The first part of the story of my two Russian Blues. At the end we were moving to the Philippines to retire with two long-time friends.
In the evening of June 7, 2007, I arrived at the airport in Manila, a nervous wreck from three months worrying about how my cats would take the trip. At the baggage claim I retrieved my suitcase, loaded it on a cart and waited for the cats to come through in their carriers. One look told me they were fine. I couldn’t believe it.
Then I ran around looking for change to pay a small customs fee for “in porting” my cats. First cultural observation: cashiers do not keep an adequate supply of change.
Mary was waiting outside the airport in the taxi which took us to our house in an upper middle-class subdivision in Quezon City.
My stuff arrived two weeks later. Second observation: while in Korea appearance is everything, this is not the case in the Philippines. In Korea the moving company truck had its orange and black logo on the side, and the men jumping out of the back wore shirts with the same logo. The supervisor arrived in his own car wearing a white shirt and carrying a clipboard. Immediately the air was filled with the sound of five rolls of tape running down the edges of orange and black cardboard shipping crates. The neighbors came out to watch. But in the Philippines the truck was a battered blue vehicle without logo, the movers were in tee-shirts, jeans and flip-flops, and I in my antiwar tee-shirt was given charge of the clipboard.
Mary and I had agreed that she and her husband Walter would take the master bedroom and the office and I would take the two other bedrooms—the nicer one as my study—and the bathroom in-between. There was also a large living room, dining room and kitchen, while outside was a paved courtyard with some plants along the wall, a garage with a driver’s room above, a bathroom for the help, and a “dirty kitchen” with outdoor grill, laundry-kitchen area, and miserable-looking maid’s room. Culture note: differences in employees’ status are clearly marked in their living quarters by distinctions like having or not having a window.
Raku did not adjust well to his surroundings. He seemed to be in a constant search for the door that would take him back to Korea. He was so terrified of the ceiling fan in the kitchen that he’d creep along the floor on his belly and then hiss at his sister for not being afraid of it. He hissed at her all the time, particularly when she was getting attention from the humans. He was so crabby that I called a vet, thinking there might be an underlying physical problem. The vet came and said, “He’s just hot. Keep him in the air-con.”
In July I took off for a two-week writers’ conference in Thailand. When I returned Mary said Sasha hadn’t been out of my three rooms the entire time I was gone. She was so eager to see me that when I was taking a nap she threw herself at my head over and over. (Russian Blues are head-butting cats, not nose-rubbing cats like Yani.) Since the cats were no longer frisky kittens, at night the three of us cuddled together, each in a particular spot on the double bed.
We all settled into our routines: Mary had her graduate studies at the University of the Philippines, I had editing work send down from Korea and my novel manuscript. In addition to shopping, cooking and cleaning, our new housekeeper, Fe, looked after Walter until his death the following year. He was a good man who’d lived a good life for almost 87 years.
Another year passed. On September 26, 2009, Typhoon Ondoy hit the Philippines. (Link) (Link) We had a little over an hour for the mad scramble to get Mary’s research off the floor, the computer components up high and important documents in a backpack. I was unable to find my camera bag, which held four cameras and attachments. In my very modest swimsuit, I forced both cats into one carrier, called to Mary and headed for the gate.
Outside, a group of subdivision guards and trike drivers were raising the alarm and helping residents escape. One put the cat carrier on a mini-sized surfboard. Another put my backpack of documents on his head. On me the water was between waist and chest height. I called repeatedly to Mary, but she didn’t hear me over the rushing flood water. Eventually she emerged with several plastic bags of necessities.
The road outside the subdivision gate was higher. We were standing around, I was trying to work out how we could get to a hotel, and a woman from across the street spotted me in my bathing suit and sent a maid over to ask what was going on. Would we like to shelter in their house for a while? We agreed. Inside we were given dinner and house dresses to change into.
During our escape the cats had been as quiet as church mice, but now Raku began to growl, and I discovered they were lying in an inch of water. I was allowed to put them into the maids’ bathroom off the kitchen, take them out of the carrier and dry them off with a towel. One of the maids was surprised that I was holding Sasha to my shoulder as she would hold a baby.
