The one I love

I’ve been chatting online with a friend of mine who’s been quite distraught at the prospect of her cat being put down. Listening to my friend mourn her pet brought memories flooding back of my own experience a few decades ago and inspired this piece I wrote for a writing challenge on the theme of “Love & Loss”.

 

He was there when she was alone and needed a friend. Now her pet is dying, and she feels helpless.

When I was a child, probably about eight or nine, my family was visiting some neighbour friends for a late-night barbeque. As tended to be the case, the adults would sit around the grill and bitch about their marriages, or their jobs, or their children, whatever came to mind after a six-pack or two. We kids were relegated to the garden, free to roam around as long as we were within eyesight and able to stop, drop and roll at a moment’s notice. I was running around stupidly, freely, as children are wont to do, when I came across a small kitten, likely a stray. He was gray and dirty and had the cutest little nose. Unlike most cats I’d come across at the time, he didn’t seem to mind when I picked him up and roughed him up a bit. He was sweet and funny and even jumped up on my lap when I was lying in the grass, daydreaming. He was the friendliest cat I’d ever come across.

A cat seemed like the ideal pet for her. Cats are easy. All you really have to do is feed them and change their litter box. Cats aren’t like dogs; they don’t need attention. They just go about their own thing, eating, sleeping, shitting, licking themselves. The world of a cat is a blissful one, and it is decidedly solitary. They just go about their merry way, living their content, spoiled little lives, and if you end up playing with them, it’s because they have allowed you to.

She loved that concept. As nice as dogs are, you could pretty much smack them upside their head with a two-by-four, and after the cobwebs cleared and the blood was wiped out of their eyes, they’d happily come drooling back for more. Not cats. They don’t need you. They’re just fine without you, thank you very much. You have to earn the respect of a cat. They figure out whether or not they like you, and then they conclude if you’re worth hanging out with.

Her brother has the best way with cats. He has little interest in pets and he’s particularly not a fan of cats. So he just completely ignores them, not even implying any interest in their activities, a difficult task, since there are four of them roaming around his house. What happens? The cats, appreciative of not being picked up and snuggled when they just want to sleep, can’t get enough of the guy. He has to peel them off of him anytime he’s just trying to watch the telly. He often tells me that this is also how you’re supposed to deal with women, which, well, is a notion that might be of some value.

We were just fooling around. I would grab a leaf, rub it against his nose, then throw it so he could chase it around. He’d grab it in his teeth, bat at it with his paws, knock it across the grass and then scamper after it again. Playing along, I’d swipe it from him, dangle it around his ears and giggle as he twirled wildly trying to find it. I even did that trick where you pretend to throw the leaf and keep it in your hand instead, tittering madly as he searched furiously for it. At last, I did wad the leaf up and throw it toward a fence that surrounded the garden and shared a boundary with the neighbour’s. Out of nowhere, I heard a chain rattling, a growl, a crunch, a shriek and, ultimately, a whimper.

So she decided she wanted a cat. She wouldn’t even rent a flat that wouldn’t let her have one. She didn’t care what type of cat; as long as she had a kitten, something whose mind she could shape and warp in her own image. Her brother and I, just happy that she’d moved the 300-odd miles north, went on the hunt and found a woman he’d worked with whose cat just shot out a litter. The middle one will be perfect for her, she said; he’s sprightly and energetic and very affectionate. She’ll be living alone. She’ll need all the affection she can get… I mean… when you guys are not around, of course!

Thus, on one Sunday afternoon, about two weeks after she’d arrived in New York, a city in which she knew hardly anyone, a furry little tiger runt showed up at her new flat, announcing his presence by crying and sprinting under the bed. At first, inexperienced in having her own pet, she rushed after him, trying to calm him and instantly make him her friend. She learned quickly enough… just leave him alone. After a few hours, he peeked his head out from under the covers, looked left, looked right, and slowly, slowly, slowly crawled tentatively toward the living room. She tossed him a play toy she’d bought for the occasion. He hopped back, frightened, and bolted out of the room. Within 30 seconds, he was back, gnawing on the toy. She just watched, quietly. A half hour later, he was attacking her feet. An hour after that, he was on her lap, sleeping, and she knew he was hers. Or, more accurately, she was his. She named him Simba.

