Towards the end of her life, my beloved grandma lived in an assisted living facility in small town Alberta. She spent a lot of time in her room, reading and (then when her sight failed her) watching television. My aunt lived in the same town and was her fierce advocate. She came up with a brilliant idea to stave off the loneliness that befalls so many elderly people: my aunt negotiated with the nursing home to get my grandma a kitten.
Now, my grandma lived in the country for many years and was practical about the value of a cat. She felt cats belonged outside chasing mice. But things changed after my grandpa died and she moved into the home. She became less mobile and spent many hours alone in her recliner chair. A little orange cat changed all that.
My aunt plucked a kitten from a litter on a farm and brought him to live with my grandma. Suddenly my grandma was never alone again. She named the orange tabby Tommy, after her brother who had died a few years back.
Since he was wee, Tommy the cat’s only job was to sit in my grandma’s lap. He was very good at sitting in laps, exceptional even. Occasionally he’d go for an adventure hiding in a kitchen cupboard, or inviting the nurses to scratch him on the belly, but mostly he just sat in her lap, purring away. My grandma grew older and frailer and acquired bladder cancer in her final years. Tommy remained on her lap through it all, taking his job as therapy cat very seriously, lap-sitting his way through the days.
My grandma denied that Tommy slept with her in bed, but I like to think that he was cuddled up next to her three years ago, purring away on the night she died.
We are cat people and when my grandma got very ill, I told my aunt we would adopt Tommy when she was gone. And so that we did.
Tommy arrived at our noisy house a bit freaked out, but he adjusted quickly. From the beginning, Tommy always seemed fond of me. I think he thought I was my grandma reincarnated. He was keen to jump up on the couch and sit with me on the rare occasion I would actually sit down on the couch. He was a pleasant cat, not prone to causing troubles, until late last August.
It was then that Tommy became overly obsessed with me. He started meowing and yowling when I wasn’t in the room in a way he never did before. He’d wait all day, watching me closely and following me around until I finally sat down on the couch. Then he’d jump up and snuggle fiercely up onto my left side. He’d stretch his paw out and knead me like I was his mother and he was a little kitten again.
Right around that time, he began peeing on bathmats, laundry left on the floor, and most disturbing of all – beds. We spent hundreds of dollars at the veterinarian’s trying to figure out the reason why. Male cats are prone to kidney problems, so we bought expensive urinary tract food. We ran diagnostic tests. We put him on anti-anxiety medication but it didn’t help much and caused his liver levels to go wonky. Finally we had to conclude that there was nothing physically wrong with Tommy. He’d just gone off his rocker for no apparent reason.
Our vet bills kept creeping up and we had to bar him from all rooms with beds and be fastidious about picking up bathmats and laundry. We had to take a good hard look at him. I decided I couldn’t bear to ‘rehome’ him, because when I saw him, I could only see my grandma. Irrationally or not, I knew she was watching and I didn’t want to betray her. I had promised to look after him, but his new strong obsession with me was really weird. He started meowing for me outside the bedroom door every morning when the sun came up (note: he can’t sleep with us because he will PEE ON THE BED), which was particularly annoying.
Clearly Tommy was coming apart at the seams. Then about six weeks after his newfound addiction to me began, I found a lump in my left breast.
I know I’m searching for meaning as I heal from surgery and wait for my first oncology appointment. But I believe Tommy sensed my tumour back in August, before I even detected something was wrong. He always sits on my left side and reaches up with his paw to my left breast (I thought he was merely being a pervert). But this is as he sat on my grandma’s lap all those years, as she had cancer as I do now. If a German Shepard can sniff out cancer, maybe Tommy the cat can too.
I know I’ll be sitting on the couch, an orange cat by my side, more and more as this year unfolds. I’ll be recovering from whatever cancer treatments are looming in my near future. If nothing else, Tommy knows his job in life is to sit with people who are lonely and in pain. This seems like a pretty good calling to me.