News & Politics

First Person: Mel and Me

As my cat loses his hearing, our relationship becomes less about sound and more about touch.

I’ve brought my 16-year-old cat, Mel, to the vet because for the past few weeks he’s seemed a bit off. He used to jump out of a sound sleep with every chime of the doorbell and run for his favorite spot under the bed. Now the bell doesn’t faze him. He doesn’t twitch a whisker, just continues that 23-hour-a-day power nap written into every cat’s job description.

Mel startles when people come into his field of vision, but most noticeably his meow has changed. No longer that two-syllable Purina-commercial soundtrack, it’s become an octave-skipping, coyotelike yowl that at first made my wife and me laugh, but the more it continued, the more it troubled us.

This cat has been through diabetes, thyroid cancer, and an ambiguous stomach condition that has consigned him to a special diet for the past few years. He’s had his share of maladies but usually has overcome them with tail-in-the-air resilience.

I’m sad but not surprised by the definitiveness of the vet’s diagnosis: “Yeah, he’s nearly 90 in human years and probably deaf.”

We anthropomorphize our companion animals and often think they’re little furry humans, cute extensions of us. There are books, TV shows, YouTube clips galore devoted to their antics. I know some people who have closer relationships with their dogs than with their children—or so they say.

It’s true that our bond with pets is one of those authentic experiences that can make us more compassionate. There’s a reason they call it the Humane Society.

I try to understand what Mel’s world must be like now. It’s certainly smaller and probably more frightening. I imagine having one of my own senses drift away, and even in the most optimistic scenario I can see little upside.

What’s left for me is the recognition that my words and tone must now seem even more hushed and carry less meaning to Mel than before. Though pets can’t understand everything we say, they undoubtedly intuit emotions like joy and affection through our voice and the sound of our words. For Mel, the volume button has been switched closer to off than to on.

I recently installed a new smoke alarm, and when I went to test it, Mel did his scamper and retreat under the bed—so he’s not stone deaf and is able to pick up those piercing noises. At first, knowing this provided some comfort. Later I came to the lump-in-the-throat realization that one of the few remaining sounds he can hear is alien and scary.

Our relationship has become more about touch and feel. I try to communicate better through my hands. Patting and stroking have gained greater emotional weight. What my voice no longer conveys, maybe my fingers can impress against the silk of his fur.

Sometimes when Mel is asleep, he twitches. A wave undulates from his whiskers to his paws and tail. He quivers and purrs at the same time—a contented thrumming against my palm. I think maybe he’s dreaming—running through a landscape that’s his alone. Perhaps his dreams, the good ones at least, are like ours: open-ended and spacious. A place where all his faculties are attuned and sharp and what he hears is familiar and brings him peace.

This article first appeared in the October 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles like it, click here.