Many friends of hers in Pennsylvania had cats, and she thought they treated them too much like, well, too much like cats. They would end up either hiding under the bed anytime company would come over, or they would be the fat blob of hair taking up half the couch, a piece of furniture that needs to be fed. Her cat wouldn’t be like that, she vowed. He was just her flatmate, and he could do whatever he wanted just like any other flatmate. Want to sit on the kitchen counter? Dude, go ahead; it’s your place too. Want to eat the leftover pizza? Want to scratch up the wooden sofa legs? Want to bite my arm? Hey, it’s your prerogative. Who am I to tell you what to do? I have no business telling you how to live your life; like I know what I’m doing.

And he was awesome, the most personable animal this side of a car salesman. He would welcome any visitor with a hop up on the lap and a nibble on the wrist. He was just another guy — having him fixed was an ordeal she lamented for days — and he became more a pal than an inferior household pet. He would fall asleep wherever she ended up at night — whether it was the bed, the sofa or, on those particularly rough nights, the floor — and he ran the place however he saw fit. He even helped her out by charming what few guys she could coerce to come over to the flat. (Sometimes being a girl living alone with a cat does have its advantages.)

It has always seemed to me that, in a way, we’re closer to our pets than we could ever be to another human being. You can pick your nose, fart, masturbate, whatever, the types of things you could only otherwise do alone, with your pet in the room and not even think twice, not even hesitate. It’s a natural closeness. That’s the type of relationship she had with Simba.

She talked whimsically about how insane it would be for Simba, who as a cat was likely to live for close to 20 years, to go through changes with her, to move to new places, to meet the man she’d love, to play with her children. You have a cat for a long time, and, sometimes, they’re actually a bit of work. With Simba, it was a commitment she didn’t think twice about making.

Immediately, it was obvious something was wrong. I hurried guiltily over to the fence and saw an enormous dog, blood dripping from its jaws, scurry away. And on the ground, eyes wide wide wide open, was my little kitten. There were two puncture wounds, one just below his neck and one just below his ribcage. The cat was feeling no pain, not yet; it just lay there, in shock, lacking understanding. I was vaguely aware that I might have caused this… if I just hadn’t have thrown the leaf near the fence. And then came the gasps. Later that evening, my mother explained that the dog’s bite, its horrific CHOMP!, likely broke the kitten’s ribs and collapsed its lungs. But all I remember are the gasps. The desperate thrusts for air, a wheeze, a cough, another wheeze. There was simply no air to be found. He wearily lifted his eyes up to me, what happened, oh God I can’t breathe, what is going on? I found myself eerily calm. He is going to die. I ran to the bathroom, grabbed a wet rag and ran back out to him. And for the next two hours, until my parents made me leave, I lay there with my gasping kitten, wiping his brow, trying to ease his suffering, making sure he was not alone.

Her cat is dying. It started about four months ago, when her flatmate complained that Simba, entirely out of character, had urinated on her bed. After changing the sheets and apologising profusely, she watched as Simba promptly hopped on her own bed and pissed there too. She took him to the vet, who told her he had a urinary infection, common for male cats. He gave her some pills (he gave the cat some too) and told her to make sure he drank plenty of water.

Simba was better for about a week, but then he was right back at it again, this time not urinating, but instead depositing little droplets of blood across the flat. It was almost cute; he was conditioned to the litter box, so he would only go on places that weren’t the floor, like the bed, or rugs, or pieces of clothing lying around. She rushed him back to the vet, who said his bladder was blocked, or his tract was swelling, or something, she didn’t really understand what. He said Simba would need surgery, and that it would cost her about several hundred dollars. This was money she didn’t have just sitting around, but there was no way she was letting her cat suffer. Plus, the place was starting to smell. Simba had the surgery and was fine for about three months.

And then last week when she found a dark red spot on the rug. She called the vet, bitching up a storm about paying all that money for a surgery that would only help for three months.

“Yeah, we were afraid that was going to happen. Listen, we weren’t sure at the time, but this is a chronic thing. This isn’t going away. We can perform another surgery on him, but this is likely going to happen again in three months, or two, or one. And it’s just going to get worse.”

“So what do I do?”

“Well, he’s going to be in a lot of pain. I don’t think it’s right to let him suffer.”

“Yeah, but how do I fix him?”

“We’re not sure we can.”

“Wait, you’re not saying… ?”

That’s what he was saying.

About a year later, I was riding my bike by the very same house we visited that night. It was the middle of the afternoon. No one was home. I noticed the dog, a big nasty mean ugly dog, sleeping in the neighbour’s front garden. Stealthily, I hopped off the bike and jumped the fence. I stood there watching that dog for a while, trying to will myself into kicking it right in the stomach, but I couldn’t do that. So I just leapt over the fence again and pedalled away, feeling empty.

