I believe Anatole France was right when he said: “Until one has loved an animal, part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
My parents were given a Siamese kitten as a wedding present, so there have been animals in my life even in utero. Sinbad taught me early about being gentle, the pleasure of purring, and that throwing cats in the air is a bad idea. She died when I was in college, not long after demonstrating that being almost blind, deaf, and arthritic doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy an entire raw sirloin stolen from the countertop.
There have been many cats after Sinbad. Cats that have seen me through moves across town and across the country, through relationships and solitude. No matter how true and dear your family and friends are, not one of them will curl up in your arms every night for as long as you need to mourn your losses, great or small. They will never tell you you need “move on,” or “get over it.” They will tell you when it’s time to dry your eyes and feed them, and that’s probably a good thing too.
There have been dogs too. Our first Labrador Retriever suffered 4-H obedience classes for me, all the way to the state championships. I learned patience, perseverance, and a whole new language of sounds, gestures, tone of voice and touch. I learned that some dogs love to do tricks, to retrieve pheasants, to run obstacle courses – and some hate it. I learned to read attitude and expression, and when to give it up and let them be themselves. Even when that includes rolling in a rotting deer carcass.
I am a middle-aged woman with absolutely no special physical or athletic skills. But I have forged a fifteen-year partnership with a gallant and generous bay mare. With mutual trust and enthusiasm, we learned together to move in elegant and exhiliarating ways. Through my bond with her, I became a dancer, I became an athlete. She gave me the ability to be something I could not have been without her.
The saddest thing about animals is that their lives are shorter than ours. I have cleaned up after ailing dogs whose bladders and bowels failed them. I have tended beloved cats through heart disease, kidney disease, and cancer. I know I could not have attended my mother’s difficult surgical recovery with as much poise and acceptance without that education. Animals are astonishing in their stoicism and dignity; they have broken my heart with their forbearance and inevitable failures. In the end, there is always that final trip to the vet’s office, the needle and the stainless steel table, the flood of tears and farewells. Just recently, after a yearlong defiance of lung cancer, my dear Abyssinian cat died suddenly in my arms. For the first time, I saw death arrive unescorted. We were lucky: it was swift and merciful. She showed me how death can be met without fear, without torment, and even with grace. Now I may be a little better able to face the other deaths in my future. What a gift from one small cat.
In their simplicity, my animals have taught me kindness. Patience. Acceptance. Creativity in communication. Appreciation and celebration of all their variety. From my animals I learned first how to love completely, and how to let go. I believe that through this intimacy with beings of other species, I have become a better representative of my own.
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