Cats and Cuddles
Thirty-something years ago during a weekend of hosting friends I entered the kitchen early on the Sunday morning where a longtime friend of my then husband was eating breakfast alongside his toddler. Our two cats – Hovis and Sesame – used to having their needs met as soon as one of us was up were circling his legs and howling.
‘I guess you haven’t fed the cats,’ I said.
‘No, no, people before animals,’ was the reply.
I laughed, a little forced. . . ‘Well, not in this house.’
By now it was beginning to dawn on me that becoming a biological mother was not the inevitability I’d always thought it would be. My memory is a little hazy and I can’t remember if this exchange was pre or post my (to my knowledge one and only) miscarriage at 16 weeks gestation but I/we’d certainly been ‘trying’ a while and I do remember being upset. Upset that I did not have a baby of my own. Upset, and a little embarrassed, because I felt that my love for the non-human animals in my life, and theirs’ for me, was being belittled, dismissed.
They were always hungry those cats. At the end of one summer a neighbour a few doors down told me that she had only just realised where Hovis lived. Previously she had thought her a stray as every afternoon she turned up to be fed two or so hours before supper time in our house. I never found out who owned the pork chop that Sesame brought home one morning; its owner clearly living to regret leaving a backdoor or kitchen window open. Half Burmese Sesame was the hunter in the family and would often bring home half eaten birds and then there was the time she got into the kitchen pantry and ate both breasts of a not quite defrosted chicken; ending up with a stomach so full and round she resembled a colourful cartoon feline.
Given their appetites the way they responded to my pregnancy loss was perhaps even more surprising. After the doctor visited I stayed in bed for almost four full days. There was no need to do so physically but every necessity to do so emotionally. It was mid-July and the cats would normally have spent much of the daytime sleeping in a cool spot downstairs in the house or in the garden under the (inedible) apple tree. But for the whole of my self-confinement at least one of them was curled up on the bed with me. More often than not it was both of them. Meal-times where the most interesting and even though my abiding memories of this time are of pain, all sorts of pain, lots of pain, I can never forget their care (I can’t describe it in any other way) in taking it in turns to go and eat. Something which had never happened before and never happened again.
I love this story and my closest friends have each heard it more than once. Yesterday, whilst walking on the beach with her and her two beautiful dogs, I re-told it to a friend who I first told it to more than three decades ago. Later on I shared a more recent story.
For the first time ever there is a child in my life who calls me ‘auntie’. We are not biologically related but her parents and their siblings and parents include me in family high days and holidays, in confidences and in shared jokes. I have been blessed to have always had children and young people in my life – both at work and through personal relationships – but no one has ever before used this intimate familial term to describe or hail me. Cuddled up together on the sofa recently she included me in a conversation we were having about her ‘shamily’ (she still has some trouble pronouncing her f’s) ensuring that this encounter will be added to my most golden of memories.
Reflecting on these experiences I feel wonder that love for, and from, human and non-human others, shows little respect for the so-thought hierarchy of human over animal and for the adage that blood is thicker than water.