We were all traumatized. My voice was too loud, but I couldn’t control it. From time to time I’d shake all over. We booked into a residence for rich university students which didn’t usually accept pets, but it must have been clear, as I stood there in my bathing suit and the flip-flops someone had given me, that otherwise I would take the cats and go back out into the dead of night. In our room the cats hid under the beds for three weeks.
At the convenience store next door, we watched news coverage. I remember particularly a young couple walking through the flood water with their baby floating beside them in a plastic basin. They seemed to have no belongings. What for many people was a tragedy repeated over and over was for us simply an inconvenience, if a major one.
The next day Fe and Jessie moved into our driver’s room and started the cleaning up and moving process, which took five weeks. The flood mud was a dark mixture of water and sewage. It stank. In the house the built-in cabinets, made of wood pulp, collapsed along with some of my furniture. We had to assume that the mattresses and overstuffed furniture were dangerous because of bacteria from the flood mud. I also had to discard half of my books, boxes of photos and my cameras. We took anti-bacterial tablets, and I brought the cats to a vet for shots. Culture notes: I’m sure someone appropriated our discarded stuff, even if it made them sick. Also, as Filipinos Fe and Jessie were used to floods, so they knew to clean the mud-soaked appliances, let them dry out for three weeks and then turn them back on.
A friend of Mary’s found us a place to live which neither of us would have accepted had we not been traumatized. It was expensive, ugly and filled with the junk left there by the previous tenant, a Korean NGO. The landlady was a rich, at-shit-crazy hoarder who kept her junk not in her own house, but in those she rented out. There was no place where the cats could look out, only louvered windows made of slats of milk glass which also did not keep out the pollution from a nearby highway.
We’d brought with us from the old house a stray cat with a sweet personality. Fe was particularly fond of her. We called her Minou, French for “kitten.”
Two large American families lived on either side of the house. They were fundamentalist Christians who banged out hymns on the piano and refused to speak to me. One day I spotted one of the little boys and his friends throwing rocks at Minou as she tried to get away from them. I stopped it, and then I told Fe, who said she’d talk to the boy’s father. She knew I was far too angry.
Within a couple of months Mary decided to go back to her children in the States. I stayed on until the end of the lease and then found a townhouse in our third Quezon City subdivision.
Just off my study there was a balcony with a roof but an outside wall only about waist high. A few feet away was a large tree often populated with birds. Very early one morning I heard a piercing shriek followed by loud wailing. Fortunately, directly below was an awning which served as a roof over the garage. I imagine shy little Sasha was reaching for a bird, lost her footing and fell, frightened but unhurt, onto the awning. I woke up Fe and Jessie. He climbed up the awning and returned Sasha to my arms. After that a craftsman made a grill to fit between the wall and the roof, and the cats spent many peaceful hours out there.
Raku was sick twice. Once he developed a liver problem which I blamed on the Whiskas canned food I was giving the cats, not as their main food, but just as a treat at night. It was too fatty. He lost so much weight all his fur was standing on end—so, pills and diet.
At the time I was unable to give him pills by myself, so every morning I’d take him to the clinic about fifteen minutes away by taxi, and there the expert pill-popper did it free of charge.
Another time we discovered that he was passing blood in the bathroom sink and shower. The poor cat was looking for a place where pissing wouldn’t hurt. At first the vet thought it was a urinary tract infection. When it didn’t clear up he did a sonogram and discovered a stone the size of a dime. Raku had surgery and recovered nicely.
Minou was now having trouble walking a straight line. She swayed back and forth, sometimes falling. The vet said nothing could be done, it was probably an old back injury. I wondered whether it came from being hit with rocks.
Then a friend returned from the States and asked me to take the Siamese kitten which her husband and daughter were desperately allergic to. I agreed to give it a try.
Now, Minou, who for two or three years had been the outsider cat, the one at the bottom of the hierarchy, not allowed to sleep with us after she picked a fight with Raku in my bed. She took exception to the arrival of a newcomer. I kept the kitten, now called Koki, separate in the maid’s room when Fe was at her own home, but Minou’s hissing and scratching on the door didn’t subside. Finally, Fe and Jessie volunteered to take Minou so I could keep Koki. A few months later they told me that she’d died and Jessie had buried her in their back yard.
