Medical school is the kind of rigorous experience that, should you survive it, most people you meet afterwards will be instilled with a sense of confidence that you know what you’re talking about. They will begin calling you doctor and will start coming to you for advice on issues that Band-aids and Ibuprofen don’t seem to be helping. They will also pay you money for that advice—or rather, their insurance companies or whatever HMO they happen to be shackled to will pay you. (Maybe.) But again, actually surviving medical school is the key issue. This is why, after your first year of med-school, the administration goes round and makes sure all the first year students have removed their old pizza boxes and sleeping bags from the corners of the study rooms and then they boot the students out into the real world for what will likely be the last summer vacation of their professional lives. The students are told to rest up and relax in preparation for being hurled into the raging river that is second year.
It was with the above in mind that Ashley, my first year medical school survivor wife, and I decided to leave our West Virginia mountaintop home and head down to the beach for a week.
Going to the beach is something of an annual tradition for us—in fact, it was during a trip to visit Ashley at the beach that our romantic relationship first began. We usually go to Holden Beach, NC, where we stay at Ashley’s grandmother’s house along with Ash’s parents, sisters, their husbands, their kids and whoever else turns up for these mid-summer mini-family reunions. Everybody dedicates themselves to the leisure activity of their choice. And every day, we follow the throng of nieces, nephews, siblings, parents, cousins and various in-laws to sit on the beach until we are all horrifically sunburned. Then we trek back to the house where we slather our baked skin with aloe vera and adhere ourselves to the couch. It’s a vicious cycle that we seem powerless to resist. However, there are some other annual traditions that accompany this process of beach-going, one of which involves our cat.
Winston Churchill: The Infinitely Bad Kitty—so named because, like most babies, she looked exactly like the former British Prime Minister as a newborn—is mostly finitely bad these days. She is still often bitchy and quite a bit catty, but I guess that’s to be expected. As I’ve chronicled in past tales, Winston does not travel well at all, even when sedated. I know this because I’ve had seven different apartments during Winston’s ten years of life and she always makes it her business to turn moving place to place a living hell for all involved. Taking her on vacation with us is therefore not an option. Boarding her locally would also be a traumatic experience for her, considering what an enormous wuss she is. Instead, we find it best to leave her in the house with a well-stocked cat-feeder/waterer and hope the place doesn’t burn while we’re gone. We’ve found that the real trick to leaving her behind, though, is to somehow pack all our stuff in the car and depart with the cat remaining in the house. Simple on paper, not simple in reality.
As soon as Winston sees bags being packed, she begins plotting her escape and has on more than one occasion proven herself the rival of Harry Houdini. Winston has escaped from bathrooms, leashes, harnesses and once managed to disappearate from a closed and securely fastened cat-crate, an event we have yet to explain. Such extremes are usually unnecessary, as it’s much simpler to just slip out the door when we’re not paying proper attention. Once outside, she goes right for the most inconvenient place to hide, say in a junk-filled, flooded basement or beneath a neighbor’s utility shed. In these cases, we have no alternative but to try and coax her out, usually by opening a can of tuna upwind. Winston’s been through that drill so many times, though, that she usually just sniffs at the tuna vapors from well out of arm’s reach and then trots off to hide again. In the end, one of us has to make a leap, snatch her up by whatever bit of her we can grab, then fling her and the can of tuna into the house, slam the door and run for the car.
Shortly after we awoke, Winston sensed something amiss and began lurking. I saw it and immediately gave Ashley my pre-packing warning speech about being extra careful going in and out of doors. It’s another of our annual traditions which I continue because Ashley’s annual tradition is to let the cat slip out anyway. She began packing while I went downstairs to the kitchen to see what food was likely to go bad within the week. This is where Ashley found me, twenty minutes later, with the back door wide open as it had been for the ten minutes since I’d opened it to fling a rotten grapefruit into the cow pasture behind our apartment.
