The Tabby Buddha: Cody’s Story

Dear Readers,

In this blog post, I share a personal account of how a very special tabby cat made a big difference in my life. Why share a story about a cat on my mental health blog? Well, dear readers, Cody was no ordinary cat. His story is an inspirational one, filled with themes of beating the odds, resilience, and the importance of an easygoing attitude.  His sweet story also exemplifies what we know from social science research and what so many of us animal lovers know from direct experience: animal companions can boost our emotional, social, and physical health. Our animal companions can get into parts of our hearts that other humans just can’t quite reach, adding tremendous richness to our lives if we allow ourselves to remain open. Not everyone is a pet person and I respect that, but if you are, I hope Cody’s story inspires you to reflect on the gifts those special animals have given you.

With gratitude and warm wishes,

Dr. Jen

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“Cody has a tumor and I think it’s cancer.” Our vet delivered the upsetting news just three weeks before Christmas and only three months after my mother had died suddenly. She referred us to a specialist and sent us home with pain medication for our 13-year-old cat. Two weeks later, the specialist operated on Cody to remove the tumor and gave us terrible news: pancreatic cancer. She gave Cody a month or two to live and told us to spoil him rotten. When we visited Cody after the surgery, he was loopy and silly from medications but just as sweet as he could be. He was excited to see us, rubbing all over us and purring nonstop. As we were leaving the surgery center, the woman at the front desk said to us, “Your cat is awesome!” We couldn’t have agreed more. Cody had a lot of fans.

I adopted Cody from a shelter in Maryland when he was about a year old. He was a total charmer. As I approached his cage, he rubbed all over the bars and meowed and purred invitingly. When I asked to get him out, he immediately snuggled into my arms. It was true love. The shelter worker could see what was unfolding and said, “We’ll really miss Cody if you adopt him!” Then she told me that he had recently been the featured adoptable pet on a local TV station. A TV star! He was very photogenic: a beautiful brown tiger tabby with green eyes and white fur on his chin, chest, and belly, and adorable white socks. I submitted the adoption application right away and brought him home a few days later.

Cody had quite a personality. He was very laidback and easygoing and everybody loved him. He never met a stranger. He moved with me to graduate school in Ohio and then to Texas for a job. Although he did not like car rides, he was an excellent role model for how to settle into a new place. He took everything in stride and maintained his mellow attitude. As long as he had his cat tree, he was home. He was a comforting presence for me throughout all of these transitions and stresses.

In Texas, I met and married my husband, whom Cody instantly adored. We bought a house and as usual, Cody showed us how easy it was to get comfortable in a new place. With more space, I decided to try teaching him and our other cat, Tashi, how to do tricks. I taught them both how to sit, stand, give five, and jump through a hula hoop. While Tashi did her tricks grudgingly to get her treats, Cody did his tricks with flair and gusto. He liked performing and would impress visitors to our house: “I didn’t know you could train a cat to do tricks!” He would even do his tricks at the vet’s office and cuddle with anyone there who wanted to love on him. We always joked that Cody was half-cat and half-dog, with the best of both personalities. He would even come when you called him—unheard of for a cat!

After getting his grim diagnosis and prognosis, we were in shock. I didn’t think I could bear saying goodbye to our sweet Cody so soon after saying goodbye to my mom. We followed the vet’s advice and spoiled him rotten. We gave Cody whatever he wanted to eat. We let him get on the kitchen counters and other places that had previously been forbidden. We even took him, a totally indoor cat, out into our backyard for supervised jaunts. We showered him with love and cherished every moment with him. He ate up all of the attention and soon was back to his affectionate, easygoing, playful self. We watched carefully for any signs of pain and decline but after two months, he was still acting completely normal. The same was true month after month. His vet checkups during this time were unremarkable. Nobody could explain why he was still doing so well. We all just celebrated it and were grateful for every day Cody blessed our lives.

A year after his grim diagnosis and prognosis, Cody was as lively and sweet as ever. We wondered if the lab had messed up the histopathology tests on the tumor. We didn’t care. We were just thrilled that he was still with us. We decided that Cody had a “cancer shmancer” attitude, especially after a year of being spoiled rotten: “Hey, this is pretty nice. I think I’ll stick around for more of this!” That year, our holiday card featured a picture of Cody curled up in front of the Christmas tree, as we shared our gratitude for miracles big and small.

The next few years were tough for us and our families. I had some unusual health problems that kept me out of work. My husband was laid off. My car was stolen from a shopping mall. Our house was broken into twice. A young family member died tragically. It all felt almost unbearable. Through it all, Cody was healthy and happy, with a zeal for life. He was a comforting, stabilizing presence, always reminding us that your attitude toward life can make a huge difference. We started referring to him as “The Tabby Buddha” because he seemed like such a wise, enlightened being. 

Don’t get me wrong, Cody was perfectly imperfect just like the rest of us. He could be very annoying. We had vaulted ceilings in our living/dining area and he like to listen to his meows echo in the room…in the middle of the night. He liked to jostle a metal door in the hallway to get attention, also in the middle of the night. He picked on his furry sister, Tashi. He liked to lie across the keyboard and swat at pens when my husband was doing work at his desk.  He was a cat, after all. We took all of his annoying habits in stride, as he did with ours.

Our lives finally started to settle down. I felt better, we were both gainfully employed, and our families were moving forward after loss. Cody began showing normal signs of aging and slowing down, though his attitude still remained youthful and loving. He still did his tricks everyday, got into trouble, and enjoyed cuddling. We were grateful in the knowledge that we would be saying goodbye to Cody in his old age rather than his life being cut short in middle age by cancer. Although we did not have our own children, we discovered that Cody was remarkably patient with kids. When young nieces, nephews, and friends’ children came to visit, Cody tolerated a lot of excited, clumsy, overzealous attention with great aplomb. He had his tail and ears pulled, had his fur pet the wrong way, was chased around the house, and was picked up around the middle. Not once did he act out. Instead, he removed himself from reach for a while, seeking respite under the dining room table or in another hiding place, and then come back for more attention a few minutes later.

We continued regular 6-month checkups years after the surgery. His vet loved him and called him, “Mr. Man.” He loved her, too, though he couldn’t understand why she squeezed him so hard—she always palpitated his abdomen to check for tumor regrowth. On one of his checkups, when he was 16, three years after the original cancel diagnosis, the vet felt something. An x-ray confirmed a tumor. We brought Cody back to the same specialist we’d seen several years prior. She did a needle biopsy of the tumor. The results: pancreatic cancer. They’d gotten the original histopathology right all those years ago. What they hadn’t gotten right was just how strong his will to live well was. Cody was an extra special cat. The specialist referred to him as her “miracle cat.”

We decided not to operate on the tumor, instead just caring for him as the elderly cat he was. We showered him with love and good care. He moved through old age gracefully for three years and continued to impress everyone with his positive attitude and enjoyment of life. We have no earthly idea how he managed to live so long and feel so good. In fact, he did his tricks, including jumping through a hula hoop, up until a week before he died. At over 19 years old, in early 2012, he finally let us know it was time for him to pass on.

Cody was that once-in-a-lifetime cat who defied the odds and had an unbelievably charming personality. To Cody, everyone was a friend and a potential source of rumples and love, even people he didn’t know and kids who pulled his ears. We taught him how to do tricks. He taught us how to live life with carefree gusto, resilience, adaptability, and easy forgiveness. He often reminded us to live in the moment. Cody was quite a teacher. May we all be blessed with such teachers and remain open to the lessons they have to offer.