This is a story in 5 parts. Click here to see all 5 parts.
Part 5: Ariel Returns
Though New York City had been overwhelmed by the early pandemic, Robin and I had been weirdly spared: so far, we’d lost no one to its ravages. No one we knew had been in grave danger, at least not from the disease itself, though after two years of pandemic fear-mongering, zoom schooling, and political mayhem, signs of social pathology were everywhere, filling the gaps left by the sudden and prolonged collapse of everyday life. We’d stopped riding the subway because of germs; now we stayed away because of reports of random assaults underground and throughout the city. Many of our acquaintances—including those who’d followed masking protocols to a fault—shrugged off the violence.
Yet there was room for hope: confinement and cancer had been our scourges, had slain our friends, but each was loosening its grip. Once again, spring was coming; once again, we hoped that summer would expel us from the pandemic and Park Slope, where we’d been cooling our heels in a meaningless, orderless space-time warp, back to normal life. Though I’d been through cancer surgery only months before, my mood was good and my energy was coming back. Robin had seen me through the ordeal with greater loyalty than I probably deserved, and we were at peace. Ariel, a loving house cat, camped on the Persian rug by my feet, lazily kneading it with her claws. It seemed my lonely, feral days were ending.
Ariel was showing signs of aging—not surprising, since she was nearly eleven years old, and her early life on the streets had been rough. Her face was becoming jowly; her shoulders were losing muscle. During the fall, overlapping my recovery from surgery, she’d developed a bad case of fleas, now cured. At that time, the vet had informed us that some of her molars were rotting, a common problem among street cats, and had offered to remove them in a procedure requiring full anesthesia. Because of the fleas, my surgery and recovery, and our doubts about subjecting Ariel to full anesthesia, we were delaying. She showed no signs of suffering, and we’d been told her general health was good.
With cancer and the fleas under control, we began planning a brief escape. Maybe a week or two in California; between wildfires and the pandemic, we hadn’t managed to get to Mendocino or even the Bay Area in several years. I was losing my sensory memory of those places. Long confinement was changing me: I was no longer a West Coast person, even in fantasy.
Then one evening as I was poring over the newspaper, deep in an account of some government malfeasance, Robin called me from the other room. Days and years had become one long, muddy river, but I do know that it was a Tuesday in March, and the year was 2022. Folding the newspaper, I tossed it on the floor and went to see what she wanted.
“Ariel is breathing fast.”
I looked at them: Robin, propped on a pillow on the rug, watching TV; and our cat, snuggling on her chest. I could hear Ariel purring loudly over the urgent, syncopated music from the TV; if anything was wrong, surely it was a side-effect of overflowing animal bliss.
“Maybe put her on the floor. You’ve got her all worked up.” I could have been talking about a baby who’d begun squealing in manic delight as her father tossed her in the air.
Robin gave me a look. “She’s not eating all her food.”
We argued about this regularly. Robin made sure there was always food in the bowl; I’d never seen such a permissive feeding regimen and thought Ariel was overly plump. “Maybe you’re giving her too much.”
“She’s purring now,” Robin responded, her grim tone reminding me that I’d been neglecting them both. “She loves me.”
“I know. She sounds like a helicopter.” I thought for a moment. “If she’s purring, she’s probably okay.” There was nothing wrong, no cause for alarm, yet I was suddenly feeling stressed: the cancer ordeal flooded my mind just below the surface, leaving me in no mood for Robin’s frequent and sometimes imaginary worries. I had my own problems. Moreover, we’d taken Ariel for a checkup a few months before and been assured she was in good health. More than anything, we needed calm—and maybe some fun away from Brooklyn.
Feeling vaguely guilty, I went back to the newspaper and a mind-numbing report of some random and bloody crime.
The following morning, Ariel was on the rug by my desk, keeping me company. As I leaned down to rub her belly, she began rolling around and purring, a reassuringly normal response. Leaning closer, I placed one hand on her chest and paused: her lungs were heaving. I rested my hand over her lungs, feeling myself go cold. Robin may have been a worrier, but—though I had trouble admitting it—she was more often right than wrong. The world was a dangerous place: maybe Ariel had feline covid; maybe we’d brought it home to her. How could we have been so careless?
