A story for Firefly

I didn’t want to get out of bed.

From deep in my sound-asleep place, I could hear the snorts and coughs and shuddering guttural rasps of a cat as she struggled to breathe. Then the plomp on my legs as she jumped off her perch to the bed, and the bump on the floor as she went gronking and boffling out of the room. Wandering away, her struggling calls continued to permeate my fading dream-scape.

She’s fine, I think, but I wonder if maybe this is the time she might not be. Firefly, named by my niece for the campground she was found in and not for my beloved old television show, has always had a respiratory illness. Brought to me just shy of a decade ago by way of my sister’s house, where her presence made some other cats mad and she couldn’t stay the long haul, she’d lounged into my High Park apartment and from that first day when she climbed up on my chest and took a snooze, we were besties.

But she’d always had the sneezes, the coughs. The starts and fits of breath that accompanied her one very bad eye, which would ooze a goopy brown substance while her other clear yellow-green eye would gaze out curiously. She’d wheeze and rasp and shudder one morning and be fine a minute later. She’d languish and look forlorn and I’d wonder: is this it? Can my cat breathe at all right now? And then she’d go stick her paw in her water dish and lick it and roll around in the sun. That’s just her way. So she’s fine, I think.

But I wonder if maybe this is the time she might not be.

I reach up and fumble with the window turner bauble and I manage to open the window even wider. Cold air rushes in and I quickly start wrenching my hand the other way, shutting out the windy scrape and scutter of leaf on leaf with the frigid morning air. The snorts continue from the hall. With a grand surge of effort I sit myself up. I can see her silhouetted in the hallway, pointed toward the stairs and away from me, her awkward pose down there doesn’t mean she can’t breathe, but she isn’t looking comfy.

I stand. Stretch. Take a few steps around the bed to her and – she skitters off, right down the stairs. Damn cat. I have to pee before I go on a chase. She’ll be fine the next few minutes for sure.

The light is blinding. I fumble the slider down to a dimmer level, and swing on the warm water tap just before I start to pee. My mouth is loaded with gross and I don’t want to rinse with cold water. A moment later, smoothing my hair and holding it to my neck so it stays out of the water, I notice: it tastes sweet! Rinse and spit, go again. Still sweet, what on earth? I turn it hotter, take a little more, rinse thoroughly despite the sweetness, gargle gargle spit, but it persists. More. The sweetness is subsiding. Swallow. More. The sensation is clearly fading now. Gulp. Bizarre.

As I step back to the bedroom, I decide I quite like the light of the bathroom now, so I leave it on and just close the door — it’ll flow out through the transom window, and I don’t want it too bright to wake Jenna up. It is absolutely too chilly to go downstairs in my underwear, so I head back to the bedroom and fart around with my shirt in the dark. I find the seams in it to tell how I’m olding it, then over my head and on it goes as Jenna stirs. I tell her the cat’s breathing kinda funny, and she sighs her assent. I’m the cat wrangler.

I pull my one very warm awesome sock on, and then the other composite sock I’ve made by layering two thin ones. I glance at my phone: 06:57 am. Earlier than I want to get up on a thanksgiving Saturday, but it’s hardly the middle of the night. Still seems quite dark.

Stepping away from the bed, I realize I won’t be nearly warm enough, so I grab a blanket and throw it over my back poncho style, like a wizard. I begin my journey down the stairs in search of her, following her mild rhythmic croaking from below. This is pretty normal for her, I tell myself. She’s probably fine. Somehow, she’s always been fine.

Two years ago, we went on a trip to Winnipeg. In our old apartment, we had a crawlspace upstairs, and you can maybe guess what that means. Any time it was open, the cat wanted to be nowhere other than that crawlspace. We had gotten quite complacent about travel with her. I would leave out two water bowls and two mountains of food, and she’d absolutely be fine for 3-4 days. This was gonna be about 5 days away, but we’d made sure everything was ready for her.

Just as we were leaving, I checked she was out by her bowls in the living room and all the doors that ought to be open and closed were correct. Walking down the stairs to the front door I remembered: backup headphones! What if my headphones break? I’d have nothing to listen to — what a curse! So back up to the living room, then up to the computer room upstairs and into the crawlspace I went. Found the box with more headphones, pulled it out. Put some in my backpack. Pushed the box back. Closed the crawlspace. Down the stairs, down the other stairs, and out.

We had a great time in Winnipeg. We visited Jenna’s grandma for her 91st birthday — a visit delayed by the initial onset of COVID-19 the year prior. I’d never been to the city. We stayed in a hotel downtown, and Jenna’s whole family was out there for the visit. We saw museums and went on walks and visited her lovely Grandma in her apartment. By the time we got home though, we were thinking of one thing: that lovely cat greeting us at the door, saying “hellooo, I missed you!”

But when we opened the door, there was no cat. We walked in and took off our shoes and went up the stairs, and in the living room, no cat. In the back room, no cat. Upstairs in the computer room… no cat. No cat in the bedroom. Did she run past us on the way in? Not in the upstairs washroom. What about under the bed? Is she hiding behind the couch? Did she get into a cupboard somehow? The laundry room? No cat. No cat anywhere we were looking, despite our calls. We’d both begun to cry and I was checking the laundry room for the third time when Jenna called out “oh my god!” from upstairs.

A small, grey, blinking creature stepped out of the crawlspace toward her. She let out a very faint meow. I galloped up the stairs to them and found Jenna sitting on the floor crying, with the cat looking startled and rumpled, but miraculously… fine. She went waddling down the stairs toward her food and water and started chomping.

