Who can say what causes the rhythms and repetitions of life – does each October break me because I am born in April, or is it that the first chill winds of autumn give me too great a shiver? For whatever the reason, October nearly always proves long and bothersome in some regard. I remember my mom observing when I was in school that I would always fall behind in October, stop doing my homework or get sick. Halloween is my favorite holiday but as an adult I have somehow seen so many unhappy passings, made only moreso by the feeling deep in my gut – this is my favorite! I should be so happy.
Alright, you say. Get on with it, Miranda. I’m sorry you’re so miserable, won’t you please explain?
Well, I’m not unhappy. I am simply tired. Fall is the time for that.
In September, Rui and I rescued a kitten named Punki. He was getting kicked around like a soccer ball by a drunk guy outside Kecun station, one stop away from our house. A circle had formed around him and many onlookers were horrified but no one confronted the man. I yelled at him in Chinese “what are you doing?” and he laughed. I asked if the cat was his, he said no, it has no home, do you want it? It can be yours. The kitten tried to run away into the bushes but the man wouldn’t let it go. Finally, I scooped him up from a puddle, an onlooker gave me a tissue to clean the mud off him a bit, and crying I walked back home. There’s a vet next to our apartment.
Long story short, this very vocal and feisty kitten was nearly completely healthy and with a bit of TLC, Punki has been a healthy and happy addition to our little home. His hobbies include biting, loudly meowing all the time, pawing at things on TV, and snuggling.
So October 19 when one of my coworkers texts the group chat that some students found an injured stray cat in the empty school swimming pool, in my heart I know it will somehow fall to me. Plenty of my coworkers are cat lovers and owners, but without our first paycheck all of us were strapped for cash and a Friday afternoon isn’t exactly anyone’s ideal time to get involved with an injured animal. The text arrived while I was eating lunch and by the time school got out at 4 the cat was still sitting by the school gate, pus oozing from a puncture wound on its hind leg and mewing pitifully at each person who passed. Upon seeing him I leaned down and tapped my fingers on the ground, beckoning him like I do Punki, to which he immediately came to me and curled up in a ball between my feet. How then could I leave him? As each teacher passed through the gate they apologized (to the cat? to me? to themselves?) that they simply could not afford to do anything. As if I could afford to do anything. After 15 minutes two Chinese assistant teachers felt sympathetic and helped me look up a local vet. And so somehow, the three of us became a small caravan, alternating holding the injured cat, walking on and on.
We must have walked for 20 or 30 minutes. The cat was growing restless by the time we arrived at the location listed online as a vet that was in fact only a pet store. Here I suggested the vet near my house a few stations away. After hailing a taxi, one teacher peeled off because she had to go home. Alright. Traffic was bad from the Canton Fair so it took another 20 minutes, the cat kneading my leg and purring softly. It was here I noticed truly that there was something wrong with his stomach – it was bloated and the texture felt wrong, very much discolored. After noticing I felt a bit sick to my stomach, what with the pus coming out of the disconcerting dark hole into his body and now this. I tried to not think about it and just held him, petting his head.
When we arrived, I told the teacher I would pay for the taxi and I did. We had been chatting in Mandarin intermittently, she taught me the word for zit. The vet and vet techs all recognized me, the local Lujiang Foreign Girl, and immediately started working on the cat. His puncture wound was probably from fighting with another boy cat over a girl cat, they told me, and his stomach was bloated and scabbed from some past problem they could not quite determine. After a few more minutes and worried looking-on, the second Chinese teacher told me she had to go. And so there I was again – all alone with an unknown cat and unknown bill before me. And no paycheck to speak of. Lovely.
A few months ago, I’m not sure how many, I noticed some discoloration on my own stomach. Small irregular patches of pigment, not dark or textured enough to be cancer, but wrong-looking all the same. There were three in total on my upper chest and stomach. Initially, I chocked it up to aging – I have more gray hairs on my head than people shorter than I realize, and my mother and her mother have freckled skin. Perhaps it was that. I didn’t think about it.