We began comparing notes. We heard Ariel wheezing faintly at night, and she’d had a few sneezing fits. She’d tossed up her food a couple of weeks before. Around the same time, a mouse scampered across the rug in full view, but Ariel—who’d always been such an eager hunter—lost the scent as soon as the prey ran under the couch.
Maybe our mouser had a cold—or asthma. After all, the apartment was still very dusty.
When we called the vet for an appointment, they were alarmed by Ariel’s symptoms. Labored breathing could be a sign of something serious, they urged, referring us to a nearby animal emergency room for immediate care. Things were escalating faster than I could have imagined.
I’d never gone to an animal emergency room before; I’d never needed one. We managed to grab Ariel and stuff her in the cat carrier, where she crouched facing away from us, moaning, and took a car service to a large cement building on a major avenue. It was Wednesday morning; cars were zooming by. The emergency room’s doors were locked, while a sign on the glass announced that only one person could accompany each pet. These were pandemic precautions. Ignoring the one-pet-one-person rule, we adjusted our masks and rang the bell. I could feel the carrier rocking in my hand as Ariel scrambled around her cage, increasingly agitated.
The place was clean and new. As we approached the front desk, staff informed us that we could not go with Ariel into the examination room—another pandemic rule meant to protect the vets from exposure. We handed her over reluctantly, as though surrendering a child. Then they gave us several pages of paperwork to fill out. I signed forms arranging payment and specifying that we should be consulted before any procedures were performed on our cat. We found chairs in the empty waiting room, where we sat masked and fidgeting, wondering if they would enforce the one-pet-one-person rule.
On a weekday morning, the emergency room was slow. A woman came in with her cat, and we overheard her say that it was getting chemotherapy. The woman had a commanding style, and she seemed determined to keep the cat going—to the point of mania, I thought, as she handed over the suffering animal and joined us in the waiting room.
We began chatting through our masks, explaining that Ariel was having respiratory problems—asthma, we thought.
“Fast breathing?” The woman gave us a knowing look. “That usually means cancer.”
I wanted to shrug off the response as some sort of projection; after all, it was the woman’s cat that had a terminal illness, not ours. We ended the conversation and continued to wait together in awkward silence.
More than an hour had passed when Robin’s cell phone rang. One of the doctors confirmed our suspicion: Ariel probably had asthma. Robin gave me a thumbs-up, then paused, frowning, as the doctor continued talking.
I could hear Robin demanding more information. “What’s he saying?” I nudged. Finally she looked at me.
“He wants our permission.”
“To do what?”
“He scanned her lungs. She has something called pleural effusion—an accumulation of fluid around her lungs.”
“There’s fluid around her lungs. He wants our permission to drain it.”
“What’s causing it?”
“He says maybe asthma. Or an underlying heart problem.”
“Tell him to go ahead.”
We wanted to get her home with minimal suffering. We were agreed that whatever the diagnosis, we could never subject Ariel to major surgery just so she could keep us company for a few more months. We’d had her spayed when she was young, and that had been bad enough.
A couple of hours passed. We’d come in just after eleven; it was already late afternoon. Finally we got a second call from the doctor. The procedure had been successful; Ariel’s breathing was stable and she could go home. A young woman brought Ariel in her carrier. The billing person handed over a full-page itemized summary and processed our payment, and we phoned the car service again.
The driver showed up right away—an outgoing black guy with a shaved head and an unfamiliar accent. Aware that we were in a hurry, he drove fast and smartly.
Back at the apartment, Ariel sat hunched on the rug. They’d shaved a round patch by each lung, which left her looking bedraggled and punky. Her energy was low, and she made a wheezing sound with every breath. She was unresponsive to my presence, so I backed off. I assumed she was frightened, and also groggy from the sedative she’d had. Maybe her grogginess was causing the wheezing; if so, she might need comforting—certainly close watching. I sank on the rug near her. It was already early evening, the damp dusk fading under a layer of cloud.
On Wednesday evenings, Robin usually attended a Taizé service, gathering with a small group at a nearby church. The sanctuary would be glowing with dim candlelight; there would be chanting and prayer. After our scary day, she needed to sing soothing hymns. I offered to stay with Ariel, who’d barely moved from her place on the rug. I was alarmed by her limpness and by the wheezing sound, which was growing louder. Turning off the lights, I sat communing with the suffering cat.
