Jeff is one of those accidental cats. He just kind of appeared on our little farm and decided we were his home. He was tiny, adorable, and the kids found him first… and named him Jeffery Albert Batman, Jeff for short. He wasn’t going anywhere.
Honestly, you can’t blame him. Warm barn, clean food and water, 3 kids to love on him, and a sap of a lady who instantly and intensely falls in love with any critter that lets her near it (it’s me, I’m the lady). He even made himself best friends with the family dog. My husband was “firm” that Jeff had to stay an outside cat and he did… mostly.
Jeff made himself very difficult to dislike. He loves anyone who offers a glance his way, tolerates toddler attention like a daycare teacher, and simply has one of those personalities that even makes people who hate cats, love Jeff. He even likes the vet, seriously. Jeff eagerly awaits our mailman every day just for a chance at extra tummy rubs.
Even though Jeff was technically our “barn cat”, he quickly became a “barn cat with benefits”. Jeff enjoyed his days snuggled inside on the couch and his evenings doing whatever he pleased around the farm. He even developed an affinity for cheese sticks that is unrivaled in our home.
Now, please don’t mistake any of this for indicating that Jeff was a good barn cat. We have all watched mice run right past him (over his tail once) with Jeff awkwardly stumble in a lame attempt at looking as if he had any idea what he was doing. When he did hunt, he was so uncoordinated that he would almost never catch his intended target and would instead start “hunting” caterpillars or leaves… you know… easy prey. Jeff frequently would fall from heights with no explanation, tumble down stairs, or begin a somersault routine at the end of a fast run. We just accepted that Jeff was a little different and accepted him as part of our family.
Jeff developed a special relationship with our children very quickly, especially our son. Our son was 5 years old when Jeff showed up and the bond was instant. It simply became expected to see a little black extra shadow chasing behind my son during playtime on the farm or found a little black bundle curled up under the covers with my son at bedtime.
Life was going pretty great for Jeff. Then, this summer Jeff had a medical emergency. It was a Saturday afternoon and my husband and kids were outside enjoying the day, while I was working as a nurse at a local hospital. My husband and children described hearing a loud banging sound on the porch. When they went to investigate, they saw Jeff in convulsions, specifically banging his head on the porch with significant force. My husband tried to reach Jeff to help, but Jeff was aware and terrified of what was happening to him. He jumped off the porch and began to attempt to run… likely trying to outrun whatever internal event was causing his pain. His back legs were weak and he showed a lack of control over the left side of his body. Before my husband could get to him, he ran into a mature cornfield next to our home. Hours of searching turned up nothing.
When I arrived home, my kids (especially my son) were heartbroken. We continued searching but my husband and I had to change the conversation to preparing our children that Jeff may never come home. I sat on the porch with my son and explained that whatever happened to Jeff seemed to be a neurological condition. We talked about strokes and seizures and how Jeff had always showed signs that something was different about how his body functioned. My son’s eyes were full of tears and he described feeling as if his heart was “tearing inside”.
My heart broke for my son. I had held it together rather well up until this moment, but hearing my son describe heartbreak at the tender age of 7 pushed me over that emotional ledge. I tearfully attempted to console my son.
After all of our kids went to bed and fell asleep, my husband and I did another unsuccessful search through the field. I knew the pain my children were feeling but I had not realized the pain our other animals, a cat Frankie and dog Oakley, were experiencing. As we searched and called for Jeff, Frankie followed shortly behind meowing her own searching call and Oakley was trailing behind her. Once it was dark, we made sure food and water was available and kept on all the outdoor lights in hopes that Jeff would make his way home during the night.
Sunday morning I woke up early in hopes of finding Jeff waiting to be let in the house. My heart sank when the porch was empty. I left for work believing that Jeff’s lack of return had sealed his fate.
