Posted By Russ on November 25, 2004 at 12:33 am
About a year ago, I made a promise to a friend.
Late last year, I had begun considering getting a cat or two. After all, it’s a big house for me to live in all alone — I’ve lived alone for most of my adult life — and at times I’m bloody sick and tired of being lonely. I was unsure, however, if I would be suited to a cat or if cats would suit me, and I just wasn’t sure I’d want the responsibility.
At about the same time, a good friend had a need for temporary quarters for two of her cats, Xaxu and Mycah. She convinced me that a “trial run” with her two cats would be better than adopting one only to find that I was not suited to tending animals. My friend is a very devoted lover of animals, and the fact that she considered me trustworthy enough to tend her animals is something I will always regard as a significant honor. I had never been entrusted with a charge quite like that before.
So I promised that I would look after her beloved cats and return them to her in good condition when she was ready for them.
The little furballs arrived in Raleigh as air cargo on a cold blustery January day. I had re-injured my back a week or so earlier, and was barely capable of walking, but I had made a promise to a friend, and come hell or high water, I was going to keep it. I drove to the airport to pick up the cats.
The flight was hours late; the clerk at the cargo terminal told me the flight had experienced bad weather along the route and had been delayed in Dallas. I knew the cats were having a tough and rough trip. Rather than drive home and return, I waited in my truck (SUV) at the airport — leaned the seat back and tried to relax while keeping my eyes open for the arrival of the cats’ flight. Eventually — about two hours late, as I recall — the flight arrived and the cats were cleared through the cargo terminal.
Being barely able to walk, I had to carry their carrier cages one at a time through the cold to my truck. Mycah made a lot of noise, meowing constantly; I thought she’d taken the travel badly, even worse than Xaxu, who made no sound at all. I looked in to see if he was alright — he was backed into the corner, looking out at me. Not a happy cat, I thought to myself. They had had a very long, very difficult day.
I got them home and out of their cages in the bathroom where I had set up litterboxes for them. Mycah fairly danced with glee at the opportunity to use a litterbox. She settled in right away.
Xaxu was a good deal more reluctant, but he finally came out of the carrier, used the litterbox, and as I opened the door to let them both out to explore the rest of the house, he immediately hightailed it out of the bathroom.
It took me hours to find him — he had found a couch he could fit under, and hid there for the next week, coming out only to eat and use the litterbox. Every time he saw me, he dashed back to his place of refuge. After a week, he would come out from under the couch while I was in the room, but for the better part of a month it was where he spent most of his time.
Mycah had taken the travel pretty well, and had warmed up to me within hours. Xaxu, on the other hand, had obviously been traumatized by everything associated with his relocation — the awful flight, hours upon hours of confinement to a small carrier cage, having a new person looking after him. But I had made a promise to take good care of these cats, and I meant to keep it. I talked to him, I fed him treats from time to time, I petted him whenever he demanded it. In what seems now to have been a short time, he became my little buddy. He was, of course, very cattish — would only allow me to pet him for a minute or so before dashing off to play with a stuffed mouse toy, or lay in the sun shining in through a window. But at least he allowed me to get near him, and he would come to me.
Then he had a problem.
In June, I noticed what felt like a small growth, maybe a wart, on Xaxu’s ribcage. It didn’t get bigger, but when I took both cats in for worming, I asked the vet about the growth, just in case. She wasn’t sure what it was, but considered it a possibility that it was a skin cancer, a “mast cell tumor.” We scheduled a date and time for it to be surgically removed.
I had, after all, made a promise to take care of him.
On the appointed date, Xaxu was reluctant to be put into his cage, as he had been for his first trip to the vet — a perfectly natural reaction, given his previous cage experiences. He knew that the cage meant he was going to be put through trauma of some kind. His terror was evident as I drove him to the vet for the procedure, and his piteous meows were enough to break my heart. I get misty even now remembering it. I did my best to keep him calm on the trip to the vet, but he remained terrified. I dropped him off — it was early morning — and was told to pick him up that afternoon, after the anaesthetics had worn off.
