Valerie Hegarty is a Brooklyn-based visual artist and an emerging writer. She has been recognized for her achievement in the arts by numerous grants from the Tiffany Foundation, the Rema Hort Mann Foundation, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She exhibits her artwork internationally and has been awarded residencies from the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation, Smack Mellon, LMCC, Performance Space 122, Yaddo, and the MacDowell Colony.
“Cats vs. Cancer” was originally published in the New England Review.
I throw the bandage in the trash can with the clumped kitty litter. I ask the kitty lying with me on the bed on top of the covers, “Did you do your best today? Did you show up and do what you needed to do today?”
The kitty rolls lazily onto her back and stretches out her arms and legs like she’s in rigor mortis. She was recently neutered and I rub her shaved belly and mending incision line. She is purring. She is black with long white feet and white front paws, a white chin and half a white nose.
“Kitten mittens!” I say, rubbing her belly. “Cat jammies! You did a great job today, kitty!”
I adjust the ice pack under my bra. When I lifted my bra up in front of the mirror earlier, there was blood on the outer surgical bandage. I remember the nurses said if I see some blood, that’s normal.
Where did you find the idea for this story?
This story is a lightly fictionalized version of my own experience of getting a breast cancer diagnosis at the same time I rescued a kitten. Since I hadn’t really submitted before I didn’t realize there was a “nonfiction” category.
How long did it take you to write this story?
I wrote it pretty quickly in a few sittings, it was originally over 10,000 words when I submitted it.
Though the story deals with heavy themes including cancer, suicide, and addiction, it is infused with several surprising moments of humor that introduce some levity to otherwise grim and traumatic circumstances. Can you talk a bit about the role that humor plays in this story, and how you might use humor in your own life to cope with difficult experiences?
I have a dark and absurdist sense of humor and tend to filter experiences through humor, especially after some time has passed. I find humor healing. I once heard someone say “Don’t quit before it gets funny,” and I love that.
The way the narrator addresses her cats is so joyful to read, and will also surely be very relatable for cat-owners everywhere. The story begins, for instance, with the narrator talking earnestly with her kitten, at the same time she is adjusting ice packs under her bra after an invasive medical procedure. The narrator is so caring and attentive to her cats, and they are often the first place her mind goes before, during, or after each visit to the doctor (she worries, for example, how she will feed them if she becomes bedridden after getting a mastectomy.) Can you say more about the narrator’s relationship with her cats, as well as the grounding and distracting presence they can have during periods of trauma and turmoil?
I love animals and similar to humor, I also find them healing. Some studies have actually found that a cat’s purring can help mend broken bones. The narrator who is a thinly veiled version of me, feels bad when she sees an animal suffering. They are all very scrappy, the narrator, the cats, her recovery friends, all relying on the kindness of strangers.
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
I always wanted to be a writer along with an artist and when my career became focused on art I always thought to myself that I could become a writer later in life. After turning 50 and getting a cancer diagnosis I thought maybe this is “later”. The recognition of the Robert J. Dau prize gives me great encouragement to keep at it. Also the support by The New England Review means so much to me. My undergrad and grad degrees are in art so I haven’t had much professional feedback on my writing — aside from a workshop I took with Rebecca Schiff, author of The Bed Moved, during which I started writing “Cats. vs. Cancer.”
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a series of short stories and also started a novel-length work this summer.
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
Friends’ recommendations and I read short stories in the journals I subscribe to along with newsletters by various journals that have short stories posted online. Personal favorites are One Story and the New England Review.