Neither Dying Nor Being Cured

Image description: Composite image of two book covers of So Lucky: A Novel, by Nicola Griffith. On the left, the UK edition. On a black background, a burning torch flames in orange and yellow up and across at least half the image. At the top, in between the flames are quotes from the Independent ‘a short, fast-paced whirlwind of a novel’ and BBC Culture‘a sophisticated thriller’. Below is the title, So Lucky in salmon-coloured type, and the author’s name, Nicola Griffith, in white. On the right, the US edition. The background is matte black with the title “So Lucky,” and the author’s name “Nicola Griffith,” in big uppercase type rendered as burning paper. In smaller, brighter letters between title and author is, “A novel,” and, below the writer’s name, “Author of Hild”

This is the essay version of the Ethel Louise Armstrong Lecture I gave last year at Ohio State University. It was first published in the UK edition of So Lucky (Handheld Press, 2018), along with two other bonus essays. My list of book-length fiction for adults that passes the Fries Test now stands at 65 — but there are many more novels out there that could be on the list but are not, because, frankly, I keep forgetting to publicise it and solicit entries. So if you know of any, please add a comment here, where I can keep track of it, rather than on Twitter or Facebook or this post, where it will get lost.


Neither Dying nor Being Cured

by Nicola Griffith

 So Lucky is, at heart, about the body — a changing body, and the way bodily change also changes our understanding of the world. (Just after my MS diagnosis I wrote an essay about this, ‘Writing from the Body’.) So Lucky is the story of Mara, a woman on top of her world, who’s never met a challenge she couldn’t deal with — until, in space of single week, she is diagnosed with MS, divorced by her wife, and loses her job.

Unlike a lot of fiction written by nondisabled people, in this book Mara doesn’t die, and isn’t cured. She ends up figuring out a lot of stuff, falling in love again, making idiotic decisions, making money — and fighting monsters, human and otherwise. There’s a lot of exterior action in this novel. It is a novel, not a memoir, although it does have autobiographical elements. Like me, Mara is queer, diagnosed with MS, and loves martial arts. Like me, she is a creature of the body.

The body is my language. It’s how I learn about and relate to world.

That physical relationship to my surroundings influenced the kind of wheelchair I chose, when the time came. I could see immediately why a full power chair might be a good idea. In a manual wheelchair: you need two hands to move; while you are moving you can’t use your hands for anything else. A power chair controlled with a joystick means you can steer one-handed: hold a beer and move through a party, open a door and go through it, pick something up in passing. Despite all that, I chose a manual wheelchair with electric-assist — the same kind of power boost as an electric bike. I really wanted to feel the relationship of my effort to my movement: to go fast I have to push hard. I need to feel the laws of physics operate through my body.

As a cultural producer and performer, I am thoroughly embodied. As a writer, I bring the reader into my fictional world through the character’s physical, embodied, experience. What a character feels, what they notice of their world — and how they feel about that — tells the reader a vast amount about who they are: their temperament, attitude, and experience. (Lovers walking into a forest might look for a private glade. An ecologist notes the fallen leaves that form the soil that feeds the worm that feeds the bird that feeds the marten that feeds the bobcat. A logger would see board feet.)

There’s a lot of evidence from cognitive science to show that we as readers take the experience — the emotion, the thoughts, the struggles — of well-drawn characters as our own: books are empathy machines. But writers aren’t machines, we’re people. We are not separate from our work; we imbue our work with our own experience and perspective. With my fiction, I’ve always written from who I am and where I am, emotionally and physically.

I’m a queer woman, and the protagonist of all my seven novels, and all (but one) of almost twenty stories, is a queer woman. This is what comes naturally to me: I am a queer woman so I write about queer women. And in my fiction, queer women’s bodies are sites of delight rather than struggle — because I never associated being woman, or queer, with internal struggle.

I’m lucky, I think. Growing up I somehow avoided internalised homophobia and internalised misogyny, or perhaps I learnt to automatically counter-program them.

