Friday, October 24, 2008

Blood Sugar, Snacks, Magic: A Short Biography of Spalding, the Most Expensive Free Cat Ever

One Sunday morning this August, our daughter Lilah woke us just before dawn saying that she felt like she was going to “make barfies.” This had happened before: Lilah is a skinny five-year-old with minimal body-fat reserves, so if she doesn’t eat well at dinner, her blood sugar drops overnight and she wakes up feeling queasy. The bedtime snack prescribed by our pediatrician had mostly eliminated the problem, but somehow, we’d missed the snack the previous night.

I carried Lilah downstairs, hoping that some crackers, apple juice, and PBS Kids would fend off the barfies. As we passed the kitchen though, I noticed our 15-year-old cat Spalding lying motionless on the floor—not quite dead, but not far from it either.

Unfortunately, this had also happened before. Spalding is diabetic, and if he doesn’t eat enough after his insulin injection, his blood sugar plummets toward unconsciousness and death. This kind of cause-and-effect is hard to explain to a cat though, and Spalding has become finicky in his old age. On two occasions now he has obviously decided that he’d rather die than eat the specially-formulated diabetic yuck that I’ve put down for him.

The first time, I’d come home on my lunch hour to find Spalding lying on his side in the kitchen, unable to use his legs but still howling mournfully. Certain that he was a goner, I’d rushed him to the vet where they’d given him a blast of intravenous glucose. In fifteen minutes, he was back—really pissed-off, but fully functional. The vet said that he would’ve died within the hour.

But this second time, at 5:00 AM on a Sunday, our neighborhood vet’s office was closed. With my wife trying to get some sleep and Lilah battling the barfies, I just wasn’t prepared to haul Spalding to the 24-hour emergency clinic…not yet anyway. I decided that I’d try to coax Spalding back from the brink without professional assistance, and preferably without Lilah noticing what I was doing.

I will admit that money factored into my decision. We’d gotten Spalding as a “free” kitten from a local shelter, but in the nine years since his diabetes diagnosis, we’d spent roughly $15,000 on him. I also knew from experience that, once you enter the emergency clinic, there’s virtually no way to escape without giving them $500, a number that can rise to $2,000 in a blink.

Maybe you’re now wondering how anyone in his right mind could’ve spent $15,000 on a cat in the first place. Or maybe you’re even thinking that I’ve exaggerated the amount for dramatic effect. To that, I say simply: I wish. Each little bottle of insulin costs about $120, and we’ve gone through them every 25-30 days for the last 113 months. The sad truth is that if Spalding had been a non-diabetic cat, I could’ve sent him to UMass Boston (my alma mater) for a full year and still have some cash left for his books and a commuter rail pass (despite countless trips to the vet, Spalding has never adapted to car travel).

I really don’t think of myself as a crazy cat person though. If Spalding had needed a procedure that cost $15,000—or even $5,000—we would’ve said goodbye to him long ago. But feline diabetes isn’t all-or-nothing like that—it’s a medical disaster with a built-in payment plan. In giving us his diagnosis, our vet had told us specifically, “Diabetes in cats is very manageable. This is not something you put a cat down for.”

I’d actually been thinking that this seemed like precisely the kind of thing that you put a cat down for. Shots twice a day? The idea sounded about as plausible as shampooing Spalding in the sink every morning. But I was in no condition to argue with the vet—I just tried to comfort myself with the thought that, no matter how awful it seemed now, it would eventually end. Spalding’s condition sounded so precarious, I couldn’t imagine him hanging on for more than a few years.

As luck would have it though, Spalding is indestructible. I probably should’ve recognized this when, a year before becoming diabetic, Spalding snuck out of our house and disappeared for almost three weeks. We feared the worst—he’d always been an indoor cat and we lived near a very busy intersection—but somehow he survived his walkabout completely unscathed. At this point, Spalding has outlived not only his feline brother Theo, but also his human namesake, Spalding Gray, a truly sad turn of events that I never would’ve predicted.*

But anyway…

With Lilah settled in front of the TV, I prepared a fresh plate of cat food and held it under Spalding’s nose. He just meowed at me though, showing no interest in the food even when I tried lifting him up to get a better angle. Knowing that the food itself might be the problem, I also tried a saucer of milk, but with no better results. As I was doing all this, I kept looking back over my shoulder at Lilah, but she remained oblivious, lost in her TV fog.