She is taking Simba to the vet tomorrow. She’s not certain what the vet will say, but she has a good idea. So now her cat is lying there, on the sofa, silent, motionless, in agony. Occasionally he’ll move his head, look up, eyes wide wide wide open, and let out an anguished yet muted rowwrghhhhhhhhhh, then put his head back down. Christ, is there anything worse than an animal in pain? The poor fucking thing… just lying there, crying, screaming, wondering what in the world is happening to it… incapable of adequately communicating how much this fucking hurts.

As “owners,” we have little control over our pets’ lives. We feed them, clean their litter boxes, make sure they’re not living in total filth. That’s about all we do. Yet she keeps thinking that she’s done something wrong, that she fed him the wrong food, or didn’t pay enough attention to him, or didn’t change the litter often enough. She could have done something. This is her fault. It isn’t, or so I keep telling her, but to her, it sure feels that way.

Oh God, she says. He just jumped up here, on my desk, next to my computer. He’s looking at you on the screen. Did he know we were talking about him? How did he have the strength to make the leap? He’s staring at me now. Does he know? Is he aware? Can he understand? Is he angry? Does he know how much he’s meant to me? Has he ever known?

And then the anguished cry: Oh, Simba, I am so sorry. Please forgive me. We have been through so much. I don’t know what to do without you…

The Guest House

I was away on the weekend so didn’t get around to my usual blog posting. Some old friends invited me to the dedication of their baby daughter,  the most gorgeous thing ever. (Alice, if you’re reading this when you’re much, much older — if you still have that smile of yours, well… mankind lies at your feet!)

The poem The Guest House by the Persian poet and mystic, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, was read by her dad at the church and it reminded me a little of “On Joy And Sorrow” by another Persian poet I like, Khalil Gibran. This got me thinking again on The Beauty Of Sadness, more so later that evening when I received sad news about the untimely death of an old schoolmate. Perhaps you too can find some meaning in their words…

THE GUEST HOUSE

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

– Rumi

**********************************

ON JOY AND SORROW

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your
laughter rises was oftentime filled with your tears…
When you are joyous, look deep into
your heart and you shall find it is only
that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in
your heart, and you shall see that in truth
you are weeping for that which has been
your delight.

– Khalil Gibran

A sad farewell to Amy

Today, we lost one of the most talented young women in the music industry — a girl famed for her amazing contralto vocals and jazz background who created songs that stormed the charts worldwide and were popular to multiple generations.

Amy Winehouse, who has passed away at the tender age of 27, has shocked the nation with her death, as she had with her drug- and drink-fuelled life. To say this is a tragic loss is an understatement. Along with her father Mick and her mum Janis, the public have watched Amy deteriorating for years, hoping and praying that she would finally put herself on the straight and narrow and come back into the limelight a raving success and (more importantly) a healthy young woman.

This has sadly not been the outcome. Her death has been confirmed so far as unexplained, but it is known she was found dead in her Camden home around 1600GMT today. I was in the Camden area just around that time and noticed the commotion but didn’t know what was going on until I got home later and heard the news.

No one knows what really went on so we can only speculate for now, which usually leads to assumptions and lies. All we can take from her death is to learn the lesson she never could — drug abuse is a fool’s game and if you care about your body, health and life in general, you will steer clear of the stuff.

But it is all too easy for us to judge. As a writer, I know only too well the loneliness, inner turmoil, anguish and even self-loathing that can accompany the creative process. Often, it is only through his/her chosen medium that an artist truly finds an outlet for releasing the pressure. I believe this was the case with Amy. Drugs might have given her a false and temporary respite from her inner demons, but she found her wings when she poured her heart and soul into music — and we were enriched by it.

I had the privilege of seeing and hearing her perform back in 2006, I think it was, as she was launching her acclaimed album Back To Black. I’d never even heard of Amy Winehouse before then, but that one concert was enough to make me a fan. She wasn’t the same fresh-faced girl when I saw her in a Camden pub some years later in 2010 — her well-documented problems had taken their toll — but she was sweet, friendly and nothing like the drugged-up raving lunatic often depicted in the press. She even chatted a bit with me and my mates, and I remember observing what lovely eyes she had.

And this is why I don’t wish to dwell on her death, nor on the controversial way she lived her life. I just want to celebrate her at her height, with soulful songs that smashed the top charts and that beehive hairdo that only Amy could rock.

Amy, we will all miss you, and I hope you’re finally at peace.

