Introducing Pet Diaries: Life lessons learned from our pets. This 9-part series is brought to you by GOOD, in partnership with Purina ONE®, and explores how having a pet can change your place in your neighborhood, community, and beyond. Check out more stories at the GOOD Pets hub.
I was thankful to hear the greetings of my three cats as I staggered through my front door and slowly rested my aching body on the living room couch. The purrs were comforting. The meows were welcoming. In 1999, I had just returned from Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan where I had endured two ten hour brain surgeries that had removed a large tumor buried deep in my brainstem.
I was surprised my cats recognized me. My head was wrapped in a bandage, my steps and movements were now jerky, my speech was slurred and halting. I bore no resemblance to the Matty my cats had always known. I was a shell, a wounded soul, and only 20 years old.
Fenway, a fat, orange tabby that loved to lie on his back, was the first to notice the difference. He and calico Patches had been abandoned in our neighborhood a few years prior, but had both acclimated to our home after wandering into our garage. Fenway jumped up onto the couch and tiptoed towards me, nestled his furry head on my cheek, and began rubbing my face as he purred loudly, happy for my return. I wanted to pet him back, show him I was thankful for his affection, but I didn’t have the strength to move my arm.
During my long, difficult recovery period at home, I realized that I needed someone or something to lean on, and somehow it seemed like my cats understood my pain. They’d stare at me, rub against my feet, and give me the inspiration to keep going. My parents had full-time jobs and were rarely home. My friends were all away at college, chasing after chicks, and tasting the beauty of newfound freedom. When they had returned home for the holidays none of them knew what to say, or how to communicate with me. It seemed like they were all realizing the wonderful promises of life and I was a living reminder of the fragility of life. I was a contradiction of everything they were experiencing in their lives.
But, my cats never looked at me the way my friends did. Patches and adopted black cat Ebby were female rivals in the house who at times violently sparred. Before my surgery they often had to be in separate rooms. But when I returned that day from the hospital, it seemed their differences were put aside, and they made a treaty in order to make my recovery peaceful. Every time I got up and took steps into the next room my cats marched behind me, guarding and comforting me.
As days progressed, I realized my life would never be the same again. I tried to read, but I couldn’t focus on the tiny, blurry words. Television gave me a raging headache, and music gave me an intense pounding in my head that made it impossible to enjoy. It was a struggle to focus on anything. I needed to create my own world that I could function in, and the only dwellers on this new planet were three cats and myself. I spoke to Patches and Ebby about how I felt. They were my therapists. I cried to them about my pain, loneliness, and discomfort. I didn’t know if they could understand me, all that mattered was they stayed by my side, watching my sad face and occasionally moving closer to rub against my aching body.
I had to build some strength and get cardio in if I wanted to get healthy. Since my insurance only covered occupational therapy for a brief time, I created schedules and regimens with my cats. At wake up time I would take a walk around the house. As I made it halfway, it was always comforting to see Patches and Fenway staring at me through my backyard window, watching every move I made. Mid-morning it was one hour of shadow boxing with Fenway, followed by thirty minutes of string chase to get my motor senses running.
At noon, I ate lunch and spent time on the couch talking to Patches and Ebby as they stayed by my side. I let everything out. Let’s just say I revealed more to my cats than anyone in this universe. And then I would end the day with another walk around my house. Having those cats in the same room reminded me I wasn’t alone and although they were all I had, they were enough to inspire me to keep fighting and do all I could to recover and get back to living.
It took five or six months to get back to a coherent stage where I felt close to being in the swing of life. With hard work, a miracle, and love from my cats, I felt healthy enough to enroll into college. It was certainly a huge accomplishment, but I missed my feline buddies when I had to move away. And when I would return on holidays, my three loyal friends saw a much more healthy Matty. When shadowboxing with Fenway, my jab was certainly much quicker. And instead of sharing all the pain I felt to Ebby and Patches, they heard about all my new college crushes.
Though my body recovered, I still remembered what it was like being sick and ill. Humans seemed to say all the wrong things and make me feel even worse than what I was going through. I’ll always feel so lucky to have the cats by my side during that time. They never judged, never said the wrong thing. They just purred at my feet and followed me every step through my recovery. In my darkest time, my cats’ kindness and play gave me the most amazing unconditional love that could not be matched by any human.