on July 4th weekend with no food and no water. He’d been stabbed in the haunch with a pencil.

Unbeknownst to me, cats can withstand long term infection in their muscle tissue, without that infection becoming systemic and entering their bloodstream.  According to Dr. Berger, microbes can slam dance in a cat’s muscle tissue, like those cartoon critters associated with sinus pressure, even when the animal otherwise appears to be completely healthy. Part of my frustration with the clinics I visited had to do with the utter disbelief that greeted me whenever I reported on Edgar’s illness.  I felt like the mother of a chronically ill child prior to the discovery of a strange, uncharted, and uncategorized branch of sickness.  I believed in an illness that, as far as they were concerned, wasn’t real.

“Do you want chicken, turkey or tuna flavor?” the pharmacy tech asks me over the phone as she works to fill Ed’s new prescription for antibiotics.

I have no idea.  Since the side effects of this medication are diarrhea and vomiting, I fail to see how flavoring the drug will help.

I finally decide, “Tuna.  He likes tuna.”

She charges my credit card and promises delivery in 2 -3 business days.

Edgar is going to get well.  I can feel it, even if it means he may vomit or experience diarrhea all over my brand new area rug.

“Give it to him with food.  That helps with the side effects,” she says before hanging up.  I hold the phone for a long moment and look at Ed sleeping on the window seat in my office.

This cat became family because of a lucky accident. I nearly fell over his cat carrier when I dropped off my rent check one morning six summers ago. I’ve learned about letting things go as I’ve watched Ed’s equanimity in the face of multiple surgeries and wound cleanings and round after round after round of antibiotics.

Admittedly, my frustration over the situation recently became acute.  I considered the possibility that euthanizing him might be a better choice than keeping him. Untenable for me, but, at least momentarily, it felt better for him. I cannot imagine having a seeping wound for three years.  Still, I changed my mind.  I decided to try one more clinic. I contacted Dr. Berger.

Nothing I did for Edgar’s wound helped.  He’d recover for a month or two, and then rip it open so it could drain.  He liked his visits with the energy healer, but even she couldn’t get to the bottom of things.  The pet psychic told me he had trust issues.

The odd thing was, during all of this drama, Edgar was happy.  He’d visit my bed at night, tuck himself in close to me, and purr loudly.  He’d allow me to cradle his body in my arms like a big fluffy baby.  He ate voraciously.  He loved eating treats, table scraps, and the occasional patch of catnip spilled on the floor.  As guilty as I felt about his condition, he was a perfectly contented member of my family.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, American pet owners spend upwards of $23 billion each year (16.1 billion on dogs; 7.1 billion on cats) on veterinary care for their animals.  Owners have been known to treat their pet’s cancer, diabetes, and other catastrophic injuries to the tune of thousands and thousands of dollars.  My bills for Edgar’s care are now topping eighteen hundred bucks.

Edgar Berry.  Edgar Graybeard.  Edgar Gray Ghost. Edgar Grey Seal.  Edgar Von Truffle-Butt. Edgar – Earl of Grey. My eccentric ex-boyfriend, Michael, named Edgar.  I think he wanted something distinguished and highfalutin.  He longed to give him a moniker that evoked a sense of awe.  Given the choice, I doubt I would have chosen Edgar; but the choice wasn’t mine.  At the time, the man I loved considered Edgar to be “his cat.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Edgar stayed.  Michael didn’t.

During the latest foreclosure crisis, thousands of pets have been abandoned in empty houses, where if they were extremely fortunate, some realtor discovered them before they starved to death.  Edgar showed up because he was abandoned by his owners when they moved out of my apartment complex.  I cannot imagine doing that to a houseplant, let alone a living animal.  How can you simply walk out on your pet?

“They did him a favor,” Judy, the pet psychic says, without rancor.

“How so?”

“The child who hurt him was mentally ill.  Ed was better off being left there where you’d find him.”

I ponder my circuitous journey with this animal – my familiar, my side kick.  I think about all the times I sat in a cold examination room with him, hovering and worried sick.  I look into his face, so open, and willing, and graceful.  This animal has stretched my capacity to love.  He’s responsible for an awakening in me I’m not sure I can quantify.  I feel gratitude for my own wounds – those inscrutable circles that draw me back into life.  Ed’s done that for me.  This small mound of fur, teeth, tongue, and bone has forced me to go eyeball to eyeball with sickness, mortality and loss.  I wonder now if I found him, or if he was sent to open me, to burrow under my skin, to find his way into my most tender places.

If I had to venture a guess, I’d say it is the latter.

© 2012  Shavawn M. Berry  All rights reserved

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