Lightning wasn’t my cat, he was Nick’s. Well, Nick’s and Linda’s and Athena’s, but Athena is in Spain, and Linda moved to San Francisco, so Lightning became Nick’s to feed and house, although he was still everybody’s to care for.
I first heard Lightning called by name last year (in March, as a matter of fact), when Nick wrote to me about how he wound up with Lightning in the first place:
My cat Lightning… he always smells like dirt. Not in a bad way, I guess he smells more like a dusty barn, which reminds me of home. I always pick him up, hold him in my arms like a baby and put my nose into his chest and sniff him. He’s a big old cat… about 18 pounds and all muscle. I was working in a steel mill in Stockton, Ca. His mom was a shop cat and she caught pregnant. Me and Larry (another guy I worked with) built her a house out of a cardboard box and lined it with rags. We also covered the outside with plastic so the rain wouldn’t get it wet. Anyway, she really liked us and she slept there while she was pregnant. We would feed her and watch out for her. She had her babies and they hung around for a while but all of them left. One night I was on the pay phone outside of the shop talking to my little brother and I kept hearing this really loud “meow!!!” Sure enough there was one of her kittens sitting under a car in the parking lot just meowing his head off. I spent about an hour trying to coax him out, and when I finally did I bought him some milk out of the vending machine and fed him, he fell asleep in my lap. I left him on my desk until the end of shift, put him in the car, and drove him home.
Originally we thought he was grey, but once Linda washed him up we realized he was white. Me and that cat… boy we sure are close.
Nick told me that when he would “boom out” on a job for weeks at a time, Lightning would disappear too, only to come home an hour or so after Nick did. Frankly, can you blame him? Nick gave him milk, and Linda scrubbed him clean in a sink full of water. Both are gestures of love, but to a cat, one is tasty and the other is… a sink full of water.
Lightning was an outdoor cat, obviously. A white outdoor cat. With pink ears and a pink nose, exposed to the sun all day. Now you and I, we know about UV rays and SPF and all that. But I dare you to explain it to a cat. Over time, Lightning developed skin cancer. The vet was able to surgically trim Lightning’s ears a little shorter to eliminate some of it, but not all. Ointments were prescribed, but anyone who’s had a cat knows how futile that endeavor is. And, after being able to roam around his whole life, keeping him indoors would kill his spirit, if not his body. So the cancer spread. By January, he was pretty sick. His nose was always running, and his ears had become a mass of scabs, which itched, so Lightning would scratch at them, thus continuing the cycle. Every day was a fresh wound. But those were “cosmetic” problems. Nick wrote,
Lightning even looked a little more bright eyed than he has in the past few days… I don’t get him. He’s definitely sick, sicker than I’ve ever seen him, but he likes to be petted and his purr-box is running strong! [...] Yesterday, it was just me, Lightning, and Thumpkin in the house. We all split a can of tuna fish… It was purr-box and drool city, yo!
He didn’t go outside anymore, by his own choice, but preferred to spend his days on the back of the sofa or easy chair, or, if the dog was in the house, safely behind the television. His nights were spent curled up on Nick’s bed.
Nick warned me, before I was to meet Lightning in person, that he looked “gross.” In my head, I was picturing a white cat whose ears were covered in scabs. And that’s exactly what I got, although the reality of it was nonetheless startling. He was white, except for where blood had recently dripped or spattered. His nose looked as though it had melted somewhat. His ears… his ears. Wow. They were black with layer upon layer of dried blood. They looked sort of like marshmallows that have caught fire during toasting. And left to burn. I’m a cat person, but Lightning was difficult to look at, let alone think about developing a relationship with. And yet, within a very short time, he captured my heart. He was clearly nervous about this New Tall Animal in his house, but he slowly approached me and let me pet him (although nowhere near his tender ears, which was, frankly, fine by me). Wow, was he ever soft. Like rabbit fur. In a minute, he was quietly purring. I spent the weekend skritching him and avoiding his head bonks, in part because I didn’t want to accidentally reopen a wound, and in part because, well, euw. Nick tried to clean up Lightning with a warm washcloth. Lightning, of course, would have none of it.
Like Nick said, Lightning’s purr-box was strong, and his eyes were bright. It was easy to forget that this was merely the surface effect of a cancer that was ravaging him from the inside. I pleaded for Nick to take him to the vet for more ear trimming, but Nick, living with this day in and day out, knew the reality of the situation. I was convinced that an Elizabethan collar would protect Lightning’s ears long enough for the wounds to heal properly, and stop the constant bleeding. When the steady blood loss started to physically take its toll on Lightning, Nick went out on a fruitless search for a collar in the hopes that my crazy idea might have some merit. Hearing that he couldn’t find one, I went on my own search, but was sorely disappointed in the available options. Plastic cones that would cause an echo and hinder Lightning’s ability to duck behind the TV weren’t what I had in mind. Soft collars that were, in my opinion, too thick and padded, like wearing a life jacket around your head. Perhaps appropriate for a large dog, but not scaled well for cats. So I decided to make my own. I must have been in JoAnn Fabrics for an hour, selecting and reselecting my materials and plotting a pattern in my head. I spoke with the gal at the cutting counter, and together, we revised my idea once more. Finally, armed with ripstop nylon, Peltex, fleece binding tape, and Velcro, I set off to make The Perfect Collar.
I did the best I could, but I still haven’t figured out how to cleanly machine-stitch along a bias. And two layers of fleece, two of nylon, and a heavy-duty layer of Peltex make for some wonky seams. Still, when all was said and done, I thought Lightning would approve. Okay, I thought he’d hate it, but if he only knew the options, he’d have to change his mind. Maybe Nick could add some patches or studs to “coolify” the collar to better match Lightning’s tough-guy stature. I popped it in the mail on Friday, for Monday delivery
On Saturday, Lightning stopped eating. He took up residence in a cardboard box left in the living room. He was having trouble breathing. He soiled his box. Nick found him a new, clean box, and said Lightning was just skin and bones when he transferred him. By Sunday night, Nick had to make a very difficult decision. At first, he wasn’t going to tell me, but he knew I’d be upset, and I’m sure it helped him to share the burden. Together, we wept.
The appointment was at noon on Monday. Late enough for Nick and I to talk, and grieve a little, and secretly harbor just a small flicker of hope that the vet would offer a viable alternate plan. Late enough for Nick to do the same with Linda. Late enough for Nick and Lightning to spend some time together. Late enough for the mail to arrive. For which I’m thankful, I suppose. I think it would hurt that much more to come home from the vet’s office and see that last-ditch effort to stall the inevitable.
The vet agreed that it was time. The staff treated both Nick and Lightning with care and compassion. Lightning went out snoring and, finally, without pain.
If only they could take away the pain left behind.