Sunday, March 20, 2011

Cats and Kids

It’s hard to feel feminine when you’ve got pecs like Conan the Barbarian.

I am now in the middle of what Deb calls the "Body Builder Phase" of breast reconstruction. And it’s not pretty. Inserted beneath the muscles of my chest, plastic expanders are hard as rock. I could run, jump or turn cartwheels, and these babies wouldn’t budge.

Every Friday, Dr. Montag, our plastic surgeon, and Erin, the perky P.A., stride into the examination room with handfuls of syringes the size of small bayonets and fill the expanders on either side of our chests. And every week, our chests swell out a little bigger. If only the swelling made us look like we had real breasts instead of like Arnold Schwarzenegger taking a deep breath.

Mary has finished her first three fills, and Deb’s expanders are completely full. She can hardly wait for her last surgery just a week from now. That’s when the expanders will come out and the soft, comfortable implants, which actually do resemble female breasts, will go in.

These last weeks of reconstruction are a little like being nine months pregnant. You’re swollen, uncomfortable and miserable, and you want the damn things out. But witnessing Terri’s transformation helps us to feel that the months of discomfort will surely be worth it. In the meantime, however, reconstruction is an uncomfortable process from beginning to end and results in aching muscles and sleepless nights.

The best way to get through it is to own a nocturnal animal - say a possum, a raccoon, or a ferret. A cat will also do. Willy has spent every night beside me on the bed, the couch, the recliner or the floor. He’s a mangy, dirty, old coon cat, and I couldn’t have survived these last few months without him.

I didn’t even know I liked cats until Willy and Blackie came into our lives. We adopted six-week-old Willy with his ears as big as spatulas from our next door neighbor, and we discovered a baby Blackie starving in the streets. I was strictly a dog person. When I took our two new kittens in for their first shots, I remember filling out a form in the vet’s office.

"In the event your pet suffers from a medical emergency, would you prefer this office did or did not employ life saving measures to save your pet?"

Snorting, I checked the "no" box. This was a cat, not my mother-in-law.

Five years later, Willy, who can’t tell the difference between a mouse and a crescent wrench, ate a bottle cap and nearly died.

"It’s lodged right here in his colon," the veterinarian showed me on the X-ray, as I struggled not to weep over my half dead cat lying listlessly on the exam table. My son Tommy stood beside me listening intently. "He’s not able to pass it on his own," the vet informed us, "and the only way to remove it is surgically."

I swallowed. "And how much would an operation like that cost?"

The vet cleared his throat. "Close to a thousand dollars."

I stared at him, speechless.

"Mom!" Tommy nudged me when I didn’t speak.

"Okay, okay," I coughed. "We’d better do it."

I’m so glad I did. Willy is 11-years-old now. He’s a moody, filthy, unfriendly feline - to everybody except me. His devotion is the only reason I love him. There are no other reasons. Willy, unlike Blackie who spends hours grooming herself, never even bothers to lick the Fancy Feast tuna blend off his whiskers. And other than the golf ball sized mats he occasionally rips out of his fur in frustration to spit out in the middle of the living room carpet, he’s never once made a single attempt to clean himself.

But he loves me.

Blackie, on the other hand, belongs completely to my husband. As soon as John sits down to read the paper, she leaps onto his lap and nuzzles the five o’clock shadow on his chin, adoringly claiming him as her own. John strokes her, croons to her and loves her like the daughter he never had. Then she drops on his chest lounging on her side like the Queen of Sheba to regard me cooly across the room. I am the "other woman." But she knows full well I’m no serious competition for the likes of her.

While Blackie slumbers all night by John, Willy follows me through the house during the wee hours of the morning as I wakefully struggle to accommodate my ever expanding chest muscles. I have no illusions about Willy’s loyalty, however. Our relationship is strictly about what’s in it for him. If an axe murderer broke into our house and threatened to hack me into a thousand pieces, Willy would scamper under the bed and hide until the whole sordid episode was over.

What he wants from me is attention, pure and simple.

It turns out the kids at school are no different. The first day I returned to school after my double mastectomy, my students were polite and concerned.

For about 15 minutes.

Stealing furtive glances at my boobless chest, they at last satisfied their curiosity. Then it was back to business as usual, much to my relief. Except for one little sixth grade boy who fixed his gaze on me with solemn, tear-filled eyes. He was still worried about me, I knew, and I resolved to speak to him away from prying eyes as soon as the bell rang.

I had just assigned the kids homework and had settled down to grade papers when I looked up to see the sad little boy standing silently by my desk.

"Well," he sighed tremulously, "I guess you forgot."

I blinked. "What?"

"My birthday," his lip quivered. "It was January 16th, and you left and forgot about it."

So much for his deep concern for my health.

"I’m so sorry," I grasped his arm. "Why didn’t you tell me?"

"I did. I told you the first day of school, and you said you’d write it down so you wouldn’t forget."

I shuffled through my planner, and sure enough, there it was plain as day. "M’s b-day." I felt like a heel.

"You know what? Go get that hula skirt off the shelf," I said.

The smile that blazed across his small face was like a shaft of sunlight cutting through the storm clouds.

The hula dance is a time honored tradition in my English class. Every student dons a grass skirt and sways in front of the entire class to our own special brand of background singing.

"And maybe," he suggested hopefully, "we could play Heads Up, Seven Up the last five minutes?"

I pretended to be mad. "Don’t push your luck." We grinned at each other.

I watched him dance his hula with the practiced precision of a New York Rockette. It was clear he’d rehearsed many times in front of his own mirror at home.

And I’d forgotten his birthday.

Cats and kids. Their needs are simple. They require only that you regard them as the center of your universe. They want you to remember their birthdays, laugh at their jokes, and occasionally scratch them behind the ears. Most importantly, they crave the security of a routine with a hula dance thrown in for good measure.

It occurred to me that not once during my first day back at school had I been aware of the soreness in my chest. There wasn’t a single opportunity to think about it.

It should be sad, really, that after a grueling surgery that’s changed my life forever, the cats and the kids in my life utterly and completely take me for granted. But instead, it’s oddly flattering.

What my cat Willy and those 165 kids I teach every day are telling me is, "We know you’ll always be here."

And I’m happy I get to be here.

Then there’s our other cat Blackie.
If she could speak, she’d tell me, "I hope you get whacked by the axe murderer."