Schrödinger’s Cat

Creative Nonfiction by Hazel Aspera |

I don’t think I’ll forget what Jonard told me the first day I brought the kitten to work. He was watching me slowly push at the plunger of the syringe to feed milk to the days-old creature we had rescued a couple of weeks ago when he quipped: “If he lives, it’s probably a sign that you were meant for medical school.”

I looked down at the tiny mass of golden yellow and white fluff in my palm, sucking goat’s milk hungrily from the syringe. All the local veterinary shops had run out of bottles small enough for a newborn cat. I thought that if my chances of getting into med school depended on whether this kitten lived or died… I might as well not take the National Medical Admission Test.

“What if he doesn’t live?” I asked Jonard.

After all, there were kittens before this one. Three of them, all at once. It was my father, I think, who had deemed them abandoned and “rescued” them, to my disapproval. After all, mother cats don’t just abandon their kittens. And they won’t want to take their kittens if they’ve been touched by humans. Being the only “medical” person in the family, I had the responsibility of caring for them, by default. And then I watched them die, one by one.

This one was different, though. Just a few days ago, he was crawling, eyes not even open, on the pavement in front of our home. He was likely to get run over by a car if we didn’t take him in.

“Then,” Jonard said, “maybe it’s a sign you were meant to be a vet.”

“I don’t want to be a vet,” I said. I mean, I love animals. But I didn’t feel passionate enough about it to make it a career.

The kitten started squirming in my hand, his soft fur tickling the spaces between my fingers. He had had enough milk, it seemed. I then took a cotton ball, moistened it with some warm water, and started rubbing it over the kitten’s genitals.

I read on the internet, minutes after we had rescued him, that newborn kittens can’t pee on their own. They needed their mothers to lick them after every feeding to stimulate urination. Sure enough, the cotton ball was soon stained a light yellow. I then laid him down in the basket, beside a makeshift hot water bottle – literally a glass bottle filled with warm water and wrapped with cloth.

I then brought the feeding equipment over to our office sink, and started scrubbing them: an old, coverless Tupperware lunch box, a medicine cup, and a one-milliliter syringe with the needle removed. After washing them, I gave them a shock with a splash of boiling water, and then set them aside for the next feeding an hour later.

This was nearly the same routine, I thought, that I used to do whenever we had premature babies in the pediatric ICU, back when I was working in a hospital. Human babies are, perhaps, even more fragile than animal ones. At least the kittens could crawl.

Premature humans are the most fragile of all, not able to even breathe on their own. Most of them looked like hopeless cases when they came in. But in working with them I learned that it didn’t matter whether you thought the child would make it or not. All that mattered was that you got up every hour for the same routine: give them milk, burp them, maybe change their diaper. It was this constancy, this stubbornness of the medical team to do their jobs day in and day out that gave many of those fragile babies another shot at life.

Little did I know, back then, that I’d be using nearly the same routine to keep a cat, of all things, alive.

*

We didn’t name the kitten until he was about a month old. By that time, his syringe feedings were now down from every hour to only every two to four hours. All my siblings, including Astra, our youngest, now knew how to feed him so I could leave him at home on most days. In fact, it was she who insisted that we name him already.

“Are we not getting attached to it?” Astra asked pointedly, in her pointedly Astra way, as the kitten started clawing his way up her arm in anticipation of his next feeding.

It took me a while to register her question. I was too busy with my phone, watching Crash Course Chemistry videos on YouTube to prepare myself for the medical admission test later that year.

“Are we not getting attached to it?” she asked again.

“I guess that’s what we’re afraid of,” my brother, Sha, quipped. That wasn’t exactly wrong. I guess I had been so scared I’d wake up one day and find him dead that I’d been putting off giving him a real name. After all, it’s easier to lose a cat without a name than a cat with one.

“How about Schrödinger?” I asked. I had been toying with calling him that for a while now, after the Austrian physicist and his poor theoretical cats in boxes. And this one was a poor cat who lived in a box in my room.

Astra rolled her eyes. “Everyone names their cat Schrödinger.”

“I literally don’t know anyone whose cat is named Schrödinger,” I retorted.

She didn’t reply, distracted by the kitten greedily sucking at the syringe – now also upgraded from a 1 milliliter to a 3 milliliter one.

“Besides, then we can call him Ding for short,” I added, a name after the goofy-looking Korean cartoon cat. As a child, she used to have Ding bedroom slippers. She might like that.

“Whatever,” she said.

I thought she might come up with a better name, which I’d probably agree to. It didn’t matter to me what we called him, anyway, as long as he was alive. So I put my earphones back on and I went back to watching Hank Green discuss Entropy. And the Second Law of Thermodynamics: “Which says that any spontaneous process increases the disorder or randomness of the universe. Processes that don’t increase the disorder of the universe require work to be done in apposition to the disorder, and are, in fact often impossible to achieve,” the tiny Hank Green in my phone continued.