The spots didn’t go away, so at some point this summer I showed my mom. She told me it was not normal, I should go to a dermatologist. Without a primary care doctor for a recommendation and with China looming, I didn’t get around to it. I did some poking around on WebMD and figured it was tinea veriscolor, an easily treatable disease.
As October rolled around, so did the realization that I had lived in China nearly 2 months, and I had not sought treatment for this skin problem. Before (finally!) receiving my first paycheck on October 22 after almost 2 months of work, on October 21 I chanced the rest of my savings and went to the local hospital with Rui.
The pros: My WebMD self-diagnosis was accurate! Score! Ego boost! I am soooo smart.
The cons: This easily-treatable disease that is normally diagnosed and treated within the first month has spread throughout my entire torso, including most of my back! If I had sought treatment in the US it would have cleared up quickly, but because I waited so long the recovery process will be a bit painful and long! I am soooo foolish.
If you didn’t google “tinea veriscolor” at my mention of it, here’s what it is – a fungus that grows in your skin! Wowza! Paying for my medicine, Rui and I discussed the English words fungus and mushroom. I told her it was a mushroom in my skin, to which she said WHAAAAAAAT?, but after clarification it was slightly less icky for her to think about. I told her the joke “why is the mushroom invited to every party? because he’s such a fungi!” and she loved it.
Diagnosis for tinea veriscolor was one of the more memorable bodily experiences of my life. The fungus glows green under UV light, so in a dark room with the nurse and Rui my upper body looked like I’d been splattered with a broken glowstick at a rave. Disconcerting but also kind of cool.
Treatment, however, proved to be less cool. It involves your standard oral antibiotic and twice daily topical cream (easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy) paired with three sessions of intense UV radiation on affected areas. I was a lifeguard for five years and a swimmer for 10, I’m no stranger to sun exposure. But alas, my entire bare chest is. Because my skin is so white the nurse turned the UV level down a bit, but the outcome was still quite intense – a very very painful sunburn across my entire upper chest and breasts. My back, a sun exposure veteran, has had no problem.
After treatment number one, I left the hospital hot and unbothered. I took Rui to the vet to meet cat number two, who she nicknamed Mushroom after my newfound illness. His spirits had improved. I then went to tutor someone, after which I tripped while walking and badly skinned my left knee. Feeling like a foolish little kid, I got bandaids and went home. Burning and bleeding – what a day.
I have gone in for this treatment two of the required three times. The second treatment resulted in small hives all over my chest and a false sensation of fever. My chest was so hot, I kept getting the chills on other parts of my body in an attempt to cool down. I went home early from work and took a long painkiller nap. Each day I visted Mushroom and each day the vet texted me how much he was improving, how sweet his demeanor was.
I should have known not to call a cat by the name of something I’m trying to kill.
I’d paid for Mushroom to stay at the vet for a week, getting treatment for his wound and biding time while I figured out what to do with him. Rui wasn’t particularly keen on getting another cat – she is a dog person, and besides, what would happen to the two cats when I leave China? There are approximately a gazillion stray animals here, so most people who want a pet already have one. There are shelters, but the few I have found are already stretched beyond their resources. What to do, what to do. I did want to keep him. His personality was so much more likable than Punki’s (sorry, Punki!). It seemed his chief happiness was curling up on my lap, kneading me. His meows were softer and more a gentle call than the screaming proclamations Punki makes daily. He had a broad forehead and a big nose with beautiful orange-green eyes.
On the morning of Friday October 26 I got a text from the vet again saying how well Mushroom was doing – he was ready for me to take him home, they would set me up with a treatment plan. I told them I’d like to pay for him to stay there one more week because I was a bit sick from my treatment, to which they said okay.
That night after about 20 minutes of Edward Scissorhands, I got an urgent call from the vet around 10PM. Mushroom had a fever and was in bad shape. What? Rui and I went immediately. In front of us the vet tech performed a blood test on Mushroom that showed positive for Parvo.
