This is NOT Another Dead Cat Story

by Jen Stiff

Orangie lounging in the sink

Baby Orangie lounging in the sink

When my mom was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 1997, my older brother Ryan brought home a cat for her. We were devastated, and desperate for a distraction from the daily routine of chemotherapy, doctor visits, and the heartache that comes from knowing you’re about to lose your favorite person in the whole world. We knew that bringing my mom flowers or her favorite burrito from El Pollo Loco just wasn’t going to cut it. We had to do something BIG, and in our young adult minds, a kitten was just the answer.

We knew that our mom loved nothing more than cute, cuddly, boy kitties (she thought girl cats were stuck up bitches). Though my dad detested cats, he let him stay. He would’ve done anything to bring even a sliver of joy into my mom’s life. Plus my brother and I promised to take care of the cat full time. To prove it, Ryan and I took our mom’s new kitten to the vet for shots. “What’s the cat’s name?” asked the receptionist. “Oh, we’re not naming him.” I said. “Well, your cat can’t just NOT have a name. Obviously I need to write something down in his chart.”

“Fine,” I said. “Since he’s orange, just write that.”

The truth is, we’d intentionally avoided naming the cat, because our family’s cats had a long history of disappearing after six months. We figured if we named him, we’d get attached, and we didn’t want to lose anything else we loved. Every time we lost a cat, our mom sat us down and lovingly reminded us that boy cats needed to sow their oats. “The cat just moved up the street to be special friends with the neighbor’s new girl cat. I’m sure he has a really great life there!” This explanation worked until we were in high school, when we finally took note of that vast canyon behind our house…the one filled with coyotes and mountain lions.

Nope. Not a mountain lion. . .just Orangie in a tree

Nope. Not a mountain lion. . .just Orangie in a tree

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I’ll never forget the first time Orangie died. And then came back to life. It all started my junior year in college, late one night when I was home visiting my family for the weekend. There I was, sitting on the living room couch with my roommate, Angela, trying to figure out how to score some wine coolers, when I glanced over at the footstool and noticed that Orangie was rolled over on his back with all four legs sticking straight up into the air, eyes rolled back in his head…stiff as a board. Angela, being a third year biology major, knew exactly what to do.  She calmly kneeled down beside Orangie and pretended to check his heartbeat and listen to his breathing, but we both knew she was full of it. No response. Me, being the communications major, had a better idea. “Oh fuck!” I said. “We should really call someone.”

Though we didn’t know how to conduct a thorough medical examination on a cat, we were sure Orangie was dead. I was also pretty sure this was somehow my fault, because when you’re 18 years old and your mother constantly reminds you that your brain hasn’t fully formed yet, you’re bound to make lots of mistakes…like forgetting to clean the litter box, feed the cat, and leave the toilet seat up so he could find water.

After wrapping Orangie in a fleece blanket (because I know enough about dead things to know they get cold) we frantically jumped into the car with our lifeless kitty and sped away to the local animal ER. All I could think was, “My mom is gonna be SO mad at me!!” This was the first cat we’d had who’d hump blankets on the area rug during family movie nights, who enjoyed floating in the pool on a boogie board, and who cuddled on purpose. My mom, being rather eccentric herself, adored Orangie for his quirks.

It was 1997, before normal people had cell phones, so I couldn’t even call my mom to ask her what to do. But I had left her a note on the kitchen counter, like any responsible daughter would do, and told her the cat had died and that we drove him to the vet to get a check-up.  As I screeched into the animal ER parking lot, I expected trained medical personnel to run outside, rip Orangie from my arms, and calmly tell me everything was going to be ok, because that’s what happened to dead humans on that show that was popular at the time. But instead, we ran inside to find a bored receptionist, glaring at us over her trashy magazine. Clearly we had interrupted something. “What’s your pet emergency?” she asked sarcastically, looking at the undead kitty in my arms. You see, the minute we walked through that door, Orangie rolled over in my arms, meowed nonchalantly, and started giving himself a facial with his little pink paw. What the fuck? Angela and I looked at each other, shocked. The irritated receptionist didn’t believe me when I told her Orangie was, in fact, dead, just moments ago, but she also didn’t hesitate to “…bring him back to check his vitals,” either. This was just the first of Orangie’s fake little feline death games.

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The second time Orangie died happened when Ryan ran him over with his white Honda CRX. Ryan was returning home from community college one afternoon and failed to see Orangie sprawled out in the driveway, sunning himself, oblivious to the world. As Ryan drove his car up the driveway and into the garage, he heard an excruciating shriek and felt a thud under his tire. Ryan got out of the car, horrified, to find Orangie lying in the driveway, lifeless. “Mooooooom!!!” Ryan screamed like a little girl… “I just ran over Orangie!!” My mom and I ran outside, panic stricken, expecting to find a bloody mess of a cat. Instead we found an intact Orangie, slowly beginning to wag his tail and stretch his arms and legs out like he was just coming off of his afternoon nap. What the hell? We looked at each other in disbelief. Orangie stood up, looked at us condescendingly, and sauntered off into the backyard, not a care in the world.

For a few months Orangie didn’t die at all. We kept expecting something to happen to him, especially because he liked to tempt fate and stay outside all night cavorting with the creatures of the canyon. And sure enough, we were woken up one night by the screeching of a cat fight. My dad peered out of his bedroom window into the backyard and saw Orangie fighting with a “small mountain lion.” I still don’t know if I believe my dad’s description of the perpetrator, but Orangie definitely fought another creature, and it surely wasn’t another domestic shorthair. He was beat up and bloody, with tufts of fur missing from his little body. But he didn’t give a shit. He licked his wounds and walked it off.

