How writing (and a cat called Daisy) may have saved my life...
I need to say at the outset that I'm not a fatalist. I believe we make our own choices in life, and those choices lead us where they will. Having said that, I'm fascinated by cause and effect, and chains of circumstance. I often sit and look back over my life and think to myself 'If I hadn't done that thing, then that other thing wouldn't have happened, which then led to that other other thing happening...' and so on. Kind of like with the Buddhist idea of karma: I've done something in the past which, unknown to me at the time, has had an effect in my life that I never expected... and it will continue to have an influence in my life that I cannot yet see.
So... here's a tale. Back in 2012, when I was last on ABCTales, I'd been posting bits of a novel I'd been writing. The novel was about a man recovering from a mental illness and trying to find reasons to move forwards with his life. I might add that it was loosely autobiographical - and the writing of it was actually helping me out of a very dark period in my own life.
When it was finished, I was lucky enough to find a small publisher who was willing to publish the novel, and I promptly took all of those postings down. However, just before the novel was finally published in early 2013 - and completely on a whim - I re-posted a short snippet one day. On that same day, a new member joined the site. She was a French woman who had been looking for an English writers' site to read some English writing - a language she had been learning for years and had mastered. ABCTales was the first site she found on her Google search - and my snippet was the first post she read on it.
She was very taken by it - the words spoke to her deeply - and she posted an encouraging comment. I commented back. I mentioned that it was part of a novel that was being published and she said she would like to read it. She emailed me her address in France, and I duly sent her a copy.
To cut a long story short, as they say... the novel meant a lot to her and we struck up a correspondence - via email first, and then Facebook and text - which led to a close friendship. Finally, after about three months, she came to England and visited me. Then I went to visit her in France. And then, within another month, she'd given up everything in France and moved over to live with me. You couldn't have made it up! It was the kind of thing that bears out the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction.
There was one issue with her moving here, though. In France, she had a cat. I'd been renting for many years up to that point, and had always understood, wherever I'd lived, that a condition of tenancy was No Pets. It wasn't really a problem for me, anyway, as - although I loved animals (especially cats) - I'd never really wanted a pet. She'd left her cat with her sister in France for the time being. But, understandably, she missed it and wanted it with her. I explained the situation to her... but I promised to check with my landlord, anyway. To my great surprise, he said 'It's your home. If you want to have a cat, you're welcome.' And so we travelled out to France one weekend and picked up her cat, and it came to England to join us in my small flat. Later still, because we were out a lot, she even got another cat to keep it company. It was nice having cats around again. I'd not had one since I was a child, and I'd always liked them. The second one, especially, took to me. I was delighted.
Cutting it all short again... unfortunately, the fairy tale didn't work out. I'd only cohabited once before in my adult life. It hadn't worked then, and it didn't work now. It was during this time, too, that I got my Asperger's diagnosis, which finally enabled me to make sense of my life; in good part, it also explained my problems with cohabitation. We had different ways of living, and we couldn't seem to make them mesh together. It was a tough time for both of us towards the end. I won't go into all the details. Suffice it to say, after 18 months (in January 2016), we separated - and the cats, being hers, went with her.
The separation left me with difficulties (partly of my own making, of course). I'd been working part-time (we both had), and I could no longer manage on that single income. But I found another job quickly enough, and within six weeks I was settled back to my old life alone. It all took a while to get over, as these things do - but being back by myself felt like my most natural state, and in many senses I was happier.
It wasn't long, though, before I realised I was missing something. I'd gotten used to having a cat around, and the place didn't feel the same without one. The whole experience had made me realise why I liked cats so much. Because they were like me: independent, wanting attention strictly on their own terms, enjoying long periods of time alone. And now, of course, I knew that I was permitted to have one in the flat. Had it not been for getting together with my ex-partner in the first place, I would never have found this out. I thought about things very carefully for a few weeks, and then made my mind up. I went onto the website of a local cat rescue centre and scrolled through the cats they had available. I knew what I was looking for: a female cat - and adult, but young. I fell in love with most of the cats I saw, but they weren't quite suitable for one reason or another.
And then finally I saw a photograph that grabbed my attention. It showed a young female mackerel tabby, crouching back forlornly in the corner of a cat-carrier, looking out anxiously as if she was afraid that the person taking the photo was going to do something nasty to her. It said her name was Daisy, and that she was three-years-old. It said she was looking for a new owner who would be kind to her as she'd had a rough time before being rescued. It also said it would be preferable if she could be without other cats - and without small children around. I looked at the photo again - at those sad, scared eyes. Then I picked up the phone and dialled the number.
The following day, a 15-minute train journey took me to the next town along. Daisy's foster-keeper, Janice, picked me up from the station. On the journey to her house, way out in the sticks, she filled me in on a few things. Daisy's life hadn't been happy. She'd been pulled around a lot by the previous owner's young children. Then she'd had a litter of kittens - after which they decided they no longer wanted her and were going to abandon her. Since being rescued, she'd been neutered and had been kept on her own (Janice fostered several cats) because she was very nervous around people and other animals. Janice had had her for several months, but no prospective new keepers had come forwards - possibly because of her nervousness.
When we finally arrived, Janice led me to a cage - big as a shed - in her garden, where Daisy had been living.
"During the winter, we put hot water bottles under her blanket at night to keep her warm," she told me. "I can't let her indoors because of all the other cats. She's simply too afraid of them. She'll most likely be afraid around you, too, as a stranger."
She opened the cage... and Daisy immediately jumped down from the shelf she'd been sitting on and started rubbing around my legs. I picked her up and held her close. She was purring so strongly it vibrated right through me. It was love at first sight for both of us.
"She'll do!" I said to Janice, without hesitation.
"Are you sure? You're welcome to come in and see some of the others."