We both crept after her, counting the hours we’d been away and our blessings that this cat was somehow walking around. I phoned an after-hours vet and explained what had happened, and they asked about her condition. She had had a drink and was now being very friendly, and seemed in high spirits. They told us to bring her in if she wouldn’t take food or if she seemed to be developing yellowness in her gums and lips. Otherwise, if she seemed fine, she likely was. We could not believe it. She wandered between us hanging out, and we both sat and cried, and cried. She was fine. Somehow she always is.

Back to the poncho: as I get to the turn in the stairs, I can see her shadow by the doorway to the dining room. I carefully step down each of the last three steps. Less than a year in this house and we have both slipped on these stairs more than once already, so creeping care is the order of the day here. By the time I get to the door, she’s skittered away again. Never a great sign if she won’t let me get near. I manage to close the gap as she makes for her safest spot under the table, and I scoop her snorting little frame up into my arms, holding her a little aloft to keep those swinging feet away from my pristine flesh.

I turn her and put one hand under her upper chest, lifting it slightly and letting her feet under my other hand fall a little. This will open up her lung space a bit and allow the chest-holding hand to massage her neck around the side of her windpipe, to help her clear out phlegm. She seems to know I’m trying, but that doesn’t mean she likes it.

Sitting down with her in my living room chair, facing the front window, she starts up her “I’m outta here” routine — swinging legs, squirming — so I lift and loft again, and she settles back down on my lap. She usually enjoys being held up by her chest, especially if I give her a bit of a belly rub. I do so, but she’s not very interested this morning.

Her struggles continue, but each breath seems a little more even now, and as her patience with my timid massage wanes, I let her go free on my lap. She jumps straight down to the ground, taking up a spot a few feet away on the floor. If she’ll walk back to check out my hand, that bit of sociability might convince me she’s feeling close to fine … but, no, she demurs. And wanders back to the shoes by the bottom of the stairs, settling in to stare not at me, but near me.

I sit back for a moment and rest. Her breathing is still laboured, but seems consistent now. I turn to my right and reach for the wispy fluffy tinsel-like cat toy on a wand. I bring it around the corner and start bouncing it around on the floor. Instantly she knows the game is afoot: she goes low, hiding behind a blundstone, peeking. But the tinsel is too exposed — after just a moment, she loses interest. I pull it away to the far side of my legs: the less she sees of it, the oddly more enticing. And like clockwork, she poofs into position, preparing to pounce.

I begin to retreat the bouncing wand farther behind my legs and the chair, and she goes absolutely low, compressing tension to tautness, and she springs! Running… just… past it, oddly. She comes to a stop looking a little confused about her miss, then starts up onto the scratching post nearby as a consolation. For a few minutes I wave the toy around above her, as she swings paw after paw at it and jumps fervently up and down. This is a cat in her element: she has total control.

I sense her beginning to lose interest, let the toy slack, and relax again. She’s fine. Her breathing sounds much easier now. My eyes un-focus and I see the pattern of leaves fluttering wildly in the morning breeze out the window. Should I stay up? I think I’d quite like to be back in bed now. But I’m up already. There’s an alarm in just 45 minutes — do I really want 45 more minutes in bed? I have to pick up the car rental at 9:30, so I could turn the alarm off, and maybe catch a couple hours…

What would I do if I did stay up? I could write. Or draw, or program something… a game? I could make some plans. But nothing I can do in an hour would be worth it, I remind myself. Nothing in the next hour would amount to anything.

Just then, an striking slash of light dings me in the corner of my eye through the window. What? What was that? What could possibly have lit up out there?

I begin moving my head all over, up, down, bouncing it left to right, trying to build a parallax view. Something twinkled like a blinding little star out there, and I need to know what it was… was it a firefly out there in October? That couldn’t b- there it is again! I swear that was just a point in space until it was a shining beam; what gives? It was gone as quick as it arrived.

I’m moving my head around furiously now — maybe there’s something being hidden by a leaf, I think. Some odd angle I can catch. It’s somewhere over our neighbour’s walk across the road, or maybe in front of their porch, if I can just see… yes, there it is again! I’ve pinpointed it at last: a little solar walkway light, like they have lining their entire porch. It shone one single striking stroke, and then went dark. I’m sitting rapt, absolutely focused on it. It can’t have been more than 10 seconds between the last few. DING! Like a camera, there it goes again! The whole chamber of the little lamp was illuminated brighter than a bulb in my own living room, bluish-white, like a tiny bolt of lightning. I wait another moment… ZING! There it is again! What an amazing little thing. Why is it doing this?

When will it strike next?

It’s gotta happen any second now…

But, the light stayed dark. Its compatriots were just quiet background figures, resting in relief against the porch. The dancing leaves took up the show as best they could, but no more flashes.

Sitting back, losing my air of attention, I decided: okay, I should go back to bed. The cat bounded up onto the windowsill, looking at a something only she can see out there — clearly absolutely thrilled. Maybe she sees her own magic lights. She’s breathing near silently now, seeming completely at ease. That cat is fine.

I could go back to bed, or I could try to write, or draw, or program… I could make plans. Nothing I can do in an hour would be worth it. Nothing in the next hour would amount to anything, I remind myself.

I stand up, and step across to the couch. Pulling the laptop off a side table, I sit back down and pull my warm wizard robe around my shoulders, making a small cave. The cat is suddenly quite interested, quickly over to me and nosing around the entrance. I add a blanket for padding on my lap, and she’s off to the races exploring in there, poking around (uncomfortably) and purring up a storm. I open up a text editor, and begin to write:

“I didn’t want to get out of bed.”

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