"It could also be idiopathic, which, well, it means we don’t really know what the problem is."
I like the doctor more for admitting this.
"She has mega-esophagus, which seems like it’s partly congenital, or might be caused by her taking in so much air." A congenital esophageal defect. Another thing I have in common with my cat. We also share a transcendent laziness, which is why I didn’t think anything of it when she lay on my bed in the same position for four hours. I wonder if her laziness saves me money. She probably eats less because of it. Might compensate for her breaking all those glasses. Really only three. I guess that was about fifteen dollars, plus cleaning time.
"There could be a neurological problem keeping her nerves from sensing her esophagus, too. We also might want to check for polyps or tumors that could be pressing on her nasal passageways. There’s definitely a lot of fluid in there. We may also want to do an MRI to get more information."
She goes over all of these things in more detail and I stop listening because I know what the terms mean. I distract myself by staring at the X-ray on the computer monitor, which I do not understand. Sometimes I wish I could submit a list to all the doctors I have to interact with, detailing the terminology they don’t have to explain to me. I also know it’s part of their patter, and she has a good bedside manner, so I let her go on and we both feel a bit better.
I was on my way out the door after working from home. I wanted to go to the bar and write for a bit and see a few friends and have a glass of wine. I glanced at my room and Olive meowed at me. I smiled. Two charm points awarded to Olive, redeemable for food and water, cannot be exchanged for US currency, see attachment for approximate bitcoin value. A not-quite-placeable itch in my brain made me pause before leaving. Oh, I didn’t hear anything when she meowed. That’s odd. I looked back in, and she gave me another silent meow. I moved closer, and she looked at me but didn’t react.
Her mouth opened again. She was gasping for breath.
". . . And we’ll transfer her to internal medicine in the morning. So I’ll put together an estimate and we’ll take it from there?"
I blink. "Okay. Thank you."
She turns off the monitor and leaves me in the room. There’s an eye chart on the wall, with mice and fish bones and yarn instead of letters. I snap a picture of it, because it’s cute. I consider posting it to Facebook, but I don’t want anybody to know where I am. Only Diego and Leah know. I can’t figure out why I have such a bad reaction to well-wishers, or even encouragement, but I do know that I deal with fear and grief quietly. I don't want to hear anybody else's opinions about what I should think or do. Sometimes I don't want to spread grief to others, other times I don't want others' grief to dillute my own. Mostly, I don't want to think about it. Partly, everyone falls in love with pain in their own special way.
Olive was breathing like the first victim in a cop movie, or the last one in a family drama. Her eyes were dim and unfocussed. I called my regular vet but the office was closed. I called another one and they directed me to the hospital. I didn’t want to go there. I hate hospitals, and it was so far out of my way. I went over to Olive and felt her side. It was taut and distended. I try to sit her up, and she does this okay, but she’s not excited, and her tiny mouth is still opening and closing too often. Somehow it’s cute. Three cute points awarded, redeemable for tummy scratches and a taxi to the hospital.
The high estimate is around 3400. When Cerebus went to the hospital, he ended up costing 1800 unexpected dollars: Diego had taken him in around midnight and called me while I was with Leah. I was upset with him for taking Cerebus in, because neither he nor I had that kind of money. I wasn’t even employed. Then he told me Cerebus had been screaming. I’ve known Cerebus since the day after he was born and could probably count all the times he’s meowed.
The low estimate on Olive is 1700, and I need to pay it on the spot. I have 1438 dollars in my bank account. I tell the tech I can get really close and he sighs and tells me to talk to the front desk.
First, I fill out a Care Credit application, and bad credit rears its greedy head to reject it within minutes. The woman at the front desk looks at me sympathetically and asks if there’s family I can call, and I realize that if I can’t produce the low estimate, I take my cat home and watch it die. Cerebus’s bowls would have ruptured. Olive will slowly suffocate.
Part of me wants to scream, "I take home thousands of dollars a month! Throw me a fucking line!" But they have no guarantee they’ll be kept afloat if they take a bunch of broke customers’ pets and never get paid. No absolute social value demands a pet hospital. You could argue it’s a strange thing to have in the first place, and exists only by the sweat of humans whose compassion can't be sated by a single species.
My head is on the bed, watching Olive’s strained breaths erode my desire for normalcy and my ability to deny that Olive is in danger and I’m not going to have a fun night anymore. Once I fully transition from annoyed to panicking, I find the pet carrier on top of my fridge, after five minutes of frantic searching. Ten minutes later, I’ve cleaned most of the dust off and out of it, and stuffed a towel and a cat inside. She mews in fear as I carry her outside and call a car service.
Olive headbutts me and Leah awake most mornings, which is cute but annoying, so no net gain. She’s clumsy but adorably clumsy, so that breaks even. She vomits a lot: definitely points against. She still acts like a kitten, which helps her case. I won’t be able to get a new kitten until Cerebus dies: he barely allowed Olive to live for the first year of her life, and nearly killed Diego when he tried to bring home a stray.