I knew as soon as I knew my own name that I was girl who liked other girls. I didn’t see anything wrong with that: I was utterly fabulous, and I was queer, so being queer must be fabulous, too. Writing queer protagonists was natural and good and easy. But I didn’t write stories about being queer, or the difficulty of being queer, or realising you were queer. My characters just were queer — and the stories were about something else. In story terms, queerness was not interesting to me.

It’s different with disability.

I did not grow up disabled. I did not develop an awareness of this culture’s bias against, horror at, and disdain for physical and intellectual difference; I did not learn to defend against it or counter-program it. Instead, sadly, I absorbed and internalised it. I bought the ableist storyline whole. The ableist bias I absorbed was implicit, not explicit — I didn’t even know it was there — but it constrained my thinking and understanding of the world as surely as an iron cage.

I was diagnosed with MS 25 years ago. Perhaps because my physical impairments gained on me slowly it took years to feel the sting of nondisabled people’s dismissal. It took years for me to begin to understand that I’d been dismissing my disabled self. But more likely it took me a long time to recognise the ableist narrative I’d absorbed, the implicit rules I’d been bound by without realising it, because I had nothing to compare it with, nothing to contradict it. I had no role models.

Growing up I hadn’t seen disabled queer women — in real life, or on page or screen — at all. When finally I began to see disabled characters in books and on screen they were distorted clichés: tragic cripples, angry cripples, helpless cripples. Cripples whose bodies, like those of queer people, were portrayed as sites of difficulty rather than delight. In other words, the only disabled people I watched or read were written by the nondisabled who have no clue of the lived experience of a disabled person and so were just reiterating and reinforcing the ableist narrative.

I believe that today the majority of disability fiction for adults — YA and kidlit is a different case and beyond the scope of this piece — is roughly where queer fiction was 60 years ago: full of protagonists who are remarkable only as a piteous creatures crying out to be treated as human, and relying on the kindness and forbearance of strangers. Who are, in Mitchell and Snyder’s term, narrative prostheses, that is, narratives that use disabled people as a metaphorical opportunity — usually to inspire or teach or otherwise manipulate the emotions of nondisabled people.

Last year, disability activist Kenny Fries formulated the Fries Test (inspired by the Bechdel Test in which a film must have two names female characters who talk to one another about something other than a man). He asked:

Does a work have more than one disabled character? Do the disabled characters have their own narrative purpose other than the education and profit of a nondisabled character? Is the character’s disability not eradicated either by curing or killing?

If you can say yes to all three questions, the book passes the test.

The Fries Test is a low bar: the characters don’t have to have names, they don’t need to talk to one another, and certainly not about something other than disability. But it’s what we have.

In late 2017 I put out a call on social media for book-length fiction that passes the Fries Test. Half a year later I have exactly 55. Some of the 55 are old. Some out of print. A handful are not in English.

Think about that. More than a thousand years of English literacy — and we have 55 book-length works of fiction that pass the Fries Test.

Stanford Literary Lab suggests that the number of novels extant in English is on the order of 5 million. Given that 1 in 5 people in majority English-speaking countries are disabled, you might hope that 1 in 5 novels in English would pass the Fries Test (actually you’d hope for more, because the test is such a low bar). So there should be one million novels that pass the Fries Test. But there are 55.

There are 999,945 stories missing. 999,945 voices missing.

We need those voices. Without mirrors, without seeing ourselves, we believe the bullshit that is fed to us by nondisabled people. We believe the ableist narrative. I certainly did. I saw myself as a failed able person, a second class citizen, wrong. I was taught to pity disabled people and so saw myself as pitiable.

To write So Lucky I had to unlearn all that.

I wish I’d been able to get over my own ableism earlier, to transition to a wheelchair years ago. The wheelchair is changing my life; it’s easier for me to be me in a chair than on crutches: on crutches I struggle; in a wheelchair I don’t. In a wheelchair my head isn’t fogged with anxiety: ‘Can I walk that far? If so, will I have any energy when I get there?’ In a wheelchair I have the freedom to notice the world, to notice people, to be in the world, not fighting the world, or feeling fought against. But I was afraid of being in a wheelchair; I was afraid of being one of Them, of being Other.