"No," I said. "She's mine now."
I had to wait two weeks before I finally got her. For the first hour, after Janice left, Daisy hid behind my sofa. I tried using bits of string to entice her out, but nothing worked. In the end, I decided to ignore her and let her find her own way - which, after about another half-hour, she did. She tentatively poked her head out, saw me, then hid again. Gradually, when she could tell I wasn't going to bother her or hurt her, she became more confident. She crept out and sniffed around my bookcase. Then she sniffed at the sofa. Then she sat, curled her tail around her paws, and looked at me for several minutes. Finally, she cautiously climbed onto the sofa (like she was expecting a reprimand or a swipe), sat down and looked around again at all this newness - still clearly nervous, but settling. I carried on half-ignoring her. The next thing I knew, she was lolling on the sofa cleaning herself. And she was at home.
And so Daisy came to be with me and be my constant companion. She was fine on her own all day, with the radio on (as Janice had suggested). But when I came back from work in the evenings, she was all over me... for about five minutes! And then she was away to doing her own thing again, and I was away to doing mine. In the evenings, though, when I sat down to watch a film, she'd jump on my lap and go to sleep. Every night, too, she slept on the bed beside me. For the first time in her life, it seemed, she was happy. I posted a photo on the rescue centre's website one day to show how settled she was. They responded 'It looks like Daisy has at last become the cat she was always meant to be.'
Things went along happily for eight months. And then my mother became seriously ill and was no longer able to care for herself independently. She was heartbroken at the prospect of having to leave her council bungalow, where she'd lived for 23 years. The nearest home social services could offer was a long way away. My brother and I wouldn't be able to visit her as regularly as we had before (most days for me, as she lived nearby). So - as a care worker by training - I made the decision: if my brother was in agreement, I'd move in temporarily and handle her care. She was only expected to live a few weeks, anyway. It wouldn't be for very long.
Daisy naturally came with me, and immediately took to mum. Mum had always had cats when she was a child, so it gave her a huge amount of delight and pleasure to have a cat around again at this time of her life. I'm sure Daisy's presence made a difference to mum's overall well-being, because mum exceeded all medical expectations and lived on for seven months. She finally passed away in April 2017. Daisy and I were there at her bedside with her on the last morning of her life, and we were there that evening at 7.22 pm, when mum took her final breath on earth.
Afterwards, I was almost crushed. Mum was my closest-living human being. The only person I'd ever been able to go to. The only one who really understood me. She was the sun around which my life revolved. A few years earlier, when I'd been seeing the therapist who first suggested autism as a possible root cause of my problems, I told her about the strength of our bond. She asked me what I might do once mum was no longer there. I found it hard to answer that question. I couldn't imagine life without her. In the end, I said something like 'I'll just get rid of everything. My belongings, my home... everything. Then I'll pack a rucksack and travel off to wherever the road takes me - as long as it's somewhere where I can do something useful for others. A war zone. A refugee camp. Palestine, maybe. And if I get killed in the process... then, so what? It won't matter. At least I'll die doing something that gives my life meaning.'
I think that would have happened, too. But now... I had Daisy to be responsible for. We returned to my flat, and I got to grips with dealing with the aftermath of mum's death: arranging the funeral, clearing the bungalow, sorting the things to keep from the things to go. When that was all done, the grieving truly began. And I dealt with that in the only way I knew how: by writing. I'd lost my job by then and, when my Carer's Allowance ran out, I went sick. I was that way for four months, and used the time to write a book. It's focus was on those months I'd been with mum, from the moment her final illness began. But it also covered many aspects of my own life - including my diagnosis, and the part mum played in helping me to get it. It covered our entire family history, too, going all the way back to mum's birth, her first meeting with dad, and all that had happened since. The words flowed out in a way that they never had before. When it was finished, it was just shy of 150,000 words. Throughout that time, Daisy also gave me a focus. She was there for me as I'd been there for her - when it was most needed.
At the end of that period, with the writing done, I knew I had to get back to work. Care work was all I'd done for a dozen years, and it was the job that gave me the most satisfaction. After what I'd been through with caring for mum, though, I wasn't sure if I could do it again. But I went to a job search website, typed in 'care' and my postcode - and the first vacancy that appeared was as a day service support worker with a local autism trust. 4 days a week, which I felt was as much as I wanted. Minimum wage - but it was enough for me, with minimal needs, to get by. I rang them up, got offered an immediate interview, and then got offered the job at interview. I told them about my own autism - and it actually helped! It all just fitted into place perfectly. Just right. Just when I needed it.
A year on from then, I'm still there. Still getting by. And still living happily with Daisy as my companion. I get some rough moments, but I think I've recovered very well, considering. I also use an autism forum, which gives me huge support, and I try to give some back.
I'm alone in the world now, too - which is fine, because I like being alone. But without my mother, there's a gap that can never be filled. My family are either at a distance, or 'distanced' from me in other ways.
Most importantly, though, I have Daisy. Unknown to her, she's brought me through it all. Without her, I would probably have done what I proposed to that therapist. Either that, or I might have drunk myself to death. But my responsibility to Daisy - to give her the life she never had before (not to mention my love for her) - has kept me going. And through that, I've rediscovered the will to keep going... and to look forward to life again.
So... cause and effect. If I hadn't posted that snippet on ABCTales that day, and that French woman hadn't joined and seen it, and we hadn't had our relationship, I would never have known I could have a cat. I would never have even considered it. I wouldn't have had Daisy, nor her me. Mum wouldn't have had the joy of Daisy in her life during those final weeks that became months. And I probably wouldn't have written that book.
And maybe, just maybe, I wouldn't be here now to write this.
As an interesting footnote to this story... Daisy does not like being picked up! If she'd howled at me that day I went to see her... who knows?