Ralph’s story

Ralph on my lap when I started writing his story

I never thought poop could make me so happy. It was just a small piece the size of a dime, but it was enough for me to hope that Ralph could eliminate the four days of build-up inside him. Because of what it represented, I wasn’t even disgusted when I picked it up to feel its consistency; to me it was almost beautiful! I have never wanted someone to poop more. When Ralph finally let it all come out at the vets’ office the next day, it was high-fives all around, and he felt our approval and purred even more loudly than usual.

That teaching on emptiness, (that beauty is in the eye of the beholder!), has been just one of many I’ve had this roller coaster week while caring for Ralph, who entered our lives out of nowhere on Sunday, promptly stole our hearts, then left us again last night. This six-week-old kitten had paralysis in his back legs and walked by dragging himself along with his front legs. He was left outside my house. He was a combination of utter sweetness and utter helplessness, and as a result loved by everyone who had the privilege of knowing him, including me, his lucky adoptive mom.

I want to tell Ralph’s story, as he may have been one tiny unique being but he came to represent for me these past four days, well, a lot! All suffering beings, and the truth of Dharma. I want to share him and I also want this story to remember him by. I’m not saying this story is unusual. It is not. Ralph’s story is like all our stories, but for some reason I learnt so much from him that I could fill a book. The intensity of our experiences can make four days seem like four months – showing the emptiness of time. There is also life before Ralph and life after him, and they do not feel the same at all. It has been a roller coaster, as I said, but I do not regret a single moment.

Sunday

It was Sunday when F found him dirty, abandoned, and dragging his legs outside our house — he could have been dying for all we knew, and only the Emergency vet was open, so I took him there on the way back from dropping F and J at the airport.

They are clearly practiced in the art of showing no emotion as they see one tragedy after another roll in through their sliding doors. When I arrived, the steely receptionist called out “Good Sam”, and they came to collect him and asked me to sign some papers. This is when I discovered I had two rather unpleasant alternatives: (A) Hand him over to them (hence the Good Samaritan finding a stray) and risk never seeing him again even though I said I wanted to adopt him later, especially as it was quite clear they thought he should be euthanized; (B) Spend lots of money — $100 just for the first exam and then whatever was needed after that in a particularly expensive and sterile vet place where I’d still have to leave him on his own. I mulled over option A for about 2 seconds, enough time to see a couple of big eyes looking reproachfully at me through the cat carrier. Then I decided on a whole ‘nother option (C), and took him home to take his chances overnight.

How Ralph got around.

Monday

Worrying in the waiting room at All Cats Hospital, Largo

(I will keep this in the present tense as this is how I wrote it waiting at the family vet.)

His admission papers show him with the same last name as mine, he is now officially my son and I his mom! But I’m a hopeless mom and trainee Bodhisattva, I’m just preoccupied with worry right now. I’m waiting for results from his blood tests and x-rays. I know the “pros” are already thinking it’s kinder to euthanize him because of his paralysis and will try and persuade me of same. But that’s no way good enough of a reason.

Ralph just after F scooped him up

His distended belly is full of poop, his bladder is huge, and he drags himself along with his little kitten paws, but he loves any touch, even being bathed, even being prodded, even having his bladder squirted, even having his paws clamped to test for pain. He loves being placed in his cat carrier. In fact he loves anything that involves anyone paying him any attention at all. He purrs so loudly that no vet has yet managed to hear his heartbeat. He is very much liking being alive and I intend to keep him that way as long as I can.

But I’m leaving for England in one week and what are we to do with him long-term? He needs his bladder expressing regularly and goodness knows what else with his stools. His inability to walk seems the least of his problems right now. J, bless her heart, will not let this little guy die, and has been spending hours on the internet figuring out his future care and calling everyone she knows for a home for him. If she can’t find one, and if he is not infectious to her other cats, I suspect she will have him herself as she can’t help her kind heart. She is also fund-raising and bank-rolling the not inconsiderable costs of these vet visits, which is just as well as he has cost more than my monthly income already.

What an emotional roller coaster it is to look after a sick animal. I’ve been anxious about him despite all my best training! Why is his stomach so distended? Will he survive the night? Is his breathing too shallow and fast? Is he breathing at all? (waking up the poor little guy to check!) Why is he shivering? And, scariest of all, will I ever learn to express his bladder so as actually to get enough pee out of him?! So far I haven’t managed it. I am too scared to squeeze too hard in case I bruise his bladder. The vets tell me I’ll get the hang of it but I wish I had the hang of it already!

How I stopped worrying in the waiting room

In fact, two things are going on:

(1) I think all my problems will be solved if only I can get the pee out of him/he controls his own bowel movements/he eats and drinks properly/he can put some weight on his back legs. Of course, even if all that happened, there will still be plenty more things to worry about!

(2) When I see any other cats at the moment (a) they appear enormous, like giants and (b) I think they are so lucky to have four functioning legs even if they don’t seem to know it.