Perhaps this is how it felt for most queer people growing up decades ago: afraid, alone, feeling wrong. And then queer culture flowered. People found each other, built their own communities, lived in neighborhoods where they became the Norm, where they could see themselves as they really were, not as a straight people saw them. At that point queer people were no longer hiding, no longer pretending to be straight (and, in some cases, desperately wishing to be). We loved ourselves, our queer bodies. We were out, and — finally — proud. And only after that were there books and films and music — and, eventually, TV — worth watching.

But as a crip, even 20 years ago, I felt as though I had no good models. I didn’t know how to write the kind of novel I wanted and include disabled characters. All I saw around me were interior, angsty stories of characters pleading for recognition. I didn’t want to write that. And I didn’t want to write a novel in which a character like me had to sacrifice herself at the end to benefit a nondisabled character.

What I wanted was to write a novel the way I’ve always written a novel — full of joy, and will, and agency, and event — with lots of queer women, but this time also with crips; with a disabled protagonist. But because I had no models, I didn’t really know how. So, again, I did what queer writers decades ago did: I wrote a kind of Coming Out novel. Mara is diagnosed with MS and figures out what that change means.

Having said that, in many ways So Lucky is not a Coming Out novel. It’s not about learning to love yourself just as you are and fighting for acceptance. It’s more about learning to see clearly:

  • Learning to see the lies we as disabled people have been, and still are, fed; the box we’ve been put in.
  • Unlearning our own ableism.
  • Breaking out of the box.
  • Overwriting the ableist narrative.

Ableism is a crap story. We can make better ones. But to do that we need to see ourselves. We need mirrors. We need to hear our own voices. Our strong, beautiful, ordinary, disabled voices. We need to see and hear ourselves. That’s what So Lucky is about: getting past the bullshit fed to us by society and then figuring out how to break that narrative, how to free ourselves and others, and how to build something of our own. Because it’s only after you’ve broken out of and thrown away the old story that you can start to build your own.

Kitten Report #06 [photos and video]

Two tabby kittens fast asleep on a white sofa, spooning, one with a protective paw over the other

The kitties are now 19 weeks old. Two visits to the vet since last week. Happy to report all is well (even after episodes of trying to eat broken glass—glass which, of course, they broke—and steel wool). All up to date with rabies and feline leukaemia vaccinations. No sign of regrowing polyps. George is still sneezing, but less often, and mainly when the pollen outside is high and I’m sneezing too. Another family member with allergies…

They’re both gaining weight, but George is still 25% bigger than his brother: Charlie is 2.16 kg (4.76 lbs) and George 2.74 kg (6.04 lbs). The thing is, Charlie still adopts a protective attitude to his brother, always being between him and danger. They are a week shy of 5 months old and, apparently, this is the age of wholly focused food acquisition; on the vet’s recommendation we’re monitoring their food; they not thrilled. At five months, kittens are supposed to have reached about half their ultimate height and weight. If this holds true for our beasties, George will be big, well over 12 lbs, while Charlie might be a smidgeon below average.

Charlie has learnt (again) that water is wet: he fell in the bath (my fault—I introduced them to a family of rubber ducks, which they couldn’t resist, and both tried to climb onto the narrow tub edge together with predictable results). George has learnt that when he tries to eat glass or steel wool, he gets shouted at, and grabbed, and subjected to various indignities. I doubt it will stop either of them trying again.

We think we may have a mouse. For two days George became wholly focused on the underside of the stove, then the counter next to it, then the wine fridge: he spent two hours without moving one afternoon. All I can say is, that mouse must be suicidal. Their hunting instrincts are running full bore. At least one large spider has met its doom (as I discovered when I was down on the carpet to do some stretching and found shiny bits of leg and torso here and there). Well, at least it’s not glass.

Their latest Fun Times are exploring kitchen appliances: the microwave, dishwasher, and oven. Charlie more than George (who is too busy with his self-appointed role as imaginary-mouse catcher). No one (or appliance) has been harmed in the making of this experiment. Yet. They have also discovered the joys of lying in front of the fire, which we turned on for the first time this week. The fire is most definitely a hit, with only one slightly singed nose (Charlie) as a result. One scary thing: the wheelchair lift. I live in fear that one of them—that is, Charlie—will dart underneath it just as the whole steel box come grinding down. As a result, we keep it in the down position by default, and I make sure neither of them is in the room when I start to raise it. So it adds some tedium to my days—but better than pancaked kitties.

