Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

The Purpose

Thomas Anthony Longo

Nonnie was in the family room, watching TV with Paw-Paw when it happened.

“Owwww!” Nonnie cried. “Leon scratched me.”

The cat jumped down to the floor and Nonnie’s grandfather jumped up from the easy chair, forsaking the Braves. “Let me see.”

He examined her arm tenderly. There was a weeping red scratch, four-and-a-half inches long on her forearm. Nonnie’s eyes were moist as she looked up at her Paw-Paw. His glowing white shock of hair and twinkling blue eyes usually made any bad thing better, but this really hurt.

“Jeez’um, Gumdrop! This is going to leave a scar. Might even need stitches.” Half-smiling, he raised his eyebrows and looked down at her over the top of his wire-frame glasses. “I’ll never hear the end from your Momma.”

Now the tears, like the blood from the scratch, began to come in earnest. “Why? Why?” she blurted through the crying.

Paw-Paw led her into the bathroom and started cleaning the wound with peroxide. Nonnie just cried harder, so he began talking to her to distract her.

“Why what, Gumdrop?”

“Why did Leon scratch me? Leon never scratches anybody. He’s a good kitty. He’s your kitty.” She sniffled while she got it out.

It was true, if Leon was anyone’s cat, he was Paw-Paw’s. A mixed breed, he looked like a pure Siamese, and he followed Paw-Paw everywhere. Leon slept in the old man’s bed. The cat even went into the bathroom with Paw-Paw, emerging right behind when he came out again.

“I dunno, sweetheart. It ain’t like him, is it?” He applied antibiotic ointment to the wound and bandaged it. “I don’t think it needs stitches after all,” he said.

“And why do I have to have a scar?”

“Oh, Gumdrop,” Paw-Paw said, “I can’t tell you why bad things sometimes happen.” He lifted her up and held her in one strong arm. “I can tell you this much, though. Nothing happens by accident. Everything that happens has some purpose. Sometimes we just can’t see what that might be.”

“That’s stupid,” Nonnie insisted. “What reason could there be for Leon to scratch me?” She looked at her bandaged arm. “What purpose could there be to a scar? It’s just that dumb cat!”

“Oh, sweetie,” he clucked. “Leon wouldn’t do something like that out of meanness. Let’s go take a look at him.”

She nodded, so he let her down and they both went back into the family room. Leon was curled on Paw-Paw’s chair where he could smell the old man.

“What were you doing when it happened?” he asked.

“I, I might have touched his mouth,” she sniffled.

“Hmmm,” he was looking into the cat’s mouth, which Leon complied with because it was Paw-Paw. “He’s got some kind of sores in his mouth. It must have hurt him.”

“See, baby?” He set Leon down on the chair again. “Leon never meant to hurt you. He just lashed out.”

“Stupid cat!” Nonnie said.

“We’ll have to take him to the vet and see what those sores are.” Paw-Paw said it easily, but Nonnie could tell he was disturbed.

The next day while Momma was at work, Nonnie and Paw-Paw put Leon into his carrier and took him to the doctor. The vet’s office smelled like ammonia and dog hair and medicine. Nonnie didn’t like it and she didn’t think Leon did either. The vet was a nice lady named Dr. Kylie, but something about the place gave Nonnie a deep feeling of dread, like nothing good could ever happen there. Dr. Kylie had examined Leon. Now the three of them— Nonnie, Paw-Paw, and Leon, were waiting in the exam room for the results of the blood test.

When the door opened and the vet came in, Nonnie didn’t like the look on her face. There was a funny curl on one end of her lips; not a smile, but not a frown either.

“I’m afraid I have a bit of bad news,” she said. “Your cat—”

“His name’s Leon!” Nonnie interrupted.

Dr. Kylie smiled. “Leon. Well, Leon is very sick.”

“What’s wrong?” Paw-Paw asked.

“He has feline leukemia,” she said, deadpan.

“I was just a construction worker, so I’m not sure about these things,” Paw-Paw started. “Is that cancer?”

Dr. Kylie shook her head. “Feline leukemia isn’t cancer, like leukemia is in people. Humans are immune to it. It’s a retrovirus called FeLV.”

“Is that bad?” he asked. Nonnie’s eyes darted from him to the doctor like she was trying to follow the ball in a tennis match.

The vet nodded. “In about a third of cats, mostly the young and very old, they succumb right away. Another third carry the disease, but never show it and test negative unless you test the bone marrow. Then there are cats like Leon.” She glanced at Nonnie, but Nonnie just stared. “When the virus has become active, it’s almost always fatal.”

