Cats, Cancer and the Kindness of a Stranger


No Ordinary Trip

This past June I drove a van packed with teenagers up north, to a lake resort we have enjoyed for years—Northern Pine Lodge on Potato Lake, in Park Rapids, Minnesota. It is about a 4-hour drive from the Twin Cities under normal circumstances. This trip was not “normal circumstances.”

I had all three of my sons, plus three of their friends.  This was the first time in over five years that my oldest son, Lee, 18 years old, came along.  His special needs had evolved to where he no longer enjoyed leaving home very much or being outside in nature. Most recently, he did not want to leave our 3 beloved cats—especially his handsome tuxedo cat Norman Ruffles.

Norman will snap at those who pet him “unmindfully”  (meaning without laser focus on Norman’s head and ears, and absolutely no looking away or thinking about anything other than how awesome his silky head is). Yet Norman spoons with our son all night, his head tucked under Lee’s chin, and one soft white paw over Lee’s arm. He also allows only Lee to carry him around and gives Lee lots of “leeway” as we call it.

Lee agreed to go to the cabin for just 3 days. He was lured by the offer to make some money helping to cook for the crowd (he is an excellent self-taught gourmet cook) and by our agreeing he could learn to drive on the quiet country roads with his new driving permit. The night before we left, he insisted the cats needed a large automatic feeder and water supply system he saw at the pet store. Though this item was clearly intended for huge dogs or perhaps small elephants, and Lee planned to go home with his dad in three days, we made these provisions for his peace of mind. We have learned over the years that these investments are well worth it.

This year, in addition to sunscreen and bug spray, I packed chemotherapy pills. I had a great deal of metastatic breast cancer throughout my bones, spine and skull. Last year, tumors appeared in my head, which caused me to miss this trip. Despite 30 days of targeted radiation, they continued their slow growth. A brain MRI was scheduled three days after our return and we all hoped the chemo would shrink the brain tumors.

I drove carefully with my precious cargo and let go of any thoughts of what lay ahead of me. Having my three boys together, maybe for the last time like this, was something I treasured. I was truly happy that sunny morning as we headed north on Highway 94.

Large Crisis at Little Falls

We made it about halfway to the resort before my idyllic vacation picture fell to pieces.

Lee found a wonderful lunch spot for us in Little Falls, using his iPhone. His dad, following in a separate car so he could bring Lee home in three days, took a different exit and we got separated. I knew his dad would be at the restaurant in less than 15 minutes, but Lee spun out into some anxiety, apparently triggered by the fact we got separated.

As we entered the restaurant, I was hopeful we could salvage an enjoyable lunch.  The Black and White Cafe had an amazing gourmet menu for a small town, and I pointed out a cute table for 8 in a sunny spot, where we could all sit on trendy counter-height chairs. It seemed custom made for us.  But Lee insisted upon a table in the dark and chilly back room where no one else was sitting.

Lee’s anxiety came out as anger directed at me. He said he wasn’t hungry and laid his head on the table. My heart went out to him. I knew he was stressed, but truthfully, I wanted him to snap out of this quickly so we could have the delicious lunch and fun trip I imagined.

We all tried to soothe, distract, and even ignore him. Nothing worked. So we ordered without him.  I was sad because I saw so many creative items on the menu which he would have loved. He chanted, “I miss Norman. I want to go home. I miss Norman.”

I whispered, ”Everything will be ok. Dad is on his way.”
Lee got louder.

“I miss my cats. I want Norman!”

I resorted to platitudes. “This too will pass, Lee.”

The other teens stopped talking altogether and ate silently, looking as though they were at a funeral. All the fun and joy drained away.

My stomach clenched and wouldn’t let go.

I remembered a dharma talk I heard from Ajahn Sucitto, a leading Western Buddhist monk.  He explained how difficult silent retreats are for some people. At a recent retreat, during their first daily one-to-one meeting, a middle-aged woman told him she couldn’t do it. It was too hard. She said she had to leave.  He listened, nodding with compassion and understanding. He agreed with her. Yes, she could go, and that would be ok.

The next day she returned for their daily meeting, saying she needed to leave, it was too difficult, she had to go. Again he agreed with her, understood, nodded acceptance.  Yes, she could go. It was ok. This went on every single day for the duration of the retreat.  She stayed for the whole thing.

I knew I needed to get to what was happening right in front of me, instead of what I wanted this story to be. Following  Ajahn Sucitto’s lead, I plunged in.

