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An illustration of a medial pet cone and a buckled pet collar with a tag.
The veterinarian told us that even with surgery, Teddy still might not survive. 
Dana Rodriguez for Vox

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The best $3,000 I ever spent: Surgery for a cat I never wanted

“Cat lady” was a label I didn’t want after losing my husband. But Teddy changed everything.

When people share that they are a “dog person” or a “cat person,” throughout my life I have had to apologetically admit that I was neither. I grew up with dogs, and I even owned several as an adult, but I never got that warm fuzzy feeling toward them, that special bond that others so often describe. As for cats, I learned by osmosis from my family that they were feral animals who used our garden beds as their litter boxes. I thought of them as aloof and disloyal animals who got their paws all over countertops and sunk their nails into furniture. I certainly never expected to spend almost $3,000 on a pandemic rescue cat.

When Covid-19 first disrupted the world, my fast-paced, busy schedule came to a screeching halt. I was four years into a different type of grief. My husband had unexpectedly passed away, leaving me a single mother to a 13-month-old, 3-year-old, and a 6-year-old. All of the things I used to seek comfort in during the years that followed — overscheduling, running away on trips, and the built-in company of my social networks — completely dried up. School became exclusively online, and as a high school government teacher, I struggled to teach my classes virtually while juggling solo parenting at home. I felt stranded on a desolate island, and being stuck at home left me feeling more alone than ever. As my despair deepened, I watched other people scramble to adopt pets to fill their own pandemic voids. My daughter seized this opportunity to push harder for the orange tabby kitten of her dreams. I never thought I would agree, but as the uncertainty of the times slowly drained me, somehow I said yes.

But I was scared. I wasn’t an animal person, and I worried this would be another pet I would feel indifferent toward. It also felt unrealistic to take on more responsibility as an only parent. Not to mention the danger of the cat lady stigma: I already felt insecure about my relationship status, single-mother status, and almost-40 status. “Cat lady” was a label I did not want to add to this depressing resume. Yet there I was, filling out applications and chasing every possible lead during a competitive surge in pet adoptions, until finally, a friend of a friend knew someone who had a rescue with an orange tabby kitten. We named him Teddy.

Any doubts I had dissolved the moment we picked him up. Teddy was friendly and social, destroying every preconceived notion I had about cats. He let my children carry him around, kiss him, and take naps with him. My no-cat-on-the-bed rule immediately went out the window. He slept with me every night and cuddled against one of us at all times. I taught my classes online with Teddy nearby. He kept a daily rotation of sleeping, stepping on my keyboard, and walking in front of my camera with his tail in my face. His presence had a calming effect during those anxious weeks and months when we had no idea what we were doing or where we were going.

It confused me how much I loved Teddy. I’d spent my entire life thinking I hated cats. I would scoff at people who treated their pets like their children; I could never wrap my mind around that kind of love. Now I was posting pictures of my cat on social media and buying cat-themed dish towels. I wondered how I could have gone so many years not knowing.

One day, five months after we got Teddy, he began to throw up. I was still a nervous pet owner, but other people reassured me that it was probably nothing. I felt like a new parent, constantly checking to see if the baby was still breathing. When it continued for a few days, I knew it was serious. I worried about how much money an emergency visit would cost. I searched for an appointment, only to find that all the vets near us were booked out for days because of the pandemic pet explosion and safety precautions. It made for a perfect storm while Teddy became increasingly lethargic, no longer eating or drinking, and unable to even lift his head. The kids took turns checking on him, trying to coax him to take sips of water, and worrying that he was going to die.

We were finally able to get in at a vet across town with peeling advertisements, unkempt landscaping, and minimal Yelp reviews. It would not have been my first choice, but we were desperate. A vet tech took Teddy from us as we waited in the parking lot due to Covid-19 protocols.

It took two trips before a diagnosis: an obstruction in Teddy’s intestines. We were told it could be a hair tie or a rubber band that he may have swallowed. I thought about the number of things my children left out on a regular basis and I felt immediate guilt that I didn’t do a better job of picking them up. Teddy needed emergency surgery or he was going to die. The veterinarian told us that even with surgery, he still might not survive.

I initially paid $289 for X-rays and a barium test. Surgery and recovery would be another $2,446. Almost $3,000 and no guarantees for a rescue cat we had known for five months. I had to give the office an answer.

“You need to put that cat down,” my dad said on the phone when he called to get an update.

I grew up in a household where animals had to be low-cost and low-maintenance. My parents were frugal people who didn’t believe in sinking money into their animals. There were no exceptions. If an animal violated any one of those rules, it either got re-homed or put down. Pet insurance wasn’t a thing I knew about or took seriously.

I sat in my car in front of the veterinarian’s office crying as I tried to decide. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw my children’s faces. Their eyes brimmed with tears as they stared at me, searching for an answer in my expression.

“It’s a lot of money,” I tried to explain, my stomach in knots. I knew the clock was ticking. One of the worst things about becoming an only parent is being responsible for everything. There was no other parent to bounce an idea off, and no one to share the blame for making the wrong decisions that might ruin everyone’s lives.

“Do we not have the money?” my daughter asked.

“You can use all of my money,” my older son said.

My 5-year-old offered to make the surgery count toward all of their Christmas presents for the year. His siblings agreed, and even added their birthday presents too.

The thing is, Teddy was so much more than a cat to me. He was even more than family. I never expected to love an animal the way I loved him. He gave me the gift of hope — a realization that my life still had so many happy discoveries to unearth, more joy to experience, and likely a lot more heartache too. It was all worth it. I think my mind was set before I even saw the price, back when I handed Teddy off and it felt like a piece of my heart was being given away. Subconsciously, I must have known that I was too far in love to consider any other option. If there was one thing losing my husband had taught me, it was that time is precious and fleeting and priceless. We don’t get to control a lot of things in life, but out of the choices we do get to make, we should choose the heck out of them. That is a gift I never want to take for granted.

The surgery went well. The veterinarian produced the culprit of the obstruction. He gave it to me in a clear zip bag: knotted, bloody green string from the new cat scratching post I bought earlier in the week. I felt more guilt, but Teddy eventually recovered with no complications. Sometimes we get our best-case scenarios.

My husband had been severely allergic to cats. It is not lost on me that we would have never gotten a cat if he were still alive or if this pandemic had never happened. Of course I would rather take a world where my husband was here and there was no Covid-19, but in lieu of those options, I get to live in this silver lining — a place where our household today has expanded to three cats, officially making me a full-blown cat lady.

Death can have a way of hardening us. We can feel angry and punished for our circumstances; the loss and grief can be consuming. In the throes of raw grief, I did not think I would ever be happy again. I struggled to conceptualize a future with joyful new beginnings. I didn’t think I even wanted it. But loss can also have a way of softening us, opening our hearts to what is possible if we choose to let it.

Teresa Shimogawa is a civics teacher and writer trying to do good things in the world.

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