Then I had a little flash: Apple juice. Apple juice is pure sugar.

It took me a minute to figure out how to get the juice into Spalding, but then I remembered that we had a stockpile of those little plastic squirt-syringes that come with infant medications. I filled one with apple juice, wedged it into Spalding’s mouth, and gave him a couple quick blasts. He definitely didn’t like it—he shook his head and tried to spit it out—but I knew he must’ve ingested it because there was no juice on the floor. So I kept going, giving him one dose after another, with Spalding getting progressively more and more irritated with me in the process.

What happened next was like something you’d see in a movie:

First I noticed that Spalding was moving his head around a little more, and soon after that, he started trying to prop himself up on his front legs. With his front end righted, he then started pushing up unsteadily with his hind legs. Once he had lifted himself completely off the floor, he started to walk, one wobbling step at a time, toward our coat rack about ten feet away.

I was so happy to see Spalding get up that I didn’t even think about where he was going or why. Once he reached the coat rack though, his purpose became clear: he wedged himself head-first into the shelter of its four-legged base and lay down there, safe from me and my infernal apple juice.

I have to say…I felt pretty darn good about myself, and after two “Dragon Tales” and a “Curious George,” Lilah seemed to have improved as well. She was hungry, so I got her another cup of the magical apple juice and a plain waffle. She ate everything and really seemed to be in much better spirits…right up until she barfed it all back up again.

Spalding was fine though. I’ve stopped trying to feed him the special diabetic food recommended by the vet. It might be better for him in some abstract sense, but I would argue that the supermarket stuff, which he wolfs down without hesitation, saves his life on a daily basis.

I do sometimes daydream about what we could’ve done with the money we’ve invested in Spalding, but part of me suspects that we would’ve just frittered it away, letting it fall between the proverbial couch cushions of our life. And although there are plenty of cool things that you can buy for $15,000—a month in Bhutan, fifty-thousand Twinkees, a 2007 Toyota Corolla with low miles—almost none of them will curl up beside you on the couch and purr while you’re writing. In fact, if somebody offered me $15,000 for Spalding today, I probably wouldn’t take it. (Though please…don’t let that stop you from trying.)

*Epilogue: The Two Spaldings

In 1993, when we first adopted our cats—one gray, one orange—we briefly considered naming them Vincent and Theo, after the brothers Van Gogh. And while we did like the name “Theo” for the orange one, we ultimately decided that “Vincent” wouldn’t do. As much as we appreciated Vincent’s work, it didn’t seem fair to name a kitten after someone who had suffered so much and ultimately killed himself.

For a day or two, we referred to the gray kitten as “Mr. Gray,” but that soon became “Spalding Gray,” in honor of the writer/actor/monologist, whom we’d recently seen perform in Cambridge. Like Van Gogh, Gray had battled depression, but there was no sign of it on stage—he was a hilarious, ecstatic force of nature in a flannel shirt and chinos. And somehow his name seemed to fit this new cat of ours, even if most people assumed that we’d named him after a company that manufactures basketballs.

Just over ten years later, the human Spalding Gray’s family reported him missing. His body was eventually found in New York’s East River, the speculation being that he’d jumped from the Staten Island Ferry. In reading about his disappearance, I learned that he’d been fighting severe depression in the aftermath of a debilitating 2001 car accident. I also learned that he now had a six-year-old son named Theo, who was the last person he’d spoken to.

Our Theo got sick in October of 2006. He’d always been an outgoing cat—the one who greeted visitors at the door, and who snuggled with Lilah every morning while she ate breakfast. But we arrived home late one Tuesday night to find that Theo had peed on the couch and then hidden himself away in the basement, a place where he normally spent little time.