Their eyes are becoming quite different colours. George has Armagnac eyes; Charlie’s are more like peridot.

Tabby kitten facing camera; his irises are the colour of fuming Armagnac brandy

George of the Armagnac eyes

Tabby cat facing the camera; his irises are pale green, like peridots

Charlie has peridot eyes

They both sleep a lot, and have a tendency to do so upside down. George in supported fashion, Charlie just letting it all hang out and down. They love to sleep on me. They sleep on each other. And they sleep near each other. They are sociable beasties.

Two tabby kittens on a lap, affronted at being disturbed, staring into the camera

Excuse me, we’re TRYING to get some sleep! (Charlie at the front, George behind)

Two tabby kittens on a lap, falling asleep

And down they go…

Tabby kitten out cold on his back, mouth agape

George is totally out

But oh my god they run a lot, too, thundering up and down, up and down, the hardwood floors. Thundercats are go!

Sometimes, though, they prefer to ride. They approve of my new Rollator.

Two tabby kittens sitting on a blue Rollator, waiting for a ride

Charlie: Drive, James! And don’t spare the horses. George: Horses? Charlie: You’re right, let’s just eat the horses.

It’s so new I haven’t got all the stickers off yet; I had to replace the old one recently because they tore the brake cable out.

I don’t know how long this one will last. Yesterday I caught Charlie trying to fit the whole triangular handle-tightner assembly in his mouth. It looked like some gruesome special effect; I had no idea those little mouths could stretch so wide. Then he tried to eat the metal leg of my sit-stand desk, and, when talked-to sternly, moved on to the cable that connects my display and Mac Mini. I can’t wait for this teething crap to be over, about another two months.

For the last week Charlie has definitely been able to see birds outside. Here’s a brief video of him noticing one of our family crows, and making his first chittering sound.

Another sign of growing up: they’ve learnt to find and follow patches of sunlight on the floor. There are times when they look wholly adult. Here’s Charlie posing as a  miniature Bast.

Tabby kitten in three-quarter profile looking like an Egyptioan statue

Charlie as Bast

George, meanwhile, is much less concerned with dignity and focuses on standing on his head to aid digestion.

Tabby kitten asleep with his head smuched against the sofa and pink tongue sticking out

George stands on his head

And that’s where I’ll leave them. More next week when they hit their 5-month anniversary of trying to eat the planet. Amuse yourselves meanwhile with previous kitten reports.

Kitten Report #05: Visual rehab [photo and video]

Charlie and George are growing at an insane rate. Here’s a photo taken about four weeks ago. And another taken ten days ago:

Tiny little tabby kittens on a kitty condo. One, at the top, is curled tight taking up only about a third of the shelf. The second is on the third level down, semi-reclining. of the spac

Four weeks ago, they didn’t take up much space

A tabby kitten hangs off the top shelf of kitty condo, taking up every inch; below. another tabby lies sprawled over most of the surface area

Charlie now takes the whole top level, and George half of the third.

And they’ve grown a lot since then. When Charlie first came home from his operation he was 3.5 lbs. I’m guessing he’s close to 5 now, but George is far bigger and heavier, more like a young cat. Charlie, though smaller, still gets his preferred perch—the highest level on the condo; George mostly likes to hang out on the third, shaded and sheltered by the second where, when he’s bored, he can grab at Charlie’s tail and chew.

Charlie is still a kitten, still fearless, and still visually impaired–still a nightmare combination for kitty wranglers of a jumpy disposition. But you’ll note I no longer say blind. Neuro-plasticity is an amazing thing, and Charlie’s brain has been frantically rewiring. He can definitely see some things. Equally definitely, he can’t see others. And, most confusingly, that seems to be variable. At first I though the variability might be related to non-visual compensation: being able to sense the movement of air when the feather passes closely enough, or fast enough; or perhaps he can hear it; or smell it. But through experimentation—which both he and George thoroughly enjoy; they’re getting hours of focused play a day—I’ve determined that this is not the case. I think sometimes his brain just sort of fritzes.

