Teddy’s Nine Lives

Audrey Thompson

Teddy Teddy

I was offering to boss Ivan around. Ivan was declining. “What’s the name of that Michael Jackson song? ’Bite It’?” said Ivan. Although I refused to laugh, Ivan was quite pleased with himself. “That was a good joke, objectively speaking,” he assured me.

Drawing on similarly objective standards, my brother prepares jokes ahead of time on the off-chance that they might come in handy. A few months ago, I was talking with Chuck on the phone and he said something to make me laugh. I forget what it was, but it was pretty funny. He was thrilled that I had laughed at his joke. “In my whole life, I have only told two spontaneous jokes that made people laugh,” he said. “Mostly, I have to plan and prepare my jokes ahead of time. I am not like Jimmy. Jimmy can say things off the top of his head, but I have to be prepared. Except those two times, when I made people laugh spontaneously.” Evidently the two noteworthy times of making people laugh did not include having made me laugh only a minute earlier.

“What were the two jokes?” I asked. The first one he told me was a terrible joke. I have already forgotten it. But the second one was very good. Chuck and Kaarin and some friends were lying on a hillside by a brook, and one of their friends said, “Let’s just lie here quietly on the grass for five minutes and not say anything.” “Good idea,” said Chuck. “I’ll narrate.”

I thought of that story a couple of days later when I was visiting Dolores, Octavio, Olin, and Izel. In the old days, Olin was not much of a social butterfly, but now he is extremely, extremely social. One night several of us were at his house, and it was time for him to go to bed. He agreed to go to bed, but begged the guests not to go home. “Don’t go, don’t go,” he said to each of us in turn. “We have beds, we have couches. Make yourself at home. Stay the night. Don’t go!”

Olin and Frank
Olin with Frank

This time, it was afternoon, so Olin did not suggest my sleeping over. “Take off your shoes!” he urged instead, when I was getting ready to leave. “Stay a while! Don’t go!”

“How about if we play some ball before I go?” I asked.

“Yes, yes, good. Mama, we are going to play ball!” said Olin. So we went outside and I threw Olin the ball. He caught it, then, turning to Dolores, engaged her in a lengthy description of exactly how he had caught the ball, and how things were all working out. Eventually, he threw me the ball, and, when I caught it, he described that to Dolores as well. Dolores was standing right there the whole time; she could see what was going on, but he liked telling her about it. It took him five times as long to tell her about throwing the ball as it did to throw it.

“What’s with all this narrating?” I said. “You are spending more time talking about what we are doing than doing it!” But Olin is a narrator. So is Chuck. Chuck was joking about narrating the silence, but probably he really did want to narrate it. That’s how he was able to tell that joke so spontaneously.

Cris wrote to me from Maine the other day, complaining about Stan the cat, who feels he must narrate every move he makes. That sort of cat is not restful. Trillin is like that. We called her Trillin in part because she trills all the time and in part because she agrees with Calvin Trillin that there should always be thirds of everything. If Trillin does not talk when I go past her, I worry that she is dead.

Audrey and Cris
I don’t have a picture of Stan and Cris. This is a picture of Cris and me

Teddy is not a narrator. He does not say much, so I will tell his story for him. It probably is not the story he himself would tell, as there are no smells in it and no found water bowls. Teddy is a connoisseur of water found in serendipitous places like the terra cotta plates underneath pots of outdoor plants.

Teddy is a Buddhist, although he did not start out as one. When we first knew him, he was kind of passive-aggressive. Teddy came with the house. When we moved in with the other two cats, he was always finding ways to trip up Ketzela and Trillin and then make it look like he wasn’t even in the room at the time. Ketzela and Trillin were aggressive-aggressive, so things worked out pretty much the way things do when some parties are passive-aggressive and some are aggressive-aggressive. The aggressive ones are made to look bad when it is quite often the passive-aggressive one’s fault. Luckily, Evan took over. Evan lived downstairs and he bonded aggressively with Teddy. Teddy did not like men at the time. Evan decided that that would have to change, so he gave Teddy massages and fed him things he wasn’t supposed to. He told us he was trying to convert Teddy. “I’m recruiting him,” said Evan. “I think he is a closeted gay cat. I am trying to bring him out of the closet.” As far as we know, Teddy is still asexual, but the recruitment experience was very good for him, and he became a Buddhist. It is true that we do not entirely understand the reasons for the conversion, since cat reasons are not people reasons, but then again conversions are never fully explainable.