“Don’t you think you ought to close the door?” she said, an evilly sweet smile upon her lips. I started to ask why just before it hit me. Oh the anguish! The cat had probably escaped yet again and this time it was actually going to be my fault!
Before going for the tuna reserves, I figured I’d better take a cat inventory. She wasn’t under our bed, so I tried the guest bed. It’s more difficult to tell who’s under the guest bed, as it has no frame but is merely a mattress and box spring resting atop two footlockers between which are stored a maze of long comic book boxes among which Winston likes to hide. The cat refused all calls, but I suspected she was under there anyway. Rather than waste valuable time coaxing, I just lifted the mattress and box spring up from one end and took a look. Sure enough, Winston was there, shocked that her ingenious hiding place had not only been discovered but was much more accessible to the humans than she had thought. I put the bed back down and mercifully she stayed underneath it, sulking until after we had departed.
Vacation went great. We loafed around the deck, getting sun, reading books and leisurely snacking. And for once no one got horrifically sunburned. This we attribute to the fact that instead of having a house packed full of assorted children all yammering to go to the beach at high noon, this year there was only one child who we were able to bully into waiting until after 5 to hit the beach. In fact, the only horrific burning that occurred was when I stuck my hand into a microwave oven and was surprised to find that I’d seared my knuckle on the heating element. Why, you might ask, would a microwave oven have a heating element in it when most microwave ovens tend to heat food using microwaves and not glowing hot tubes of metal? I asked that same question. I don’t recall the specifics of the answer, probably because I was busy suppressing my usual string of curses to keep from unleashing them in front of Ash’s grandmother. Much aloe vera followed and the knuckle is nearly back to normal.
On the way back home, we swung by our old digs of Charlotte, NC, to pick up my sister Alison, who was flying in for a week of loafing, movie-watching and snacking on our back patio. My parents were supposed to be coming in as well, but at the last minute my dad developed something of a heart condition involving a dilated aorta and had to stay home. Much aloe vera followed and he’s nearly back to normal.
Winston was happy to see us when we got back, though she was reluctant to admit it. She usually tries to punish us for leaving by pretending not to recognize us for a while and meowing non-stop. But this time we’d brought Alison, who is one of the few people Winston actually likes, so we were forgiven after only a few minutes. One look at the furniture told us that Winston had shed a whole second cat’s worth of her orange fur during the week. We had to rub her down good with our cat-grooming glove before we could wear dark clothing again. Also, as usual, she had eaten nearly half of the contents of her cat-feeder, which takes her at least a month when we’re home, and I won’t even go into detail about the status of her litterbox.
On the subject of cat food: We feed Winston Kit N’ Kaboodle, the feline equivalent of Kibbles N’ Bits, but without the bits. It’s just about the only brand of dry cat food she’ll tolerate. During college, I used to experiment with whatever cat food was cheapest and made the error of buying a heaping 8 pound bag of George Jones’ Country Gold kitty feed down at the local Sunflower. (Yes, the same George Jones responsible for such country songs as “White Lightning”, “I Always Get Lucky With You” and “Beer Run”.) It only cost me $5, so already I thought it was great stuff, but it wasn’t as popular with the cat. She would eat it only as a last resort and got progressively thinner as the days went by. I thought she was just being finicky, figuring how bad could it really be? Finally, I bought a small bag of Kit N’ Kaboodle and did a taste test myself, much to the amusement of my roommates. (I come by this behavior naturally, as this is exactly how my dad earned the nickname Mr. Alpo among the other kids in my neighborhood, growing up.) So I ate a piece of Kit N’ Kaboodle and it wasn’t too shabby. I’ll be proud to choke down a few bowls of it after I’m old and feeble and everyone’s Social Security has run out. Then I tried a piece of George Jones. You know that line in the movie Weird Science that goes, “How about a nice greasy pork sandwich served in a dirty ashtray?” Well, I could have used one of those to wash down my nugget of George Jones and it would have been a refreshing palette-cleanser by comparison. I spit out as much of it as I could, rinsed repeatedly with Listerine and have spent the intervening years trying to erase the memory of that foul and unholy substance. (Which wasn’t easy to do, considering my first job out of school was at a radio station in Tupelo, MS, located next door to the Sunshine Mills Petfood Distillery where they make George Jones’ Country Devil Nuggets. On rainy or otherwise humid days, the area was haunted by the distinct aroma of the ghost of cat food eaten past.) Afterwards, I felt obligated to hurl the offending bag into the dumpster and profusely apologize to my cat, promising her only Kit N’ Kaboodle from there on out. It’s far from the most expensive stuff on the market, and I’ve always scoffed at the kind of pet-owner who spend upwards of $20 a month for those tiny little bags of Science Diet from specialty pet food stores. I buy in bulk and I buy Kit N’ Kaboodle.
