Cared for by a Faithful Feline

No cat lover, he was surprised when Tootsie saw him through a painful rehab.

- Posted on Jul 5, 2012

Lori's husband, John, and their cat Tootsie

I gripped the handles of my husband John’s wheelchair tight and maneuvered him through our front door. “Careful, watch the leg,” John murmured hazily, still out of it from the pain meds he’d been prescribed at the hospital.

“We’ll be careful, Daddy,” our seven-year-old daughter, Allison, said.

“Don’t worry,” I added. As if I’d done anything but worry since the car accident two weeks earlier that had shattered John’s left ankle. Frankly, I was worried sick.

He’d finally been cleared to go home, but the doctor ordered him to keep all weight off his leg for two months. He could only get around with a wheelchair and a walker.

I’m a high school teacher and I couldn’t be home during the day to help care for him. We couldn’t afford full-time nursing help. John’s mom was glad to come over to fix his lunch and make sure he did his grueling physical therapy exercises.

But I knew that she would need some help to cheer him up and distract him from the pain. I sent up a quick, silent prayer. Lord, I need some backup here. Allison and I wheeled John into the living room.

Sprawled out on our sectional sofa, taking up a whole cushion, was the oldest—and by far the largest—of our three cats, Tootsie, a black and white 12-year-old. Tootsie raised her head and yawned, barely deigning to glance at John in his wheelchair.

“Now, Tootsie, make room for Daddy,” I said. “He’s hurting and he’s going to be living out here while he gets better.” Tootsie put her head back down and closed her eyes. She didn’t budge.

I helped John out of the wheelchair. He hopped to the other end of the sectional, as far from Tootsie as possible.

Oh, boy, I thought. With John’s range limited to our living room and the guest room, he would have no way to avoid the bane of his existence—Queen Tootsie and her two subjects, Jade and Blue.

John knew what he was getting into when he married a “cat lady,” but just because he had to live with my felines didn’t mean that he had to like them.

Every time friends came over, he would say, only half-joking, “Are you sure I can’t talk you into taking Lori’s three sorry cats home with you? I’ll give you a good price for them—free!”

As far as John was concerned, Tootsie was the worst of our cat crew. Her robust figure (she outweighed the other two cats combined) and imperious attitude reminded me of a feline Mae West.

She sashayed around the house like she owned it. If Jade and Blue got in her way she’d knock them upside the head. She was cagey and fearless.

Once, a neighbor’s dog ventured too close to the screened-in porch where she was taking her ease, and Tootsie charged it, hissing until the poor dog turned tail and skedaddled. Maybe because she was so domineering, John complained about her the most.

Tootsie, of course, never took the slightest interest in him.

Not even now, with his left ankle in its walking boot encroaching on her territory. I rubbed Tootsie between her shoulder blades and whispered, “You be nice to John, okay?” And I sent up another SOS: Lord, you have got to make sure Tootsie behaves!

The rehabilitation therapist visited John the next day while I was away at school. I rushed home to find John slumped on the couch, the elastic bands for his ankle stretches lying on the floor. “How did the exercises go?” I asked.

“They hurt,” John grumbled. “And I could hardly concentrate with that cat just staring at me the whole time like I’m a goldfish swimming around in a bowl. What’s up with that?”

Tootsie looked at me innocently from her end of the sectional.

During the day, John went stir crazy—he felt like a goldfish in a bowl. His nights were even worse. I often heard the daybed in the guest room creaking as John shifted uncomfortably.

Even when he finally managed to drift off, he would wake in the middle of the night, in agony because the pain meds had worn off. I was in agony too. It killed me to think of my husband suffering so much. I would lie awake praying for his pain to be eased.

One night, I was watching television in the living room when John shuffled in with his walker like a toddler learning how to walk.

“Can’t sleep again,” he mumbled. He sat down on the other end of the sectional and groaned in pain. Just then, Tootsie stretched, yawned and waddled toward him.

Oh, no, Tootsie, I thought, panicked. Now’s not the time to claim your space. Just leave him alone…

Suddenly, Tootsie plopped down at John’s side, her long tail twitching. She nudged him gently. After a second he absentmindedly reached out and scratched underneath her chin. Tootsie purred. First softly, like a spring shower. Then it turned into the deep rumble of a waterfall.

“Thanks, girl,” John murmured, closing his eyes. His body seemed to relax. Tootsie curled closer, purring softly until they both fell into a deep sleep as I watched, amazed. Did you just do that, Lord?

The next morning I gathered my supplies for school and went to check on John. He was pulling himself upright in his walker, and Tootsie stood on the floor by his side. “Tootsie, make sure Daddy does his exercises,” I joked.

She rubbed up against John’s walking boot and meowed. I kissed John goodbye.

Day after day, it was the same routine. The last thing I would see before heading out was Tootsie right by John’s side.

“I appreciate the company, I guess,” John admitted one day. “At least I have an audience when I’m doing my stretches. She paces the room watching me. She must be counting. She’d probably pounce on me if I left an exercise out.”

“A real taskmaster,” I laughed. But inside I was bursting with relief.

Our little Allison was in disbelief. “Is this really happening?” she asked.

Then came the afternoon I found them on the sofa side by side, John stroking Tootsie’s fur. “Well, look at you two,” I said. “Aren’t you glad you didn’t give her away?”

John looked at me with a seriousness I didn’t expect. “I couldn’t sleep again last night. The worst time is always around two or three in the morning, when the pain meds wear off and before I can take my next dose. Tootsie was right next to me, like this. I actually started to talk to her. She rolled onto her back, I rubbed her tummy and she rumbled like a freight train. It took my mind completely off the pain.”

John paused to scratch Tootsie behind the ears. “Being cooped up inside all day is making me crazy. I don’t know, Lori, but it’s like Tootsie’s an anchor for me to hold onto. When I’m with her, I know I’m going to be okay. It’s the strangest thing. I thought I couldn’t stand this cat.”

I studied Tootsie as she lay snuggled up to John, purring. During John’s toughest moments, when I couldn’t be there, Tootsie was. Hadn’t I asked God for some backup? I just never expected it in the form of a big, bossy cat.

Then again, sometimes the best answers to prayer are the most unexpected ones.

When John took his first steps without the walker, Tootsie high-stepped next to him, her chest puffed out, beaming like a proud mama.

Soon, John was back to his old wisecracking self...well, not quite. He had a slightly different line when friends came over. “Will you take these two sorry cats of Lori’s home with you?” he’d ask with a smile. “You can’t have Tootsie—she’s all mine.”

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