It is a good thing that Teddy became a Buddhist, because he needed all the equanimity he could muster, and also all of the extra lives.

A few months ago, Teddy suddenly seemed to get very thin. Up till then he had been pretty well filled out and fluffy, but he must have been losing weight for a little while without our noticing, and one day he no longer had any appetite. We thought at first it might be temporary — one of those twenty-four hour bugs that Trillin sometimes gets — but when we took him to the vet, it was seriously bad news: kidney problems. They sneak up on you because there are no symptoms as long as at least one kidney is working, and you can get by on even half a kidney or so, for a while, but then everything starts to shut down.

Teddy was very sick for over a week. He had a long series of IVs, tests, shots, and other treatments, before he started to rally. Technically, he still is not better. All of his blood and urine tests say that he should be dead. But he is not dead.

Teddy in hospital
Teddy in the hospital Ivan with Teddy in the hospital

Teddy almost died once before, when he was young. When his first owner found out that Teddy had a urinary tract problem and would have to be put on a special diet for life, he told the vet that that was too much trouble, and to put the cat down. The vet took Teddy home instead. Later, the vet started dating the woman who owned our house before us. He gave Teddy to her. She told us that she considered calling Teddy “Blocky,” short for “Urinary Tract Blockage.” When we bought the house, she left Teddy with us, saying she would pick him up later. She never came back, which is a good thing. We are pretty sure that she is the one who taught Teddy to be passive-aggressive. Luckily, he had Evan as a corrective.

When Teddy began to get a little stronger, Ivan and I asked to have a GIF tube inserted so we could give him his daily IVs at home. He does not care for the IVs at all, and trembles and tries to get down from the freezer chest where we have his IV stuff set up; nevertheless, he puts up with the IVs and his pills with enormous patience.

Teddy’s GIF tube
Teddy’s GIF tube

Then again, Teddy is nowhere near as patient as the cat in the video about GIF tubes that Dr. Foster lent us. The video shows a woman relaxing comfortably in an easy chair while a longhaired cat lounges in her lap. There is no indication that that cat ever had to have his back shaved to have a tube inserted. Although there is indeed a tube coming out of his back, the cat is brimming with fur and contentment. From time to time, the woman pets him with one hand, while with the other she singlehandedly sterilizes various implements in a bleach-and-water solution, inserts them into the GIF tube in the cat’s back, and gives him the IV. The cat serenely ignores the goings-on.

Teddy is not like this at all. It takes a minimum of four human hands to give him the IV, including two hands to hold and pet him.

Teddy and Ivan Teddy and Ivan

Georgia suggested that we get Teddy to watch the Gif tube video, to inspire him. “Look, Teddy, that is how it is supposed to work,” we could explain. “Why can’t you just relax, like the cat in the video? The cat you are seeing is not a professional actor. These are his honest personal opinions.” It has occurred to us, however, that probably the cat in the video is a professional actor. We have never met a cat who, in real life, would put up with the IV business with equanimity. It is amazing that Teddy is as patient and stoic as he is; we know for sure that Ketzela and Trillin and Harley would not have tolerated the IV for a second. Even giving Ketzela a pill was a huge battle of wills. We tried wrapping her in towels and once or twice tried putting her in one of those tiny cat straitjackets that vets sometimes use to keep the cat still while doing something unpleasant. It was impossible to get Ketzela into a straitjacket, however, or to keep her wrapped in a towel. She was like Houdini, only quicker, and she could do it right in front of your eyes, which even the Great Houdini couldn’t always do.

To tell the truth, there is no reason to think that Teddy would have found that video helpful. Ivan and I watched it, and our behavior is nothing like that of the woman in the video. The woman in that video is preternaturally calm. The first time we gave Teddy an IV, we were frantic. We couldn’t locate which parts we were supposed to hook up to what other parts, we were certain that we would poke holes in the bag, and we knew that in any case we were bound to poison Teddy through incorrect sterilization. The makers of these supposedly true-to-life videos never show you people like us, people about whom you could say, “Well, at least I have it more together than they do.” When we give Teddy his IVs now, we are no longer hysterical, but it would be too much to say that Teddy learned his equanimity and courage and resilience from watching us.

Teddy has rallied determinedly at every stage of his illness. He has been very tough, very brave. Ivan and I did not teach him this. We ourselves do not roll with the punches. If we so much as drop a pen on the floor, we collapse with despair and frustration: “How could life be so unfair? How could this be happening to me?” we cry. “It is too much to put up with! Why is my life always like this? Why do I have to suffer?” We learned these patterns from our families. If it were not for our families, I think that Ivan and I could have been quite normal.