Days passed at home and we settled into a new routine of lounging around, reading books, listening to tunes and being generally unstressed about anything. The same could not quite be said for Winston, who after venturing outside one day, was startled by a neighbor’s dog and fled to one of her outdoor hiding places. As usual, she turned up only after dark when it was safe to come out and mew at the back door.
The next morning, while Alison and I were sipping coffee and contemplating breakfast, Winston strolled in, crouched down and began trying to heave on the kitchen floor. Nothing was coming out of her but her sides were billowing in and out and she was making definite gagging sounds. At first we were content to just let her throw up, because it’s much easier to clean up in the kitchen. Winston must have realized that too, for she immediately ran to the living room carpet to continue throwing up. I was just getting up from the table to try and stop her when Alison spoke up.
“I think she’s having a seizure!”
We ran to the living room and found Winston convulsing on the floor with a glazed look in her eyes. It certainly appeared to be a seizure to me, and I speak as the former owner of an epileptic German shepherd. It was horrible enough to watch, but I had the added knowledge that one of the local cats in our apartment complex had recently gotten into some kind of chemical that nearly killed him. He’s okay now, but the local vets had to ship him off to Charleston for kitty repairs. My fear was that when Winston hid out the day before, she managed to get into the same poison and was now experiencing the early stages of its wrath.
After standing there, cursing and pulling at my hair in panic for a bit, I came to my senses and realized I needed to do something. There are no cat EMS units around here, that I know of, so we would have to rush Winston to the vet ourselves. While Alison watched the cat, I ran back through the kitchen, out the back door to the patio to retrieve Winston’s blue plastic cat crate. It was absolutely filthy, caked with dirt and leaves and bugs, having been exposed to the weather for the past ten months. I snatched it up and was on my way back in when Winston, who had by now come out of her seizure, caught sight of it, knew she was about to be transported and fled up the stairs. We rushed after her, hoping to cut her off before she could hide, but she had already dove into the maze of boxes under the guest bed. Once again, I lifted up the mattress and box spring to expose her hiding place at which point she bolted past us and back down the stairs. I dropped the bed and we tore after her, but upon arriving in the living room we found it was empty. At first I thought she had run out the back door, but even in my earlier panic I’d managed to close it. That left one other place: The couch.
