Something tells me that watching your pet coming out of general anesthesia might be the most bonding moment you two will ever experience.
The small room in a veterinary imaging facility has off-white walls, no windows, no furniture, and two doors, on each of the longer sides. She will be confused and afraid, says the person closing the door behind me, in a quiet voice. Take as much time as you need.
This feels smooth enough to make me wonder how many times it’s been done before, even though MRI scans of animals are, apparently, a new phenomenon. This particular facility, in Redwood City, boasts being the best in the region, but it’s also the only one in the region — and the awkwardly phrased promises of the “ability to scan oversized patients” matter little for a young cat Brooklyn’s size.
The protocol doesn’t allow the guardian to accompany the pet during the procedure, so I wait in the lobby. Only later I’m taken to the spartan re-entry room. After a few minutes alone, the other door opens, and a different person brings Brooklyn’s limp body to the center.
I notice her tri-coloured fur shaved in a few places for an easier access to IVs, and there’s a bandage on one of her legs. Brooklyn’s tongue is sticking out. One of her closed eyes is filled with a large tear. My heart aches.
We’re here to scan for a possible spine injury, and I don’t know yet that the results will be, as they always are, inconclusive. Right now, it doesn’t matter. She’ll wake up soon, and for the next fifteen minutes I will see her how I have never seen her before, scared and unsettled, with not enough energy for either fight or flight. She attempts meowing too soon, then tries to run away before she’s physically able to, and the only thing I can do is to hold her and make her comfortable.
At some point, I have a thought that would ordinarily put a smile on my face. Instead, I say quietly, I wish I could purr for you.
The name comes first. There are a few arbitrary rules: two syllables, or three; interesting; catchy; easy to pronounce; nothing cutesy; conceivably a name you could pick for a human, too. I eventually settle on “Brooklyn,” and head out to a shelter to find a cat that would match that name.
The name, just like all the toys and infrastructure I buy, and the books I diligently read in the weeks before, betrays how big of a deal this is for me. Yes, “Brooklyn” reflects on the owner’s urban aspirations and, hopefully, will reflect on the cat itself. And yet, it’s the act of naming that’s actually important, a milepost somewhere on the journey from your father was awful and so will you, to you’re perfectly able to care for a living being, and you’ll likely do a better job than many.
A friend of mine accompanies me to the shelter and soon we both see her, running around in a small room with another cat twice her size, showing him who’s the boss. She’s called Kipper then — not a bad name, actually, according to the rules — and she’s close to turning one. That she has a bit of a troubled history of being shuffled between shelters at this young age helps in making the decision. Only when I re-read the description, I spot the word “tripod” and I realize she’s missing one of her hind legs; she’s been running around with such vigor I didn’t notice it before.
There is a moment of small involuntary revulsion — thank you, the same dumb evolution that endowed me with motion sickness and fear of falling — but it quickly goes away. An occasional photographer, I smile at calling a cat a “tripod,” a PR attempt that sounds as lifeless and technical as “75% of floor coverage.”
I go through the paperwork, say good-bye to my friend, and take a cab home. Somewhere on the way there, I call my new cat Brooklyn for the first time.
The protocol for adopting a cat suggests sticking to one small room during the first few days, but Brooklyn feels comfortable enough to start exploring within hours. We walk around my apartment and it’s fun to see what places she approves of — the cat tree, the bed, the couch — and which she will hate forever. The latter set includes the piano, which she makes a tactical mistake of approaching from the low-register side.
Soon enough, I have a morbid thought that Brooklyn missing a hind leg will actually be convenient — I won’t ever have to worry about her jumping onto forbidden places, or knocking things down. (Later on, I will realize it might not be morbid at all, since Brooklyn doesn’t actually miss her leg in any way, behaving as if she always only had three).
We get along well. A few days later, as I’m leaving to work for the first time, I open the door, only to see Brooklyn dart out as fast as her three limbs allow, and then stop, confused. Tears in my eyes arrive as a surprise. I pick her up; she starts purring, and then licking my nose. Don’t worry, I’ll help you figure it all out, I think.
