A lesson in surrendering control, learned from helping a cat who can’t stop peeing all over the place.
I don’t think I truly appreciated how much my situation had deteriorated until I was crawling on hands and knees mopping up little puddles of cat urine from the hardwood floors in my living room.
Certainly when I adopted Lucky about two years previously, I couldn’t envision this future, his cute little kitten face contorted in discomfort as he mercilessly soaked my couch with urine. Yet there I was, like a king’s faithful page, waddling along behind my cat and cleaning up whatever he thoughtlessly left behind, wherever he left it.
It wasn’t always like that. When I first brought Lucky home, he adapted instantly to his new routines, including the litter box. He’d frolic around the apartment, jumping onto the couch and suddenly training his wide-eyed gaze out of the window at a bird perched in a tree. He’d paw at my legs when he wanted me to pick him up. He’d curl up on my lap and snore lightly as he napped. And, if he had to go to the bathroom, he’d dutifully trot down to the basement, deposit his leavings in his box, and completely bury everything. Lucky fit easily into my life, and I quickly adjusted to him.
I think the transition was so easy because I didn’t really have to sacrifice any control over my life to let this cat wander aimlessly through it. I put scratching posts around the house, I set out a few food and water bowls, and I generally just went about my business. I could come and go as I wanted to, and so long as I kept the litter boxes relatively clean and the food bowls stocked, everything would remain under control.
But let’s face it: we all know that control is an illusion, and our illusions must eventually be shattered, often dramatically, and sometimes with blood.
Anyway, Lucky was almost exactly two years old when I, with my illusion of control intact, went on a vacation to Kentucky for a week. I arranged for a cat sitter to look in on Lucky and make sure he had the food he needed, and then I hopped in a car with some friends and headed south. We hiked national parks, we explored small towns, we stopped at curiosity shops. We found more than one roadside “museum” packed with dusty shelves of unearthed fossils and geodes and sometimes even a hodge-podge of bones assembled into cryptid skeletons with elaborate lore on laminated papers tacked up next to them, unknowable creatures with unknowable habits.
When I returned home from Kentucky, Lucky seemed normal. And honestly, I’d become so used to not having to worry about him that there’s a chance he, in his own feline way, was signaling that something terrible was about to happen. But if so, I didn’t see anything wrong until early in the morning a few days later, when I noticed Lucky hadn’t been using his litter box.
Of course, he had to be putting his waste somewhere. So I hunted around the house to see if I could find any sign of where he was leaving it. I was sniffing all around, moving chairs out of the way and crawling under my bed, hunching down in a corner and sniffing along the baseboards, thinking I’d catch a faint whiff of something off. As I got more paranoid, my face got closer to the ground. Then, in the corner of the basement, I found a spot that smelled of ammonia. My nose was so close to the ground and I was breathing so deeply that the smell overtook me, and I almost fell backwards coughing at the acrid stench.
This was the first time Lucky had ever gone outside of his litter box. All the research I’d done told me this was a bad sign, possibly a medical emergency. I called the vet and asked what I should do. They said it could be a problem, but that I should just monitor the situation to see if it got any worse.
I was still nervous, but I tried to put it out of my head and just get into my daily routine. I showered and dressed. Then, as I was grabbing my keys to head to work, I happened to glance at my laundry hamper. Lucky was squatting on top of my clothes and yowling lightly as he poured a half a cup of beet-red urine onto my favorite sweater. The blood-tinged fluid slowly soaked into the sweater, and as it dissipated into the gray fabric, any sense of control I’d felt dissipated with it.
I called the emergency vet, my hands and voice shaking, and told them I was bringing in a cat with blood in his urine for treatment. I’m sure they gave me some sort of instructions or guidance, but I was so panicked I don’t really remember what they said. I grabbed Lucky and, as gracefully as I could, I shoved him into his cat carrier. I loaded the carrier into the car and started the engine.
Lucky hates his carrier, so he was already generally annoyed. But something in him was twisted up and blocked and bleeding and it was making him hurt. So the whole drive, he was mewling and yowling, and I was panicking. He would let out a groan, and I would say “it’s ok, we’re almost there.” He would let out another yelp and I would repeat, in a slightly more broken voice, “it’s ok, we’re almost there.” We talked back and forth, him registering his pain, and me getting closer to sobbing as I repeated, “it’s ok, we’re almost there.” I reassured him like I thought he could understand my words, like I could explain this whole mess to him and maybe help him calm down. I couldn’t.