What followed was, on my part, a whole lot of crying. So many questions came to mind – how had he been with them for a week and he was only now being tested for this? I thought kittens got parvo, not older cats? What was his likelihood of surviving this? How could I afford to treat him after I had already spent so much money on his wound treatment?
I had heard from my coworkers that the clinic near my house was bad. Five years ago they’d taken one of their cats to get neutered there and he’d been given too much of a drug, they thought it damaged his brain, the cat hadn’t been the same since.
Here it is important to make a distinction between the two main vets of the clinic. Female Vet has a Peter Pan cut, is very well put-together, businesslike, a bit reserved but kind. She has a beautiful pet cat that stays at the clinic while she works. We had worked with her exclusively up until that night and had only had positive experiences with her. This was not the vet my coworkers knew.
Male Vet – this was the guy who had messed up my coworkers’ cat. He made his first appearance to us that Friday night, dressed in street clothes with a pack of cigarettes in his pocket and dark marks all over his face and neck. He spoke with a non-Cantonese accent and was kind initially. As I held Mushroom he sat next to me, across from Rui, and discussed the disease with her. I looked it up on my phone and immediately recognized how serious it was, though he did not convey this to Rui. I had her ask further probing questions but the vet seemed optimistic that Mushroom could survive. Instead of putting him down immediately, we decided to help him fight – for an additional 600 RMB a day (~$86). The male vet told us at this time that to put Mushroom to sleep would be 400 RMB (~$60), so the difference between giving up and trying for one day seemed negligible. We would fight for Mushroom.
When we came in the next morning to check on him, Mushroom’s fever had been replaced by a low temperature. He was shivering in his isolated cage with a glove full of room-temperature water for warmth. Rui and I were furious. The AC was on in his little room when the vet told us he was “not doing well”. We went to Walmart and got him a hot water bottle, heating pads, and hand towels we could wrap him in. When we put the hot water bottle in his crate, Mushroom immediately climbed onto it, stumbling in his weakness, and buried his face into it.
Visiting a few hours later, his condition had not visually improved, though he did seem to enjoy the new heated amenities. Each time we’d enter the vet he would perk up, try to stand, make eye contact with me. By this point his eyes looked like he was crying. He was clearly in a lot of pain. The vet now said he might not make it through the night.
And so it was that last night at 10 PM we once again got an emergency vet call. Mushroom’s heart had stopped and they’d revived him, but he was going to die. We went immediately and saw an animal trying to die. I held him and tried to comfort him, his face felt actively cold. He was trying to escape, to curl up somewhere dark and die. I cried as it took a while to prepare the euthanasia. He needed to die, he was in so much pain. A vet tech talked softly to Rui about how high the mortality rate was for this disease, how we had done the right thing and really saved this cat a lot of suffering, not to mention saved him from infecting other stray cats with the disease.
Rui didn’t want to be in the room when it happened, but she ended up watching more of the process than I did. I felt relieved that Mushroom would not feel so much pain anymore and sad that he had not had his blood tested earlier. Perhaps he could have lived if he was diagnosed a week earlier. Alas. It’s like the Shel Silverstein poem:
All the Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas
Lyin’ in the sun
Talkin’ bout the things
They Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda done
All ran away and hid
From one little Did
When all was said and done, the vet tech charged us 200RMB (~$30) for putting Mushroom down. As Rui and I left the clinic, anger simmered. Why had the male vet misquoted the price? Was he trying to get more money from us, or to discourage us from putting Mushroom down initially so that we’d spend more money trying to save him? Is that why he had misrepresented the likelihood of Mushroom dying to Rui? Such thoughts were, and are, infuriating and useless. There is nothing to be done about it. What’s done is done. We will not return to that vet for Punki’s future needs.
Honestly, when we got that call Friday night I thought “it’s October, the cat will die.” And here we are.
November is days away and I do feel this is the last big event of this particular season of sad. Summers and Octobers, who needs them? But I suppose life has to balance somewhere. As my skin peels, I am born again. Soon I’ll be shiny and brand new.
More on my many wonderful moments here to follow soon. I just needed to tell you the story of this cat, of this week.