It has been a tough month at our house. I wrote a couple weeks ago about losing Coal, our blind and toothless cat that inspired us with his ability to overcome whatever obstacle came before him. In previous articles about Coal, I mentioned a second cat we had adopted with him, named Big Bang (we have no idea why he was named that). When we adopted both 5 years ago, Coal was 9 and Bigs was 8. They had been together since Big Bang was born. They were both special needs, and were surrendered together by people who could no longer afford to care for them. They both offered different lessons on managing challenges. And they both passed from this earth within 12 days of each other. 

While Coal was failing these last couple months, and the vets struggled to find what was wrong, Big Bang was having some issues as well, although they did not appear as serious. Both cats had been trundled off to the vet for numerous visits and tests, but right until Coal's death the evening of January 14th, he had been the “urgent” case. Big Bang took an almost immediate turn for the worse after Coal passed, and it was only then that the vets were able to give us a definitive diagnosis.

Big Bang had Lymphoma, and we learned he did not have much time left. We tried several things to ease the situation, but complications from feline herpes, which we believe both cats were exposed to early in life, quickly made things worse. We had to have Big Bang put down on Tuesday. It was quite peaceful. The vet came to our house, and he “went to sleep” in the spot he loved most; in my wife's lap on the upstairs deck off of our bedroom.

The point of this article, however, is not to publicly mourn the loss of two beloved house pets. No, it is that these cats, both challenged, offered entirely different lessons regarding managing life with their particular impairment(s). Coal's path was well documented here. He simply did not let anything get in his way or prevent him from being a normal, happy kitty. Even in his final, dying days, when animals instinctively try to find a secluded and safe place to be alone, Coal sought us out and was happiest being held. His persistently loud purr lasted until just a few hours before his death.

Big Bang, on the other hand, was a better example of what can happen when one lets life's challenges determine your fate. Like Coal, he was an extremely sweet cat who craved human companionship, and he had his share of challenges. His left eye was heavily scarred, and he only had good vision from his right one. He suffered a neurological condition, probably related to the feline herpes, that caused him at times to scratch about his face uncontrollably. This condition, not fully understood by the shelter, is why he remained in medical isolation for most of the 4 months he was there.

This condition was our greatest concern, because his scratching, when the fits occurred, was simply fierce. He would howl in pain and cut himself around the eyes with his back claws. We could stop the scratching if we were nearby, but it was clear he was suffering some immense sensations. Eventually, one of our vets (we seem to have employed a small army of them – we even had a cat ophthalmologist and an oncologist), a hugely compassionate cat specialist named Dr. Sherry Zenor, found a medicine that literally changed his life. One quarter tab of this magic pill every 7 to 10 days changed this animal completely.

And he knew it. We learned to spot certain “tells” that the scratching fits were imminent and his medicine was due, such as redness around his eyes if he started rubbing them. While most cats are very difficult to medicate, Bigs seemed to correlate the treatment with feeing better. He became very easy to treat, and on more than one occasion ran to us while we were preparing the pill in seeming anticipation of feeling better.

Still, emotionally, the damage seemed to have been done. In the shelter, we were to learn that Bigs was a “picked on” kitty. In our house, while everything was fine for the first year, he developed an intense fear of one of our other cats, so much so that we had to employ a pet gate to keep her from “his” area of the house. He had a definite underdog persona, and much of it probably came from his medical issues. He seemed, quite simply, beat down after a life of hard challenges.

The biggest difference between these two animals is that one did not let his physical challenges define him, and the other one, to a great extent, did. Both were physically challenged, but only one was really “disabled”. It strikes me that, even in the animal kingdom, the mind plays a much more significant role in defining disability than we fully understand or appreciate. How we choose to accept and deal with our illness and physical challenges will affect, and largely determine, the quality of our life. A man who loses his arm and is consumed by anger and despair still, at the end of the day, is missing his arm. He can't change that. He can, however, with help from those around him, change the way that loss defines him as a person.

And that is the lesson these two lovable little fur balls, seemingly destined to always remain together, leave us with. Getting injured or becoming ill is only the start of the battle. Properly dealing with the emotional aftermath is what will make the true difference in how you live your remaining days on this earth.

Thanks guys. You will both be missed, but the lessons you offered surely won't.

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