Eventually the woman managing the desk takes me back to the exam room and asks how much I can give her without help. I say 1400.
"Oh, I can work with that. I can work with 1400. I was afraid you were going to say four." This seems fair to me. I sign another form, and notice that all the vets and techs have been leaving their pens on the exam table. There are three by the time I leave.
When they bring Olive out for me to say goodbye, she struggles in my arms, gasping, snot dribbling out of her nose, eyes wide and desperate.
I get out at midnight and take a cab to Leah’s with my remaining 38 dollars, then get drunk on the wine I picked up before I knew my bank account was going to be emptied. For all the thousands of dollars I take home, I don’t have much emergency money left after the cabs and wine and bars and food and books and movies I buy myself as rewards for managing to survive in a city that doesn’t leave me much time to play with my cats.
In the morning, my coworkers find out about my cat, since I roll in almost two hours late and should probably have an excuse for that. They are understanding. I worked from home the previous day, due to an upset stomach and a pinch of hangover. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t even have gone home the previous night, and Olive would be dead. One bottle of wine plus a minor virus and exceptional luck can buy your cat some time. The doctor calls around noon and says a lot of words at me. It's hypnotic. I think they must teach that, since he's better than the hypnotist who failed to cure me of nicotine addiction. In every conversation I'm hoping they don't ask me if I smoke. Years before, my pre-Diego roommate and I were trying to figure out why there was a dark stain on a corner of the hallway wall. We stared at it, discussing possibilities, when Olive happened to come by and rub against it. We realized it was smoke residue coming off her fur. We immediately banned smoking in the apartment, but then they closed down the roof, and nobody wants to walk UP stairs after a cigarette, so now I smoke next to the fan in the window. The doctor doesn't mention smoking, but MRI comes up again. They still don’t know what’s wrong.
A few months after I moved to the city, Olive killed one of those long-legged centipede-ish bugs that I can never name because I don’t want to google anything remotely close to "gross bug with long legs." A member of this tiny and harmless collection of evil appendages was on a warpath to where I was drawing my legs up to my chest and looking for something to throw. Out of nowhere, Olive pounces and tears it in half. She graduates from pet to bodyguard, and earns many, many points, redeemable for occasional attention from a self-absorbed owner.
Between Wednesday night and Friday afternoon, Olive is kept in an oxygen tent, given two injections, pumped full of sedatives, and put under anesthesia for an examination that pops a massive cyst in the roof of her mouth. In the doctor’s words, they also "power flush" her sinuses. I’m told I can pick her up Friday at five, but they call me at four to say they want to keep her another night.
I have two pictures in my head. One is Olive’s snot-covered face twisting out of my arms in terror, gasping under fluorescent lights in a strange room after she hasn’t left my apartment for more than three hours in seven years. The other is a bill for 4000 dollars on a counter between me and a cat who doesn’t even have a diagnosis.
Olive has freely adored every living non-bug thing she’s ever encountered. You have to start considering flowers to find something offering more unconditional sweetness to the human condition. Twelve years of innocent affection and guileless, puppy-like love, redeemable for one rent check. I don’t know if it’s redeemable for two.
The bill is only up to 1800, so I tell the doctor absolutely keep her where she can be watched by awake and sober people. At nine, they call me to say they had to do another emergency procedure to drain the air out of her stomach. It turns out cats don’t know how to breath through their mouths, so when they have to, they end up gulping huge amounts of air into their stomachs. The doctors put her under anesthesia and tried to run a tube through her nose to empty the air, but they can’t get through, so they run it through her mouth. This is part of the reason her nose is bleeding when I pick her up.
I talk to a few of my friends with pets, and everybody has a condition. "When it gets to three grand, we have to ask if she'll make a full recovery." Or, "I told myself, when I take this dog, I won't miss a mortgage payment." It feels cold, but they took animals no one else would take care of, gave them easy living, and set a line. If I hadn't taken Olive, where would she be? Why do we have pets at all? What is this relationship? One of the reasons I like cats is that humans chose dogs because they were useful, and cats chose humans for the same reason. But my cats aren't feeding off the rodents living on my grain. Now a cat is something that drops kittens faster than we can distribute them. Cats supposedly lower blood pressure, and are good for depression. They also extrete a wunderdroge that makes mice forget about feline death machines and makes humans suicidally introspective. They bend the brains of all nearby mammals into a cat-friendly dystopia. I think this is adorable, so it's too late for me.
In the morning, another doctor calls. She sounds frustrated. When she mentions the MRI, it’s to say she doesn’t think it will do much good because there’s so much inflammation in Olive's head. Olive isn’t recovering as fast as they’d hoped, but she seems to be recovering, and might as well do it at home. They still don’t know what’s wrong.
When we go to pick up Olive and her medications from the hospital, we pass a girl just as she bursts into tears. I wonder if money wasn’t enough, or if there wasn’t enough money.