I looked back at Astra, who was supposed to be feeding the kitten. But he was already clawing his way up the front of her shirt.

*

Erwin Schrödinger was a Nobel-prize-winning Austrian physicist who lived between 1887 and 1961, a period when scientists were still trying to wrap their heads around a strange, new, and unintuitive theory called quantum mechanics.

In pop culture, Schrödinger is probably most famous for his thought experiment on quantum superposition, an idea which says that a particle can be in all of its possible states at the same time until it is observed,wherein all the probabilities collapse into a single reality. His famous thought experiment illustrates just how absurd he found this:

Say you lock a cat up in a box with a radioactive substance. If the radioactive substance were to decay within an hour, the cat would die. If, however, it did not, the cat would live. Schrödinger then said that if quantum superposition were true, then the substance would be in a state of both decayed and undecayed as long as the box remains unopened. Which would mean that the cat inside the box would be in a state of both dead and alive, until you open the box and the substance “decides” what state it’s in.

Though Schrödinger told the story to illustrate just how irrational the idea of both alive-and-dead cats were, this interpretation of quantum mechanics is pretty much widely accepted today. To me, it was fascinating, just how the science and the logic of everyday life just seem to fall apart at this scale. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, but that was why I was hungry to learn more.

That he used a cat to prove his point also reminded me of my own kitten, a fragile, motherless creature I thought we’d have to bury eventually.

But every time I opened my figurative Schrödinger’s box, the probabilities collapsed and Schrödinger the cat was always alive. As I grew closer to taking my exam, I became more and more sure that he’d live. He had grown into a fat cat with an attitude. In fact, he was the perfect size to hold in my arms like a baby as I bury my face into his golden fur.

However, just like our dog, Dude, he wasn’t a big fan of hugs. But unlike our dog, he made it a point to let me know. By digging his claws deep into my skin just before he jumps down to the floor after the hug.

My other sister, Kim, had it worse, though. She didn’t quite like Ding, which is what we ended up calling Schrödinger most of the time. Maybe it was because she was used to dog love, which was reliable, unconditional, and always very happy to see you. As opposed to cat love, which depended on the animal’s fleeting mood, required plenty of space, and came along with a healthy amount of hate for free.

As Ding entered his rowdy teenage cat-years- his hunter instincts kicked in, and he’d often wait in the shadow of the refrigerator to pounce anyone who passed by. For some reason, however, he pounced Kim more than anyone else, possibly because he could tell that she didn’t like him all that much.

In fact, Ding was doing that elaborate kitty hindfoot-in-the-air posture as he was cleaning himself one day when Kim remarked: “Haha, he’s doing gymnastics.”

For some reason, the cat could tell that she had said something in jest. His ears flicked, he stood up and arched his back, and then pounced on her, digging his claws in so deep that he drew blood.

Kim shrieked, and I had to tell the cat off while trying not to laugh at the thought that he just might be able to understand human language.

*

I didn’t want Ding to be an outdoors cat. I’ve always assumed that, like our dog he’d be content staying indoors, fattening up and napping as much as he pleased. But by blood, Ding was one of those half-wild stray neighborhood cats. He refused domestication in pretty much the same way I stubbornly refused my mother’s insistence that the one way to be successful in life was to go abroad, hence my decision to go into medical school.

And just like any mother, I was bent on keeping him indoors and safe, even when it was obvious that wasn’t what he wanted. He’d perk up when cats started to meow out of the house. He’d often climb on our couch and stretch his body at its full length to peer out of the window, looking longingly at the great outdoors.

It was because of this that my brother bought him a leash to attach to his purple collar. When he finally arrived at the great outdoors for his very first walk, however, he looked both terrified and murderous.

He crouched low on the ground as he stared daggers at me and my brother. When he finally decided to move, he crawled a bit and then stared daggers at us some more before moving again.The moment he finally got to the edge of the garage, a car zoomed past and he ran for our door.

Maybe he was reluctant because he wasn’t used to the outdoors at the time. Or maybe he couldn’t stand the indignity of being leashed like a common dog. When he finally went outdoors again, it was on his own terms.

It happened one evening, the same night that I learned about quantum entanglement. I had already passed the NMAT, but my curiosity still had not climbed up and out of the rabbit hole of quantum mechanics, and so I was still staying up late to watch videos on physics.

Quantum entanglement is this weird thing that creep the Albert Einstein out so much that he called it “spooky action at a distance”.Now, to be honest I can’t quite wrap my head around this idea. But I will try to explain it inasmuch as someone who has only ever learned about quantum entanglement through YouTube videos can.

See, information can only ever travel between particles at the speed of light. Like if you and a friend on the other side of the world want to wear matching shirts today, you will have to make a call so that you can agree on what shirt to wear and when. That’s going to take time and coordination.

But when two particles are entangled, anything you do to one particle will instantly affect the other, no matter how far apart they are. Almost as if it is their destinies that are entangled. As if for some spooky reason, you and a friend on the other side of the world just happen to put on identical shirts every single day for the rest of your lives.