“Oh, no!” Nonnie cried out. Tears began to flow, blurring her vision, but when she looked at Paw-Paw she could still see his face was grave.

“Almost always?” he asked.

“Yes,” the vet continued. “It makes them vulnerable to other diseases and parasites like feline peritonitis.”

“What about Leon?”

Dr. Kylie gave them a wary look. “A lot of vets would tell you the cat should be put down,” she said finally. “Most, even. They would say it’s the only kind thing to do.”

“We could never do that,” Nonnie said before Paw-Paw could respond. She looked over at him, but he was nodding.

The vet seemed to understand.

“We’ll keep him alive as long as we can,” Paw-Paw told her. “What can we expect?”

“Well,” she said, “With it already causing lesions, and the amount of the virus I found in the sample, I wouldn’t expect Leon to live more than a month or two.”

Paw-Paw’s face fell. Nonnie thought she heard it hit the ground with a nauseating thud. She felt nauseous anyhow.

“What can we do?” her grandfather asked, but she could hear an uncharacteristic quaver in his tone. Was he gonna cry? Paw-Paw never cried!

“I’m going to give you some antibiotics. Give him these.” She took a small box from the medicine cabinet over the sink and handed it to Paw-Paw. “Keep him comfortable. Give him food he likes and lots of liquid so he doesn’t dehydrate. Love him. Make his time as easy as you can.”

“That’s all?” he asked.

“That’s all I can do,” she said. “I’m very sorry.” Dr. Kylie turned away, and Nonnie wondered if the vet were going to cry, too.

They put Leon back into his carrier and took him to the car. Nonnie had trouble not crying. She would stop, then suddenly burst into tears again periodically all the way home.

“I don’t understand,” she insisted when they turned off the highway. “Why Leon, Paw-Paw? Why? He’s the nicest cat ever! There isn’t no better cat than him. He doesn’t deserve to die.” Her words muffled by snuffling, she rubbed her nose on her sleeve.

Paw-Paw smiled a tired smile. “It’s a hard thing, even for an old man like me. I kinda thought Leon’d be with me for the rest of my life.”

"Oh, Paw-Paw,” Nonnie gasped, even putting a hand over her mouth. “It really isn’t fair.”

“Gumdrop,” he said. “Remember what I told you?”

“What?” she demanded. No answer was going to do.

“Everything happens for a reason,” he began.

“No!” Nonnie shouted. “No! There’s no reason Leon has to die. There just isn’t!”

Paw-Paw’s voice dropped to a whisper. That was his trick to get people to listen, cause they had to be quiet and try to hear. “Just because you don’t know the reason doesn’t mean there isn’t one,” he said. “God has a plan for each of us, and his reasons are his own. God is loving and merciful, but man is stupid and short-sighted. We can never know the mind of God, but we can know he has a good reason for everything that happens and accept it because of that.”

“No!” Nonnie insisted. “God is mean if he goes around killing good cats like Leon. There can’t be any reason good enough.”

“Will you do something for me?” Paw-Paw asked.

“What?” she crossed her arms in front of herself. Her fresh scratch burned, as if aggravated by the vet’s diagnosis.

“Will you just think about it and wait?”

“Wait for what?” she pouted.

“Wait to see if you understand?”

“I’ll try,” she said, but the cut burned, her eyes burned, and she couldn’t imagine ever understanding such needless pain.

Nonnie and Paw-Paw cared for Leon together, making a partnership of the task. Leon couldn’t have gotten better care or more attention if he had been in the Mayo Clinic.

At first, Leon seemed like his normal cat self. He followed Paw-Paw around, then whenever he sat down Leon would curl in his lap and purr his loud, boat-engine purr that could be heard in the next room. After a month, he had run through the first course of the antibiotics, and the sores in his mouth came back and got worse.

He ate less and less, despite being given his favorite wet cat food. Even scraps of pork and fat failed to interest him. There had been a time when he would have fought off a Doberman Pincer to get the morsels.

By the time two months had passed, Leon became dehydrated. His stomach was a caved in pit below his rib cage, and he didn’t purr as loudly as he used to, but he still purred whenever he was with Paw-Paw.

Nonnie couldn’t look at him without wanting to burst into tears once more.

“He’s so skinny his ribs are sticking out,” she said, “And his fur looks so dirty.”

“Leon’s too weak to clean himself,” Paw-Paw said, shaking his head. “We’ll take him back to the vet. Maybe there’s something else she can do.”