But trouble starts almost immediately, at the end of our first week together. I take her for some routine shots and upon return Brooklyn, sore and unhappy, hides somewhere to fall asleep, as cats tend to. Some time during the night, she crawls into my bed, and I wake up to find out she relieved herself somewhere next to me.
I clean up the sheets and the mattress, and brush it all away as a side effect of the doctor’s visit. But in a few days, it happens again. And then again.
This is, as I’ve read, common enough for cats in new situations. The Occam’s razor here is stress, and I go through a checklist of usual suspects: new litter box, new type of litter, moving the litter box away from food, moving the litter box closer to food, buying a second litter box, opening it, closing it, having Brooklyn sleep somewhere else for a week to break the pattern, staying home more (for me), a wall hormone dispenser (for her), cleaning up the damage with new solvents, and buying new cat beds and cat trees to reset the smell.
This list is easy to share post factum, but it’s never given to me like this, needing to be assembled together from a few vet visits, various websites, advice from friends, and some anxious creativity.
All of this takes weeks. Nothing is working.
I like this photo of Brooklyn underneath her cat tree, because it reminds me of so many facets of her personality. She’s physically unable to jump very high, but she’s not going to let it stop her from trying. She’s cute as fuck, but at the same time a few seconds away from kicking my ass. She’s fun, and she’s inquisitive; once in a while, I tease her about a human saying about cat curiosity I promise to share with her after she retires.
To make sure her solitary hind leg doesn’t get too weak, we do light physical therapy she doesn’t quite like. Once in a while she doesn’t quite like anything, getting overstimulated and angry in a way younger cats sometimes are.
But those moments are rare. Up until her last day with me, she jumps into her travel carrier with abandon, never associating it with trouble on the other side of the journey. Or maybe there’s no trouble. She seems to enjoy most of the circumstances; the occasional medical car trips, the waiting rooms, the doctors, she all takes in her lopsided stride.
At home, I build a little ramp leading to a windowsill, so Brooklyn can sit and watch the world outside, staring at birds she will never be able to catch. I sometimes pick her up and put somewhere higher, allowing her to explore that world five–six–seven feet off the ground, perfectly accessible to most other cats. She never gets bored of those adventures.
One day, going again through her early medical history, I see a note left by a veterinarian in a form field clearly not meant to convey how you feel about a given pet. I smile and nod.
The note reads: removed sutures from leg amp. sweet cat!
We extend the possible causes from psychological to medical, but we’re not confident enough to give up on the former, so Brooklyn is now seeing a cat therapist in addition to trying out various drugs and electrical tests of bladder function.
We seems to encompass a new doctor every week. The tests, and the accompanying bills, become more and more serious. I learn new words. Urinalysis and urethral function are self-evident, a subluxation is a partial dislocation of a joint, and the sciatic nerve is what connects the lower back to the lower leg in people and cats alike.
We’re talking about nerves because, some weeks later, we think the issue might be neurological. Brooklyn’s scant early paperwork hints at a fracture that didn’t heal very well, leading to the eventual amputation. Such accidents are usually car accidents, and there’s suspicion that the damage was more severe than everyone thought. I eventually catch her relieve herself in the middle of sleep, which lends credence to the theory she’s not actually in much control here, and renders months of behavioural observation and trials pointless.
Somewhere during that time, in one of the waiting rooms, Brooklyn encounters a life-size cardboard cut-out of a dog, and for the first time I see her angry. She hisses as her ears flatten, her back arches, and her tail becomes a flame.
This makes me laugh. This is, I realize, what our life should be like. Simple misunderstandings of your pet that make you smile and your heart grow bigger. Little habits and customs you develop along the way. Moments of play, moments of rest, and nothing more.
In our overlapping life, there’s always more. One day, months in, some time after the MRI, Brooklyn and I arrive at a veterinary hospital. We’re here to try out the newest of approaches: have her stay for a day, observed by two different specialists at the same time (including while asleep), and with some bonus radiographs thrown in for a good measure.
We get there in the morning, ahead of schedule, but after waiting in the room, one of the front desk people calls me over to deliver bad news. You’re not in the system for today, she says.