Luckily, we do not have to be as tough as Teddy because we do not get sick very often.

When I do get sick, I don’t like to go to the doctor, because it is too much trouble, but it does seem to me that it would be good if the doctor would come to me. Ideally, Ivan would be a doctor, and then he could just solve everything.

Sometimes I pretend to be a doctor myself. Today Ivan asked me if I wasn’t going to do something or other that, at the time, seemed far too much to ask of me. “Can’t,” I told him. “I have to rest. Doctor’s orders.”

“While I realize that you are a doctor,” Ivan said, “you are not that kind of doctor. In any case, doctors are not allowed to prescribe for themselves.”

“My kind is allowed,” I said. Doctors of philosophy always take themselves as the norm and then prescribe for everyone else based on that norm. This is why you have so many different philosophies and psychologies to choose from, almost all of them eccentric, implausible, or unintelligible. That is what comes of people trying to explain why the way that they happen to live, or would like to live, or have fooled themselves into thinking that they do live is really the only scientific and rational and moral way to live. It can take a lot of philosophizing to make a particular way of life sound plausible, particularly if you are Freud or Nietzsche, for example. Then again, this kind of sense-making is not all that different from the way plenty of other people go about defending how they live. Other people may or may not come up with actual philosophies about how they live, but you notice that a lot of people, especially people in power, live wholly unscrupulous lives, while the rest of us are expected to let our taxes be used to bail out their corporations. Of course, many so-called normal people are insane. You will notice a lot of that, if you look around.

Anyway, it is true that I am not that kind of doctor. I also am not a very good patient. I would not have put up with illness as stoically as Teddy has.

A few weeks ago, I hurt my foot. I tried to get Ivan to tell me what was wrong with it. Unfortunately, Ivan is not a foot doctor. Even though it would be handy sometimes if he were, I did not complain. I tried to make do. Before I knew him, Ivan used to sell shoes. “Ivan,” I said, “you know a lot about feet. You used to work with feet professionally. Can you tell me what is wrong with my foot?”

“Probably not. I know very little about feet, except that you should not buy cheap shoes. What is wrong with your foot?” Ivan asked.

“The left side of my left foot has been hurting,” I said. “It feels like someone stepped on it.”

“Poor sweet baby,” said Ivan. This is a quote from Peppermint Patty and it is the correct thing to say if someone’s foot hurts, but it is not really enough if you are supposed to be standing in for a foot doctor.

“Can’t you tell me if my foot is swollen or anything and then say, ’Oh dear, your foot is swollen, poor sweet baby,’ or ’Oh dear, your foot is not swollen, poor sweet baby’?” I asked. From someone who knows about feet, I expect more. I drew up a stool next to my chair. “Look,” I said, “this will make you feel more professional.”

Sometimes the easiest thing to do is pretend to be a foot doctor. Ivan pressed the sole of my foot. “Does this hurt?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

He pressed somewhere else. “Does this?”

“No,” I said. I started to laugh.

He pressed all over the sole of my foot, probing carefully, while I laughed. “A reflexologist would have a field day with your foot,” he said. “I don’t think every single square centimeter of your foot is supposed to be ticklish. Besides, I thought your foot hurt?”

“Not now, it doesn’t. Only when I walk. And only on the top of my foot,” I said.

Ivan pressed the top of my foot. “Does that hurt?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “and so does that,” when he pressed somewhere else.

“Maybe you hurt it running yesterday,” he said. This is the kind of wild guess that someone will make if he assumes that anyone who does not drift idly up the aisles of the supermarket is a sprinter. Ivan figured he could take it as read that I had been running.

“I didn’t run anywhere yesterday,” I said. “I suppose I could have hurt my foot shoveling,” I added thoughtfully.

“What shoes were you wearing when you were shoveling?” Ivan asked.

“Wool slippers,” I said.

“There you go,” said Ivan. “You can’t wear slippers to shovel in. You have to wear heavy-soled work boots.”

“These slippers have rubber-tread soles,” I said, “perfect for shoveling.”

“You can’t wear slippers for shoveling,” Ivan repeated.

“Why not?” I asked.

“You’ll hurt your feet,” said Ivan.

“It doesn’t hurt your feet to shovel in slippers,” I said. I have done a lot more shoveling than Ivan has in recent years and I think I know what would hurt your feet to shovel in more than he would, although it is true that one of us has a hurt foot and the other one hasn’t.

