Everything was different in Iowa: the weather was hot and humid, the streets were wide and clean, the farms on the edges of the flat road going from Des Moines to Ames looked like a green ocean of corn. The Americans were talking too fast for a foreigner, their English much different than the heavily accented English I was familiar with in Jerusalem. I decided to listen. It was a good ploy because not only did it helped me understand, but also hid my nervousness from all this newness.
Off the plane and on our way to my summer destination, we stopped at a restaurant, American Chips -very American and very busy. There, I encountered my first challenge in this new world. I had to choose a meal I'd like. The names of the dishes meant nothing to me, but my host, Betsy, was so excited to have me there that she seemed oblivious to my confusion. I made a random choice, but my luck was not good.
Betsy said, "Socksie will not be home tonight, so you won't meet her until tomorrow. She had a tooth abscess and was operated on this morning. She'll have to stay at the hospital under observation for a couple of days." I was confused, I thought both Betsy's daughters were away. Was one of them Socksie? I didn't say anything.
My host father, sensed my confusion, "Socksie is our old, old cat. She's been growing weaker lately. We just hope she makes it through this operation."
I was astonished. They were talking about a cat. I went on listening to them describe how this Socksie cat acts like a person, waits upstairs at their bedroom door so she can walk down to breakfast with them or tries to attract attention when they have guests. My hosts sounded like new parents talking about their first baby.
I never liked cats, but it was only when Socksie arrived home that I realized that cats are a source of anxiety for me. I knew, however, that I'd have to get along with Socksie if I was going to be welcome in this home. It wasn't a case of choosing. We were both staying.
Time passed. Socksie and I had a reached a stand-off. I was relieved when I went with the family for a vacation that did not include Socksie. When we returned to Ames, after two week, Betsy immediately went to the "cat boarding house" at her vet's to pick up Socksie. There, she paid a $300 bill. All I could think was, "$300 to board a cat for two weeks?"
It turned out that Socksie wouldn't eat while we were away. She had become depressed and the $300 was for all the tests and medicines the vet had given her to keep her alive. As it was, Socksie was barely alive. She had refused to eat for so long that now she couldn't eat. I couldn't help myself, I sympathized with the Socksie cat.
Betsy put out American Baby food. Socksie ignored it. Betsy put out food from the vet. Socksie ignored it. Finally, Betsy, John and I decided to force feed our patient. I filled a syringe with chicken broth, which smelled fishy to me. John squeezed Socksie's mouth open and Betsy forced the broth down Socksie's throat. Socksie survived. My concerns about Socksie drifted away after I visited some of my host's friends. I did not visit a home in Iowa that did not have a pet, most of them cats. Some people had as many as four cats or two dogs and two cats. All these animals greeted me as if they were people within their families.
The ugliest and most scary ones to me were black and huge with shiny eyes and long hair. Tiny malnourished, short haired Socksie, a Calico cat seemed like an angel in comparison to them.
Because I was so amazed by all the animals, Betsy took me to visit stores exclusively for pets. I saw huge varieties of food for animals; even cookies for pets in bright colors and odd shapes that looked good enough for me to eat. I went to the Iowa State University Veterinarian Medicine School and saw spacious operating rooms for horses and others for smaller animals. These were better than hospitals in my country, with more equipment and more staff. I couldn't believe my eyes.
All this pet attention seemed very unreal, a movie, a comedy. On the way to the airport at the end of my summer in Iowa, Betsy pointed out an animal beauty salon.
"Do you take Socksie there?" I asked.
"No, no," said Betsy.
Poor Socksie, I thought, she doesn't have all the privileges of cat-hood in America. Betsy has put her into a lower socio-economic status among cats. What a shame!
Today, I'm in a pediatrics ward in a hospital in East Jerusalem. I am doing my clinical practice as a medical student. Here is my charge, a nine-month-old baby lying in bed #4. The pale infant is extremely malnourished. She is so thin, she reminds me of Socksie the cat when she had to be force-fed. The child's black eyes are deeply sunken in her wasted face. Patches of baldness blemish the fine baby hair that should be in its place.
I play with the baby, I sing to her, I tickle her in an effort to attain a smile, any smile or at least eye contact. There is nothing there but dry lips and a face deep in mourning. The shadows of people behind me distract me. A pale, tired woman looks at me. Although she is young, her face is creased with wrinkles amassed by thinness and her teary eyes stare at the baby, her pride, her future.
Next to her stands a roughly dressed lean man. He is from the country. He speaks to the doctor in a rural accent, "We did not have the money. The hospital would not let her in until now. Will she survive?"
The doctor answers hesitantly, "I'm afraid it is too late. If only she had been admitted to the hospital earlier." I say in my heart," If only she were an American pet."
Samah Jabr is a freelance writer and medical student in Jerusalem. This article was re-published with permission from the author. Palestine report. You can visit the Palestine Report website at http://mail.jmcc.org/media/reportonline/report.html.