She’s trying to negotiate with the computer a few more times, but the appointment seems gone. I tell her about taking a half day off work for this, and how much effort it was to put both doctors together on the agenda to look after Brooklyn on the same day. I don’t want to wait many more weeks to reschedule this, I say. In my voice, I can hear the frustration and desperation that’s rarely there.
I go through my file to find the appointment information, and as I put it in front of my eyes, I immediately realize something: I’m in the wrong place. I have been visiting veterinary hospitals so often in the last months that they all blended together in my head. I mindlessly asked the cab driver to take me to this one, even though I was supposed to be at another.
That realization stops me in my tracks. I apologize, and quickly deliver Brooklyn to the right facility. But I don’t go to work that day.
I come home and look at my battery of solvents, enzyme cleaners, and CSI-esque UV lights that are meant to highlight urine.
I scan the transcripts of conversations with doctors, noting how they’re littered with phrases like a little bit of a catch-22, and a bit of a crapshoot, and little trouble trying to understand what’s going on, and not entirely sure, over and over again. How every test or treatment so far has created three new questions and zero answers. (So does that day’s observation. The eventual idea will be to send Brooklyn to UC Davis for more tests.)
I think about the extra added layers in my bed that make cleaning easier, the laundry I have to do every other day, how little I’ve seen my friends recently, and how no one’s visited me — no one could visit me — in the last half a year.
I remember how many of those friends already told me “why don’t you just get another cat?”, and read up on how caregiver burnout can be more of a condition than the original affliction carried by the person or, it turns out, the animal.
And I think of the good traits that we sometimes exhibit that come from all the wrong places. I tend to be punctual to a fault, but some part of that is not as much seeing punctuality as a virtue, but a simple recollection of that time, long time ago, when people being late used to hurt.
And, in a similar way, earlier in my life, not giving up was the only option I had to deal with issues outside of my control, so I learned really well how not to give up. Never. Under any circumstances.
Tenacity can be a beautiful attribute. But, at some point in your life, you need to discover how to deal with other people being late, how to be late yourself, and that scariest prospect of them all — how to give up.
And, I suppose, how to hiss at something largely resembling a dog.
A few days later, we ceases to exist. It’s just me who’s checking a box labeled Adoption Return/Surrender, and another one saying Over 30 days. I wonder if that threshold is there solely to make people feel better — you’re a good person, you tried for an entire month — and if so, how empty it feels to me, hundreds of days since Kipper became Brooklyn.
I write down her entire medical history, and make a thick stack of copies of all the medical documents and horribly designed forms that punctuated our entire journey together. I leave extensive contact information for anyone who might want to adopt her in the future.
I pause when the form asks me for “Cat’s name,” but eventually I write Brooklyn. If someone else takes her, maybe they will keep that interesting, catchy, easy to pronounce, two-syllable, human-worthy name that meant so much to me.
In the field “Please describe the ideal home you would like for this cat,” I get to use some of the vocabulary unknown to me a year prior: I’m imagining something like a house with a garden, so she can sleep outside and her incontinence issues won’t bother anyone; she could explore and run around, but she won’t have absolute freedom since, as a tripod, she can’t really fend for herself in the wild.
Brooklyn and I spend our last evening on the bed in the non-ideal home I tried to make for her. She seems happy. That she doesn’t understand what’s going on — that usual limitation of our pets that leads to hilarity and a sizable portion of YouTube and Instagram traffic — is now hard to bear. I wish I could explain this all to you, I whisper.
It’s been said that cats are simpler creatures than we give them credit for, and often become simply mirrors for their owners, allowing us to project whatever emotion or behaviour trait we need in a given moment. In the months before, Brooklyn’s been kind to me, happy with me, and made me feel like a good caretaker. Now, I’m no longer sure. I am trying to figure out whether in the coming weeks I will feel like a fraud instead.
I surrender her the next morning.
For the few months afterwards, coming back from work, I still open my apartment door carefully to prevent Brooklyn from darting away. And then, sometimes, I lie down on my couch and imagine her jumping on top of me, purring in immense contentment, and licking my nose.