It started in 1993, several months after my first birthday, with one simple word. Both of my parents were surprised to hear me talk because struggles with ear infections delayed my speech. All it took for me to speak was the daily visit from the neighbors’ cat. Tigger was sitting outside the kitchen door, expecting to be let in for snuggles, cuddles, and food. I took one look at him and exclaimed “cat!” After my first word, however, nobody could have predicted the battle I would fight to maintain my hearing.
Ear problems considered typical for infants transformed into a chronic illness, which disintegrated my eardrums over the course of 10 years. Delays in speech became social delays caused by hearing loss, and frequent absences related to illness. There were plenty of things that upset me about ear infections; not having a lot of friends; ice-cold eardrops that gave me migraines; teachers who did not understand my health problems. Nothing upset me as much, however, as not being able to hear a cat purr. I knew it existed because it vibrated in my fingertips, giving me a “thank-you” massage for stroking the cat’s back. No matter how close I put my ear though, I could never hear the cat’s wordless way of saying “thank you” and “I love you.”
By age 10, I worried that would never happen. Half of my left ear was eroded by ventilation tubes, and only one scrap of my right eardrum was left. I was told, if my health did not change, I would be stone deaf at sixteen. Would I lose my chance to hear the cat’s purr? Would I ever find a way to stop these infections?
A change in otolaryngologists stopped the infections and allowed my eardrums to be repaired in surgery. August 24th, 2004, was the date of my first tympanoplasty. My surgeon did not realize that on the day he gave me a new eardrum, he also transformed me into a cat lady. I had loved cats since my first word, but the transformation completed itself in September 2004. Mom stood in the kitchen, swaddling the family cat, Greta, in her arms. Greta smiled, and this strange low rumbling began to fill the room. My eyebrows furrowed and my jaw hung loose. By now, my family was used to hearing me ask “What’s that?” every time I heard something for the first time. Mom and I looked at each other, and I knew this rumbling was different from all other sounds.
“Mom, what’s that noise? It sounds like a motorboat.”
“That’s the cat purring.”
Since that day, I have been under a spell that has cemented a lifelong love of cats. I play with every cat I meet, in hopes of hearing that beautiful sound. A cat purr reminds me to be grateful for the hearing I acquired in 2004, and the hearing gained with four subsequent surgeries. It’s easy to forget sounds heard on a daily basis, and even easier to forget pre-surgery life when bullied for hearing loss. Cat purrs, however, are sounds that I will never forget because they remind me of how far I have come. Hearing that purr indirectly told me that I was going to be okay. The warning that I would be deaf by age 16 was no longer hanging over my head. I knew my surgery had worked because I could hear the wordless, universal love language of cats.
Nobody could have predicted the phenomenon that would follow my first cat purr. At least one quarter of my wardrobe features something with cat paraphernalia. Over 30 pictures of cats cover my dorm room walls, and three stuffed cat dolls sleep in my bed. Every cat I meet, whether feral or domesticated, is an instant friend—especially if I have a piece of chicken in my pocket. My first contribution to a book and performance art piece were based upon my love for cats.
With this growing love, I learned the benefits purrs offer. They can reduce blood pressure and anxiety. Their frequencies can help heal broken bones, infections, and soft tissues. These benefits are wonderful, and all the more reason I advocate cat adoption. Benefits, however, mean nothing to me if I am unable to hear the purr itself. Without the cat’s wordless “I love you”, I do not know how I would function. I know I would be lost without cat purrs, and I do my best to return the favor by volunteering at no-kill shelters. Making sure each cat is prepared for adoption is the best way I can envision repaying cats, as a whole, for the comfort and sanctuary they bring with each purr.
Regardless of what happens with my health and my hearing, I will always treasure the cat purr. It is my beacon in times of darkness because it reminds me of what matters the most: that I am able to hear, and am far from the violent illnesses of my youth.