On top of that, some part of his visual field is missing. I’ve been researching acquired brain injury and visual impairment and suspect he has some kind of hemi- or quadrantanopia (or -anopsia). There are all kinds of variants. Perhaps the left visual field of both eyes is missing, or maybe part of the right visual field that is, homonymous hemianopia. Or the centre, or the outside (heteronymous hemianopia). I’ve been trying to work out ways to test that.

The games/tests I’ve been using are tracking/chasing games. Sometimes a cursor against a white screen, or a red laser dot on a pale carpet (neither of which he can feel or smell or hear); sometimes Feather (bunch of feather at the end of a line), and sometimes dropping a variety of things from a height.

The first time I tried the laser pointer on the carpet, he lost the red dot about 70% of the time and took a lot of patient tempting to reacquire it. This video was taken about ten days ago:

You can see the difference between Charlie, who doesn’t seem sure he’s really seeing the dot at first, and George, who’s all Kill! But Charlie is improving rapidly. And this morning he did not lose it once at normal twist-and-turn speed, but did lose it when I flicked it away suddenly. And it no longer takes him long to reacquire it. George, on the other hand, can follow it almost anywhere, at any speed, and he reacquires almost instantly.

In terms of the cursor, well, see for yourself: he seems to track left more easily than he tracks right. What does this mean? I’m not sure.

He might be missing some of his right visual field. But that’s not the only problem. Chasing Feather gives a more interesting, 3-dimensional view of what he can and can’t do (though of course complicated by compensatory sound/touch etc.). Here’s a video taken about a week ago of Charlie chasing Feather.

As  you can see, most of the time his coordination is fabulous, and then sometimes it goes to pieces. And he can’t seem to see things right in front of him. So I thought: binasal hemianopia, that is, the middle is missing.

There again, one test he fails consistently is seeing/tracking an object falling from a height, whether it’s his white miniature soccer ball, one of my juggling bags, or a piece of white cottonwool. So it could be that he simply can’t process at speed, or perhaps that an upper part of his visual field is missing—maybe heteronymous quadrantanopia. Apparently, while occasionally those with this damage can recover, it’s not massively likely:

The prospects of recovering vision in the affected field are bleak. Occasionally, patients will spontaneously recover vision in the affected field within the first three months after the brain injury; however, vision loss remaining after this period of spontaneous recovery is traditionally thought to be permanent

It’s now been about five weeks since Charlie’s brain injury. So there is a faint possibility of recovery but unlikely. The goal now is adaptation. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I’d feel much happier about the possibility of letting Charlie outside occasionally if his vision were wholly intact. Right now, I don’t think he’d see a barred owl swooping in to snatch him away. On the other hand, he has a wonderful time indoors and sees everything he needs for a full life, and indoor-only cats do tend to live longer. So we’ll just see how well he adapts with constant training-as-playtime. I suspect he’ll be happy either way.

At this point, though, my main suspicion is that I’m not training Charlie and George, they are training me: hours and hours of play time a day, plus treatsies for playing, and endless comfy lap time afterwards. Oh, well. I’m getting a lot of reading done.

In a few days I’ll do another post, this time about all the non-vision-related adventures of Charlie Kitling and Master George. There are many. Meanwhile, catch up on previous kitten reports here.

Kitten report #04: The tiny years

Last week I discovered the Instagram account of Cody, who fostered Charlie and George for Seattle Area Feline Rescue when they were tiny. So, for your weekend viewing pleasure, I have permission to share these four pictures.

Here’s Charlie already utterly self-confident and playing to the crowd:

Tiny tabby in classic baby-on-a-bear-rug pose Tiny Charlie is fat and happy

I thought at first this was George, because George is shy, much less confident than his brother, and doesn’t always do well with new environments. Obviously the red ball is no consolation. He’d much rather have his brother to hide behind. But given his colouring, it could be Charlie feeling unwell—which they both were when they were first rescued.

