When my brother-in-law, the Hurricane Ike refugee, was here recently, I got to hear, once again, the story of one of his first childhood illnesses. He was four, maybe, and couldn’t stand. He kept falling over.
His mother called the family pediatrician, who rushed over to examine him for a possible neurological disease. After a few minutes, the pediatrician stood up and announced her diagnosis. “This child is drunk!” she said.
As it turned out, his parents had been having a party and my brother-in-law had helped clean up by emptying the remaining liquor in the glasses into his mouth until he couldn’t stand up. But, you know, it was the fifties and things like that were taken a little more lightly. I’m sure all the adults — including the pediatrician — lit a cigarette and downed another drink and laughed about the whole thing.
I’ve heard that story for years and it’s taught me a lesson. If your kids are staggering around the house, always check your liquor cabinet first.
Over this past weekend, though, it was our cat that was staggering around and falling down. Since Lefty doesn’t have opposable thumbs, I knew the whole liquor cabinet explanation was out of the question. Too bad. I would have preferred that as a cause.
“What’s wrong with him?” my husband and I asked each other. Lefty crashed around, his eyes looking drugged and uneasy, his legs collapsing beneath him. Finally, he slept for hours and hours. Every time we looked at him, we checked to make sure he was breathing.
Yesterday morning, our new friend, the visiting veterinarian, showed up. He looks exactly like an Austin veterinarian should look: his long hair is in a ponytail and he dresses casually. He and I bonded in an earlier visit over our mutual dislike of our teeth.
We couldn’t find Lefty. Finally, we located him upstairs, under our daughter’s old twin beds. Lefty refused to move. The vet crawled under the bed. Lefty sprinted out the other side. I picked him up, but he dug his claws into my arm and, when I dropped him, tore back under the bed. For a sick cat, he could really move.
“You stay on that side of the bed and grab him,” the vet told me. He pushed under the bed again and Lefty came throttling out the other side. Finally, we cornered him in the bathroom.
Maybe it’s an outer ear infection that’s moved into his inner ear and disturbed his balance, the vet said later. That’s the best-case diagnosis; that’s what Lefty’s being treated for. If he doesn’t respond to the antibiotics, then something more dire may be troubling him.
“If we’re talking about thousands of dollars’ worth of treatment or a bad quality of life for him,” I told the vet, “then we don’t want to go there.” He nodded and said we didn’t need to decide that just yet.
We’ve had Lefty for a good 10 years and we all love him. But we won’t take extraordinary or exorbitantly expensive measures to save his life. And we don’t want him to live a life that would be miserable or painful.
In the past 50 years, so many things have changed. A child who accidentally gets drunk isn’t considered funny these days. A black man is a serious candidate for president. But, after all these years, we still treat animals more humanely than people.
I think of my father, whose mind is lost to Alzheimer’s, who must now wear diapers because he’s incontinent. I think how much he would have hated what he’s become. But those are thoughts that never really get articulated, because they’re forbidden. We’re taught to have a reverence for human life, to speak of “quality of life” even when there is none.
So we watch Lefty and see whether he’s making progress and try to make the best choices for him. I hope somebody will be able to do the same thing for me someday. In the meantime, I just wish I could trace Lefty’s illness to his fondness for liquor — and I hope he’s got a few lives left in him.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)