Even before the day I bought it, my couch had a gaping hole in its side. I don’t normally make it a practice to buy furniture with gaping holes, but I was offered a great deal on this one and couldn’t pass it up. Sure, some might argue that buying an Army-green canvas covered sleeper-sofa with lime green piping is never a good decision, even if the store throws in a matching overstuffed comfy chair and knocks off a couple hundred dollars on the pair because of an oh so tiny gaping hole. Perhaps not, but at the time I had very little furniture at all, even less money and was living in a festering hellhole of an apartment in Tupelo, Mississippi. It was therefore my policy that if sacrifices were to be made they would be made in the department of good taste rather than the department of Eric doesn’t get to eat this week, so the couch got bought. It’s not pretty and it’s not even particularly comfortable but it’s mine. One of its major drawbacks, though, beyond the whole Army-green thing, is that the cat adores the easy access to the interior through the gaping hole. We used to cover the hole with boxes and have even stitch-witched it shut a time or two, but like an ugly old war wound the hole always reopens. Recently, we purchased slipcovers for the couch and chair that make them quite a bit less Army-green and cover up the holes at the same time. However Winston has learned how to lift up the edge of the slipcover and get in anyway. What exactly she does in there we’re not sure—it’s what we imagine her doing in there that worries us and she’s strictly forbidden from it, not that this stops her. Winston knows we would have to expend an undesirable amount of effort to get her out and are far more likely to just leave her alone in there instead.
“Dammit!” I shouted. Actually, I shouted my new favorite phrase involving water-fowl plus a word that rhymes with the particular type of bird in question and the combination of concepts therein. I knew I was going to have to take apart the couch to get at the cat, but doing so is the kind of Herculean task you really need to work up the effort for gradually. To procrastinate, I decided to phone Dr. John, the much-favored veterinarian of our friend and neighbor Beth, owner of two elderly, hyper-spastic, hypochondriac dachshunds, just in case he wanted to be standing by with kitty crash carts, or whatever.
“Yes, hello,” I told the guy who answered the phone. “I don’t have an… an account with you, but I have a cat that’s having a seizure… or, had a seizure a few minutes ago… and I’m just calling to let you know I’m bringing her in.”
“Um. We don’t have any veterinarians here today,” the guy said.
No veterinarians? How could they not have any veterinarians in? They were a veterinarian’s office. Having veterinarians in was their whole raison dêtre. This was like calling McDonald’s and being told they had no tasty, fatty fries. This was like calling Super Wal-Mart and hearing they were no longer pimping the coupons of other grocery stores in an effort to derail their sales. This was like Raiiaaaaain On Your Frickin’ Wedding Day! Why did this guy even bother to answer the phone if there were no vets on hand?
“What?” I asked, managing to wedge the above paragraph into my tone of voice.
“Um, uh, Dr. John’s on an emergency call and the other veterinarians are off today.”
“Well, do you have any suggestions, then?”
“Um… I, uh… um…” said intern boy, nervously. Then he put down the phone to confer with someone else in the office. I could hear him describing the grand mal seizure my cat was having in far more detail than I had actually provided. Then he came back to me with the suggestion of the Seneca Trail Animal Hospital. I hung up, dialed them, asked if they had any vets about and, if so, would it be okay for me to pop in with my cat unappointed.
“When were you planning to bring the cat in?” the receptionist asked.
“Well, she’s stuck in our couch at the moment, but as soon as we can get her out we’ll hit the road,” I said. The receptionist said that was fine. One set of directions later and I hung up and turned back to the problem of the couch.
I yanked off the slipcover and began hurling couch cushions in all directions. I then gingerly unfolded the sleeper bed, so as not to maim any ill-placed kitties within, further compounding an already problematic day. We peered down into the couch’s innards for any sign of Winston. An orange tail was soon spotted extending from beneath the arm-rest on the side of the couch with no hole, but the tail was retracted before either of us could get near enough to grab it.
“Dammit, cat! You’d better come out now. I’m not above tearing a new hole and coming in after you!” And I meant it. What did I care if the couch had a few more holes when we had a slipcover to hide them. I was about to go get a kitchen knife to begin carving when Alison was somehow able to coax Winston out enough to gently scoop her up. Besides being a bit scared the cat looked fine.
