Today it is my pleasure to introduce you to the late great Spike, who went to join the Choir Invisible in 2004. He was a retired cat by the time we got him around 1997, but he reinvented himself in his later years and quite possibly saved my life.
My husband and I both loved cats, but we agreed that neither one of us wanted to be bothered with a furry friend. "No kids, no pets, we travel light," is what we used to say.
I loved cats as a child. My father, who was a troubled man, hated cats. Mom brought a kitten home one day, and my dad was pissed, but we kept the kitten anyway. I named him Cricket. I don't remember how long we had Cricket, but I do know that one day he was just gone. I vividly remember coming home from school every day for six months to check the newspaper under lost and found -- to see if Cricket had magically appeared somewhere and was ready to come home. I eventually gave up.
Several years later we had a dog. I was a teenager. While watching TV, my dad said it was time to get up and feed the dog. I said I would take care of it during the next commercial. He said, "Feed the dog now, or I'll kill it just like I did your cat."
That's how I found out where Cricket went. Maybe that's when I decided this wouldn't happen again.
Fast forward to Charleston, South Carolina. My husband and I are living in a home by the marsh in Mount Pleasant, just across the bridge from the peninsula. We had both seen this white cat out in the marsh all winter, and we were curious. Neither one of us mentioned it until the spring, when Dale was out working in the yard. He came in and asked if I had seen the white cat. It had been kind of a cold winter by South Carolina standards, and we couldn't believe he had survived out there.
Just like that we agreed that we would try to feed him. We discussed what it meant -- that we most certainly would end up with a cat, and we shrugged as though we'd been planning it all along. I bought some cat food and took it out to the backyard. I saw the cat on the edge of the marsh, and as soon as I even walked out there, he was gone!
I waited and watched from the kitchen window, and a couple of hours later he came back to eat the food. We moved the food closer and closer to the house over the course of a couple of weeks, and he eventually came to the screened porch, where we kept the door propped open for him and all the bugs. He didn't run away anymore, but he wouldn't let us touch him either.
We actually thought he was a pregnant female because his belly was so swollen. It was after a couple of months of feeding that we were finally able to pick him up and get him in a carrier so that we could take him to the vet. That's when we found out "she was a he" with bad worms. The vet presented us with a handsome bill and a bagful of stuff to fix him up, and the transformation was unbelievable. He was a white cat, but it wasn't until he shed practically his entire coat that we discovered how white he really was. All the dingy yellow fur fell off and this beauty emerged. We named him Spike.
The shedding annoyed me. I actually remember telling my husband that I wouldn't stand for it. He said, he's a cat, cats shed -- what are you going to do? I said we'd have to put him down or something. Dale looked at me in sudden recognition that he had married a cold-hearted bitch. I said, oh, OK, let's just see what happens.
Over the course of six months, Spike morphed into an indoor love cat or maybe it was me who did the morphing? However, he never got over his fear of other people, and if the doorbell rang or someone else entered his sanctuary, he was under the bed. People didn't believe we had a cat. But with us, it was like he surrendered to the lap. He was retired now, done with the mean streets and just wanted to snuggle or dance. Spike was like a dishrag. He'd let me to anything to him -- I'd tuck him into my denim robe for an effect I called, "Ralph Loren Kitty." Spike also loved to dance to Gloria Gaynor's, "I will Survive." He'd let me spin him at the end.
Funny we should pick that song. Our health problems emerged at about the same time. Spike was wheezing, and we ended up taking him for a series of tests. The vet said he had never seen such damaged lungs in a cat. He wondered if someone had sprayed him with chemicals. We put him on human asthma medicine, and his symptoms improved. At the same time, I was going through a battery of tests trying to figure out why I had this incredible pain in my abdomen, but the tests revealed nothing. I was tired a lot, and Spike and I used to take naps together on the couch.
We moved to Columbia and in 1999, I was finally diagnosed with advanced stage primary peritoneal cancer, which is a variation of ovarian cancer. I went through surgery and chemo, and Spike remained steadfast by my side. Right about that time, I found a spot on his eyelid, and that turned out to be melanoma. We had to take him to Charlotte, N.C. to an advanced surgical center, where they successfully removed the tumor. This boy was a survivor!
Things were good for a couple of years, but then I found a lump on his hind leg. That turned out to be vaccination-associated fibrosarcoma. The vet, Shawn, said this type of tumor typically doesn't spread to distant organs, but it would keep growing and eventually kill him. The only hope for survival was to amputate his hind leg.
We took him to a specialty clinic for evaluation. This young female vet looked him over. She said this was a bad cancer, and her recommendation was to let it takes its course. I bolted from my chair. "We do everything we can to survive cancer in our house!" I was furious and shared this with Shawn, who was a breast cancer survivor. Regarding the other vet, she said, "Oh, her. She's young and smug and life hasn't knocked her around yet. We'll use her and lose her."
It was a tough decision, but we agreed to have Spike's leg amputated. It was so awful seeing him post-surgery. I felt terrible -- did we do the right thing? Were we being selfish? But the surgery was successful, the margins were clean and he recovered and adapted very quickly. He moved about quite efficiently on three legs -- but he couldn't jump. He had never been much of a jumper anyway -- I think he had arthritis in his hips. We bought a ramp so he could easily get up and down from the bed.
The lab work for his surgery revealed weak kidneys. Shawn said he was probably a much older cat than we originally thought. As Spike adapted to three legs, he also adapted to a kidney diet, and he had a good three years of quality living.
Then he stopped eating and was wasting away before our eyes. None of the tests revealed anything bad. His kidneys were actually doing pretty well. Shawn said the only thing left was to do an exploratory surgery. She warned us that if she got in there and it was bad, her recommendation would be to let him sleep forever. We agreed.
Shawn had a special waiting room, and we both stood up when she came in a little while later to tell us Spike was gone. He had liver cancer, and it was everywhere. Dale and I held onto each other and cried.
Old Spike -- he survived a rough childhood and a bad kind of cancer. I was telling a friend how odd it was, him finding us as though he had been sent on a mission. How we were both damaged souls who got this rare kind of cancer that typically doesn't spread to distant organs but just keeps growing and usually kills anyway.
She said, "Oh, I get it now."
"He took a bullet for you."
Maybe so. I like to think he was my kitty guardian angel, sent here to save my cold heart and show me how to love unconditionally and survive. He did his duty, and it was time to go. Thank you, buddy. What a good little teacher you were.