I worked as a senior ad executive for a major publishing company in the San Francisco Bay Area until an undiagnosed congenital brain disorder nearly killed me on April 1, 2005. Since then, I have turned to more creative endeavors such as singing and songwriting, and I have often shared the story of my near-death experience and my long road to recovery. But never before have I told the story of how my beautiful gray tabby, Clyde, helped save my life — not just once, but on several occasions since then.
In February 2004, I had just returned from a year-long working sabbatical in Hawaii. I had moved to Maui hoping to find the perfect life where I could sell timeshares in real estate, be an artist on the side, and then find Mr. Right AND become a perfect surf mom, all in one go. It was a nice fantasy, but a fantasy at that! I returned to the Bay Area with a bruised ego and a pile of debt. Luckily, my best friend Cindy had a spare room, and my former employers were happy to rehire me. I returned to the same high-pressure, deadline-driven newspaper advertising job I had excused myself from the year before.
I met Clyde, who was then three months old, the night I got back. Cindy and her husband, Peter, had recently opened a German restaurant-bar called Speisekammer. They were proud parents to 4-year-old Pete and 2-year-old Darla, my goddaughter, and had a menagerie that included two French Bulldogs, five exotic fish, and another cat who had been Cindy’s baby for more than 10 years.
Clyde was an adorable fluffball with dark-gray stripes, expressive almond-green eyes, and a flickering tail. I felt sorry for him, because every morning Darla would burst from her bedroom and hunt that kitten down! She would lovingly wrap her arms around “dat putty cat” and drag him into the pantry to play with him in there with the door closed for what seemed like hours.
Although I was happy to be home, I was depressed and stressed. Sometimes I would come home from work in a funk and shed a tear or two, and Clyde became a frequent visitor to my room. Cindy suggested I take Clyde with me when I got my own apartment. It was a win-win situation. He escaped Darla’s grabby little hands, and I got a loving creature to share my life with.
Clyde and I moved into a one-bedroom apartment on the third floor of a swinging, modern building near San Francisco Bay shoreline in Alameda. We had a spacious outside deck that looked over an interior pool. After a hard day, he and I would stretch out on a lawn chair in the sun. I even gardened a bit while he chased butterflies and bugs. I soon made friends with my neighbor, a salty but friendly Navy veteran who said he would always keep an eye out for me. I felt safe and happy.
Every morning around 5, Clyde would wake me up by digging under the bedcovers and snuggling up against my belly. This naturally triggered my maternal instincts, because I sensed how much he needed me. Sometimes I was late because I enjoyed petting the furry rascal so much.
While I got ready for work, Clyde usually stayed in bed. I could tell how much he played during the day by the number of kitty toys scattered around my apartment. And he was always waiting at the door when I got home. It was a huge comfort to come home to him because I gave so much of myself to my job. No matter how late I got in, we always spent an hour or so cuddled up on the couch. We had a deep connection.
It was not unheard of for me to work 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week. My body began to send signals that all was not well. Unfortunately, I was so focused on meeting my goals that I was ignoring some warning signs.
At first, I began to get headaches and sinus pain. One of the nice things about outside sales is that if you are meeting your targets and you have a long day, you can take a break. So I began to drive home for midday naps. Clyde would nap with me, which helped me feel better, and I would go back to work, often clocking more late hours to make up.
By mid-February, I began having periods of deep fatigue. My limbs felt strangely heavy, and I became sensitive to music or noise from my co-workers’ cubicles. I would even snap at Clyde for no good reason. I assumed I was just overworked.
By March, each day was a struggle; it was all I could do to get to work with a smile on my face. I kept up with the mantra, “You’re almost there, you’re almost there.” I knew that each night I came home to Clyde, I was one day closer to my paper’s “Best Of” publishing deadline — the biggest issue of the year. But I was barely holding on.
Thoroughly miserable and feeling incredibly ill, I finally visited a new doctor. When she diagnosed a sinus infection, I wasn’t surprised. I had had a similar diagnosis in Maui, where allergies had plagued me, so I accepted her observations without question.
As I began to get ready, Clyde didn’t stay in bed like he usually did. Instead, he stood at my feet and caterwauled in the most irritating and alarming tone I had ever heard. “Whaaaaaatt?” I pleaded. “What is wrong?”April 1, 2005, wasn’t like any other day. We were closing in on the Best Of issue. My assistant and I were hitting our goals and then some. Sadly, my new medications didn’t seem to be helping. So I slept in a little, hoping to store up some extra energy to make it through the day. Instead, when the alarm went off, so did the familiar pulsating pain in my head
Clyde followed me around, constantly getting under my feet. I tried to ignore him, but he jumped onto the bathroom counter as I was doing my makeup. “Get away from me!” I begged. He meowed gutturally again.
I’m sure that Clyde was picking up that something was terribly wrong and I was running out of time. He knew I was about to go out into the big bad world and that I was in grave danger. He was trying to warn me, but I didn’t listen. Instead, I brushed him off the counter and shook my head.
Clyde was meowing again as I grabbed my coat and keys. “Stop it!” I swore. “I already feel like crap, and now you’re making me late!” The last thing I remember before leaving that day was nearly doing a faceplant over Clyde as I walked out the door.
When I finally got to work, I was an hour late and in some distress. I had a steady dull headache, and kept asking my co-workers to turn down their noise. At 4 p.m., I was picking up a check from a client when my legs went a little numb. I thought about calling 911, but the feeling passed. Frankly, I was just hoping to get through this day unscathed, so I scrambled to my car and got back to the office.
My manager agreed that I was probably just tired. I knew that in another 24 hours this issue would be done, I would be vindicated, and I could celebrate with a trip to an exotic beach somewhere. In the meantime, I just wanted to get some grub and get home to my beloved Clyde. I drove to Speisekammer, where Cindy fixed me a tenderloin steak. But when I didn’t feel like eating it, I knew it was time to head home.
It was all I could do to get myself safely through the door. Clyde greeted me as usual, but seemed less anxious than he had that morning. I changed into my pajamas, poured a drink, and cuddled up with him on the couch. I was wiped out, and puzzled about my lack of appetite. It was so unlike me — troubling, in fact.
I think I zoned out watching TV for a few minutes when I was abruptly brought into full consciousness by a horrific sensation. It felt as though an electric shock had traveled up my spine to the base of my skull, except it happened deep inside my torso. I instantly understood that all of my symptoms, coupled with Clyde’s warnings this morning, meant that I was in horrific trouble.
The situation looked dire. I was locked in my apartment alone with my cat. I didn’t have a landline, and I wasn’t sure I could reach my cellphone, which was turned off and sitting on the kitchen counter some 20 feet away. I tried to shift my weight from the couch to walk to the kitchen, but pitched forward into a spin and fell down.