I lay on the rug and closed my eyes. After a few minutes of weird paralysis, I sat up and looked at her. Something was very wrong. I could hear her labored breathing. I reached for her, but she turned away. Then, as though fleeing from me, she struggled to her feet and attempted to jump into her usual chair—only to fall back onto the rug. Her tongue was showing. I had to do something.
Robin had run off, forgetting her phone. I was angry at the carelessness, but my feelings were useless. The church was only two blocks away, so I pulled on my shoes and coat and ran to get her. The sanctuary was dark, the doors were closed: the group had gone for ice cream or maybe a glass of wine.
Ariel was back home gasping for breath. Time was wasting.
I ran back to the apartment. Ariel was barely hanging on: her eyes were deep pools; her tongue was protruding from her little mouth. I scribbled a note for Robin, then gently placed the limp Ariel—she was beyond protest—in the carrier and phoned the car service. Our cat had seemed almost normal that morning, before we’d taken her in; now she was dying. But there was no choice—I was rushing her back to the emergency room.
I took Ariel down to the stoop. The cool evening air made her cringe; fortunately, the car came quickly. It was the same driver who’d brought us home only a couple of hours before—the black man with the shaved head and an African accent I couldn’t place. Congolese, maybe?
As we pulled away from the curb, I saw the driver peering at me in the rearview mirror. “How’s your cat?”
“That’s what I thought.” He sounded sympathetic.
“Thank you for getting here quickly. She’s having trouble breathing.”
“I was just around the corner.”
As we were stopped at a light, the driver peered at me again. “Guess where my wife and I were supposed to go this week?”
I wasn’t in the mood for small talk, but there I was. “Where?”
“You’re kidding. What for?” Russia had just invaded Ukraine, and neighboring Belarus had suddenly become a very dangerous place.
“There was going to be a conference for African people. We planned to go.”
“It’s a good thing you didn’t.”
“Yes! And now—you know what? They’re keeping Africans from leaving!”
“You mean people from the conference?”
“No—there are Africans living in Belarus!” He shook his head. “They don’t like black people over there.”
“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me,” I murmured, wondering when the light would change. It was a strange tale, but no stranger than anything else these days.
A few minutes later, the globe-trotting driver made a U-turn and pulled up in front of the animal hospital. As the car moved away, I was already speaking to a young woman at the front desk.
“They sent my cat home, but there’s something wrong.”
“What’s the cat’s name?”
“Ariel. We were here a few hours ago. Now she has labored breathing and her tongue’s sticking out.”
It was nearly nine o’clock. Robin would be calling soon. I just hoped she wouldn’t be in a panic.
I found my seat in the waiting room. The place was becoming familiar. I ignored the soundless TV and brooded, wondering when Robin would call; worrying that Ariel would fade, that she would be dead before Robin could get there.
My phone rang—a call from the doctor on duty, a woman. There had been a change of personnel since the afternoon. Speaking very fast, as though under pressure, she announced bluntly that my cat was clinging to life. She’d done another scan and found more fluid—this time in the lungs. She continued, unsparing: they’d ruled out heart problems, therefore the symptoms strongly suggested a fast-growing cancer, though it might be an unusual infection; the only way to know was to do a biopsy.
Strongly suggested cancer? But might be an infection?
The news was bad, but there was hope—once again, the Delphic oracle was speaking in probabilities. I could ask for a clearer reading, but I wasn’t sure that would help. In any case, I drew the line at a biopsy. We weren’t planning to subject Ariel to chemotherapy or other cancer treatments, so what was the point?
The doctor was still talking, proposing one thing or another, overwhelming me with information I couldn’t accept. Ariel’s breathing was not stable; she needed an oxygen box and therefore could not go home. We could leave her overnight, no promises made, or they could put her down now. Among the stream of words, I heard the woman counseling me that it would be a reasonable thing to do—choosing to kill my cat now. Otherwise Ariel might simply linger, as we poured money into her care.
