I had surgery in mid-November and learned that I, indeed, had an aggressive form of ovarian cancer. Then there were complications—intestinal blockage—and ten days in the hospital.
I was weary of being in the hospital. I was frightened about my future. I worried if I was even going to have a future. I had been divorced a year earlier and I wondered how I was going to cope with chemotherapy, my job as an editor, and taking care of my house in the country all by myself.
Sometime during those ten days, my daughter began to say, "Mom, I don't want you to be alone. I think you need a pet."
"Oh, Wendy, how could I take care of a pet? I'm so weak I can hardly take care of me."
"What about a cat? Cats don't require much care."
"I'm a dog person," I answered with my "and that's final" tone. But one night after my concerned daughter had gone for the evening, I began to think about what she'd said. We were so focused on my cancer and whether I'd live or die that we thought of little else. Perhaps a pet would give me something else to think about. Pets have always made me happy. In fact, I'm positively silly about my pets. The doctor had already told me that the very best therapy was going to be a positive attitude.
I went to sleep that night thinking about the kind of pet I might want. In the morning when Wendy came I shocked her by saying, "All right, I've decided I want a cat. I want you to go to the animal shelter and get me a black-and-white tuxedo cat. Since I'm a book editor, I think I should have a very literary-looking cat, don't you? His name will be Charles Dickens. Make sure he looks the part. He should have a bib and white mittens and socks, and a mustache would be good."
She didn't make it to the shelter that day because after all those long tiresome days, I was suddenly dismissed from the hospital. But the next afternoon, Wendy got a "mommy sitter" and then went to get my cat. I could hardly wait for her to get home. When the garage door opened, Judy, my "sitter," jumped up to see what Wendy had brought.
It was a young, bright-eyed black cat with a white bib, the compulsory white mittens and socks, and a one-sided mustache. I couldn't believe it. I had told Wendy what I wanted, but I never dreamed she would find the exact cat I'd described. "Hello, Charles Dickens," I said. He said, "Meow."
Dickens had a history. He had been a very frightened stray who went in a rainstorm to a house where he couldn't stay because there were already three cats living there. The lady of the house wept as she took him to the pound and told the attendants, "Make sure whoever gets him calls me."
That evening I called her, and she told me, "I'm about to have a baby, and I already have three cats. I couldn't keep him, but I just loved him. I prayed God would send him to someone who needed him and would really love him."
I realized in that moment that Dickens had not come to me by chance. "Your prayers have been answered," I said. I told her my story and ended with, "I need him."
All that first day and the next, Dickens went over my house with a "fine-toothed nose." He poked into every crevice and cranny. Then he began to sneeze. He sneezed and sneezed and sneezed. His nose was running and his eyes were dull. Dickens was sick. Wendy took him to the vet.
"Is he going to die?" I asked when she brought him home.
Poor Dickens. He was very sick. He lay on the foot of my bed on a hot water bottle for days. It had been my intention to refocus our attention on something besides my illness and upcoming chemotherapy, and I surely did it. All we could think about was whether Dickens would live or die.
One day, after about eight days, there was a turning point. Dickens sprang up from the hot water bottle with a gleam in his eye. "Well, hello, cat," I said. And I could see in an instant that I had correctly named him. He was going to be a rascally dickens all right. He crouched around corners waiting to spring at me as I passed by. He attacked my feet under the covers. He played until he dropped exhausted at my side.
Then it was time for my chemotherapy. Wendy went with me for the first round of treatment. I didn't learn until later how frightened she, too, had been. I didn't realize what it was costing her emotionally to see her mother in this dire situation. Neither of us knew when (or if) I, like Dickens, might have my turning point.
I tolerated the first round of chemotherapy fairly well, and I thought I could make it through the remainder of the twenty-four treatments on my own. So I sent Wendy home to Seattle to take up her life with the understanding that if I couldn't get along without help, she would come back.
Twenty-one days after I began chemotherapy, my hair started coming out—great handfuls of it. I was ready with my wig and scarves. Just then Dickens decided my pillow was a good place to sleep. I don't know, perhaps he thought my balding head needed to be kept warm. I do know that in the mornings my pillow was a mess. It was covered with his fur and my hair, making it hard to tell who was shedding the most.
There were lots of nights during the next six months when I would wake from a deep sleep and be nauseated beyond belief. Dickens by now was sleeping in the crook of my arm. When I was sick, he'd jump to the end of the bed and wait. When I would lie down exhausted from vomiting, he would instantly jump back to my side and snuggle down. This little creature God had sent my way blessed my long, lonely nights.
Then there were the days Dickens raced me up the stairs. At my pace it wasn't much of a race, really. He romped and played and made me laugh and laugh and laugh. I tolerated the chemotherapy pretty well, and I am sure one reason was because Dickens gave me a merry heart that "did good, like medicine."
Then, at last I was through with chemo. All I had to do was wait. In October my surgeon said, "We'd like to do a second-look surgery. We can't find any cancer from the outside and we'd like to take a look inside."
This time my son, Mark, came to stay with me during surgery and to take care of Dickens. After only an hour in surgery, through my anesthesia-induced fog, I heard my very delighted surgeon say, "It's gone. There's no cancer anyplace."
I had my turning point! I was going to live. Five days later I went home, and while I couldn't scoop Dickens up (he now weighed fourteen pounds and I was not supposed to lift anything over ten), I sat down and he crawled into my lap. "Well, cat," I said, "it looks like I'm going to stick around for a while. We both made it. We're survivors." Dickens didn't say much. He just stretched a little and purred and purred.