Isn’t it like that with all our problems?! (1) Whatever difficulty we encounter with relationships, jobs, money, sickness, helpless dependents, etcetera etcetera, it can fill our mind and we think that if only this was out of the way we could be sooo happy. And (2) when we see someone else without that problem, we think they are so lucky, although they are oblivious to their good fortune!

Samsara is impossible, really. So many intractable problems in just one 2lb sentient being despite the best efforts of J, F, me, the vets, the nurses, and a growing number of well-wishers. Geshe Kelsang often says that temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough. Samsara is the cycle of impure life projected by our ignorance of self-grasping and self-cherishing. The seven sufferings of samsara are like waves on an ocean; they’ll never stop rolling in on their own. We need to recognize this so that we can stop worrying about one problem at a time ( = literally endless worry) and turn our attention to removing the causes of all our own and others’ suffering. That is the spiritual path. So, for example, while I do the very best I can for Ralph, worrying about it at the same time is missing the point.

Easier said than done, but it is something trainee Bodhisattvas train in – helping others practically to the best of our ability but also remembering to put a lot of energy into generating renunciation, bodhichitta and wisdom, using these very karmic appearances that arise as fuel.

For example, I admit I never saw myself squirting a cat! But that is the appearance to my mind, so I accept it. While I’m doing that I can with one part of my mind attend completely to Ralph’s need to empty his bladder, and with another part I can think about how wonderful it would be to squeeze the samsara out of everyone. Same physical action, hugely more meaning and hope. There are, after all, a gazillion Ralphs not getting the attention they need right now.

You can hear him purring if you listen.

Medicine Buddha

When I feel particularly worried about him, faith helps hugely. We can mentally hand things over to the enlightened beings when they seem too much for us. Ralph and I did Medicine Buddha puja out loud earlier and loved it, everything seemed okay, everything was okay.

I also did Medicine Buddha puja dedicated to the even more helpless creatures who have sadly had to die in the saving of Ralph, namely his fleas, possibly his worms if he has any. What a horrible dilemma, there is no way in samsara to avoid killing completely despite our very best intentions. But Venerable Geshe Kelsang said 25 years ago at Madhyamaka Centre that we could do Medicine Buddha puja every month with strong faith in Medicine Guru and strong compassion for all the animals and insects whom we have inadvertently killed, and Medicine Guru would be able to take them to his Pure Land.

Tuesday

Ralph again slept overnight like a baby — which he is — high on the chest of drawers in my room with an unobstructed view of the Buddhas on the shrine and of me on my bed.

Korska

(Meanwhile the young feral hissy cat outside, Korska, has developed a slight limp – what to do about him?! Keep feeding him and let him take his chances? Catch him earlier than I was going to (in August) and take him to animal services for the full treatment? Difficult, as I’m going away soon and don’t want him to be convalescing on his own, and I don’t him to run away as I have plans to slowly tame him (well, I can try!). Next to little Ralph, his problems don’t seem as great as they did; but I will have to get to him later. I really admire people who take responsibility for many feral animals).

Ralph had fun at the vets today. He even managed to crawl down a nurse’s buxom cleavage when we were momentarily distracted so that just his little orange back legs were sticking out. Everyone at the vet’s has gone gaga over him. In fact, he has now managed to win over, by my calculations, F and J who found him and where he is going next week, me, six neighbors who now knock on my door to visit him, two vets, four nurses, the man in the bank, and basically everyone else who has crossed his path. All kittens are cute, and yes of course I am biased, but he is a fuzzy ball of concentrated cuteness. Maybe he needs to be extra-friendly and open as he knows his life depends on people loving him. He also has a lot of merit, or good karma, as people have offered to help pay for him, and he is not going to go homeless even though he is always going to need care. He has a bevy of supporters watching the videos I send of him from my iPhone; he could have a You Tube channel of his own. He seems to bring out the best in everyone.

He has had another very happy day. Tuesday was also another day of many teachings from my little emanation. I will save these for other articles so I can finish his story.

Ralph in his favorite spot.
Wednesday

4pm: I prayed to Tara in the car just now coming home from the vet as Ralph was lethargic, breathing faster, and, most ominously, not purring when I reached over to touch him, which was a first. We’ll do Medicine Buddha together out loud. Dissolve our worries away in the bliss and emptiness of Buddha’s mind. He loves doing pujas, which is just as well.

Worrying in the waiting room at Emergency Services

6:30pm: When I came into the Emergency vet just now, they yelled out “Triage! Respiratory distress! Front desk!” and off Ralph was whisked into ICU, with no time for goodbyes. I feel helpless again. His rapid breathing in the car was not the heat because it progressively got worse through the afternoon and it looks like he must have pneumonia or FIP. Will I have to take him home and help him die? F***, you have to be brave. Right now I don’t feel cut out for this. Why am I such a wimp? Of course I can and will do it, but I’m feeling some despair right now. All I can see is his big limpid trusting eyes. He thinks I am his mommy, he trusts me. Why can’t I protect him? How can I not feel that I am totally letting him down? I’d be a frigging hopeless vet. How on earth are people so brave?