I’d been giving the cats a rather expensive prophylactic medication which was applied to the back of the neck to avoid problems with pets. In Korea they got it once a month. In the cost-conscious Philippines I was told every three months. I think I miscalculated by a month. Sasha got ear mites, scratched at her left ear, and raised a blood blister which the vet said required surgery.
I’d just changed vets after a friend looked at the card on the refrigerator door and asked me why I was going to the most expensive clinic in the country. I should try his. The new vet did warn that Sasha’s surgery might give her a “cauliflower ear.”
About this time I decided to move out of the heat, pollution and traffic of Manila to a tourist town on a volcanic mountain. Tagaytay was cooler, cleaner, cheaper, and had lovely views of the volcanic lake. I imagined myself taking long walks and enjoying the scenery. That did happen, but not as often as I’d thought.
Again there was the vet problem. By chance I discovered that the first one had charged me three times as much as usual to change Sasha’s bandage every day, I told him off. “when taxi drivers or vegetable venders in the market overcharge foreigners it’s totally different than when people in positions of trust, like health care professionals….”
Later I apologized, but I also moved on, tried a couple of clinics and settled on a man recommended by the friendly French woman who owned a pet supplies shop.
The new vet gave the cats their shots and anti-pest medication, but it wasn’t until I asked why Sasha had gotten so skinny that it occurred to him she might have kidney disease, which is common in older cats. They would turn sixteen in February, the equivalent of eighty-one in human age. So Raku and Sasha both had the blood test, and sure enough.
I had lots of practice learning how to give pills to cats. I’d force the jaws open with thumb and middle finger, pop a pill in the mouth, hold the mouth shut and stroke the throat until the cat swallowed. Effective, but also a good way to erode trust.
We had five good years in Tagaytay. The only conflict with the cats had to do with sneaking outside. This time the lovely front lawn Jessie worked so hard on and the quiet neighborhood were too tempting. Koki would just find a spot under a bush where he could lie on the bare earth, but Raku would take off exploring. For a while I’d freak out when I was out looking for Raku in the middle of the night, thinking of course of Yani and how I lost him. Finally I told myself that rural little Tagaytay was not Seoul and he’d come back when he was hungry.
Then the time came when he didn’t. I was beside myself for over three days. Then I looked out and saw him in the yard next door, where the neighbor was feeding him.
“Oh, is this your cat?”
That’s the kind of cat he was: friendly, trusting, quite willing to be picked up and petted or taken home and fed, which also happened later in the next subdivision. Again I made reward posters. This time my trike driver spotted him in the arms of a girl who was taking him home with her.
Then on January 12, 2020, the volcano erupted. (Link) Our house was about eight kilometers from the volcano, and the danger zone was inside fourteen kilometers. There was a lot of volcanic ash, which is full of silica and not good on the lungs. It’s actually worse with small lungs—like cats’—because the particles are comparatively larger. There was also the danger of earthquake and the seismic activity weakening the crater walls. I didn’t want to live with the anxiety of feeling a cat jump on the bed and wondering whether it was another eruption.
Fe and I disagreed on whether we should get out of there, but I insisted, so within two days we were on our greatly overpriced ride to Manila. I stayed in a friend’s condo, and the cats went to a place owned by Jessie’s relatives. By now Fe had plenty of experience moving, and as usual she did not want my help. On the internet she found a three-bedroom house in Antipolo—just one—and we went for a look. It was on the top of a very steep hill. I explained to the new landlady that I’d been through a flood and a volcano, and I needed to know about fault lines. No earthquakes? The greenery was far too lush for forest fires. I still ensed disaster was coming.
In the new house the cats rarely snuggled in bed with me. Someone, probably Koki, had made a couple of statements by shitting and pissing on my bed. Was this because he had to sleep in the cat bed on the chest of drawers? So this time the cat door did not go into my bedroom door.
The Russians hung out downstairs on the kitchen floor or in the living room under the large coffee table. In a couple of months Raku was very lethargic and had lost half or more of his body weight.
Then suddenly we were in total lockdown. No moving around without a quarantine pass around your neck, no public transportation. I had found a trike driver who now shopped for me at the supermarket and drug store. Otherwise I was alone because Fe and Jessie were stuck in Manila, even separated from each other.
