I returned to work on April 6th following a ten-month absence. I’d taken time off to receive treatment for multiple myeloma, a cancer affecting the plasma cells in my blood. I spent the fall and winter months recuperating from an immune suppressed condition, the result of an autologous stem cell transplant.
I am the Postmaster at a small rural community in Oregon. This unincorporated area is comprised of apple, pear, and cherry orchards. A country highway runs through town, north to the Columbia River and south to the Mt. Hood National Forest.
The town has a strong Hispanic influence, reflected in the mix of businesses that dot the main drag. The Michoacan Cafe sits next door to Taqueria Los Amigos, and both are popular eateries serving authentic Mexican food. There’s a gas station where, in addition to fuel, you can get weather reports, gossip, and credit. We are just an ink spot on the map, but if you’ve got a problem, just ask for Butch or Paco.
The office I manage sits on a side street, catty corner from the elementary school and Methodist Church. For the most part, I work alone selling stamps and delivering mail to post office boxes. I’m also a companion to Curly, the postal cat, aka, El Gato del Correos.
Curly arrived in the spring of 2003. She was dirty, malnourished, and as I was soon to learn, pregnant. At that time, family concerns frequently drew me away from work. Therefore, I failed to put the kibosh on Curly’s opportunistic adoption of the post office for a home. Everyone in town, but for me, felt that she belonged and was the sidekick I needed to take my mind off of a troubling time.
A local graphic artist allowed Curly to use her studio to deliver a litter of two. She found homes for the kittens, arranged for a local non-profit to provide spaying, and returned Curly to our care.
Some less observant folks think I bring her from home each day; but no, the post office is her home. We put her outside at night. Each morning, when we open, she is waiting patiently at the front door. Winters here are long and sometimes fierce. Nonetheless, she thrives. On weekends and holidays, customers stop by with treats to tide her over until Monday. Obviously, it takes a village to raise a cat.
In my recent absence, a succession of temporary Postmasters (out-of-towners) served in my stead for three-month stints. Each tolerated Curly, less they bear the wrath of the community. She is absolutely the Queen of the town, lording over both children and adults, not to mention the former cat curmudgeon that was me.
I have mixed emotions about returning to work. The meditative recuperation of last winter suited my personality. Still, I realize good luck played a part in this opportunity. Many patients with MM lose their jobs. Their myeloma treatments may be too demanding or, worse, the cancer has stolen their job skills. I have a reprieve and the reward is, ironically, work. Curly’s placid company complements my gratitude.
Thus far, the eight-hour days test my stamina. My feet, numb from peripheral neuropathy, throb during the long periods I must stand. Expensive, cushioned running shoes seem to make a difference. I use hand sanitizer compulsively to offset the exposure to germs from mail and money. I have some back pain but my oncologist wants to wait until later this spring to do a bone survey. Until then I’ll have faith that inactivity, not multiple myeloma, is the culprit.
In a way, I’m like Curly, the postal cat. We are both survivors who found sanctuary in this tiny rural post office. Here, adversity happens in proportions equal to that of any population. My cancer is just another local story, remarkable only because, for the time being, it spins positively.
Curly’s inauspicious beginning aroused compassion in the community. In a metaphorical sense, we all begin as alley cats, squalling for attention, playing to the instinct for tenderness inherent in sentient beings. Life’s journey comes without a guarantee. It’s on loan to each of us. In return, we have only love to offer as collateral. Curly, El Gato del Correos, reminds me that love is all you need.