Speaking to the top of his head across the table, I said,

“Yes, Lee, you can go home, it’s ok. Dad can turn around right now and take you back, no problem. He won’t mind. Or at any time you need to go home. It’s really ok.”

I felt something shift inside of me. At first I was just mouthing the words, noticing I was still resisting the possibility that he might take me up on this, choose to leave and ruin my dream. By the time I finished, I meant every word.  Aligned with reality, I found freedom from all that stress. It really was ok if he needed to go home.

When we left the restaurant, Lee said, ”I’ll keep going, if I can hug a cat. There’s an animal rescue shelter right outside Park Rapids and if we go there first, I don’t need to go home. The shelter is open until 5:00. We can make it there by 4:00.”

The other teens would have preferred getting right to the cabin but they were all very understanding and supportive. We took off for Headwaters Animal Rescue Shelter.

Lee directed me with his iPhone, but when I arrived at the address at 4 pm there was only a field of horses. We all agreed they did not look like rescue animals.  Then the other teens joined in with their smart phones, reading from Google Maps and Mapquest. Same result.  I drove around and around, always ending up at the horse ranch.  It was now 4:40.  I was losing hope and chemo fatigue was setting in.

Lee said, “It’s ok, I can wait until Monday” in the voice that means “It’s not going to be ok.”

Just then two teenaged girls walked down the country road.  I asked if they had any idea where it was. We were close enough for them to point to it, just down the dirt road ahead that wasn’t on Google maps.

Headwaters Rescue to the Rescue

We pulled into the parking lot, and I saw just one small pick-up truck parked there. The one-story building had its lights on. As I pulled closer, though, we saw a handwritten sign taped on the door:

CLOSED TODAY for special event

I was crushed.

Lee got out anyway. So did the others. Why, I do not know. Maybe they thought we could peek in and at least see a cat in a cage. Could that be enough?

Ben, one of Lee’s younger brothers who is a dancer, vaulted gracefully over the rail fence surrounding the building’s porch, arrived at the door first, and pulled on the door handle.

It opened! He went right in, the rest of the teens following. I tiptoed in behind. A woman came out from a back room and said, “Sorry, we’re closed.”

Lee was already moving towards their “cat colony” like a nail to a giant magnet. Dozens of cats, no cages, with cat bunk beds and gigantic scratching posts and climbing structures that reach to the ceiling were in plain view behind the glass doors.  Lee does not wait for permission like I do. In he went.

Tears streamed from my eyes as I asked if my son could just hug a cat and then we would be on our way. I knew that sounded weird, so I told her a bit more of the story.

The other teens were pressing their faces against the glass, dying to get in there too.

“It’s fine,” she said, they can all go in. But just for a few minutes, though, because I have to get to an event for the shelter.”

Lee sat on the floor, hugging an all-black cat, rubbing his face in its fur. The others waved furiously for me to come in too.

“Are we taking too long?  Is it okay if I go in too?” I asked.

“Go right ahead.”

Before I went in I wrote out a donation check to Headwaters Rescue, folded it over and handed it to her. Tears started again, this time I think because of her unexpected kindness.

I blurted, “I have stage four cancer. I’m trying to do everything, trying to keep him on the trip and trying to make happy memories for all of them. I can’t thank you enough. I’ll never forget you. What’s your name?”

“Mary,” she said.

She said, “You’re lucky I was so slow getting out of here. I’m on my way to a shelter fundraising event.  You’re our first donor. Thank you.”

Lee suddenly appeared at my side and opened his wallet. He took out two twenty dollar bills and handed them to Mary.

“Sweetheart,” I said, “I made a nice donation. You can save your vacation money.”

“The sign says they need large bags of cat food. I want to help feed the cats. Here.”

When I entered the colony, each teen called to me, wanting me to meet “their cat.” One by one, I made the rounds.

When I got to Lee, he told me that when he was sitting on the floor holding the black cat, a gray one tapped him on the back. When he turned around, the gray cat quickly looked away, as if completely disinterested. This went on and on. I laughed through my tears. It is so like Lee to do things like that to us.

Was this whole thing a miracle? Or the perseverance of a young man who can conjure up exactly what he needs to survive new experiences? The transformational power of kindness in action?

Despite the place not being on google maps, an exhausted mother, six impatient teens, and the place being “Closed,” Lee found not just one cat to hug, but dozens.

As we drove the last mile to the cabin, everyone talked excitedly about the cats they hugged and petted, and which ones they would like to adopt. It turned out to be one of the best memories of our vacation. Lee stayed the whole week.

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