(Photo: Courtesy Lauren Oster)
Straight out of college, back in 2001, I took a job with the San Francisco SPCA’s animal hospital. Every morning I’d drive down to the Mission and spend the day processing new pets and arranging veterinary care for others.
I saw homeless people with piles of donated towels they’d collected and brought in to use as payment for their beloved pets’ medical bills; I saw sweet old pit bulls covered with bite marks from when dogfighters had used them as bait; I saw a stone-faced lady lie down on the floor of an exam room when it was time to put her cancer-ridden Rottweiler to sleep. I’d cry the whole way home in the car every night. It was wonderful to spend so much time with animals — all I’d wanted when I was a little girl was to be a veterinarian — but the reality of so much suffering I was unable to prevent bowled me over like a wave. It was a kind of helplessness I’d never imagined, much less experienced.
One day one of the techs in the treatment area came out to our waiting room with eyes full of wonder. “Have you ever seen a Manx before?” he asked. “Come see the Manx kitten!”
I went back to the wall of cages and peered into one that was nearly empty but for a ball of fluff in the back. The ball uncurled itself into what looked like a newborn bobcat — he promptly flung himself at the bars of his cage, purring madly. I couldn’t tell what was wrong with him until a tech opened the door and showed me how his front leg was practically jelly, having been mangled by a car. We were going to amputate the leg and return him to Animal Control, where he’d be put up for adoption.
Lucky someone, I thought, ending up with a cat like that.
The next morning there was a note taped to one of the vets’ inboxes: DR. G: SORRY ABOUT THE MANX.
It turned out that the surgery the cat needed was way too expensive for an animal that didn’t have an owner, so he was going to be euthanized, instead.
Ever wonder what your own personal George McFly, “Hey you, get your damn hands off her” moment will be? That was mine — before I knew what I was doing, I’d signed up for a crazy, high-interest credit card, bolted down to Animal Control to inform them that I was adopting the little cat, and arranged for the fancy surgery to amputate his leg. I was suddenly the guardian of Jude, a three-legged, softball-sized, tailless cat who became one of the lodestars of my life.
Jude grew into a marvelous, wildly affectionate little creature. He powered along on his three legs faster than our four-legged cat, and he was better at catching mice, too. He’d stand on my chest purring, putting infinite weight on his one front paw so that it felt like it would go straight through my chest to my heart, like the evil priest’s hand in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
The Pimp with a Limp, we called him. The Beast with the Least. I loved him to pieces.
When he was about six, his annual checkup showed that he had advanced congenital kidney disease, and we had to give him IV fluids for the next three years. Our luckless little cat had caught a bad hand yet again; he was only nine when his kidneys failed completely and a vet came to our apartment to put him to sleep.
He died in my arms, those oversized bunny feet shivering one last time. A wave of powerlessness swept me out to sea.
Two years later, Jude’s ashes were still in a little box in my closet when my husband and I were invited to a wedding in London. We were able to get a full week away from work, and I realized we’d have time to go to the Isle of Man — the place where the Manx originated. What if we were supposed to take Jude back there? I started doing research about the Isle, and the first thing that popped up was the Manx symbol: three legs arranged in a pinwheel. Quocunque Jeceris Stabit, the Isle’s Latin motto reads. “Whichever way you throw it, it will stand.” Oh, my Jude — rocketing around the house on your three legs, unaware that anyone had ever done anything else — I could take you home.
As the sun set on our last day on the Isle, I still hadn’t found a place that called to me. We pulled up beside the town hall in a miniature village, and a girl approached our bus. She was seven or eight, maybe, the tip of her ponytail was dyed lavender, and she perched like a little waxbill beside the driver. Her name was Sophie, she said. She wasn’t sure where her mother had gone. She lived in the neighborhood. The driver turned on his radio and murmured into it, the girl calm and bright-eyed at his side, and the absent mother was phoned. The bus climbed a few extra streets into the dusk and set her down gently on the road home.
My hand shook around the little box of ashes. The little cat needed a lift when we met him, not when he died. The moon rose over the harbor as I nudged the box back into the bottom of my purse. Pilgrimages are about humility, not grand gestures, and it was time for all of us to go home. Together.
I thought Jude’s story was my story, and that in saving him I became the adult I’d always wanted to be; in losing him, why, I’d lost my own heroism as well. Truth be told, his graceful dependence was more remarkable than anything about me that day at the animal hospital. How lucky I was to have been needed.