Friday, August 3, 2012


This bit was written about ten years ago, as two separate essays which I glued together here. I apologize for the obvious disorder. It's a bit tedious, but there is a point to this. 

"It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch"---unknown

Battered and bruised, the knight in shining armor lay on his back in a vast arid plain just downwind of Constantinople. The battle had moved on, but he would not. You don’t go far as a knight without your horse.

During the first Crusade, the armored knight was state of the art when it came to projecting military force in faraway lands. Educated, highly trained, and lavishly equipped, a knight perched upon his horse was almost invincible. Clad in interlocking iron plate from head to toe, he was protected from scimitar and arrow. His lance and sword made quick work of any opponent on the field of battle that was not similarly protected.

His horse was huge, weighing in at nearly a ton and leaving tracks the size of dinner plates. It was armored nearly as well as its rider and was trained to leap into the air to kick out at foot-soldiers that attempted to surround and unseat the knight.

Each knight had a cadre of men who supported him in the field. Their job was the care and feeding of this weapon system. They polished and repaired the armor and weapons. They catered to the horses. They helped prepare him before battle and nursed his wounds after. They peeled a grape for the knight if he that is what he wished.

But perhaps most important, they hoisted the knight onto his horse. For with the weight of all that metal, the knight was not able to climb aboard his own horse. In fact, his armor was so heavy, he could barely walk.

When the enemy managed to knock our knight from his horse, he became as helpless as a desert tortoise that has been rolled over on its back.

Peering out through tiny slits in his helmet, our knight couldn’t see much as he lay on the ground. He hoped he would be rescued by someone from his side of the war, but that was not to be. The voices he heard were Saracens. And they were not happy voices. 

The only gaps in the armor’s protection were the eye slits, two small ear holes, and a couple of joints at the shoulder and elbow that allowed the knight to move, which explains the Saracens’ affection for their daggers. The long, thin blade was just the ticket for extinguishing a non-believer clad in armor.

I can imagine how it must have felt to be trapped in that iron coffin, hapless, helpless, and hopeless, just waiting for the inevitable dagger in the eye. That’s how I felt when I finally realized that Lennie was going to die.

Lennie never really had a chance. When some kids brought him to the clinic he was a homeless, malnourished, undersized waif of a kitten. He had lice, fleas, and mites. And some sadist had left cigarette burns on his belly.

He found a home with my wife and me, and he tried his best to be a kitten, running all over the place, wrecking stuff, and getting underfoot. He harassed the other animals mercilessly, but in a few weeks we started seeing him curled up, sleeping with the big black and white cat, Orion. And he slid into any lap that was available. He was a great kitten, and he wormed his way into all of our hearts.

Lennie scattered toys all over the house, and we tripped over him in the kitchen and every time we tiptoed to the john in the dark of night. His litter pan was in the bathroom and he liked to join in whenever anybody was busy in there.

About the time the burns finally healed, Lennie started slowing down. He didn’t play as much and his hair began looking rough. And he was filling his litter pan with awful stuff.

I made sure he didn’t have any parasites and we changed his food, but the problem continued. Lennie wasn’t growing like he should either, but I chalked it up to a bad start in life.

Three months into his time with us he really started looking poorly. He just kind of lost his spark. I was ready to take him down to the clinic for the important tests when he just fell apart one morning. He suddenly lost his balance and staggered all over the place. I knew what was wrong before the tests even came back.

The virus had been in him all along. The best minds in veterinary medicine have come up with no cure for this one. As the doctor in the house I knew this, and I had to tell everyone else.

Like an un-horsed knight, I knew that despite all I could do against the right enemies, it would not matter against this one.

Our home is still full of animals, but it feels strangely empty. I still watch where I step until I remember I no long must worry about a kitten underfoot, and when I find one of his toys it drives a dagger into my heart.

Lennie, we miss you. Wherever you are, I hope you get a better start next time.

In 55 years of living and over thirty playing doctor, I've seen many really neat animals come and go. Some stuck around a long time, and some left way too soon. I brought this kitten home not just to rescue him, but to give my wife a few much needed laughs, as she is mired deep in an on-line masters program that provides far more stress than joy. And he did that, in spades. Watching him play and her giggle made this whole mad world go away for just a little while.

She used to call me in the middle of the day merely to tell me about the new toys she made for him and how much fun he was having. We both knew he wasn't all right at least a month ago. She kept asking me what was wrong and I kept avoiding answering her.

Once the vestibular and cerebellar stuff kicked in I couldn't dodge anymore. His lab work was pretty classic FIP. The drugs bought him about three weeks. He still had a head tilt and mild ataxia, but he forged his way through those little impediments without complaint. And she tried to drown him in love, even though she knew he would be leaving soon.

Through the whole course, I couldn't look in the mirror. I am supposed to be a doctor, after all. I brought this little life into our home to please my wife, and now look what I was doing to her. When the crying and seizures started at 4AM yesterday, I ran down to the clinic to get the stuff and let him go quietly while she held him in her arms.

Tomorrow, when the rain will have stopped and I can get home before dark, we will bury him out back in the little grove of redwood trees next to Sabrina, our old calico weirdo. She survived three bouts of hepatic lipidosis over the years only to run into carcinomatosis. I had to put her down last Monday, and we buried her last Wednesday. It's been a long two weeks.

Looking back on a lifetime of pets and patients, I have nothing but fond memories of the special ones. As I tell my clients, those are the memories that remain with us, when we lose all this painful stuff. Soon enough my wife will be able to laugh again as she recalls this little guy, and I will get back to what the gods actually let me do, which is to save some of them, and help their people through the rest. And we will be ever so grateful for the time we had with Lennie. It was a gift.


  1. Thank you.

    My husband and I adopted a kitten that later passed away from the "wet" form of FIP. (He died less than a week after being diagnosed.) It was tough to see such a small creature who should have had such a long life ahead of him dying right before our eyes. He was only with us for a total of about two months but my husband and I still talk about him fondly.

  2. Thanks Bob. Like you I've passed enough seasons to realize what they should have spent more time teaching us. That we can only save some of them. And hopefully make a difference for the rest.

  3. Thanks for sharing Lennie's story. We lost a kitten to FIP over the winter, it was also the cerebellar variety. We took him in as a bottle baby when somebody brought him into our vet when we were there. He was only with us for 4 months but he certainly left his mark on us. I feel the same way when I find one of his toys now.