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An Injured Cat And Lessons Of Love

I saw Luna take off, but I didn't see her land a fraction of a second later. I didn't need to; I heard the scream that came from her when she hit the hardwood floor.
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I saw Luna take off, but I didn't see her land a fraction of a second later. I didn't need to; I heard the scream that came from her when she hit the hardwood floor.

She scrambled away somehow, and I ran after her, hoping she was more scared than hurt. It certainly was blind fear that launched her from the low bookcase where she'd been drowsing in a sunbeam, a happy practice she developed soon after I adopted her as a rescue kitten seven years ago.

But when a workman on a ladder just outside the sunroom window suddenly started hammering on some loose siding, Luna leaped as if electrified. She came down hard and, in her panic, very badly off kilter.

I found her in the living room with the fur on her back and tail sticking straight out, as happens to scared cats. I spoke calmly, quietly, reaching out and smoothing down her puffed up coat.

Then I saw her right rear leg sticking out from beneath her body at an unnatural angle. She was trembling and moaned at my touch. She was hurting.

At our local veterinarian's office scant minutes later, Luna let the techs get only one X-ray, enough to confirm at least five fractures of her tibia and at least one more of her fibula, the two bones of the lower leg. One of the operating vets pointed at the image and said an injury this serious would require highly specialized treatment. He referred us to a clinic in west St. Louis County and called ahead to alert them we were coming.

Thus began a journey I never expected to be taking, one that's now more than six weeks old and very much ongoing. I'm learning things about Luna, an idiosyncratic, funny and irresistible kitty who really has known no other family but me. I'm also learning things about myself -- some good, some not so good.

And even though I've had and loved pets all my life -- dogs growing up, cats since college -- my appreciation for the relationship between humans and these distinctive nonhuman living beings has been growing deeper, more intense, more personal, as Luna and I -- Luna most of all, obviously -- slog through this unexpected challenge together.

At the specialists' clinic, a solidly booked operating schedule delayed Luna's surgery for two days. I came during visiting hours on the waiting day and was taken to a bright and busy intensive care unit. Luna was in the upper cage in a stack of two at one end of an L-shaped array.

One of the technicians opened the cage door for me and stepped away. Luna was lying on her side, dazed. Her broken leg was wrapped in a stiff bandage over a splint. An IV medication drip kept the pain at bay and made her fuzzy.

I leaned into the cage and began talking softly and stroking her. The tech said she was surprised to see Luna responding to my sound and touch through the fog of the drugs.

I stood there for about an hour, reassuring Luna that she was a good girl, that she would feel better, that I was sorry. I've repeated those assurances to her a lot over these many roller-coaster weeks.

In a complicated operation the next day, a surgical team pulled her broken tibia together under a curved metal plate anchored to the bone with screws.

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Luna came home a day later, her repaired leg bandaged in pink and looking like the drumstick of a chicken that had been stuffed with growth hormones. Post-op instructions required that we confine her in a space where she couldn't slip or fall and injure herself again. We converted a room into a kind of recovery ward. At the center was a table holding a large two-door dog-training crate - just a cage, really - with a memory-foam sleeping pad, a small litter box, bowls of food and water, and some of our clothes for scent. We took her out of the cage, extremely delicately, only under close supervision.

I predicted with worry and dismay that Luna would never eat, drink, pee or poop in the cage. I couldn't see how she'd possibly get through the two weeks until her stitches would be removed and her bandage changed at the clinic.

Luna proved me wrong, as she has again and again since. After a couple of messy days of adjustment, she was performing all her basic functions in the crate. It's hard to describe the joy a person can feel being awakened at three in the morning by the sound of a hurt kitty crunching on bits of food and pawing into her litter before making a deposit.

I feared disaster again when we returned to the clinic after two weeks to have Luna's stiches removed and her bandage redone. Something surely had gone wrong.

Something had. After she was examined and X-rayed, her surgeon told us the upper part of her tibia had been riddled with too many micro-fractures to secure the screws trying to hold her bone together as healiing got under way. Luna had a second, simpler surgery the next day.

When she returned home, she had a soft "Elizabethan" collar around her neck and one fewer leg. She faced another two weeks in the cage while the amputation healed. The collar would keep her from licking the incision site.

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My fears this time were that the collar also would keep her from eating or drinking and compromise her limited mobility so much that she couldn't pee and poop in her litter box. The two weeks, however, passed without significant incident.

Since then, the incision has healed. The collar is gone. Luna continues matter-of-factly adapting to three-legged life, redistributing her weight and finding her balance and movement a little better each day. Sometimes her efforts succeed, sometimes not.

Luna has surprised me with more resilience and determination than I believed she had. Her crisis also forced me to confront a truth about myself: I seem to fear the worst in uncertain situations, which creates an atmosphere of defeatist gloom around me. I need to work on that.

I adore Luna more than ever. I talk to her as I always have -- asking what's she's doing, reminding her she's a good girl, wondering if she's hungry, if she's a crazy cat, if I can kiss her belly without my face being clawed off. No baby talk, thank you very much; just short sentences and an affectionate tone.

Luna adores me right back, insisting on close contact, face-rubbing and kneading against my skin to make us both feel better, and a lot of lap-sitting, even when it's enormously inconvenient. Like when I'm trying to write a column. Like right this very second.

I still tell her I'm sorry, though for what I'm not exactly sure. Intellectually, I know that I didn't cause her injury and couldn't have prevented it. I know her excess weight likely made the damage more severe and also complicates her recovery, but I've always measured her food and limited her daily calorie count.

Emotionally, it still feels as though I failed her, failed to keep her healthy, happy and safe, a fundamental responsibility every human owes, it seems to me, to the animals we bring into our lives.

I happily accepted that responsibility when I adopted Luna, and enduring this crisis is strengthening the love and devotion between us. That surely is the only thing connected with her injury that I'm grateful for.