At the emergency vet, I handed Lucky over and signed my paperwork. I had completely lost control of the situation. I called my boss and said I wouldn’t be in that day. I checked in with my bank to make sure I could put Lucky’s emergency vet bill on my credit card. I grabbed a McDonald’s breakfast. Nothing was going how I wanted it to, and I had absolutely no idea what would happen next.
They treated Lucky with some sedatives and muscle relaxants. They told me it would take a week of daily treatments for things to get back to normal. So, that evening, I took Lucky home, gave him his cocktail of sedatives, and let him wander around like he used to. He somewhat lethargically climbed the couch and posted up next to the window just like he always did. I allowed myself a brief moment of hope that things might not be so bad after all.
Then, he squatted and peed right where he stood on the couch. I sighed, then I started to clean it up with a special urine cleaning spray. As I finished, he left another spot on the rug near the door.
That’s how I learned that, until Lucky was better, my apartment was no longer mine. My time was no longer mine. If I was going to help my cat recover, I was going to have to surrender to whatever happened next.
The thing is, Lucky hadn’t chosen me to be his caretaker. He hadn’t asked for my help. But here I was, the only person who could help him, the person to whom his life and health were entrusted. He wasn’t going to be able to thank me, and he wasn’t going to be able to tell me what he needed. I just had to watch and help, to surrender to whatever happened and try to do my part. When I became bound up with him, when I took on the responsibility of caring for him, I sacrificed some piece of my own control. I donated my autonomy to him. I just hadn’t felt the consequences of that donation until now.
As this realization crystallized in my mind, Lucky peed on the living room runner. I grabbed the bottle of cleaner and got to work.
Just two weeks after that first incident, just as Lucky seemed to be improving, he relapsed, and we went to the emergency vet again. And then a third time, three weeks after that. The whole time, Lucky would alternate between leaving tiny urine spots on top of the litter in his box and leaving large urine slicks on the floors and rugs, which I would scrub up and treat with special cleaners as soon as I discovered them. The whole thing lasted two months.
Over those two months, I’d thought a lot about how control and responsibility interact. I was fortunate to learn the lesson that I had no control over my life just as I was learning the value of helping another through their own moment of lost control. I think if I hadn’t had someone I could help in that moment, the lesson in the illusory nature of control would have been a lot harder to face. As it was, I’d learned the fundamental truth that complex (and sometimes nefarious) things would always be at work just where I couldn’t see them, no matter how in-control I convinced myself I was, and I would have to take things as they came and just keep helping where I could.
I still remember how the ordeal ended. On one particularly frustrated evening, I’d locked Lucky and myself into my home office with three filled and prepared litter boxes, hoping this would entice Lucky to use them. I was lying on the floor, on top of a rug Lucky had soiled and I had cleaned over and over. As I often did in those days, I was contemplating the absurdity of my situation, but then I heard a light pawing noise from across the room. I turned my head, and I saw that Lucky was burying something in the box across the room. My face lit up. I grabbed the scooper off a nearby shelf and cautiously poked at the litter. What I saw was a large, healthy-sized, clumped-up ball of litter and cat pee. It doesn’t sound like it now, but at the time it felt like the most beautiful sight on earth.
I bounded down the stairs to get a trash bag to scoop the clumped litter into. Then, as I tried to mount the stairs to go clean the box, I tripped, and I stubbed my toe hard. I collapsed in pain and slumped into a sitting position on the first step. I reached down and clutched my throbbing toe. Within seconds, it was already swelling with an ugly purple bruise.
Lucky casually sauntered down the stairs to see the spectacle. I was sitting on the first step, weeping and cringing in pain, and also crying tears of joy that we both had clawed our way through this hellish experience together. But I was also laughing at how stupid it was that I’d so badly smashed my toe while celebrating seeing a lump of gray sand bound together by cat pee. And as I sat there laughing and crying, a purple bruise spreading across the top of my foot, Lucky gently rubbed his face against my knee then wandered off to use the litter box again.
That bruise was a nice reminder of the hard lessons Lucky taught me about letting go. The bruise took another few weeks to disappear, but the lessons have stuck with me.