There is a picture here in the waiting room next to the picture of Golda the Retriever (deceased), with the words:

“Even in our sleep pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom, through the awful grace of God.”

I really get that right now even though I’m a Buddhist and know the holy beings are not doing this. But it is a situation of forced self-improvement.

Right now I don’t know what will happen. The uncertainty is awful. And one of the six sufferings of samsara so why expect anything else, but I don’t like it.

Just now the receptionist was taking J’s credit card details and I was willing her to hurry up as they were not going to give Ralph his x-rays until they had them. Right in the middle someone phoned for directions and it seemed to take an age: “Turn left down…, no, left, yes, past the blah blah blah… and then half a mile… yes half a mile…blah blah blah”. I was impatiently thinking, “For goodness sake, hurry up, don’t you know Ralph is waiting?” when I heard the receptionist say, “And how many were hit by the car?”

That jerked me back into perspective.

His last morning. I can see in retrospect that he is beginning to breathe faster, and is more agitated than before; though I didn’t notice it at the time.

How I stopped worrying in the waiting room (part two)

Compassion and emptiness: It is not unkind to dissolve people away into emptiness. When I saw Ralph’s chest rising and falling so fast, and J (on the phone from NJ) and I timed it to discover he was breathing at a rate of 91 breaths per minute instead of the normal 30, we knew I had to get going fast to the ER. I felt sick to the stomach, but J calmed me with three magic words: “Don’t freak out.”

The best way not to freak out at times of crisis is to remember emptiness, if you can. All this scary stuff is mistaken appearance, it is like a dream (or nightmare), it is not really happening. But if our wisdom is not strong yet, we might think that this is callous – dissolving away Ralph and his suffering when in fact he is still really suffering, how can that work?! Perhaps we prefer to seize on method practices at this time, but I can see in my experience that we need both, because while my compassion was for a real inherently existent kitten experiencing real pain and distress, this mind had no solution in it, and so it caused more pain for me and less ability to stay present and positive for him. Remembering emptiness in no way diminishes the compassion. There is no contradiction between compassion and emptiness; in fact they are two sides of the same coin. Within the mind of compassion, we need the solution, and this is the wisdom realizing the emptiness of inherent existence of persons and phenomena. We need to dissolve our loved ones into emptiness for them to be able to arise in a pure, blissful form. Otherwise they remain stuck and our hearts remain uselessly broken.

Now he really wants to escape samsara and get to the Pure Land: “Let me out!”

Watching someone you love gasping for breath is not high up on anyone’s wish list. Samsara sucks. Samsara sucks for everyone. But luckily samsara is not real.

This is the union of method (renunciation and compassion) and wisdom.

The power of prayer: I did not like leaving Ralph alone with the brisk uniformed people at the Emergency Hospital for even an hour, yet I knew I was about to leave him alone forever as he couldn’t stay. All that I could do was pray. But luckily prayers are very powerful when our compassion and faith are strong, which is often the case at times of crises, especially if we’ve been training in refuge.

Ralph’s death

Ralph’s little body was filling up fast with more and more fluid, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

I kept stroking him and speaking loving encouraging thoughts of his future to him, breathed in his suffering as if there was no tomorrow, and blew mantras into his ears. He purred a lot and kneaded my face with his paws, whilst at the same time opening and shutting his little pink mouth trying hard to breathe and meowing at me for help. He could hold a gaze better than any other cat I’ve known. Sometimes in the past few days I’d do something else for a while, but when I looked back at him he was still staring at me. He died in my arms, looking at me with those beautiful eyes that then gently drooped shut. He died very peacefully and his last thoughts, I pray, were ones of love and trust. I touched him firmly on the head with Medicine Buddha sadhana, his favorite, to help his subtle consciousness leave his body through his crown.

I’ll never forget the feel of his tiny body in my hands as his eyes closed for the last time and then as I held him doing prayers and meditation for the next couple of hours. It looked like Ralph had just fallen asleep in my arms, but his consciousness was wending its way through the bardo to his next life, and he was no longer there. Death is so natural and so weird at the same time. People in India and Tibet meditated in the charnel grounds… and  I discovered there is nothing quite like meditating on impermanence while holding a body in your hands.

JP told me a few days ago that when she was with her husband just after he was killed, she wanted to hold every part of his body. Her friend was sitting with her and said quietly: “That arm is not J. That leg is not J….” It was an intense, she said, but timely teaching.

Conclusion

An hour before Ralph died he pooped again all on his own, and looked at me for approval. It did feel like an offering, but this time it also made me sad. Although all I had wanted two days earlier was for him to be free of his chronic constipation and be able to poop on his own, having control over his own bowels was now no longer enough. And he didn’t even know this. The waves of samsara keep rolling in.

It is 2.15 right now, and Ralph had a vet’s appointment at this exact time for the free daily laser therapy they were generously offering him to bring back his legs. But my tiny dancer doesn’t have that body any more. I pray and imagine that he is dancing with the Dakinis instead, a beautiful, smiling Daka with red hair and luminous green-blue eyes.