It was about two in the morning when I had finally satisfied my curiosity on this. I went back to my room to find that one of the windows was open. I immediately peered under the bed, and then into every cranny. The cat was missing. Panicked, I searched the whole house, and still there was no cat.

I found him the moment I opened the front door, as he was walking around the garage. We both stopped in our tracks, but I managed to regain my senses first and wrap my arms around him before he ran away.

When I set him down inside my room, he was restless. He kept on climbing the stack of books that led up to the once-open window. When he found it was closed, he’d jump back down, circle the room, and then climb back up again. And again. And again.

*

I submitted an application to exactly one medical school, the only one in Cagayan de Oro City, at the time. See, I was dead set on studying medicine close to home. After all, I wanted to be near my family, my boyfriend, my friends… not to mention that meant I didn’t have to spend on board and lodging. See, I didn’t have much in the way of savings, and with my father nearing retirement, I didn’t have that kind of fortune to spend on my education.

That was risky. See, most would-be medical students sent applications to at least two or three different schools, just in case. But I guess I was blindly confident because:

  1. Thirteen years ago, I sent exactly one application to a competitive college in just one university and got accepted; and
  2. I happened to be applying for the School of Medicine in that same university.

Even the lady at the counter where I made the inquiry guaranteed me that alumni got in fairly easily.

I was granted an interview, which went very well, but it was clear that only one thing was against me: I had been out of school for more than five years. Eight years, in fact. Apparently, that was way too long to wait from baccalaureate to medical school and so, by school policy, I had to take a one-year refresher course.

This was costly and time-consuming, and so much trouble that I figured that maybe it was just not meant for me.

“I’ll ask the board to review your application,” the interviewer told me, nevertheless. “We’ll let you know.”

And then I never heard from them again. I guess my chances of getting into med school didn’t depend on Ding, after all. When I got home after the interview, I picked him up (he, of course, meowed in protest) and gave him a big hug. He let me hold him, begrudgingly, for a small while. When he squirmed out of my arms a few seconds later, he made sure to give me a good, hard scratch that left white marks near my elbow. But later that evening, he got out of his box in my room and huddled close to me. I buried my face in his fur, whiffing that oddly comforting cat smell all night.

It’s alright, I thought to myself. After all, hadn’t I already proven that I could save lives in more ways than one?

*

Almost a year later, I saw an ad for another medical school that was opening in the city. For the sake of old dreams, I submitted another application, not really expecting to get in  knowing now what a competitive, nitpicky affair med school applications were. I complied with all their requirements and went in for the interview.

“We’ll let you know,” the panel told me, afterwards. I’ve heard that before, I thought.

Two weeks later, I was working on a freelance writing gig late into the night, in between intermittent naps on the couch. I didn’t want to be too comfortable when I was working, so I avoided my bed altogether.

A few minutes after I lay down on the couch for another nap, Ding walked in from the kitchen and jumped up onto my chest. He snuggled under my blanket and started to purr, sending humming vibrations through my body. I slowly stroked his fur until I fell asleep. Neither of us moved until sunrise.

I didn’t know, then, that that was the last night that Ding would spend with us. After breakfast, he walked out the door for his routine early morning walk and he never came back. In the weeks after that, it felt as if he were a kitten all over again, back in those nights when I’d leave him in his box, not knowing whether I’d wake up to find him alive or dead. He was, indeed, his namesake’s cat. Only, there was no way for me to open the box. Not this time.

My worst fear was that I’d find his dead, flat body, on the street. After all, that was the fate that we had saved him from. Besides, I didn’t want to get weepy and sentimental over roadkill. Thankfully, that never happened.

Which is why I think I’ll never forget what Jonard told me the first day I brought Ding to work: “If he lives, it’s probably a sign that you were meant for medical school.”

Only now, I thought, there was no way of knowing whether he was alive or dead.

Later that week, I got the call from med school. I was in.

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Hazel Aspera

Hazel Aspera is the associate director for communications and a junior fellow for fiction and essay of the Nagkahiusang Magsusulat sa Cagayan de Oro (NAGMAC). She obtained her BS Nursing degree from Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan and currently studies at the Liceo de Cagayan University’s College of Medicine. She works part-time as a freelance artist and writer. A fellow for essay at the 1st Cagayan de Oro Writers Workshop, the 2017 Kausaban Creative Writing Workshop, and the 2nd Kagis Creative Writers Workshop where she received the 2018 Vicente Bandillo Literary Award, her works of nonfiction have been published in the Cotabato Literary Journal and the Bulawan Literary Journal of Northern Mindanao, as well as in the book Peace Journeys: A Collection of Peacebuilding Stories in Mindanao. She has an essay forthcoming in Mindanao Odysseys: A Collection of Travel Essays. Her ongoing literary projects include a detective novel and a collection of travel essays.

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