Of the two cats, Squibs is the smaller tortoiseshell, a ten-pound ever-vigilant patroller of the perimeters, edges and ramparts of this weedy yard. Crackers is the big twenty-pound yellow cowardy-custard creampuff who dreams her life away, usually safely on the bed but -- in case of imminent danger -- also under it. This week Squibbie came to grief.
On the back of my block is a disreputable all-male household in a used-to-be-turquoise-blue house trailer surrounded by busted machinery. By default they acquire animals (a goat would fit right in) -- and cats find it a congenial place because there are so many hidey-holes, for instance through the holes in the trailer skirting. But these guys feel no obligation to feed the beasts. At one time there was a tribe of black cats, clearly formerly Siamese and prepared to fight. I was kind to one of them, Hammerhead, and soon regretted it. Every kindness became an entitlement. Finally Hammerhead ran afoul of a tougher householder and “took a ride.”
This time it was a yellow cat, as scrawny as any of the others, who had been hanging around and finally invaded the yard at 5AM, just as I drifted back to sleep after opening access to the outside. I’ve rarely heard such an agonized, despairing shriek as came from Squibbie. Though I got there as fast as I could, without my glasses and barefoot in my nightie, I had the impression that a fox had attacked Squibs -- even imagining a white tip to the tail. Too late. Soon the poor little cat was swollen and hurting. Cat bites are like snake bites. One cannot give cats painkillers -- at least not aspirin -- so I rigged a lamp as an incubator and Squibbie went to sleep with her swollen leg held up to the heat.
As it happens, I’m struggling with some kind of pain myself. For some frustrating and confusing reason, either dieting or not quite keeping my blood sugar as low as it ought to be (not consistently but with a couple of peaks), I’ve begun to ache. When I was a little kid, I had leg aches all the time and woke myself up crying. My mother would rub and rub with liniment and, finally, worn out of patience, would get angry. That’s when I learned what a comfort a cat can be. I lugged my cat back to bed with me.
Now my life would be barren without cats, even when, like Squibbie, they come to sit in front of me and tell me in an outraged voice that I failed to be the protector she thought I was. Still, after a bit of explaining and stroking and praise, she purrs and is content. So long as food is forthcoming.
Praise is one of the pain-killers that works for me, too. It has to do with endorphins, I’m sure. I’ve been Googling around and also e-schmoozing with my relatives, and it seems pretty clear that our inherited serotonin mechanisms are not efficient. One cousin was helped by a bit of thyroid medication. Another takes tiny doses of amiltriptyline at bedtime. We all love our heat pads. My brothers and mother were chain smokers and one brother puts away a LOT of beer in the evening. The other prefers marijuana. I think I may have outsmarted myself when I replaced the bathtub in this house with a shower.
So I’m making a little list of serotonin triggers, some of which I can get to and some of which I can’t:
laughter (I’m reading Gerald Durrell -- VERY effective)
cats (already mentioned them)
hot tubs, saunas, sweats (Did you know there are inflatable hot tubs now?) It would really freak out the neighbors if I put up a sweatlodge! Well, some are Indians -- they would join me. On the other hand, I suppose saunas would attract Scandihoovians.
sex (I think I remember that)
exercise (Oh, damn -- it keeps coming back and back)
massage (Could just BUY that! If I had money. Maybe not in Valier.)
pain (They say this is part of the hook in tattooing, erotic spanking, self-flagellation, self-cutting. Guess I’ll pass.)
capsicum - red hot peppers. Rub it on or eat it. The man down the street, a health food guy, takes a tablespoon of cayenne pepper stirred into tomato juice when his stomach acts up and he swears by it. They say grizzly bears have been spotted licking it off tents sprayed by accident, though the spray is supposed to repel them. Bob Scriver said that most of the grizzlies he made into rugs had really lousy teeth -- which is the reason taxidermists use plastic jaws. The bears must have bad toothaches. Maybe the spray is like bear novocaine and they are secretly hoping to be sprayed in the mouth.
Ben-gay, Absorbine Jr., or even Absorbine Sr. which was developed for use on horses. Ben-gay has the advantage of clearing my sinuses at the same time.
When my mother was a young working woman, still living at home, some female relatives came to visit, one of them a Christian Scientist. The hillside yard was full of free-range chickens and therefore slick with chicken poop, very organic, rarely discussed in the more idealistic treatises. The Xian Sci lady slipped and broke her hip. She was in agony but refused a doctor.
My mother was on good terms with the druggist in town and known as a reliable young woman. She explained the problem and he gave her some “powders” folded up in paper by doses, telling her how to stir it into orange juice. But when she presented the orange juice to the patient, the woman knocked it out of her hand and went into an emotional swivet. My mother was greatly taken aback. Humiliated, in fact.
In a while my Prot Irish grandfather -- in his bowler hat and puffing his usual cigar -- arrived and evicted both patient and her companion from the farmhouse on grounds that if she wasn’t intelligent enough to accept help, he wouldn’t have her moaning and squalling in the presence of his family. But my mother never quite recovered from her inability to render aid without being an offender, which is part of the reason she got so angry over my leg aches. (The rest of the reason was that she was exhausted and there wasn’t enough money.)
I long to pick Squibbie up and cuddle her, but I know touching her leg would make her scream. I think of taking her to the vet, but that means wrestling her into the cage and driving thirty miles -- not done lightly with a cat that travels with pin-wheeling eyes and drooling jaws while wailing like a siren. So the doctor’s name is Time. Days have passed and Squibbie’s graduated to cat nests out in the sun-warmed grass. Now that I’ve run that yellow foxy cat off several times, it seems inclined to respect our territory. From where I sit at the computer I can whether it has snuck into the yard.
At another point in her life, my mother was attending college, working for her room and board in the college town by living with her grandparents. They had also taken in a small orphaned great-granddaughter who slept with my mother and wet the bed. My mother turned her back on the child and gritted her teeth, resisting all that sorrow, need and nastiness because she really had no idea how to help. But she always felt a little guilty about resenting a child. In my mother’s later years, well over eighty, that little girl came to visit -- now, of course, middle-aged. She said she wanted to see my mother again because she had been such a comfort, “offering your strong warm back as a bulwark against a cruel world.” My mother was flabbergasted. I don’t know whether she really assimilated what had happened, though she talked about it.
Even so -- do you know Gene Stratton-Porter’s book about “Laddie” in which sermons tend to end with “even as you would be done to, even so you must do to others”? Even so do we pain and comfort each other as we try to nurture. But sometimes the hardest is nurturing one’s self.