We manhandled her into the filthy cat crate and were headed for the door when I made two startling discoveries. One, I was still barefooted because I definitely felt the squish when my foot came down in the cat puke where Winston had been seizing earlier. There wasn’t much of it, but I did spy a single blade of grass on the carpet. I snatched it up and put it in a glass container in case the doctor needed a sample of stomach contents, or the poison, or whatever sample the doctor was likely to need if I didn’t have it handy. I grabbed flip-flops, then the crate and then made my second startling discovery. Like most cat crates, mine is made to come apart for easy storage by removing a series of plastic bolts holding the top and bottom halves together. Except my crate seemed to be missing its front right plastic bolt and the weight of the cat had pulled apart a vaguely cat-sized opening between the halves. So that’s how the little monster had escaped from it last time! I fumbled for the corner before the cat could squeeze through it and had to carry the whole thing to the car with both hands.
We had not even left the parking lot before the wailing began. This was actually comforting to me, though, for if the cat was busy wailing she could hardly spare any time for seizing. She squalled all the way to the Osteopathic school where Ashley was busy at her work-study job analyzing monkey videos for one of the anatomy professors. (Monkey raises his hand, mark it down. Monkey picks another monkey’s nose, mark it down. Monkey takes a dump, mark it down. Rewind.) I had to run up three flights of stairs to get to her lab, which in the shape I’m in took the wind out of me.
“Cat… seizing… Dr. John… useless… Taking her to… other vet… Coming?”
A few minutes later, we arrived at the Seneca Trail Animal Hospital. I was somehow expecting to be greeted at the door by waiting vets ready to take Winston right in for immediate treatment, bypassing any waiting room triage. Nope. Just the mildly concerned receptionist, who didn’t even stand up to pass me the clip-board of paperwork I’d have to fill out before they would even take a look at the cat. Since Winston seemed mostly okay, I didn’t make a stink about it. I was already feeling a bit embarrassed that my cat crate had shed leaves and dead bugs on the counter. Meanwhile, the paranoid portion of my brain (a fairly large section that I’m beginning to suspect may be planning a coup on the rest of my brain) began imagining that somewhere, behind mirrored one way glass, the vet was watching me and checking off “Filthy Cat Carrier” on a list titled Sure Signs of Animal Abuse, before calling the police.
After more waiting, we were finally ushered in to see Dr. Sylvia, a very nice motherly type of lady who gently pulled Winston out of the crate, poked her in the stomach a bit and pronounced that my cat was suffering from a hairball. It was a relief and a let down all at the same time.
“But what about the seizure?” I asked, trying somehow to negotiate myself into a position in which I wasn’t the moron who just broke his ass getting there for a damn hairball.
“Well, these little beasts can put on a quite the scary show when they’re trying to cough one up. Their sides will pump in and out and they’ll roll around trying to twist it free. Once or twice a week, we get somebody rushing in here thinking their cat is dying, but it’s only a hairball.”
Nope. I’m the moron.
In my defense, I’d never seen Winston do anything like that before, but I figured Dr. Sylvia knew what she was talking about. She had, after all, survived medical school.
Dr. Sylvia asked what we fed Winston and suggested that Kit `N’ Kaboodle was probably not the best. She recommended we invest in an expensive, unleaded cat food made for treating hairballs, explaining that it didn’t contain the kind of filler material—I’m imagining cardboard—and pretty coloring cats can’t see anyway. She also gave us a tube of meat-flavored paste that was supposed to help with the hairballs. Meat-flavor or no, Dr. Sylvia said Winston probably wouldn’t willingly eat the paste so we should just cram the nozzle in her mouth and give it a good squeeze.
Ten minutes later and fifty bucks lighter we departed Seneca Trail Animal Hospital, one noisy cat in hand. Our first stop on the way home was the Expensive Specialty Pet Store where we picked up a stout wire-bristle cat brush and our first tiny bag of Science Diet with added pumpkin fiber for hairballs. They say you mock what you fear and you become what you mock, so I guess I’m living proof.
It’s not so bad, though. I figure if Winston has been able to survive 10 years of living with me she deserves the best food I can give her. Plus, she only eats like a pig when we’re gone, so we’ll save money as long as we never leave the house again…