As I left the vet office to go about my business for the day, I was in a funk. What if it really was a cancer and had metastasized? What if it was inoperable? These scenarios went through my head, and all I could think was what would I tell my friend if her cat was terminally ill, on my watch? It would not have been my fault, but it would have been my responsibility. I would have failed to keep my promise to a friend. And, I realized, I would have failed my new furry little friend. I don’t think I could have borne either failure lightly.
After the procedure had finished and the drugs had worn off, I was called to pick Xaxu up and take him home. The ride home — indeed, any ride — terrified him. But again, who could blame him? Every time he was stuffed into the cage, he was going to be bounced around for hours on end, or stuck with needles, or have pills forced down his throat. You would be reluctant, too.
For the return trip from the vet’s office, I bought Xaxu a “comfort carrier” — a wicker basket with a cushion, and a dome-shaped cage that fit on top. Much more open than the usual carrier, and indeed I think he was more comfortable. He tried to squeeze out through the bars, but as I drove him home, I reached a finger through the bars and rubbed him, talking to him constantly, trying to offer a measure of comfort to him. He seemed to do better, but when I got him home, he disappeared under the couch for a day or two. He returned to normal quickly enough.
I was relieved to tell my friend that her cat was not going to decline and die. I had made a promise, and it looked like I might be able to keep it.
Then Xaxu got sick.
Perhaps two weeks after the growth was removed, he became lethargic. Almost overnight, he stopped eating, would barely drink anything at all, turned his nose up at his favorite treats. He had severe diarrhea. I was frantic. I rushed him to the vet; he complained — cried, even — all the way. It was heartbreaking. But how do you tell a cat “this is for your own good?” He was having another very bad travel experience. I think the new carrier helped — I was able to scratch him a little as I drove to the vet, talking in soothing tones the entire way.
I had the vet run every test imaginable on his blood and stool samples. I was worried that the tumor had metastasized, that he was on a terminal downward slope, but no cause was ever found for his illness. The vet gave him an IV — he was severely dehydrated [having had dysentery, I know the feeling] and I was given pills with which to medicate him and a lesson in how to give him the pills. To him, it must have seemed like torture, but how can you make a cat understand that it’s for his own good? You can’t, you can only try to make him comfortable.
I had to force feed him baby food and plain yogurt with a big blunt syringe, and had to give him his pills every day. I watched over him at night, not wanting to go to bed for fear I would wake to find a lifeless little body. Over the next week, he accepted my ministrations, and he slowly began to recover. He had truly been close to death, and I lavished attention on him. My mom, visiting at the time, noticed. I hope she was pleased that I treated the little guy so well.
And the whole time, every minute, I was afraid I would have to tell my friend that Xaxu had gotten sick on my watch, that he had died, and that I had failed to keep my promise to return him safe to her. To do so would have been devastating to us both. She loves the cat, and I found that in the brief time he had been with me, I had come to love him too. When he got up from his little sickbed, walked over to his dish and ate his regular food, I could have wept for joy. I think my “happy dance” scared the neighbors.
Living alone as I do, Xaxu and Mycah had become my companions. I had never before been solely responsible for the life of another creature. Sure, we had a dog when I was a kid, and we loved him dearly, but I was not the only one responsible for his health and well-being. It was different with Xaxu. It was completely and solely up to me to make sure he was healthy and happy. And after he recovered, I think he realized who had taken care of him, who had spent hours and sleepless nights watching over him; he began to truly warm up to me. He would lay on my chest when I went to bed at night while I did my customary reading; he would sometimes sleep next to me at night; he would spend time every day perched on my mousepad as I worked at the computer, getting his chin scratched. He was my little buddy, and he was happy and healthy.
I had made a promise. But I didn’t count on learning anything substantial from it.
In the course of my custodianship, I learned something about myself: that I could unconditionally care about and for someone or something other than myself.
And then the time came for Xaxu to be reunited with my friend. Mycah will be staying with me for the foreseeable future, but Xaxu’s time to go home had come. I think he could tell something was in the wind — he seemed to spend his every waking minute within arm’s reach of me, and became insistently affectionate.
