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Spinal Cord Injury Paralysis Resource Center

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The Cat Who Taught Me Chutzpah

Saralee's cat, Eddie

Saralee's cat, Eddie

By Saralee Perel

I can still picture the morning I was sitting with a dozen mewing kittens at the local animal shelter. There was a slight movement between two pillows on the far side of the cage. That's where I found Eddie. He was on his back trying to get some sleep "in this lousy joint" as I imagined an independent cat like him would say.

He was a plain gray tabby, as common as a housefly.

"He's the one," I said to my husband Bob.

Eddie swaggered to the food bowl, pushing four kittens out of the way.

"But he's so ratty looking," Bob said, picking him up. "And he only has one whisker."

Eddie tenderly pressed his face against mine. Then he put his sharp baby teeth around my gold earring and yanked with the strength of a sumo wrestler.

Why did I fall for him so quickly? This cat had chutzpah and he knew how to use it. I would soon find out that there were other vital reasons he was perfect for me.

That first night home, he was restless. I calmed him with a song from the musical, "Oliver." I sang it softly as a slow ballad, "Food, glorious food, hot sausage and mustard." He closed his eyes and purred. From then on, that song always soothed him.

Eddie got up before we did. I knew that from the sound of breaking glass.

We found him on the mantel where my favorite crystal plate used to be. The floor was covered with glass shards. He quickly put his paw behind a blue china vase and chucked that off the mantel too.

At first I felt bad. But that didn't last. Things are just things. Our pets are family.

Our solution? Velcro. And no more glass on the mantel. Instead, we stuck on fake fruit.

Early in his life, I had my spinal cord injury. There were thousands of things I was certain would be impossible for me to ever do again. Eddie's attitude was what I needed. But that required believing I could actually learn from a cat.

I learned that the word "impossible" was nothing other than a word, which only carried meaning if I allowed it to. Eddie believed nothing was impossible. And by watching him, nothing was.

At the beginning of my life after my SCI, I saw obstacles as just that – obstacles. And therefore put them on my "can't do" list.

Eddie has no bounds, he can get anywhere in the house

Eddie has no bounds, he can get anywhere in the house

But Eddie never accepted obstacles as anything other than challenges.

He opened cabinets by putting his paws around the knobs and pulling. Vitamin bottles made great rattling noises on crash landings.

We bought child-proof magnets at the hardware store. Eddie simply tugged a little harder.

Back to the hardware store for hook and eye locks. Eddie flipped the hooks open with one paw.

Back to the hardware store for deadbolt locks. He easily slid those bolts to the side.

The guy at the hardware store already had combination locks on the counter.

I was in awe of Eddie's tenacity. By watching him, I learned that words like "can't" and "hopeless" were just not in his feline vocabulary.

When I'd see a barrier that would prevent me from getting to where I wanted to go, I'd instantly turn around. This happened recently when I decided to surprise Bob with his favorite bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich from his favorite coffee shop. But there were no railings on their steps. And they had not shoveled their snow-covered ramp. Instead of figuring out a way to accomplish my goal, I turned around and went right back to my car.

Now, I could have simply called the owner from my cell phone and nicely asked her to shovel. But I was locked into my "can't do" mindset hence that never even occurred to me. Yet when barriers thwarted Eddie, he'd never quit trying. He'd never give up and turn around like I did.

Every morning, we woke to the blaring sound of Boston traffic reports. That's because Eddie learned to push the button on our clock radio. He wanted to wake us so he'd get fed.

Yes, of course we tried moving the radio. He would simply hunt for two seconds and find it. Yes, of course we tried covering it with books at carefully placed perfect angles. Eddie simply shoved all the books off at once.

So we did the only sensible thing. We got rid of the clock radio. What else could we do with a cat like Eddie? (I heard that!)

To him, anything could fall into the toy category. He'd unravel entire rolls of toilet paper. We then had to keep ours in a coffee can.

One day years ago, he found something else that will surely go down in the "History of the Best Cat Toys" book.

I was on the phone with a rabbi. He was asking me about my mother's interests for his sermon at her funeral. I said, "My mother loved painting and --"

That's when Eddie came running in with something in his mouth. He had opened the new box of tampons I bought that morning. He was flinging the tampon in the air like it was a toy mouse.

The rabbi asked if I was all right because not only had I stopped talking in the middle of a sentence, I was having an earsplitting laughing fit that I just could not control.

He assumed I was having a traumatic stress reaction and said, "When we lose a loved one, we're often not in control of our emotions and that's okay. It's fine to laugh."

That cracked me up even more. I managed to blurt out, "She made jewelry!" before seeing the tampon go flying across the room. Then I hung up -- on a rabbi yet. Oy vay.

For the past two years, Eddie has been sick. I spent lots of time massaging him on either side of his face. He always loved that. On one afternoon, I used my fingers to comb through his lovely full set of whiskers he had eventually grown. That's when I saw the one side effect from the medicine he was taking. As I gently rubbed along his face, all of his whiskers came off in my hands, except for one. I placed them in a tiny needlepoint purse my mother made for me.

Saralee's cat, Eddie

Eddie never accepted obstacles as anything other than challenges.

He came into our lives with one whisker. And that is how he would leave.

Three months ago, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I kissed his forehead and whispered, "I love you." He looked up at me. His face showed the love he was never successful at hiding.

As Bob softly sang, "Food, glorious food, hot sausage and mustard," Eddie took his last breath.

While his body was still warm, I cradled him in my arms and rocked him. I held his head so he was nestled against my neck. I said, "You came into my life when I needed you the most." Bob was crying as he stood next to us, watched me rocking my little soul mate. "Eddie," I could barely speak. "You will always be a part of me."

I didn't want to let him go from my arms. But Bob, so lovingly and slowly, gently took him away.

And so, I honor the life and the lessons of my wonderful cat who, from the beginning, stood apart from all the others.

My beautiful cat, my Eddie, just a plain gray tabby, as common as a housefly.

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Service Animals (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Umbilical Cord Blood Banking (PDF)

Assistance Dogs InternationalA coalition of not for profit organizations that train and place assistance dogs.

Canine Companions for IndependenceA national network of highly-trained assistance dogs and ongoing support.

Center for Research on Women with Disabilities (CROWD)Dept of Physical Medicine and Rehab Services at Baylor College of Medicine.

Helping HandsProvide highly trained monkeys to assist people with severe spinal cord injuries or mobility-impairments.

Mobile WomenArticles, resources, online forum for women with disabilities especially wheelchair users.

Loving Paws Assistance DogsSpecializes in placing assistance dogs with children who are spinal cord injured as well as children with Muscular Dystrophy, Cerebral Palsy, and Spina Bifida.

Owner Trained Assistance DogsAn email discussion list for those who train their own assistance dogs.

Top DogOffers assistance in training your own dog to be a service dog. They sell a book and video on the topic also.

Paralysis Resource Center The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm ET. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

Reeve Foundation Online Paralysis Community Connecting people living with paralysis, families, friends and caregivers so we can share support, experience, knowledge, and hope.

Quality of Life Grants DatabaseFind resources within the PRC Quality of Life Grants Database. Search by Zip Code, State or an Entire Category.

Library Books and VideosFind resources within the PRC library catalog.

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The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Eastern U.S. Time. International callers use 973-467-8270. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

This project was supported, in part by grant number 90PR3002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship areencouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.