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 Our amazing mom died in 1998. We all wished that she had 9 lives but she didn’t. She made us kids promise to look after Orangie for the rest of his life, which, she was sure, would be short. “Don’t worry, mom. We’ll take good care of Orangie. He’s going to live forever!” I reassured her. Orangie bounced around from apartment to apartment as we settled into our adult lives, until he finally moved to Seattle with my brother in 2007, where he fit right in with people who always kind of want to die.

My brother called me a couple of months ago to tell me a really funny story. My 5-year-old niece, Annabelle, had decided to play dress up with Orangie the night before. Annabelle, not being one to neglect accessories, gave Orangie a “beautiful necklace” to wear. When Annabelle ran up to my brother and tugged at his hand, saying in her sweet little Minnie Mouse voice, “Daddy, Orangie is sleeping funny…,” Ryan suspected shenanigans were underfoot. He found Orangie, lifeless, under Annabelle’s bed, with a very tight rubber band (I mean, beautiful necklace) wrapped around his neck. Ryan removed the rubber band, patted Orangie on the back, and wouldn’t you know it,  Orangie sauntered off into the living room, not a care in the world.

Orangie

Old man Orangie still not giving a shit

 About the author

Jen Stiff lives in San Diego with her mountain man of a husband and the world’s two most adorable creatures – pugs named Frankie & Beans. She just recently figured out she likes to write, even though she’s technically old enough to be a grandmother. She spends her free time writing for a local animal rescue, traveling, and beating everyone else at yoga.

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Untitled

by Pete Fleming

dan photo 2

Thanks to the international date line, the day lasted something like 42 hours. I started in Australia and ended up at my mom’s death bed. The Australia part of it was a belated “I passed the bar exam” trip, because my post-law school “I passed the bar exam” was me putting my possessions in a U-Haul in Chicago and driving 24 hours straight to Orlando in the dead of summer to start a government job. When the two-year government job was over, I decided to go to the other side of the world for three weeks before I spent the rest of my life sitting in a Chicago office accounting for my time in six-minute increments.

The death bed part of it was a long time coming, although I certainly wasn’t equipped to realize it at the time. My mom got cancer when I was in law school, beat it, and then got it again when I was in Orlando. For the past year, I had been making trips up to Chicago to sit in wards where bald people shuffled by in hospital gowns and grim-faced doctors pointed at white clusters in X-rays, while we talked about “fighting it.”

My mom last spoke directly to me the morning I left for the other side of the world. I don’t remember what we said, because I assumed we’d have plenty more conversations when I got back. The night before, we’d gone to my cousin’s wedding and we’d danced a little bit. I don’t remember the name of the song, but she got tired and had to sit down before it ended. There’s a picture I just found in my trip diary. She’s very bald and even skinnier than usual. Her eyes are hollow. But she’s smiling.

I talked to her a few times from the other side of the world. No matter how many times I double-checked the time difference, the phone always ended up ringing in Chicago in the middle of the night. She seemed out of breath, but  excited to tell the nurse that her son was calling from New Zealand, Australia or wherever I was standing in a pay phone at the time. I was excited to tell her what a great time I was having, and that I would see her soon — when I got back in a week. I told her I was happy that I’d be closer to home now that I was working downtown, that I could help Dad take care of her.

I turned my cell phone on in Los Angeles for the first time in three weeks. I didn’t listen to the many voice messages, but I did call my old man. I guess I was jet lagged as I stood there in the security line: we’d left Sydney on Thursday afternoon and landed in Los Angeles on Thursday morning, I think. My body was screwed up, but I did register the odd note in my dad’s voice.

The ambulance was coming. Or was it already there? She was going to the hospital, and I should hurry. I looked at the security line, out the window, past the LA skyline, all the way to Chicago.

Would I like to speak to mom?

Hi, Mom. How are you? How about a bad joke, because that’s what sarcastic people do to keep from showing emotion.

Nothing but ragged breathing.

Oh shit. Shitshitshit. Don’t cry in the security line. Can I skip the security line? Please? It’s important.

I get on the plane, although I’m not sure how. I think I spoke to my brothers. There weren’t as many odd notes in their voices, but that’s because they weren’t equipped to realize what was going on at the time either.

I watched a Charlie’s Angels sequel on the plane. I tried not to cry because it didn’t seem polite to my seat mates.  But I had that bubbling feeling of anxiety welling up in me, like the one that happened when I figured out the first girl I loved was cheating on me. The kind that made my fingers and toes tingle in a dark way.

Upon arrival, I shoved my way up the aisle and hit the jet way running. Years of competitive racing meant I could run faster and longer than the people around me. I ran to the rental car bus, then I ran to the rental car. I drove the rental car quickly and broke many laws. My luggage circled endlessly at the airport.

As I drove, I listened to a song again and again. I remember this song. Eddie Vedder covering the Beatles. I didn’t have any seat mates to offend now.

In the last mile of my drive, some woman wouldn’t let me cut in front of her. I rolled down the window and asked her if I could please go to that turn lane over there. She asked me why, and I told her. I can’t believe I took the time to tell her. Why do you even care if I go first? Don’t you already know?

I ran through the hospital parking lot and asked the woman at the front desk where I should go. She took her time.  I asked that she hurry up and told her why. The woman hurried up.

I ran to the elevator bank, then down a hallway past my crying uncle.

The room was crowded, and everybody looked like I felt.  Especially her.

I made it.

About the author

Pete Fleming lives in Florida with his wife.  At work, he accounts for his time in six-minute increments.