I knew that this wasn’t a good sign, that animals often hide when they get sick. I hung out in the basement with Theo for a while that night, trying to get him to purr. He just tolerated my presence though, eventually walking away and settling down facing the other direction. I planned to take him to the vet the next day, but I also had a feeling that he wouldn’t last the night.

In the morning, I found Theo on the floor near the bottom of the basement stairs. I knew that he was dead, but I couldn’t help thinking how curiously relaxed he looked, lying on his side with his legs stretched out, as if luxuriating in the sun. As I squatted beside him, trying to figure out how I was going to tell Lilah that her breakfast buddy was gone, Spalding emerged from wherever he’d been sleeping. He brushed himself back and forth against my leg and then, stepping directly across Theo’s body, trotted blithely over to his food bowl.

I really didn’t know what to make of that. Spalding had lived with Theo for all of his 13 years, often sleeping side-by-side with him, but now Theo was apparently just an obstacle between Spalding and his breakfast. For a moment, I just sat and watched him eat.

I’ve chosen not to see Spalding’s behavior as callous, partly because doing so would call into question the whole idea of keeping pets in the first place. I prefer to see it as an instructive act—his demonstration that this lifeless body had little to do with the Theo we’d all known, the Theo who had left sometime in the night. I choose to think that Spalding understood exactly what had happened, and that he knew that Theo had been ready to go. Life continues, whether we enjoy it or not.


  1. Coincidences and differences. K and I also adopted a pair of kittens, a solid gray not unlike Spalding and his sister, a perfect orange tabby. They came into our lives in '88 and '89 respectively and were full siblings from successive litters.

    We named the gray kitten Vetch, borrowing the name from Ursula K. LeGuin and starting a long trend of using names from favorite literature. When we got his sister, we'd just seen a production of Much Ado About Nothing, so of course we named her Hero. Vetch was delighted to have a new playmate after weeks of being cooped up in my first apartment, a tiny studio.

    Over the next few years, Vetch would escape outside at any oportunity only to return a few hours or perhaps a day later. Sometimes he'd come home with the scratches or even punctures that indicated he'd gotten into a dispute with a neighboring feline. Hero, despite her name, was a less adventurous sort of cat.

    Then one evening we had some distant relatives visiting for dinner and a pie we baked for desert bubbled over onto the bottom of the oven, so we propped open a window to let the kitchen air out. Just as we were about to clear the dinner plates, we heard a noise from the kitchen and I ran to see Hero on the wrong side of the storm window that had fallen when she rubbed up against the spoon rest that I'd stupidly used as a prop. As I rushed to the window to open it, Hero backed away. Unfortunately, there was only a couple inches of brick for her to backup across. She did that thing that happens in movies and cartoons where her back end suddenly dropped, her eyes got huge and then she was holding on for a split second by her front paws as I was opening the window by the time I succeeded she'd fallen from a second story window to the grass below and taken off running into the night.

    She spent the next three weeks outside. I think I caught sight of her once and our friends next door put a little food out in a dish. Eventually we gave up and borrowed a Have-A-Heart trap and caught her. She never even thought about going outside again.

    Fast forward a few years and two dogs, and we see Vetch a shadow of his former glory still getting out from time to time, but tragically, this time he was moving too slowly and I didn't realize he was behind the car in the driveway. The details are hazy, but suffice to say, he was dead.

    Over the next week or two, with three adults in the house (my sister-in-law was living with us at the time) none of us realized that Hero wasn't eating. (We'd always fed them dry food, and let the cats eat as much as they wanted.) We took her to the vet and tried the specially formulated food the vet gave us to try to tempt her to eat, but it was fruitless. I'm convinced she missed her big brother too much.

  2. I remember Vetch and Hero, but I didn't know the whole story. Wow...that's crazy, especially the part about the spoon and the storm window.

  3. I'm so glad that you made the connection between Spalding Gray and son Theo. I am told that Theo thrives and when I met him, he was already used to giving autographs.

    Please let me know if I can link your blog under 'fan writings' on the site. It's a great story. Go to website, click on 'contact' - goes to me.

    webmaster for Estate of Spalding