Today would be Jones’ 14th birthday. Tomorrow it will be one year since Attila arrived. Last year, it was the first of Jones’ birthdays without him after more than 12 years. I had cried every day for five months, despite taking up an exciting new job, travelling, trying to be with those I loved, teaching and looking for a new apartment – trying to look, all in all, like a normal, busy person on the cusp of a big life change.
A few days ago, a friend lost his cat too after an illness. I could feel his heart break the way mine had broken. I’ve had my fair share of deaths and mourning for humans, but as surprising as it still is to me, nothing compared to that primitive loss. It is, somehow, as if all the deaths came to a nutshell of meaning and heartbreak in that one death of my little cat. Nothing before that compared to that wordless sense of being physically torn away, dragged apart, separated by a giant, indifferent hand. Your guts tangled. The house, dead.
It opened my eyes to how love is forever but life isn’t. To how you try to take the best decisions but there is no best decision. To how much help you need, to how some other creature’s life and death may depend on you, to how beautiful your friends are, to how when the end comes, two creatures who adore each other may come to a heart-wrenching clash of wills: he wanting to go, you wanting him to stay – and death wins. To how a non-speaking creature can whisper you secrets and stories in his last moments and you’ll be surprised at how much you can listen to, how much wild wild space your human heart still holds and you didn’t know.
I also found out that pain and suffering are two very different things. Suffering is a self-indulgent angst we can do without if we make an effort, and spare others. But pain exists: crude, monumental pain. It runs as deep as love. It’s a force of nature. You know when you feel it that it’s ingrained in our mortal condition, it’s in the cracks of every misalignment of time and space. And you can tell pain from suffering because suffering is grinding and selfish and going in circles, while you can feel pain molding you into something new even as it kills you – a creative force. Pain imparts you a lesson once and for all on your miserable ability to control the outcome. And most of all, pain sees others. You really see others, and their pain, and their love, and their generosity, and their vulnerability, and their choices, and their children, and yes, their pets – you will never see them as clearly as when you are in pain.
I spent Jones’ first birthday without him preparing the house for a new cat: Attila was about to arrive, after a very difficult start in life, in the loving hands of Mary who drove almost 400 miles to get him to me. There had been some Facebook posts, a ginger cat in need, a lot of friends’ messages, some papers I signed, a clear thought while sitting on a Sheraton bench at the airport after landing back from a trip to Istanbul. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but I had too much on my plate to ruminate over it. Jones’ birthday was March 27, and when Mary told me Attila would arrive on March 28, I thought some magic was at work.
Attila spent his first month under the sofa. The second and third month hidden on my bookshelves. He only came out to eat, and a dear friend who fed him and took care of him any time I was away, only knew he existed because food disappeared. The first, hilarious photos I took of Attila seem taken by a bad paparazzi. In those first few months, his way of showing that he kind of liked me was to fall asleep and snore behind a ton of books near me while I worked.
When the time came to move out and into our new home, Attila squatted under a low, heavy wardrobe and refused to go. It was his fourth change of house since he was born. I was myself fed and taken care of while I spent an entire day on the floor trying to convince him. To this day, I think the moment we really became friends was when I – unshowered, dead tired, covered in dust, with all of my furniture and clothes piled up in an another house and not particularly keen on spending more time with ghosts, spent the stifling hot night on the barren floor to be with him. He came out of the wardrobe and rolled over and purred. The next day, after he went back into hiding, a lion tamer friend performed a fabulous rescue operation and drove us to our new house once and for all. Since then, Attila has been gaining confidence every day.
I followed Mary’s instructions and trusted that Attila was an exceptionally affectionate cat. He is, though I only came to find out how soft his fur is after maybe six months. To this day, only four friends have been able to see him because he came out in the open – everyone else, only saw him hiding under the bed. A friend’s kids knelt down to say hello. It hurts to see how afraid Attila still is of being beaten, or taken by surprise. But I also found out that he is otherwise fearless.
One year on, after moving out, moving in, drillers and plumbers and builders and visiting vets, it’s pretty easy to see that Attila and I started that we were both heartbroken and far apart, and that both our hearts are now mended, and that we couldn’t have become such good friends faster, because healing takes time. Today, Attila plays outside near the tiny olive tree I planted when Jones died. Laughter and the little wilderness are back.
I still miss Jones a lot. His absence is irreparable. And after all, these two cats couldn’t be more different. If Jones was a king, Attila is a street kid. Jones was big-boned and majestic, while Attila is small and fast. Jones loved honey, Attila doesn’t. Jones despised water, Attila loves it. Jones was a climber, Attila is a runner. Jones tirelessly tried to distract me from writing, Attila just naps when I write. Music makes Attila nervous, while Jones loved Bruce, and Mark Lanegan’s voice. And if Jones was stubborn, Attila is obedient. Jones was afraid of thunder and fireworks, Attila is only afraid of human feet and hands. Jones adored boxes and bags, Attila doesn’t trust them. Jones was a purring machine, Attila purrs as clumsily as he does everything else. Most of all, the relationship is different, and frankly I never thought it’d be the same.
Attila gets a few perks: now I know about cats, while with Jones I learnt along the way. While Jones had a sunny window sill, Attila has a little terrace with plants and smells and birds, where he can run a little, and hunt a little, and sunbathe. Jones saw me leaving everyday to go to work, while Attila has me all to himself while I work at home. Jones was very, very photographed – I learnt how to photograph by taking pics of him, and now I’m grateful I captured memories of all the phases of his life. Attila is only now starting to like the camera, but he has a lot of friends on Facebook who cheered from the sidelines at every sign of progress. By the way, thank you friends.
Talk about cats teaching something. The gist of it, I guess, is that while the fullness of life whirls around me, whenever I look at Attila being happy – rolling over in a patch of sun, running towards me to be petted, splashing a rain puddle – I think “Now you’re safe. That’s what I was supposed to create for you.”
Though now I know – not half as safe as we wish our loved ones to be. You can’t keep them safe and whole forever, and they can’t keep you. It just doesn’t work that way, and I should have known. You can only try and do your best, and before separation happens, enjoy them with all your heart, be tender, swell with pride for them. And then, surrender – which is the tough part. The payback is that you can trust the love and the pain. I had a hunch they knew what they were doing. Happy first year, Attila.