“Your foot hurts, doesn’t it? That’s because you didn’t wear heavy work boots when shoveling.”

“That isn’t the problem,” I said. “You are trying to shift the blame.”

“I am not shifting the blame,” said Ivan, “I am just saying not to wear slippers when shoveling in the yard. You will hurt your feet. You already did, in fact.”

“It is always suspicious when someone tries to shift the blame,” I observed. “You are trying to escape blame for having stepped on my foot.”

I just have this one hurt foot, which I am willing to narrate at length; most of Teddy’s back leg muscles are tender and sore, but he says very little. The only time he really complains is when he has aquapuncture, which shouldn’t hurt him, but does. Other than that, he carries on determinedly.

Late one afternoon a few weeks ago, we had a terrible scare. Teddy suddenly went totally blind; it was a side effect of the kidney problems. His retinas both detached at the same time. One moment he was jumping up on things as usual; fifteen minutes later, he was walking blindly into walls. Until then, we had thought that he might be doing a little better. Although his blood test scores were no better, he had been more himself, more lively and social. Frank and Donna and Donna’s mother, Mary, came over one evening, and Teddy instantly gravitated to Donna and Mary, settling down between them and soaking up as much attention as he could. “Don’t you ever pet this cat?” Mary asked.

Don’t you ever pet this cat?

Four days later, when Teddy went blind, we thought that that might be the end. He was so entirely disoriented. He would stare at us with his poor, huge, vacant eyes, looking scared and lost.

Blind Teddy

Because the blindness had come on so suddenly, he hadn’t had time to adjust. He couldn’t find anything by himself — his water bowl, his food, his litter box — so he wandered around bumping into things and getting confused. We moved things out of his way and we put footstools where he could use them to climb up onto the couch. We coached him as to where the footstools were and how to use them. Climbing up the footstools was the first thing that he learned to do for himself after he went blind, and as soon as he figured that out, he took on everything else with determination.

Teddy on his blanky

Norma’s kitty blanket on the couch was his home base — he always went back to that for safety — but only a day and a half after having gone completely blind, he started boldly exploring the house and yard, figuring out pathways. We couldn’t let him go out on the porch unattended anymore — the porch has steep drops on three sides, and the railings would not hold in a child, let alone a cat; rather confusingly, the porch railings seem to have been built with cows in mind — but I took Teddy out on the lawn, where at least he could smell things and feel the breeze and sunshine.

The Cow Porch The Cow Porch
Teddy in the grass Teddy in the grass
Teddy in the leaves

Teddy’s wonderful vet, Dr. Foster, had told us that we might be surprised at how well Teddy adjusted to blindness, but it was hard for us to believe at first, because it would have been so hard for us in his place. Teddy is a cat, however. Also a Buddhist. When we were wondering if Teddy could cope with his blindness, Ivan said, “I couldn’t; I know I couldn’t.” I told him, “But Teddy is a . . .” and Ivan thought I was going to finish with “cat.” “ . . . Buddhist,” I said. “I am a Buddhist,” said Ivan. “Yes, but Teddy is a better one,” I reminded him.

Dr. Foster with Tiger
Dr. Foster with Tiger

At first, Teddy had trouble getting around the yard. On the one hand, there was no furniture, so there was nothing to walk into, and that gave him a little courage to go ahead and take some steps forward. On the other hand, it was hard to know where he was, because there weren’t many landmarks. It is not a very big yard, but sometimes he would get lost and then he would stop where he was and yell for me to come and get him.

Soon, though, Teddy was figuring out regular paths he could take, both indoors and out; it was clear that he was determined to figure out as much as he could and to keep going. He had a strong appetite and decided opinions; Ivan and I were amazed at how he soldiered on. I didn’t see how he could recover so much of his spirit and independence, but he did an astounding turn-around. It helps, probably, to have nine lives and to plan definitely on using all of them.

All Teddy really had going for him physically, in the first days of his blindness, were his sense of touch and of smell. His hearing is not all that great, he’s pretty old, and his back legs are not strong. But he did have a strong sense of “this is what I plan to do,” and from there on, evidently, it was just a matter of figuring out a way past the obstacles. Fortunately, Teddy is not a psychopath; otherwise this attitude might have posed a problem.

