Love – on however many legs

BY ERIC MINK

I saw Luna take off, but I didn’t see her land a fraction of a second later. I didn’t need to; I heard the scream that came from her when she hit the hardwood floor.

She scrambled away somehow, and I ran after her, hoping she was more scared than hurt. It certainly was blind fear that launched her from the low bookcase where she’d been drowsing in a sunbeam, a happy practice she developed soon after I adopted her as a rescue kitten seven years ago.

But when a workman on a ladder just outside the sunroom window suddenly started hammering on loose siding, Luna leaped as if electrified. She came down hard and, in her panic, very badly off kilter.

I found her in the living room with the fur on her back and tail sticking straight out, as happens to scared cats. I spoke calmly, quietly, reaching out and smoothing down her puffed up coat.

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Then I saw her right rear leg sticking out from beneath her body at an unnatural angle. She was trembling and moaned at my touch. She was hurting. 

At our local veterinarian’s office some minutes later, Luna let the techs get only one X-ray, but it was enough to confirm at least five fractures of her tibia and at least one more of her fibula, the two bones of the lower leg. One of the operating vets pointed at the image and said an injury this serious would require highly specialized treatment. He referred us to a clinic in west St. Louis County and called ahead to alert them we’d be coming.

Thus began a journey I never expected to be taking, one that’s now six weeks old and very much ongoing. I’m learning things about Luna, an idiosyncratic, funny and irresistible kitty that really has known no other family but me. I’m also learning things about myself — some good, some not so good.

And even though I’ve had and loved pets all my life — dogs growing up, cats since college — my appreciation for the relationship between humans and these distinctive nonhuman living beings has been growing deeper, more intense, more personal, as Luna and I — Luna most of all, obviously — slog through this unexpected challenge together.

At the specialists’ clinic, a solidly booked operating schedule delayed Luna’s surgery for two days. I came during visiting hours on the second day and was taken to a bright and busy intensive care unit. Luna was in the upper cage in a stack of two at one end of an L-shaped array.

One of the technicians opened a cage door for me and stepped away. Luna was lying on her side, dazed. Her broken leg was wrapped in a stiff bandage over a splint. An IV medication drip was keeping the pain at bay and making her fuzzy.

I leaned into the cage and began talking softly and stroking her. The tech said she was surprised to see Luna responding to my sound and touch through the fog of the drugs.

I stood there for about an hour, reassuring Luna that she was a good girl, that she would feel better, that I was sorry. I’ve repeated those assurances to her a lot over the last six roller-coaster weeks.

In a complicated operation the next day, a surgical team pulled her broken tibia together under a curved metal plate anchored to the bone with screws. 

Luna came home a day later, her repaired leg bandaged in pink and looking like the drumstick of a chicken that had been stuffed with growth hormones. Post-op instructions required that we confine her in a space where she couldn’t slip or fall and injure herself again. We converted a room into a kind of recovery ward. At the center was a table holding a large two-door dog-training crate – just a cage, really – with a memory-foam sleeping pad, a small litter box, bowls of food and water, and some of our clothes for scent.

I predicted with worry and dismay that Luna would never eat, drink, pee or poop in this cage. I couldn’t see how she’d possibly get through the two-week period until her stitches were removed and her bandage changed at the clinic.

Luna proved me wrong, as she has again and again now for six weeks. After a couple of messy days of adjustment, she was performing all her basic functions in that cage. It’s hard to describe the genuine joy a person can feel being awakened at three in the morning by the sound of a hurt kitty crunching on bits of food and pawing into her litter before making a deposit.

I feared disaster again when we returned to the clinic after two weeks to have Luna’s stiches removed and her bandage redone. Something surely had gone wrong.

Something had. After she was examined and X-rayed, her surgeon told us the upper part of her tibia had been riddled with too many micro-fractures to secure the screws designed to hold her bone together. Luna had a second, simpler surgery the next day.

When she returned home, she had a collar around her neck, one fewer leg and faced another two weeks in the cage while the amputation healed. The collar would keep her from licking the incision site. My fears this time were that it also would keep her from eating or drinking and further compromise her limited mobility so much that she couldn’t pee and poop in her litter box.

The two weeks passed without incident. The incision has healed. The collar is gone. And Luna continues matter-of-factly adapting to three-legged life, redistributing her weight and finding her balance and movement a little better each day.

Luna surprised me with more resilience and determination than I believed she had. Her crisis also forced me to confront my inclination to fear the worst in uncertain situations, creating an atmosphere of defeatist gloom around me. I need to work on that.

I adore Luna more than ever. I talk to her as I always have, asking what’s she’s doing, reminding her she’s a good girl, wondering if she’s hungry, if she’s being crazy, if I can kiss her belly without my face being clawed off. No baby talk, thank you very much; just short sentences and an affectionate tone.

Luna adores me right back, insisting on close contact, face-rubbing and kneading against my skin to make me feel better, and a lot of lap-sitting, even when it’s enormously inconvenient. Like when I’m trying to write a column. Like right this very second.

I still tell her I’m sorry, though for what I’m not exactly sure. Intellectually, I know that I didn’t cause and couldn’t have prevented her injury. I know her heavy weight likely made the damage more severe and complicates her recovery, but I’ve always limited her daily calorie count.

But emotionally, it still feels as though I failed in my obligation to keep her healthy, happy and safe, a fundamental responsibility every human owes, I believe, to the animals we bring into our lives.

I happily accepted it when I adopted Luna, and enduring this crisis is strengthening the love and devotion between us. That surely is the only thing connected with her injury that I’m grateful for. 

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. Contact him at [email protected]