After the trip the cats had taken to get to me, I had promised that I would not put either cat on an airplane ever again. Never again would they be traumatized by being confined in a cage for hours on end with no friendly humans to comfort them. So I packed my truck, put food, water and litterbox in the back for Xaxu, and loaded up his favorite things — the blanket he likes to curl up on, the stuffed mouse toys he likes to run around with, his scratching post.
He got into his new carrier almost without resistance. As I drove west, he cried, thinking no doubt he was going to the vet again. But as the miles and hours passed, I think he realized that it wasn’t the vet to whom he was going, but he of course didn’t know where he was going, and that scared him. I talked soothingly to him, and let him out of his carrier, being certain that he would not interfere with my driving. We made frequent stops at rest areas. Eventually, he perched on the console between the front seats of the truck, and I petted and scratched him, and talked to him in an effort to keep him calm and comforted. As darkness fell, he lay on the center console, put his front paws on my lap, and dozed off.
I arrived at my sister’s house after the first day’s drive, and he retreated underneath the rear seat — he knew he would have to get out of the truck, but his past experiences had taught him well, and he was reluctant to do so. But I got him out, and brought him (and his food, water, and litter) into the room in which I would be staying. He made himself right at home, but he made absolutely certain to sleep right next to me that night.
The next morning, we again loaded up the truck and began driving. The first day had been about six hours on the road; day two was going to be 14 hours — a long stretch for a person, but an interminable hell for a small cat who doesn’t like to travel.
But he did well during the trip, mostly. He curled up on the back seat and dozed on his favorite blanket, he used his litterbox, he curled up on the center console. And again, I spent most of the day talking to him and petting him when he was close enough. Frequent stops for bathroom breaks (for me) and petting (for him) probably didn’t hurt, either
As the sun set, I still had hours to go, and I was getting tired. But even more than that, I knew the hour was rapidly approaching when I would return my little friend to his home. It was hard. And as it got dark, Xaxu wrapped himself around my forearm, refusing to let go, tucked his head into the crook of my elbow, and dozed. It was as if he had placed his complete trust in me.
34 hours and 1300 miles after leaving home I handed Xaxu — tired, scared and confused by the whole ordeal — to my friend.
Why did I do it? Why did I spend the last ten or so months caring for a cat, taking him to the vet, making sure he was well, and then driving halfway across the country to bring him home again? Because I made a promise to a friend, a friend for whom I care. I was never before sure that I could unhesitatingly give or do as much for another person’s happiness.
“Let her meet you halfway,” some said. No. I made a promise.
“Just put him on an airplane — it’ll be cheaper and faster.” No. I made a promise.
“Just keep the cat.” No. I made a promise.
A few days later, as I rolled down the highway on the way home and darkness fell, I reached down to pet Xaxu. He wasn’t there….
My little furry friend has gone home, and I miss him. And yet I’m sure the loss I feel is only the smallest fraction of what my friend had felt over the past year, being without the creature she loves so much. I love the little guy too, and miss him terribly already, but I take comfort in the knowledge that he is with the only person on the planet who cares for him more than I do.
Some people make promises with no intent of keeping them. Others make promises conditionally, keeping them only if it is convenient to do so. I have, at times in the past, been that way.
No more. A promise is an oath, a contract, a covenant: not to be made lightly. If you don’t intend to keep the promise, say so up front. If there are foreseeable conditions under which you might not be able to keep the promise, say so at the outset. Or don’t make the promise.
It’s important to consider not only the promise one makes, but to whom the promise is made. In this case, I gave my word to a good friend. There is no condition short of my incapacitation which would have kept me from keeping my word. Had it been a promise to someone else, I might have attached conditions. But to this friend, my promise was unconditional. Period. That is why I drove 1300 miles there, and then back, over the course of a week.
I discovered something else along the way. I had made a promise to my friend, but by the time I kept it, I found that I had made that same promise to a little black cat, too — that I would take care of him to the best of my ability.
I’d do it all again for my friend. And since I still have Mycah — perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently — I may someday be called upon to do it again. Until that day comes, I’ll be doing my utmost to keep her healthy and happy.