This blog has played host to some difficult posts. Difficult for me to write, I mean. “And Now, Martin Does the Rejecting,” wherein I described the City Kids Club kicking Martin out of its Twos Club. That was a tough one. “Let’s Talk Honestly About Really Crappy Days,” wherein I described a truly dreadful morning in our household. Not so easy to own. The recent “Why Can’t We All Cross the Finish Line, the Nonexistent Finish Line, Together?”, wherein I admitted to wondering whether Martin should find a higher-functioning best friend. You get the point.
This post, this one I’m writing now, tops them all. This post feels impossible to write. It combines just about every way in which autism has beaten me down: the degradation of my own identity, the ethical compromises, the rearrangement of dreams. The situation in which I find myself today—it’s not me. At least not a me I thought I’d ever be.
I’m on a plane back to New York, from Texas, where I’ve just abandoned one of our three cats, Levi.
Maybe “abandoned” is too strong. I flew with Levi to Texas in order to deliver him, personally, with boxes full of supplies, to a new home: a mother and two kids (ages 11 and 7), who are welcoming him with joy, and who intend to house him forever. They’ve had cats in the past, and now they have Levi. They are friends of one of my close girlfriends. They will let us visit Levi whenever we are in town at my parents’ home. It’s a close to perfect as I could hope for.
Still, it feels a lot like I’ve just abandoned Levi.
I’ve had cats, between one and four cats at a time, since 1994, when I adopted Tiny Rachel. As of next week, when Freddy and Edith move together to their new home, I will have no feline companions. I will have given them up.
After Martin started wheezing, we had an allergist run a blood test and a skin-patch test. The skin-patch test involved a dozen allergens being pushed into Martin’s forearms, and then he and I waiting 15 minutes to see if any reaction developed.
A reaction developed. Not after 15 minutes. Immediately. One allergen among the dozen swelled Martin’s skin into an angry red bump. I looked at the chart of allergen placements to see what was causing the reaction.
Cat. Martin was testing allergic to cats. Severely allergic. I could see the reaction with my own two eyes—two eyes that begin to fill with tears. Martin is allergic to cats. We’ve had cats since before Martin was born, obviously. Martin has never lived in a home without cats.
How? I asked the doctor. How could this be? Before this summer, Martin hasn’t had allergic reactions. The asthma is brand new. How, when we’ve had cats his whole life, could they now be contributing to allergies and asthma?
The allergist, whom I could call a traditionalist, came up with two possibilities. First, animals living in a home are known to reduce the incidence of childhood allergies. Maybe, by having cats since Martin was born, we diminished what otherwise would have been a more severe allergy, and also staved its onset. Second, given that both my older brothers and my mother are allergic, Martin has a genetic predisposition to cat allergies (which we have always known). Maybe Martin just developed his allergy later.
I am not a traditionalist, and so to the allergist’s possibilities I added a third: Maybe Martin has always had this allergy, and until now his immune system was not healthy enough to mount the proper response. Maybe, in all the work that we have done to heal his gut, we have fostered Martin’s allergic response. The cat allergy is a bad thing. Martin’s ability to mount a proper response for the first time, if that’s what’s going on, would be a good thing. Immune systems are supposed to respond.
The very night Martin visited the allergist, Adrian and I went out to dinner (without Martin), I told him the test results, and we decided that we had to rehome Levi, Freddy, and Edith. The other options were unacceptable. We couldn’t have the cats live in the basement; the basement’s ventilation and duct system carries airborne allergens to the rest of the house, too. We couldn’t make the cats into outdoor-and-garage pets; they are essentially lap cats who seek and want constant human interaction. We couldn’t keep the status quo; Martin is rubbing watery eyes, coughing through the night, wheezing after exercise.
That being said, Adrian and I both believe that we have a lifelong obligation to our companion animals. There was no discussion of taking the animals to a shelter or moving them immediately to suboptimal homes. Levi, who enjoys spending time outside and doesn’t respond well to other cats, especially male cats, needs a home where he can safely go outside, and preferably be the only cat. As to Freddie and Edith, we adopted them together because they were bonded to each other. They’ve been with us almost eight years, and nothing has changed. They are best friends, reliant on each other. They must remain together.
We got lucky. I sent a message to friends and family members, nationwide, who know how we’ve struggled with Martin’s health. They spread the message wider. Within a week, the Texas family had come forward with an offer to adopt Levi. Within three weeks, we had found a lovely woman who has taken in many older cats over the years. She drove 90 minutes to our house to meet Freddie and Edith, and then decided she would like them to join her family. We aren’t out of the woods yet. Before we can declare the adoptions a success, we still need to see each cat flourish in his or her new home. But so far, so good.
So far, so good when it comes to finding suitable homes, that is. When it comes to my emotions—so far, not so good. The worst, for me, right now, is my old pal guilt. I feel guilty toward the cats. I love them, and they are my responsibility. The first night, when I told Adrian that Martin is allergic, he looked plain defeated as he asked, “Why? Why now? George is gone. Our house is under control. Everyone is happy. How could this happen now?” I feel guilty toward Martin, too. How long has this allergy been an issue? How did we not realize it? By having cats in our home, have we been unwittingly hampering Martin’s recovery? Precipitating further immune troubles?
There’s fear, also. I dread receiving a phone call that one of the cats, traumatized by changing homes and families, has developed a behavior problem or run away. I dread hearing that one of the adoptive parents has decided not to keep a cat and surrendered him or her to a shelter, or to someone I don’t know. Is this likely? No, of course it isn’t. We have found “cat people” to adopt our cats. We’ve asked them to agree that, if ever they can no longer care for the cats, they call us to come get them back. They have assured us that, in the unlikely event they can no longer care for the cats, they will indeed call us to come get them back. They are going to provide updates and let us visit the cats. Nevertheless, once the cats leave my home, I am no longer in control of their welfare. Therein arises my fear.
There’s hope. I hope that figuring out this impediment to Martin’s well-being, and removing it, may hasten the remainder of his recovery.
There is a pesky emotion that I don’t want to admit. Every once in a while I sense a flash of something like relief, a feeling that fewer worries in my home (yes, I worry about cats; I worry about everyone in my home) will improve my well-being.
And then I cycle back to guilt, this time guilt for having felt something like relief.
I have to leave this post now.
Update: I drafted this post 10 days ago. I have already received several updates from Levi’s new family, pictures with captions like “snuggling inside on a rainy day.” That helps. Yesterday, November 1, Freddie and Edith moved to their new home, together. This morning I overslept, because Edith did not wake me to give her breakfast. Despite the good news from Texas, I feel devastated.