I can now definitively tell you that it is possible to collect some of your happiest and saddest memories on the same day.
A week ago Sunday, I completed the RDC Marathon, rounding out the 35.5-mile Challenge for the weekend (5k + 10k + marathon). I gave out “thank yous” and smiles and hugs all along the course to the volunteers, runners, and the ten Cheer Stations my friend Shaw and I organized with companies and organizations to raise extra money for ALS research.
Three hours later, we found out that our 8yo tuxedo cat Lizzie – the one who rarely leaves my side – has cancer.
Cancer was raised as a possibility the day before when we took her to the emergency vet at NC State Veterinary School, deciding that her breathing issues had become too severe to stick with our regular vet’s wait-and-see approach. We went straight there after our annual Team Drea brunch, emerging from the cocoon of love and hope that comes with being surrounded by seventy of your closest friends and supporters.
“I couldn’t see her lungs clearly on the ultrasound because there was a sizable mass in the way,” the vet said.
I made it all the way to the trashcan outside before I broke down into loud, ugly sobs.
Honestly, I didn’t think I could do the marathon. I cried for hours and hours that afternoon. But how could I not? After all, the race was benefitting my foundation. There were ten Cheer Stations. There was Team Drea. There was Dr. Bedlack.
The sliver of hope that got me through the race was my own fantastical concoction that Lizzie’s breathing issues might have been attributable to the chimney work we’d had done while we were in Colorado. We noticed the wheezing right after we got home…
We drove straight from brunch with friends after the marathon to the vet school to visit Lizzie. I don’t know what was worse: hearing the confirmation of mammary cancer or seeing how miserable she was in her oxygenated cage. The cone of shame kept her from tearing the bandages and EKG leads monitoring her heart. So she kept flicking her front paws, trying to get free.
The plan for Monday was to put a bronchial camera down her nose into her lungs and another procedure to get a sample of the masses to determine whether they too were cancerous.
So we cuddled Lizzie as best we could on the floor of the clinic, which was mostly torture for everyone involved because she was struggling mightily to get away.
My mantra quickly went from “please don’t let it be cancer” to “please just let us bring her home.”
That wish – at least – was granted sooner than expected because we got a call on Monday that the lymph node biopsy done on Saturday had come back as cancerous as well. The vet no longer wanted to do the procedure because of the risks with anesthesia and the proof that the cancer had already metastasized.
“How long does she have?” DP asked, which propelled my love for him to a new height because that’s all I wanted to know in the moment but could never, ever have gotten the words out.
The vet explained that this kind of cancer is usually aggressive in cats. Apparently, if they are fixed after the age of 6 months, the odds of mammary cancer increase exponentially (even in male cats) – a fact that should be bolded/circled/underlined in all shelter adoption paperwork. It wouldn’t have changed our decision to adopt, but we would have known to do monthly breast exams on her furry belly to feel for lumps.
“Days or weeks,” she said.
I didn’t burst into tears, mostly because I was already numb. Five minutes before the vet’s call, a friend had called to tell us that Sarah Coglianese had died.
I wish I could put into words how much Sarah meant to the ALS community, and to me personally, but the sad irony is that the only one up to that task is Sarah herself (though here and here are my humble attempts from 2016). If you aren’t already an avid follower, set aside a few hours and dig into the genius that is her blog, Speed4Sarah.
In the week Lizzie has been home, we’ve done a lot of napping together and even more cuddling. I have come to the realization that even if this cat lived a full lifetime, it still wouldn’t be long enough to get our fill of stroking her impossibly soft fur or tire of listening to the soothing sounds of her purring, which wins hands down over waves or rain as sleep music. It’s clear she will never get tired of these things either so you’ll find us side-by-side-by-side for the duration.
We did go to Boston for a night to see our ALS family at TDI’s White Coat Affair. We laughed, hugged, met new friends, caught up with old ones. Moving, heartbreaking, and inspiring all at once…because that’s how families affected by ALS roll. Toeing the line between love and loss, always.
“It’s the price of admission for pet ownership,” my business/life coach says, which is the most comforting thing I’ve heard to date. Because no matter how much this hurts, we’d pay it all over again for the opportunity to love this smart, hilarious, opinionated, loving little cat.