What I learned about cancer from my cat and the Galapagos Islands

My younger brother Phil moved to Loja Ecuador about two years ago. Several months ago I got a phone call in the middle of the night informing me that he had been rushed to the hospital and and would undergo emergency surgery the next day. Loja is a city of almost 200,000 people, high in the Andes, at approximately 6500 feet. I speak no Spanish and was thrown into a huge panic….how do I get to Loja in time for Phillip’s surgery and how in the world do I manage the task with “no habla espanol.”

As it turned out, the next morning the doctors determined surgery would not be necessary and that Phil’s condition could be managed with diet and other treatment.

I was off the hook….

But that’s when we decided I needed to take a trip to visit him in Ecuador so that if such an emergency were to ever recur, I’d be better prepared. I also purchased a 5-level online Spanish course from a company called Pimsleur and began a slow and steady approach to the language.

We also arranged a November trip. It had been almost 8 years since I’d seen this brother and as the Galapagos Islands had always been part of my bucket list, we agreed to meet in Quito at midnight on November 10, then proceed to the Galapagos for 6 days and then to Loja for its 4th Annual International Arts Festival for an additional 10 days.

I’ve posted a number of photos and anecdotes about this trip on Facebook but am now using these pages to be a bit more expansive and tell this story a little more completely.

There was once a Twilight Zone episode called “Next Stop Willoughby.” I don’t remember who starred in it but essentially the main character gets off a midwestern train in a small town called Willoughby and finds himself back in time 50 years…band shells, carriages, people friendly and warm; a rediscovered sense of promises at life’s beginnings that can be reclaimed following the regrets of aging and passage of time into the future…a future missing those simple warming charms found when children are safe to wander the streets after sunset; where neighbors invite you in for a chat, when unexpected visitors are welcomed and warmed by your fire and company.

My Ecuador trip was a little like that Willoughby tale. It came at a time when I needed remark less on my complaints and more on the magic of good company and simple pleasures.

Charmela Kneller doesn’t know how old he is.

He remembers that when he came to America in 1949 after the second World War, he lied about his age to the people at Ellis Island. He remembers he lied but he doesn’t remember exactly why he lied and he’s not sure in which direction he lied; but he knows he lied and he admits that he lied and everyone thinks that he is charming and if he’s 102 fine and if he isn’t 102 it’s charming anyway so why bother with an old man. So the mayor of Lakewood, New Jersey, is planning to show up at the assisted living facility where Charmela lives…and also where my father lives who happens to be exactly (exactly….and I repeat the word “exactly”) 97-years-old and there’s no disputing it with him. He does know how old he is. He’s vague about other things but he does know he was born in Iwaniska, Poland on April 20, 1922 and there’s no dispute or question-marks there. He also knew Charmela in Poland.

So the mayor of Lakewood is coming in September with the newspapers and they are going to bring cake for Chermela to help this remarkable holocaust survivor from Poland celebrate his 102nd birthday.

And my father says, “You know, I don’t really don’t remember a lot of things. You tell me 97 and I got no reason to fight with you but one thing I do remember is that back in Poland I was older than Charmela. But this is America and maybe he’s older here. So I’m not gonna fight about it.

At the end of times…

I’ve had the opportunity (maybe “opportunity’ is not the right word)….I’ve had the occasion to be with certain people at the end of their lives and these have usually been people I’ve cared for and even (usually) people I’ve loved. And when these events have occurred they have been blessings to me and I am filled with a tremendous sense of privilege to have been in the presence of loved ones at the end of their lives….

I know what she likes…

And that’s the problem between us. i think i can improve what she likes. Yes, Wilderness Salmon and Turkey is always something’ she’ll leap to; usually, but sometimes her stomach problems keep her from enjoying Wilderness Salmon and Turkey. So I try to give her variety and mix in some Instinct and Wellness which she likes alot of the time. And because I’m a human and she’s a cat, if We were both humans, we’d like a little variety and have conversations about the subtle differences between the various brands of cat food and no matter how great an actor Paul Newman was, not everyone one of our cat animals are going to let us get away with buying Newmans Brand catfood from Whole Earth and thinking they are going to allow it.

But I know she always likes Wilderness Salmon and Turkey, so why the fuck don’t I just buy her what she wants and lay it down in front of her and stop trying to pretend for the pretty Pet Lady Store person that I have an interesting relationship with this last of a 72-year-old man’s array of cats dating back generations.

So let her eat what she wants and “Yeah, I;’m buying my cat 43 cans of Wilderness Salmon and Turkey because that’s what she likes and i’m not taking any chances.”

This is a picture of me and my old cat.

She didn’t used to be an old cat. But neither did I.

She’s learned to imitate the expressions on my face. I smile, she smiles; I frown she frowns. I have to get her a pair of matching eyeglasses.

Actually when I first got her I already had an old cat. His name was Binks but he’s dead now and he was remarkably stupid…..my Boy Binks….I think I miss him more than she does….but he’s dead and she’s old and time doesn’t stop for any of us.

A Cat Has Nine Lives

  1. You introduce me to another old guy who’s from my world and an old hippie probably and I say to him, “Dude….I never thought I’d be looking at somebody that I recognized from my world and my life and I’d be calling him “Dude.”
  2. And I step through the years of my life and my world of cats, going back through history to Margaret, the first of my cat lives, but even that one wasn’t the first. I could go back to the cat from Will Love that we had on the farm in Cockeysville, Maryland, just down the road from where John Waters was working on Pink Flamingoes.
  3. And then there was Behemoth who is a whole story on her own. Her head was cockeyed. I knew her when I knew Arnold the BlueJay who lived with us at the Newman House….was it it the Newman House?…no, I don’t think so. Maybe it was…it was a little coffee house building where we did one act plays back in my days as a student at Drew Theological Seminary.
  4. Then to California and after a generation and a life as a dogman….when I broke off with Cheryl and moved into that Santa Monica house with Ed and Robin and John Tays. And that was the start of my CAT-LIFE….and Margaret was her name. So yeah. Margaret was my first CAT LIFE; no offense Behemoth and no offense, un-named cat that lived with me in Cockeysville, Maryland, that once belonged to a guy named Will Love, but that’s another story.
  5. I remember I was taking a creative writing class with the wonderful T. Chorogison Boyle and one of the stories I sent in was called “That Asshole Cat.” It was only a few lines (like maybe 6 or 12 lines) and people said it was too short to be considered a story and that I shouldn’t get credit for it because the story was like 6 or 10 lines but Tom said no, it was a real and full story even if it was very short and that it actually was a very good story.
  6. I gotta say that made me feel very good…and it was true, it was a good story. I wish I still had a copy of it but it was back in the days of carbon paper and I never saved those things and they were impossible to digitize and now I understand they have been the contents of my life; the chronicle of my passage here.
  7. I’m talking about the cats and their lives….not the carbon paper.
  8. So there was Margaret and her litter of babies…and there was that little calico I called “Beanie.” He ran out into the street on night and got run over and that ended the history of cats with freedom to come and go.

Cats will stink…

There comes a time when a cat will stink. Dogs always stink (no exception) but cat owners have pretended for the longest time that our cats don’t stink. This won’t hold. Eventually even the sweetest cat will start to stink. It’s the way of the world — eventually all of our cats stink.