Ivan’s Sangha list was sending us metta, friends and family were saying prayers and sending us goodwill, and Dr. Larsen, who is the wonderful Wednesday vet, gave Teddy hypertension medicine. She said that it was just possible that it might help restore a tiny bit of his eye sight — not enough for him to see anything more than shadows, but enough for him to be able to gauge some distances and see obstacles. And it did. All of a sudden we noticed that Teddy was seeing things again. He can’t see much — sometimes he still walks into things if there is not a lot of light and shadow contrast. But it is enough vision for him to have almost as much mobility as before.

Cris calls him Teddy the Wonder Cat.

The one constant throughout Teddy’s illness has been his peeing outside the box. Peeing is a big part of a cat’s identity, and it is becoming a bigger part of mine than I would like. A good chunk of each day is now spent cleaning up pee both inside and outside of all three cat litters. While we know for sure that Teddy is responsible for much of the pee outside of the boxes, we don’t know if he is responsible for all of it or whether the other two cats are chiming in from time to time. I told Donna about it. “I think maybe Trillin or Harley has gotten pissed about the cat pee outside of the boxes and now they are peeing outside the boxes, too, to show their pissedivity,” I said.

“Don’t you think that it could be that they are concerned for him?” Donna asked. “Couldn’t it be that they are showing cat solidarity? ’Teddy,’ they could be saying, ’we know just how hard this is for you, and if you are going to pee outside the box, we are too. We are all in this together’.” It all goes to show what happens if you only have one cat. Donna has Ponty, and she knows perfectly well that the solidarity he would feel for another cat is nil, but since there are no other cats, she can pretend that he is very family-minded, very much a fellow traveler.

Cris’s reaction was that we probably needed to build Teddy a ramp. I assured her that Teddy didn’t need a ramp; he can get into and out of the boxes with no trouble at all. But Cris does not like solutions to problems that do not involve circular saws. She insisted that a whole series of ramps was probably the way to go. This is the way Cris’s mind works.

I don’t need no stinkin’ ramp!

Every few hours, I pick Teddy up and put him in the biggest of the litter boxes. This is the way my mind works. I give Teddy a little nudge so that his tail is not aiming outside the box. He immediately gets out of the box. Sometimes he gets back in less than a minute later, when I have gone in the other room, and then he stands in the box but aims outside of it. This is how Teddy’s mind works — now that he is sick, anyway.

The first two days after Teddy went blind, I would pick him up to take him to the litter box every two hours; he would be limp and helpless in my arms. As soon as he was put in the box, he would use it, because he was afraid he might not find his way back again in time, when he needed to. Now that he can find the litter boxes on his own again, he is back to using them on a fitful basis, sometimes in, sometimes out. I have tried to show him what the universe is asking of him, in the way of litter box aim, but he is very stubborn about not taking any advice. He is not very Buddhist about this. It is one of the few ways in which he is resolutely non-Buddhist. Not that I know exactly what Buddhists have to say about this kind of thing, but it does not seem to me that it can be right for a Buddhist to pee outside the box half the time.

But the peeing is just a minor frustration. We are so happy to have him with us, and for him to be so energetic and interested and firm. When Teddy first went blind, we cried and cried — even after Teddy began picking up his own spirits a little. Gradually, though, we began to feel like parents with a toddler taking his first step. “Look what he can do now!” As we started seeing all the things he could do for himself, we began to feel heartened and even celebratory.

We are stunned by Teddy’s courage and resilience. He keeps acting as if he were okay. This is not the system Ivan and I would have taught him, had he been taking lessons from us; thank heavens cats never listen.

After Jeff enclosed the porch with chicken wire, the cats took turns in Teddy’s favorite spot
Trillin in Teddy’s spot Harley and Trillin in Teddy’s spot
Harley in Teddy’s spot Teddy in Teddy’s spot

The other day I watched Teddy stalking Trillin in the yard. He can barely see, but he is taking his catly duties back on. Trillin was rolling around in the dirt, and Teddy slunk up on her — this scrawny, almost blind old guy whose back legs are all gambly and woozy. When he finally got up to where she was, there was nothing for him to do, really; he just stopped and looked at her. She paused briefly in her rolling and then went back to it with her usual vigor. Trillin doesn’t weigh any more than Teddy does, and she is at least two or three years older, but she has the eyesight of a professional sniper and the spryness of a mountain goat. It would have been no good his trying to tackle her. But at least he can sneak up on her. And that is a kind of winning.

One day, Teddy will no longer be able to rally. Since he is a Buddhist, though, he will be reincarnated. When he comes back, we’re pretty sure he’ll come back as a cat.

Trillin Harley Teddy


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