Thursday, March 29, 2012

Plight of the cat lady

The day I was allergy-tested is still very clear in my mind. I remember sitting in the doctor's office with a middle-aged nurse. She had bleached blonde hair that was piled on top of her head, strands falling next to her face in wisps as if she'd just stepped out of a music video from the 1980's.

She smiled at me very tenderly as she wrapped a tight rubber band around my arm. I was already determined not to cry, though this was my first time ever having blood drawn and I didn't know what to expect. As she aided the doctor in pricking my inner elbow with the needle, she told me to squeeze my toes and concentrate on them.

It seemed like only a second had passed when she told me that it was all done. All that was left was the wait between now and the results of the allergy test. She walked away for a moment, then came back with a Band-aid for my wounded inner elbow.

A cotton swab was placed over the puncture wound, followed by the bandage. It was all topped off with a smiley face drawn on my bandage in black felt-tip marker. I felt pride as I became the master of my first experience having blood drawn. "That's so easy!" I said. "Way better than having any other shot."

The doctor gave me my test results not long after. That's when it occurred to me that the shot itself wasn't really the worst thing I'd have to experience at that office.

"You're allergic to cat and dog pet dander, grasses and dust mites."

I still remember the order in which these were mentioned because after I walked away from that office, I would be forever required to list them on school administrative papers and doctor's new patient forms. Pet Dander. Grasses. Dust mites.

Up until this point, I must have always brushed off my constant runny nose. Maybe I assumed it was a natural part of life - that everyone with a cat suffered some nights from the inability to breathe through their nose. That it wasn't unusual to breathe through your mouth as you slept and wheeze during the day.

Marie, my baby kitty.
I bought my cat, Marie, when I was five years old. My mom and I would often eat out at a mall near my private school in Los Angeles, and one evening we decided to pick up a cat on our way out. No big deal.

We ended up with a little calico named Marie. To this day whenever I introduce her to new people I always explain that her name is not simply a vain reuse of my own middle name, but also an homage to the youngest kitten from The Aristocats.

I loved Marie, and the feeling was mutual...except when it wasn't. Sometimes I got so frustrated when I was little and couldn't smell or inhale that I would push her away from me - even though at the time I didn't know she was causing my ailment. I became an angry owner and she became an angry cat by extension. I still loved her, though, and at times we had an affectionate relationship.

When I finally discovered that it was in fact Marie who was the bane of my nasal existence, we were informed it might be in our best interest not to have a cat. But we kept her.

And I learned to cope.

My whole life since then has been a series of episodes of coping. I could no longer pretend that I wasn't aware of what was causing me to feel physically ill whenever I got home. So I just learned to deal with it.

Mozart, my cat brother.
At 11 years old, I moved in with my dad full-time. We brought Marie over to round out the happy cat family picture, leaving us with a grand total of four cats and one dog. I couldn't be happier. I also couldn't be sicker.

Every moment that I am home is a struggle between what I love and what I have to do for myself. I've always adored my cats and wanted to spend time with the two of them (the others passed away over the years), but I've been kept from providing any sort of affection to them because my health simply won't allow it.

While allergies to grass (supposedly, though I've never felt that I'm actually allergic to nature) and dust are hassles as well, it becomes an incredible loss to know that one of your best companions is also a deeply-rooted enemy.

For years I've struggled with wanting to be close to my cats, secretly hoping I might eventually bring new pets into my life, but logic has always stood in the way.

People don't realize what a luxury it is to be close to their animals - to get to have a dog sleep at their bedside or to sit with a cat on their lap as they watch TV - unless they're as pitiful as I am. It seems like such a simple piece of happiness. But for me it's this monumental hardship.

Maybe one day I'll get allergy shots or find some perfect cure for my inability to be near my pets without sneezing. But until then, I've managed to get by with my sheer, undying love for them, despite my inability to touch them.

It's like one of my favorite shows, Pushing Daisies, in which the main character (Ned) can bring things back to life - including his dog, Digby - but can never touch them again without killing them instantly. He ends up creating a wooden hand mechanism to pet Digby. Okay, maybe it's not like that.

But like Ned, I feel very strongly for my pets, but I can never show them that affection through my own physical actions.

Still, I like to think of myself as a happy teenaged cat lady. Now with only two cats - two of the best cats in the world - I still live a life at home fully taken over by water and milk bowls, cat food dishes and dry food containers. But I wouldn't exchange them for anything.

Even an allergy-less existence.

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