Tiny tabby kitten hunched up and sad Tiny George is sad. Or maybe it’s tiny Charlie.

No doubt which is which in this picture. Charlie is on top, hugging his brother, or maybe initiating an early attempt at chewing his ear off. (This is now a firmly established habit; George is very patient.)

Two tiny tabby kittens hugging each other I luv you bruv!

And here is George looking much happier after his hug. Or maybe he just prefers white balls to red ones.

Tiny tabby kitten asleep next to a ping pong ball George with his ping-pong ball

We have the medical records of the four original siblings who survived to reach Seattle. They were severely malnourished. Two of them then died, despite everyone’s best efforts. But SAFR and Cody worked like heroes to make sure George and Charlie survived. If you would like to see more of these doughty little beings make it to adulthood and a happy life, you might want to donate something to Seattle Area Feline Rescue. And go take a look at Cody’s Instagram which shows fetching pictures of a constantly changing roster of foster kitties. If you have room in your heart and home, perhaps you’ll adopt one or two.

Meanwhile, both kittens are now full of beans and growing at an alarming rate. We are delighted with Charlie’s progress; the brain plasticity of a kitten is truly amazing. I’ll talk more about that in another post.

 

The Exile Waiting available for pre-order

Book cover: blue image on a white background of what look like jellyfish with helical, DNA-like trailing tentacles. Title in blue, "The Exile Waiting." Au thor name in black "Vonda N McIntyre"

A spiffy new edition of Vonda McIntyre’s first novel, The Exile Waiting, will be reissued 21 Oct 2019, by Handheld Press. Handheld are the outfit that brought you the UK edition of So Lucky, which included bonus essays. The new edition of The Exile Waiting also includes extras: a juicy Afterword by Una McCormack—the perfect tool for those wanting to teach this book—plus the very first republication of Vonda’s 1972 short story, “Cages,” in which she created the strange and terrible pseudosibs.

You can pre-order today: Amazon US | Amazon UK | Handheld Press | Kobo

And if you’re super eager to get the book, as I am, Handheld has a nifty gift-card programme which sometimes enables you to get books before they’re generally available.

I found The Exile Waiting when I was 19, and fell in love with it. It was my introduction to feminist SF. Here’s what I wrote about this powerful, beautifully-realised book:

The impact of The Exile Waiting on science fiction was massive but, like an iceberg, largely hidden. Today, McIntyre’s concerns—power, identity, inequity, climate, and social justice—are at the forefront of humanist SF.

One focus of this marvellous novel is disability. Written in the early 70s, it largely anticipates the later theoretical work of disability studies. I can see ways to argue that without this novel, and its companion novel, Dreamsnake, then the accompanying wave of work by Le Guin, Russ, Charnas, and Butler, there could have been no cyberpunk. (There again, as Una McCormack points out in her afterword, Samuel R Delany has already done that.)* But part of that story begins with this book.

Here’s the publisher, Kate Macdonald, talking about the novel’s importance, how much she loves the book, and why she wanted to publish it.

So why are you waiting? Go pre-order today:

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Handheld Press | Kobo


*Samuel R Delany, ‘Some Real Mothers…: The SF Eye Interview, in Samuel L Delany, Silent Interview: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics (Hanover NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 164-185, 177.

Kitten report #03

Tabby kitten sitting on brilliant red cushion staring like a demon

Note: This is a story whose ending is not yet written but is definitely on an upward trajectory.

As discussed in previous kitten reports, our kitten Charlie has been falling behind his brother George in terms of size and weight. His stertorous breathing was getting worse and he has not been thriving as he should. After several visits to the vet, followed by various scans, we all agreed that this was most probably a nasopharyngeal polyp blocking his airways. This apparently happens a lot to young cats who have had a lingering upper respiratory infection. Usually they grow bilaterally: two for the price of one. But the only way to find out for sure is to sedate the cat, and go after it surgically. This is pretty standard surgery, apparently; nothing to worry about.

But.

Charlie is not a young cat, he is a kitten. A very small kitten weighing only 3 lbs who has been ill. He did have a polyp, just one, on the left, but it proved difficult to manipulate because he’s so tiny, and getting it out—it broke into three pieces—took a long time. During the operation he crashed, and for a couple of minutes had little to no oxygen getting to his brain. He suffered a neurological accident.

