Stilled and Beating Hearts

My husband and I busily prepared for the birth of our child, not realizing we’d cross that threshold as three instead of four

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Mylo at leisure and with a pregnant Courtney

My husband, Diego, and I found our cat, Mylo, at the same time as our first house. For a woman like me who, growing up, had been forced to watch as my father and his new wife accumulated not one, not two, but five Saint Bernards, the adoption of a feline was a rebellious act. But the rules were ours to make now: We didn’t have to use pets as status symbols, didn’t have to keep secrets, didn’t have to get divorced. We could love each other playfully, but honestly. We could start from scratch.

I’m not a maternal person by nature. Mylo’s adoption represented the first time I’d willingly let the needs of someone I wasn’t sleeping with into my life. I loved finding just the right bowls for his malodorous food. I liked watching Diego wrangle his latest plunder from our tub. Live chipmunks, mostly, but sometimes writhing snakes. I liked finding Mylo curled up in my office chair and pretending to be mad.

Mylo was just five when he was diagnosed with heart problems, an age practically infantile for a long living breed like the Maine Coon. By the time the complications from his pulmonary arterial hypertension would become irreversible, I would be seven months pregnant with our first child, and seven years in love with our gigantic cat.

In the writing chair they often shared

I was out of town when I got the call that Diego had found Mylo with his back legs crushed from a hit and run. On the way to the train station, I thought about heart problems and blood tests and the needles that had pierced me in the name of pre-natal health, and about how much I wanted our adopted cat to meet our unborn daughter. I thought how people would point at my swollen belly and say, “But you have so much to be thankful for!” once he was gone.

Diego called again from the veterinarian. It hadn’t been a hit and run: it was a blood clot—the worse case scenario for our cardiac distressed cat. His back legs were paralyzed and his lungs were filling with fluid. If they gave him an extra large dose of the heart-saving Lasix medicine he was already on, his liver would fail. We should take him home, they said. They’d done all they could.

Mylo held on another week, incredibly. A week divided in my mind between him wanting to live, and then wanting to die. To ease his discomfort, we used some of the baby gear we’d been storing on his paralyzed lower half: newborn diapers to sop up his acrid urine, a baby thermometer to track his temperature, and baby wipes to tug his hardened stools out. At night, we placed him in a Pack ‘n Play so he wouldn’t try and drag himself across the floor. Diego slept downstairs on a couch beside him, and I slept upstairs pressing my cold palm against my baby’s kicks while praying for our cat.

His heart failed him on a Tuesday. By the time we signed the form allowing the Pentobarbital injection, Mylo had been in and out of the animal clinic so often, even the doctor cried.

We buried Mylo outside in the yard near his favorite rock while a painter rolled the final coat onto the nursery wall while humming to a transistor-radio version of “Love Shack.” Our cat was still warm when we put him in the ground inside the biodegradable, windowless sack they gave him to us in, and now that ground is snow-covered, and I have a daughter.

Her heart beats against mine as I nurse her, her large blue eyes searching my brown ones for reassurance that everything is all right. Beyond the nursery, our kitchen table is buried under a precipitation of medical literature: newsletters from La Leche League, notification that our healthcare plan is ending, information on SIDS.

The world outside us beats onward, pulsating relentlessly as I close my eyes against the rapid womp of my baby’s heartbeat and think, Don’t stop. Don’t stop. Don’t stop.

Courtney Maum is the author of the novel, “I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You,” forthcoming in June 2014 from Touchstone Books. The humor columnist behind the “Celebrity Book Review” on Electric Literature and an advice columnist for Tin House, she splits her time between the Massachusetts Berkshires and New York City.

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