The Beauty Of Sadness

We live in a society obsessed with the concept of happiness. We’re constantly prodded with questions: Are you happy? Why not? Why don’t you do something to make yourself happy?

Happiness seems almost to have become a product. Our highly industrialised and celebrity culture has taken lifestyle branding to a level where many of us have internalised the images we see to the point of viewing our lives and experiences through a media filter. As one character in the movie The Joneses explains, “If people want you, they’ll want what you’ve got.” This mediated view of our lives then begins to define our concept of happiness.

The consequence of this is a disconnect.  The media-fuelled ideal of happiness leaves little room for exploring our other emotions and truly connecting with others and the world around us. Sadness and other “negative” emotions are perceived as unnatural and malignant. The melancholy are often treated as ‘abnormal’ and encouraged to do whatever it takes to stop them feeling that way. Sometimes this means using anti-depressant drugs or other substances to physically change their mood.

True, we all want to achieve our ideal of happiness. True, also, there are those with genuine emotional problems who need clinical help and even medication. But what about those people who embrace and experience the full spectrum of emotion? Do their life experiences — which may provide joy but also supply pain and suffering — make them better people? Do all our emotions not have equal validity? If so, why are we so down on being down?

Some years ago, I was lent a book called Swallowed by the Snake. It compared dealing with sadness to an old Indian story of a village that was being terrorised by an enormous snake that continued to carry off its inhabitants and eat them. A young man went into the jungle with just a knife and a bag of rice. He was swallowed by the snake but rather than fight it, he allowed himself to get accustomed to the darkness and confinement of the snake’s belly — and slowly cut off pieces of the snake from the inside until he had worked his way through and into the light.

What I gained from the story was that there is no real quick fix, no way to fight sadness. All we can do is work through it. Only then are we truly able to appreciate the beauty and treasures of those moments of happiness that came before and since. The French poet Louis Aragon expressed it thus:

Light is meaningful only in relation to darkness, and truth presupposes error. It is these mingled opposites which people our life, which make it pungent, intoxicating. We only exist in terms of this conflict, in the zone where black and white clash.

So it’s not merely the moments of sadness or happiness that define our lives: it’s the conflict and opposition that does so, and how we respond is what brings out our real character. Sadness, after all, is an unavoidable part of the human experience. We all taste it — relationships turn sour, possessions get stolen or lost, loved ones die. Loss is the inevitable consequence of attachment, so if we are unwilling to feel the extent of our emotions we build walls around ourselves. Subconsciously, we know that forming a new attachment could bring us future grief, so we avoid real connection.  Instead, we accumulate wealth and possessions or learn to be impressive in other ways to attract false friends, but it doesn’t address the problem.

Living consciously through sadness and finding its beauty gives us the courage to be open to the world and all its hidden dangers. It’s the fear of uncomfortable feelings that causes so much anxiety and depression. Embracing our emotions and learning not to resist them or judge them allows us to process the events of our lives.

This often gives us the opportunity to recognise our inner strength. Out of sadness we can be inspired to be better. Not that we should actively seek it out, of course, or revel in being morose. In fact, it’s understandable to recoil. But when the low moments of our lives do come, we could also grit our teeth, bear the trauma and say, “Yes, I will grieve. Life is unfair. Now let me figure out what I can do to ease the pain.” That may involve reaching out and connecting with others. As we do so, we encourage and fit into each other’s lives. Thus, in adversity, satisfaction can be found in relating to and serving one another, building relationships either temporary or lasting, and finding a useful role to perform. We dig the trenches together.

Some of the worst experiences of my life have always been made into fonder memories when I think back to those with whom I shared those moments. Maybe it’s the Shackleton phenomena (the British explorer stranded with his men on the South Pole) — even in seemingly hopeless scenarios, there can be beauty and heroism in a shared struggle.

The thing is, we’ve been taught to hide our sadness from others, and eventually we learn to hide it from ourselves. So we never learn the skill of simply experiencing it for what it is and letting it take its natural course — it pulls at us all our lives, driving us to try harder to achieve our media-driven ideals of happiness, when all the time the sadness is there, waiting for us, offering us an alternative path which allows us to go with the flow of our emotions, instead of resisting all the time.

If we follow that path, the inevitable discovery we make is that our emotions dissipate and integrate as we allow them to be. From that follows peace of mind, which is the real reward, the real happiness we crave.

Many of us mistake the absence of sadness, or the presence of excitement and external stimulation, for happiness. But the real thing is a much deeper thrill — that of being truly alive to this cruel but beautiful world.

There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year’s course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. –  Carl Jung