Dr. Kylie seemed very surprised to see them. Nonnie figured she thought Leon would have died by now. That was what she’d said during their first visit. Nevertheless, Dr. Kylie prescribed a new course of a stronger antibiotic, and gave Leon an injection of subcutaneous fluid (Paw-Paw said that meant under his skin). Leon looked like he was hiding a softball in some cat-pocket hidden under the fur near his tail.

“Now, don’t get your hopes up,” she told them, “but this might help.”

“You’re surprised he’s not dead!” Nonnie accused her, scowling.

“Yes,” Dr. Kylie said simply, “I am. You must love him very much.”

The scowl faded. “We do,” Nonnie said, but she felt the tears trying to come again.

Nonnie didn’t know whether it was the fluid or the new antibiotic, but Leon bounced back. His appetite returned and his stomach didn’t look so sunken anymore. His purring grew louder. Paw-Paw had been surfing the internet. He thought the homeopathic remedies, like cottage cheese and flaxseed oil, were helping.

Day passed into night and week into month. The good spell didn’t last.

At the end of the fourth month since he was diagnosed, Leon stopped eating altogether.
Nonnie watched him grow so weak that he no longer followed Paw-Paw around the house, but wherever her grandfather went he carried Leon with him. Paw-Paw spent more and more time just laying in his bed, and the bedroom became the place were they spent all their time together, Paw-Paw, Nonnie, and Leon. Leon would lay just at the end of Paw-Paw’s arm, and he would stroke the cat. Leon still purred.

He was so weak that he couldn’t walk at all, and Nonnie knew that the end must be near, even though no one said it. She worried, and rubbed the itching skin on her healing forearm. A habit she’d picked up when the scratch had decided to heal so slowly.

On that morning, Nonnie woke up before the sun. Her eyes popped open, wide-awake and clear, for she knew something was wrong.

“Leon,” she whispered, pulling off the covers and jumping out of bed.

When she ran into Paw-Paw’s room he was still asleep. Leon was in his usual spot, curled up next to her sleeping grandfather. Nonnie rushed to the bed and sat next to Leon. She reached out and stroked him, giving him his first petting of the day, but it was wrong. Leon was cold. She touched his head, but it just rolled to one side.

He wasn’t purring. He wasn’t breathing.

“No!” Nonnie cried. It wasn’t right. Her mind was a hamster wheel, racing around and around. Why had he gotten better, only to get sick again? Wouldn’t it have been better if he’d just died outright, like Dr. Kylie said a lot of cats did?

“Paw-Paw,” she said, touching her grandfather’s shoulder. She didn’t really want to see the look on his face when he found out Leon had died. She’d never seen him cry, and didn’t want to now. Such a light sleeper, but Paw-Paw didn’t wake.

She shook his shoulder now, “Paw-Paw, Paw-Paw, wake up.”

But Paw-Paw didn’t wake up.

Nonnie shook him harder, and harder, but couldn’t keep from the realization that something was wrong.

“Paw-Paw, Paw-Paw!” Now she was shouting.

“What’s wrong?” Nonnie’s mother came in from the bedroom, wiping the sleep from her eyes. “Why are you shouting?”

“Mommy,” Nonnie cried, tears gushing. “It’s Paw-Paw!”

Nonnie cried all the way through the funeral. Not just for the loss of her grandfather, but for Leon as well.

It was hard, and it was bad, and Momma kept telling her that everyone had to die sometime—as if she didn’t know that. Still, two things kept ringing in her ears and bouncing around inside her head: Her mother’s word, sometime, was the first. The second was Paw-Paw, back when Leon first got sick, saying he thought Leon would be with him for the rest of his life.

Eventually, Nonnie’s cat-scratch healed, but a scar formed there that always stayed a bright pink, never quite turning the darker color that other scars did. Whenever she bathed, or washed her hands, Nonnie would see it.

For the rest of her whole long life, whenever she looked at that scar, Nonnie thought of Paw-Paw and Leon and knew that they were together somewhere, and whenever she looked at that scar and thought of her grandfather and her friend, she knew that she would never again doubt that there was a purpose for everything in life.


Thomas Anthony Longo has been the main contributor and editor of a monthly newsletter titled "Music City Computer News." He has a professional writing credit with his sale of "Anonymous Hours" to Hardboiled, a Gryphon-Books publication. He lives in Nashville
with his wife and two daughters.

© Thomas Anthony Longo

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012