Imagine my surprise when I came home that afternoon and my young daughter met me at my van saying that my son had found Jeff. My family had been out in a field and heard faint crying. When they investigated they discovered our Jeff tucked into some long grass. She was initially excited but changed her tone quickly. Her eyes filled with tears and she told me that Jeff was not ok. Her big eyes looked deeply into mine and she begged me to help him. The heart of a 5 year old girl is a delicate thing, and I was watching her heart break through those glassy eyes. I picked her up, offered what comfort I could, and told her that we would try.
I walked into our home and found my son cradling Jeff, while calmly trying to soothe a very frightened kitty. Jeff’s eyes were rapidly and involuntarily moving back and forward, he was unable to hold his head still, he lacked control over his muscles, and was lashing out at my 7-year old son. I reached to take Jeff from my son but my son tightened his grip on his friend. My son’s face was stoic but his eyes were sad. He clutched Jeff close to his chest and laid out a list of requirements more me before he would allow me to take Jeff. First, our family had to do everything we could to help Jeff. Second, we needed to call the vet. Third, if Jeff is only in pain and cannot get better, then we have to put him down. He said that he loves Jeff, and only wanted what was best for him.
I was astonished by the maturity of the demands being made by my 7 year old son. Of course, I agreed. Now, this was a Sunday evening and our location does not have an emergency veterinary clinic. The on-call vet for the area worked for a facility far away and had never worked with our family before. He suggested supportive means only, if not simply putting Jeff down on the farm. I thanked him for his advice and ended the call. As a nurse, I knew a few basics but I’m by no means a veterinarian.
Jeff was dehydrated but unable to drink due to his dizziness and lack of coordination. I used a suction bulb to provide him with water and spoon fed him some soft foods. He was filthy so he got a bath… that sure made him pur considering how much he pretended to hate it. Having a farm, we also have the advantage of having supplies and medications around. Jeff was given what we had for infection, parasites, and pain… basically covering our bases.
Jeff was then wrapped in a towel and promptly cuddled on the couch by my 3 kids. He spent that evening being doted on by our family and didn’t seem to mind one bit. Jeff continues to be dizzy and uncoordinated but he also gave off an overwhelming sense of relief.
As the days went on, Jeff improved slowly. His rapid eye movements slowed then stopped. He was able to walk short distances without tripping or falling, and he was eating and drinking by himself. However, with his recovery also came the realization of his new deficits. Jeff had suffered some form of brain damage during the medical event. His vision is compromised and he has no vision in the dark. If you turn off a light on the poor guy, you’re going to hear about it. His sense of direction is very poor and he has a hard time navigating the farm that was once his kingdom. Luckily his hearing is intact and as long as we keep calling, he keeps moving in the right direction. Jeff also seems to “go blank” at different periods throughout the day. We will find him staring at a wall and he will need someone to redirect him before he comes out of it. Jeff also has some left-sided weakness. His head tilts to the left and making left turns has become so difficult for him that he had adopted making large right circular turns instead. His neck strength is compromised and goes head falls back or flops at some of the most inconvenient times for a cat that wants so desperately to be at least a little sneaky.
Jeff’s uniqueness and quirkiness also seemed to expand. Due to his muscle weakness, his comfort positions became increasingly… unconventional. He also seemed to realize that he was more dependent on his people and started “speaking up” when he needed assistance. Our family adopted a routine of keeping a careful eye on Jeff and assisting him as much as he needs. My kids took the lead with this. Jeff prefers the bathroom habits of a dog over a cat and wants to go outside frequently. My children took turns bringing him outside, helping him up and down stairs, and providing extra patience when Jeff would forget exactly what he was supposed to be doing.
Jeff does not need to want for anything. He is snuck treats regularly (one time a 1/2 pound of very expensive roast beef), given constant attention, and if he meows… someone comes running. He’s less adventurous now. The back porch is about as far as he’ll go outside and even then he’s sleeping in his favorite rocking chair.
As a family, we realize that we likely do not have as long of a time with Jeff as we are going to want. But Jeff has provided my family with the gift of teaching empathy to the young hearts of my 3 young children. Witnessing how their world views have been changed and how they have gained an emotional maturity through their experiences with Jeff has been a blessing. For now, we’ll give him all the love… and cheese sticks he wants.