When I objected, the doctor paused, apparently assessing me, and changed gears. Suddenly she was offering to do everything she could—an oxygen box to support Ariel’s breathing; large doses of antibiotics; a steroid to strengthen her lungs.
“I can throw everything at it,” she now proposed, sounding like a war general. She seemed eager to get going, and I grasped at her hope of saving our cat.
I looked up. At that moment, Robin came barreling through the door, followed by a friend from the Taizé service. They both looked as though they’d flown in on the wing of a storm.
“Throw everything at it,” I commanded and hung up.
* * *
Things were touch and go. By noon the following day, Thursday, we’d heard nothing. I called the emergency room.
“I want to know if my cat is dead!” I screamed into the phone, as though they might be hiding something from me.
They informed me that Ariel was hanging in there. Yet another doctor had come on duty, and she would call me after she’d completed her rounds.
The doctor called around two o’clock, sounding pessimistic, but she warmed up when I asked if we could visit Ariel. And so on Thursday evening, we went to see our girl. Her oxygen box was along one wall of a bright, comfortless room; a few feet away, a large German Shepherd lay stretched on an operating table, as two or three nurses held its legs. The dog was conscious; it bayed loudly as we passed. I shuddered: Ariel was fearful of change, of strangers, of dogs. Robin and I exchanged a glance: our cat must be scared to death. We approached the oxygen box. It looked like a cage; Ariel was hunched in the back corner, seemingly unresponsive to our presence. It was profoundly depressing, and I was suddenly aware that we could lose her. Yet as we were leaving, she struggled to her feet and crept forward. I reached my hand through the door of her oxygen cage and touched her shoulder. I only wanted to connect.
The vet gave a smile. She was young and seemed much more caring in person than she had on the phone, but she was right—Ariel was in very bad shape. Moreover, she’d made a shift. Although we were her family, she seemed feral again—overwhelmed by fear and hunger. Robin and I agreed: Ariel deserved a chance to heal, to get out of the oxygen box and come home. We’d saved her years before; we could never leave her to die in fear and terror.
I thought vaguely of my bank account. I’d never played God before. I wondered what calculations He made.
We agreed to give Ariel a couple more days.
She began improving. By Friday evening, when we went to see her again, she was well enough to come out of the oxygen box. A nurse brought her to us in an examining room. By Saturday, she was able to come home.
Two days passed before Ariel was calm enough to eat or sleep. I barely slept, either. When she finally began eating again, she devoured five cans of food in a day. Her energy came back, as she tore around the apartment and climbed up the back of the couch. One evening, she made the rounds of her toys, her humans, her safe hiding places—as though reviewing her life.
We wanted to go on as before. But we were fooling ourselves. About a week after Ariel had come home, Robin and I were watching a comedy on my computer, trying to relax. Ariel was watching us from her spot on the rug. I glanced over; her eyes were glued to me—deep pools pulling me in. I put her on the couch. Her lungs were heaving.
Ariel made it through the night. In the morning, we took her in for another scan and learned that the pleural effusion had come back—and would keep coming back.
We’d done what we could, but we couldn’t save her this time. We were losing her forever; worse, the timing of her death—the moment when her heart stopped beating—was ours. I’d never made such a choice before; I hope I never have to again.
* * *
Only last week, I found one of Ariel’s claws in the rug. It was the Persian rug she’d clawed so eagerly as a form of greeting, back in my gentleman caller days. She’d been dead for seven months, and although the apartment was dusty, as always, the rug had been vacuumed. Robin had found recent signs of our cat as well: five claws and a whisker. They’d appeared one by one on a small rug in the back room of the apartment, where Robin painted and made collages, and where she’d hung out with Ariel during the pandemic—our cat’s last days on earth. Inspired by grief, Robin had begun making a series of collages about trauma and rescue. Though Ariel was no longer there, in the apartment, tending and watching over us, Robin saw the claws and whisker as signs of her presence—signs that she’d crossed the barrier to rejoin us.
Ariel had the biggest heart. Though I’m a skeptic in most things, I feel her presence in the room with me. She’s here when I write about her, because that’s my way of calling her. She’s in the back room when Robin works on her collages. She’s here in our hearts as mama cat. We’d been mistaken to imagine she could ever be completely gone.