For the first 24 hours we were not sure he would survive and, if he did, whether he could have a good life. He did not seem to be aware of his surroundings. He could not see, hear, sit, eat, swallow, or void his bladder. He stayed under expert veterinary care for three days: steroids, antibiotics, pain killers. He was hand fed with a syringe, and helped to empty his bladder. He lost even more weight. But within 24 hours he could sit up. Not long after that stood—and tried an alarmingly wobbly stretch. He began to use the litter tray if placed in it. Then he began to eat on his own. He began to purr when held, then sleep without being held. He could take tentative steps. Now he began to eat a lot—making up for lost time. He started to track sounds and occasionally reach out to bat whatever was making the noise. He seemed to be able to tell there was something there, if it was black on a white background, or white on a black background.

Meanwhile, here at home, George was in a state. He loved the first twenty-four hours of having us to himself: all the attention and cuddles and food he wanted; king of all he surveyed! Without fearless Charlie to lead the way he had had to become a bit bolder himself. But after thirty-six hours he got restless, prowling into every corner, making querulous chirruping noises, and finally beginning to cry: What had we done with his brother? Fuck food, fuck feather, he wanted Charlie!

Fortunately, at that point the vet judged Charlie to be robust enough to come home. The first two hours we kept Charlie in his carrier so he could adjust slowly without George jumping on him. But we put the carrier on one side of their favourite sofa, I sat on the other side, and we put a cushion in between for George to sit on if he so chose. He did. And stared at Charlie in the carrier—who was curled up tight as a kitty ammonite. This lasted about 30 minutes. Then he sat on my lap and yowled piteously: Let his brother out to play! Then he decided he would make his brother play, anyway. He stuck his paw through the wire door and pushed at the kitty ammonite. The ammonite stirred slightly. So then George jabbed. The ammonite huffed a bit. George jumped on top of the carrier and tried to dig through the roof. At which point Charlie woke up and George got frantic: Out! Out! Let him out! So we did.

Charlie has always been fearless. Being unable to see has not changed this. I could write ten thousand words on the next 12 hours (I think I’ve lost about 5 years from my life) but let me just say: within an hour Charlie and George were racing around the kitchen and family room full tilt. This of course meant that Charlie hurtled headlong into the glass sliding door that he did’t know was there. Nearly decapitated himself on the cross bars on the kitchen chairs. And got fallen on like a ton of bricks by a brother who did not understand why he could rear up on his hind legs, giving Charlie plenty of warning, only for Charlie to appear surprised when George pounced. George didn’t understand, either, why when he ran to Charlie and tagged him, Charlie would run in the wrong direction. He brought Charlie a paper ball to play with, and Charlie stared about 20 degrees to one side.

The last two days have been amazing. This tiny, fearless kitten and his much bigger brother George, are utterly in charge of their world. They run around chirruping at each other and tussling, and sleeping companionably. Yes, Charlie still sometimes walks through his food dish. Yes, he still sometimes gives himself a good crack on the head when one of us forgets to leave a door open just the right amount. But by using his whiskers, keen sense of smell, those bat-like ears, and amazing spacial sense, I think some visitors might not be able to tell that he is, mostly, blind. And he is growing and gaining weight visibly.

There is nothing wrong with Charlie’s eyes. The visual impairment is a cortical processing issue. The vet—the wonderful Lora Schuldt from Cats Exclusive—suspects there’s still the possibility of further healing and improvement in the next five weeks or so. Selfishly, I’d like that. I’d like to stop nearly having a heart attack when Charlie jumps up on things and heads blithely for an edge he can’t possibly know is there. And it would be lovely to hear a crash and thud and not think: Oh my god he’s fallen and broken his back leaping from the counter onto my Rollator that’s no longer there. Or to feel confident that he won’t just knock over a boiling cup of tea and scald himself. But he seems perfectly happy; if he never sees any more than he does today, he will continue to adapt and have an enormously fine and adventurous life.