I was afraid my favorite cat was going to die. What would I do then, try to bury him in the narrow strip of land inside the fence? Finally, on the internet I found two veterinary clinics that were open part-time. The vet I called volunteered to come over with pills for the kidney condition and special food.
Normally I wear a mask, but this time I ran down the hill to the subdivision gate and was balled out by the guards, the housing association president and the vet. When the vet was allowed inside the subdivision gate, I offered to ride in the back of his SUV in order to give him some distance from my unmasked face. He said he didn’t want people to think he was my driver. Another cultural note: many Filipinos who have money insist on whatever distinguishes them from the people who don’t
Inside, he examined Raku, chastised me severely for not knowing he had a hernia—I’m not a vet and not in the habit of picking a cat up by the ass. He blamed the vet who’d done the bladder surgery maybe eight years before. He demanded answers about medications in a container on the coffee table, the cleaning products used on the floor and the cats’ water fountain. When he saw Sasha, he lit into me again for her “cauliflower ear,” the result of another botched surgery which his own surgical skills would easily have prevented.
After the trike guy and I signed some documents which made me his boss and not his passenger, we took the cats to the other vet. At first the new blood tests showed kidney disease for both cats, then autoimmune disorder for Raku and pancreatitis for Sasha.
Two and a half months after the lockdown began, there was still no public transportation, but some restrictions were lifted so Fe and Jessie were able to arrange a very overpriced ride to Antipolo. Cultural note: in general the authorities don’t seem to mind making regulations which place an undue burden on the “less privileged” without private cars.
Of course I was very glad to see Fe and Jessie again. Fe said they’d now be staying for longer periods because moving around was still difficult. I was glad I now had a real bedroom to offer them rather than just a maid’s room the size of a walk-in closet.
During the last two weeks of isolation I’d gotten a little strange, like far too self-critical about housework and cat care. When I picked up either Raku or Sasha and sat them on my lap I’d get resistance, wriggling and distrust. Are you going to force another pill down my throat? Thankfully, because of the cat’s sense of place, we still had some good moments of comfort while stretched out on the bed.
Raku died peacefully on the kitchen floor. I’d brought down a sleeping bag to lie on, put on a CD by a favorite guitarist, stroked his fur while he purred, fed him with my fingers, and thought of what I’d heard of how good it could be to be with people who were dying. Then I went upstairs to have breakfast. Fe was with him when he expelled his last breath.
About four blocks away there was an animal crematorium. After Sasha and I had sat with Raku’s body as it lay in a box, the three of us took trikes there, I signed papers, and Fe returned a few hours later for the ashes and a box which will one day also contain Sasha’s and a picture of them both.
For a couple of weeks Sasha seemed to be looking for her brother. She’d whine to get into my bedroom, let me cuddle her for five or ten minutes and want out again. At least she’s open to these stroking and purring sessions. Fe has been handling her medication, but she still doesn’t trust me if I take her to the living room. She prefers to lie on the kitchen floor as she did with Raku or on the stairs. She won’t eat properly—begs for food, eats a tiny amount and refuses to touch it when it’s been sitting out for an hour. Bit we’ve just found a new one she likes better, maybe because it has a stronger smell.
Her behavior is so different from the way she and Ralu devoured their food that I’m not sure it’s food she wants. It might not be me either, but I’m working on that. While advising me about Sasha, a long-time friend told me fish is dangerous for cats with kidney problems. I wish one of the three vets I consulted with had mentioned that. Another friend, who informed me that many vets don’t know much about nutrition, recommended a Facebook page called Feline Nutrition. I discovered that if I wrote to the site, I’d get some good advice from other readers. (Link)
In the meantime, Koki has grown to a healthy six-year-old. As an adolescent he often challenged Raku, as the other male, and chased him around. Over the years I’d kept watching to make sure Raku could defend himself. At the end Koki left him alone. Sasha is sometimes a bit wary of him, but most of the time she seems comfortable enough. He’s gotten to be very hefty and is now on a diet. His favorite spot is on the shelf of my computer desk, where he keeps me company.
Good night, sweet boy.
Update: After 4 four days with the vet, Sasha was brought home, where she died on October 6. Her misery is over. Her ashes will join her brother’s in a little wooden box. Good night, sweet girl.