Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Human nature's inoperable malignancy

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Somewhere on the drive home from the vet, my jaw clenching in time with the bitter howlings of my car-sick cat, I realized: It's not the cancer that upsets me most. No, it's the shots.

The cancer is nature. The cancer grew inside her, outside of our control. She has been living in her soft, white body for 15 years maybe; this makes her very old. The years grew long on us both. ("Almost 10 years, Pete, can you believe it? She licks a paw and watches my lips move in pleased and lazy silence.) The years grew long enough I had time to build a mental observatory, a window into the vast night she will walk alone. So I can stand to watch her go.

So no, it's not the cancer that upsets me the most.

It's the other things, the unwanted things, the unnatural-unnecessary-and-never-shoulda-been-there things. The fingertip of metal embedded in her swaying belly, another in her slowly sinking back. ("I'm so sorry, my little Petey girl. I didn't know." She glares at me as the car rumbles over tumbled West Broadway roads, her irises bright as Bermuda shoals, even though lately ringed with rheumy smears of brown.)

This is my cat; her name is Pete. She cannot hear and sometimes squeaks. How she came to me is a long story and terribly mundane in the telling: One day we'd never met, the next she was splayed out on my futon, sunning. She was a stray before I knew her, wandering West Broadway back lanes and nibbling what food she could find. Once settled in my home, however, she turned her nose away from any hint of outside.

("Had enough of that, didn't you Pete? Life's much nicer here, isn't it? Lots of food for Pete. Lots of love.")

Instead, she settled into a lazy cycle of feline life, revolving on supporting spokes of food and sleep. Occasionally, she woke (wakes?) long enough to press my hand with her cheek. Oh, she is gentle, she is sweet. One of my old boyfriends taught her to do a trick, to rear up on command. She is a pliable creature like that; she treats every human as a long-lost friend. ("She was SO good," the veterinary technician said, and I felt a swell of pride.)

But lately, there were the little problems, the upset stomach and the bleary eyes... yes, let's do the blood tests. Yeah, and also the X-rays.

I'm not supposed to be writing this. I am supposed to be on vacation. But the frustration rips up the mind and bleeds onto the page.

Late afternoon on Monday. A phone call from the vet. The tests are back, something bulbous near her spleen. It's not clear exactly what it is, just that it's something where nothing should be. Her blood is bursting with white blood cells too, and you know, we'll need an ultrasound to be sure, but...

Yes, I said. Cancer, I said. (I was ready for this.) We'll do the ultrasound. Take it step by step.

"One other thing," the veterinarian said. "She has two BB-gun pellets embedded in her."

The breath that rushed out of me then, some sort of shrill and agonized wind, a realization that all this time -- yes, I want to see the X-ray slides.

Later, some helpful folks on Twitter suggest the bright white blots leering from her abdomen are airgun pellets, not BB balls. I confess I don't well know the difference, never really cared to find out. In the end, it doesn't change this fact: Someone aimed, and pulled the trigger, and pumped her with shots. One lodged above the spine, one buried in the folds that hang below her gut.

Someone used this gentle creature for target practice. Someone, no, one of us -- one of us looked at her life and decided that it needed hurt.

Twelve years at least, these things have been stuck in her. Twelve years she has been living with the shrapnel of an attack all lopsided in its power.

On the way home from the vet, steaming. Listening to her car-sick caterwaul and my mind reeling from the Monday avalanche of bad news, of slaughters. Of the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Hobby Lobby and the corresponding tide of sneering commentators. Of the constant pressure in this world of having to defend one's own humanity, the constant pressure billions of us face to carve out a space just big enough to breathe and make choices for our lives free and peacefully...

These thoughts keep turning back to my cat, to the cancer I was ready for and the cruelty I cannot stand. Keep turning back to what it means to look at a life and decide it needs to be hurt. That it needs to be stung for no reason except for "fun," and shoved into the dirt...

Against all this, the arrogance of ever thinking we are anything but the most malignant of this planet's species.

("We're home now, Pete. You're home. I'm so sorry sweetheart. I didn't know.")

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2014 D3

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