I was once engaged to a man who loved animals. His devotion to his cats and dogs was utter and complete.
I loved animals as well, but lacked the immersive, day-in-day-out experience of taking care of a pet. I was given a puppy one Christmas when I was a child. My father did the lion’s share of the training and walking, while my mother oversaw the feeding. When the heart-rending decision about ending the dog’s life needed to be made, I was away at college in another city. It was my sister who drove Alfie to the vet for the last time and came home with the empty collar in her hand.
So when one of my fiancé’s cats died, I was bewildered as to how to handle his loss. He was inconsolable. I was young. I said something very stupid. To be fair, I said it after trying every salve I knew, every soothing word – I did not yet know how to simply be with someone’s pain. In a desperate attempt to jolt him out of the dark, unreachable place he was in, I said something I still cannot believe came out of my mouth: “It’s just a cat.”
That must’ve been such a red flag for him, it’s a wonder to me now that he married me anyway. In the end, almost every one of his pets had a longer life than our marriage. But I’d like to think that I made up for my insensitivity. I jumped willingly into sharing the responsibility for his animals, had my heart broken by loving and losing them. I helped put them to rest in the way my then-husband thought best, which included trying to hail a taxi in Paris with a small, stiff cat curled in a satchel and a large dog frozen legs-out and wrapped in trash bags. Four cabbies refused us. I told the fifth we were transporting sculpture, and we finally made it to the pet crematorium in the suburbs, where we waited hours for the ashes, sitting on black plastic chairs, trying to decipher the entries in the mourners’ book: Chère Gala, fidèle compagne, tu nous as quittée pour aller courir parmi les étoiles….
When my fiancé and I first became intimate, he told me he was happily surprised to discover that I had curves. What did he mean? Was he expecting origami? I was a gangly dancer then, and his delight was genuine, so I took it as a compliment and moved on. It is possible, however, that he imagined he’d find a body to match a certain side of my character: pointed, cutting, insistent, sharp – my strategies of choice.
In physical terms, humans are not particularly sharp creatures. Before the invention of cutting tools, teeth and nails were our ancestors’ Swiss Army knife. Maybe you still use your incisors to rip open a package, or your nails to scrape, scratch, and dig. Fingers, knees, elbows, and the outside edge of your hands can do some damage if you know how to use them. But more often, when we talk about human sharpness, it has to do with temperament: we’re sharp as a tack or have a sharp wit or tongue or eye; we’re on the cutting edge; we cut to the chase and spearhead projects. And more often than not, sharpness is considered a quality. Lately I have come face-to-face with its limitations.
As I write this I am on “vacation” with my Beloved (who also loves animals) in a house in the middle of nowhere in my favorite part of France, the Dordogne. “Vacation” because the holiday has been overshadowed by the illness of our cat Jack, who’s here with us. The day before our “vacation” began, they discovered a tumor on his pancreas.
The house in the middle of nowhere is on a hill surrounded by woods. Grapevines bask in the sun above the doorway, heavy with bruise-blue fruit and hovering wasps. Beyond the small outbuildings are fields peppered with wildflowers: purple, white, yellow. The grass is rich with mint, green on green, fragrant. Butterflies flit. Deer visit us regularly. It’s all so bucolic it hurts like hell. The cat is dying.
We distract ourselves with visits to medieval villages tucked into hillsides, coffee in cobblestoned squares surrounded by the ochre stone of the region. But all the while we’re squashing down thoughts of the pills we’re supposed to give him, his flagging energy, his refusal to eat. There are mysterious bursts of activity: he brought us a mouse, he caught a bat. He spends part of the night close to us under the sheets, wakes us with his soft purr, sits by our heads, then goes out and finds a good hiding spot where he can sleep undisturbed or watch the grass, the butterflies, the sun setting behind the trees.
For days I’ve been responding with my old strategies. Look sharp. Understand. Strategize. Outwit. They worked fairly well in the beginning. But the clearer it becomes that there’s no way around the diagnosis, the more futile my sharpness becomes. I’m left with a rock in the pit of my stomach and a dying cat.
In the house in the middle of nowhere there is ample time to think. I’ve been thinking about the why of this story. Is there anything to it besides sadness and loss and the ruthlessness of nature? Yes. There is love, of course. Love is the source of the sadness. But what of the whole deal, the loving and the losing? Is there any purpose to it? I find myself thinking about my ex-husband and the animals and my only-a-cat pragmaticism, about my desire to understand what’s happening and control it. I’m happily surprised to feel something drop away and soften. The conclusion I have come to is that life is asking me to let it round me: to blunt my edges, smooth what is jagged in my nature. Once I’ve done what I can, as best I can, I’m faced with what I cannot do. And here is where the Rounding occurs.
You who have measured-out meds; you who have known the despair of food gone uneaten; you who have waited in waiting rooms, filled out forms, answered the same questions again and again; you who have learned to give needles, apply pommades, pulverize pills; you who have lifted, carried, spoonfed, and bathed; you who have had Death come and stand in the doorway but not quite enter, not yet, don’t let me disturb you, I’ll just wait right here – I salute you. I salute you and I wonder: along with the beautiful thing you did for a fellow traveller, how did it change you? Were you Rounded? Or Opened? Or Slowed? Or Stirred?
It’s the tail-end of the Perseids meteor shower and late at night the three of us sit outside the house in the middle of nowhere in the dark and watch the stars, the falling and the fixed. Wishing is tricky. This is not going the way I’d imagined it. Beneath the runes of the constellations we take our rightful place on this curved Earth. I bow to the invitation. Jack swats moths with gusto.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management, and workshops on writing and conscious breathing. You can also find her on her YouTube channel dedicated to writing for wellbeing, The Write Thing to Do.
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