One thing: the vet thinks it’s possible, given that the polyp broke into pieces, that it might regrow on the left—equally, that one my eventually grow on the right, or that there may be no more polyps. (She thinks it seriously unlikely that George will develop polyps.) But I’ll keep you apprised of goings on. Meanwhile, here are a couple of pictures from the last two days.

For the first time since he’s back, Charlie finds his way onto my lap on his second favourite sofa and sleeps blissfully while I read a book I’ve been sent for a review, and George gets on the red cushion next to me and stares, making sure I don’t harm a hair on his little brother’s head:

Tabby kitten sleeps with its paws over its eyes

Charlie: Tell me when he stops staring…

Tabby kitten sitting on brilliant red cushion staring like a demon

George: I’ve got my eye on you

That evening, Kelley and I relax with wine while George sleeps on her lap and Charlie does his utterly, fearlessly unconscious, boneless thing on mine.

Sleeping kitten hangs upside down from lap of woman with a glass of wine, sitting cross-legged

Relaxing with kitten and wine

They are both spending an inordinate amount of time eating and running around, but I only remember to take pics when they’re still. So here’s one more of Charlie until I manage to catch them in fearless (oh god) action.

Little tabby kitten clinging in his sleep to his mom's arm

Charlie swears he will never go anywhere again

Kitten report #02

The cats are growing. George is still sneezing occasionally but is getting bigger and stronger every day. Charlie is also growing, but less quickly. We’re consulting with the vet and will have more information on that in a few days.

They’ve been tearing up the house and they want to play all the time. The other morning, between breakfast and lunch, we played foil ball, then chase-the-red-dot (laser pointer), then hurtle about the place chasing the feather on a fishing line, then eat the shoelaces, then steal a piece of roast beef, then paper ball (well, actually, first they played knock the wastebasket over, then recycling bag, then paper ball…). After that it was destroy the sunglasses, followed by round 2 of paper ball, and round 2 of foil ball. At which point Charlie thought it might be a fine idea to knock all the candles off the counter, subdue the microwave, and murder the catnip mouse. When I made lunch they watched the water.

CHARLIE: What is it?
GEORGE: I don’t know.
CHARLIE: Should we hit it?
GEORGE: I don’t know.
CHARLIE: Right. We’ll just watch it for a while.
GEORGE: Okay.
CHARLIE: And then hit it.

The family motto certainly seems to be becoming clear: Hit it, or put it in your mouth.

At lunch time we all rested. After which they played king-of-the-condo, followed by watch the water again, then hit the water, bite the water, sneeze, and fall off the sink. Then of course there was nothing for it but to fall into the toilet and dash about soaking wet for a while. At which point it seemed to me that discretion was the better part of valour, and I retired to the kitchen deck and left the house to their tender ministrations. George, of course, was not happy about being left behind and decided to seek an alternative escape route.

They are in serious learning mode. Just in the last week their hunting methods have changed. Instead of running madly back and forth after Feather, they have taken to lying in wait behind bits of furniture to ambush it on appearance. George is developing impressive ball control when we play pawball. Charlie and I sometimes play Feather badminton: I prop the stick into the back cushion of the sofa, then we sit, one at each end, batting Feather back and forth while George perfects his aikido rolls over the foil ball on the carpet.

They seem to have passed through the chase-their-own-tail stage already, though are still fascinated by each other’s…

They continue to approach the world from different perspectives. Charlie might be smaller and more fragile but he’s a fearless explorer. He has no idea George weighs 30% more than him and tends to regard him as an annoying little brother. George, on the other hand, ponders everything deeply before doing.

Tabby kitten washed gold in the sun, striding tail up across terracotta floor.

Charlie strides through the sun like a young god.

Black and white image of small tabby kitten on a kitchen chair, head tilted, looked slightly apprehensive

For George, the day is grey and full of uncertainties

Sometimes, though, they simply sleep companionably while giving the impression that they’re quite grown up. I know better. They’re simply gathering the energy for another mammoth assault on all they don’t yet know.

Two tabby kittens sleeping head to tail on a brown chair cushion

Sloth = growth. George (top) and Charlie (bottom) dream of future destruction