Even my cat’s love was an illusion.
I always wanted a kitten, but the rest of my family said no. They were dog people. The summer before 5th grade a friend of mine had kittens (actually, her cat had kittens) and I yearned for one of them, but the family consensus was no. I left for 2 weeks of summer camp, knowing that by the time I got back the kittens would be gone. I resigned myself to being catless.
When I got home I was told there was a surprise for me at home. In entered the house somewhat reluctantly. Surprises weren’t always a good thing, so I had some trepidation. As I walked into the family room I saw my siblings crowded around a bean bag chair in front of the fireplace. They were so engaged with something they barely noticed me. When I finally broke through and saw our new kitten, Snibbles, I was overjoyed. It was a while before I was allowed to play with her, because in my absence my siblings had become cat people. Eventually though, she became mine. She was the 1st of 3 cats.
Our second cat was Tigger. It was she who convinced me that cats exist for people. She came to me whenever I was sad and sat on my lap, letting me pet her, purring her little heart out. Her purring got me through some pretty crappy times during my adolescence. There were times her purring wasn’t enough to keep me going, so I’d take off, seeking something I thought must exist but couldn’t put into words. Most often I’d be gone a few weeks, then come back again, where Tigger waited to soothe me.
When I was 17, Tigger died. She came home Halloween night dragging her back legs. She had ingested some type of poison, and I begged my parents to take her to the vet. They most likely knew there was no saving her. They cajoled me to bed, assuring me she’d be there in the morning and off to the vet we’d go. In the morning she was dead. She died in the laundry room, on the cold tile floor, all alone. She spent her life absorbing my angst, purring me into sanity, and I let her die alone, on a cold, dark floor. A week later I packed some clothes in a back pack, grabbed my guitar, and hitchhiked to Florida, where I vowed I would stay until I was a “normal” person.
Ten years later, when I met my ex, I had 2 kittens. I lived alone, I was self sufficient, I had a job and a car and was able to pay my bills, and so I adopted 2 kittens. I’ll be honest – there were times I was filled with regret. Kittens are hard. They climb all over you, all night long, poking, licking, purring, anything to wake you to play. By the time my ex was invited into my apartment I viewed them with some ambivalence. Yes, I loved them, but I was also exhausted. When it turned out he was highly allergic it was an easy decision to hand them off to someone else, so I did.
In our 25 years together I often yearned for another Tigger. There were so many times I needed that assurance, that purring that conveys a living creatures’ love for me. I so yearned for some life form that would understand me, come to me when I was sad or overwhelmed or depressed, care that I was in pain. I couldn’t have a cat though, because the ex was allergic.
A few years before we separated I had a brief time of good health and, during that time, began to ponder the possibility of a dog. I was well enough to walk a dog. I was not well enough to run with one, or provide an active life style, but a small, undemanding dog seemed plausible. My research led me to the Shih Tzu. Bred to be lap dogs, they are loyal, undemanding, serene dogs and I thought “well, if I can’t have a cat maybe I can have a Shih Tzu”. I wasn’t health enough for a puppy, so I registered my desire for an adult Shih Tzu at our local SPCA. I knew the chances were slim, which is what probably gave me courage to register.
I was shocked when I got the email. A 3.5 year old adult female Shih Tzu mix was at our SPCA, hoping for adoption. She looked horrible. She was truely ugly, but I went to visit her. She was terrified, and while she looked at me through the bars I could see the fear and sadness. But she was really, really ugly, and dirty, and smelly. And, I had no idea what to do with a dog. Nonetheless, I showed her picture to my boys and they were immediately smitten. I won’t bore you with the details of how she came to be ours, but suffice it to say the ex was 100% against it. During her first night with us she peed on the floor, and I wondered what sort of mess I’d gotten us into.
She’s been with us for almost 5 years now and we can’t imagine life without her. Even the ex, who was mean to her when he lived here, says hello and pets her when he comes by. She is the sweetest, most loyal, most undemanding creature I’ve ever met. All day, every day, she is at my side. I often step on her, she is so determined to be with me. When I went through chemo and spent 4 months in bed, she was in bed with me. She reluctantly went on walks to go potty, only to jet back into the house when done, and scamper up the stairs to take her place in bed with me. She will do anything for me, including protecting me from the cat I recently adopted.
At first she was reticent around the cat. She looked at her, kept her distance, didn’t make a fuss. At some point though, she must have realized the cat was there to to stay and, even worse, vying for my love. Did she sense the fact that part of me just clicked with the cat? Did she tune in to the fact that cats are easier to take care of? Did she hear the purring and realize that it is a powerful weapon that only cats have; a tool to engage the most hardened of hearts, the most reluctant to love them? I don’t know. Animal lovers would say yes, others would say I’m crazy. Regardless, I love the cat and I love the dog. When I am annoyed at having to walk the dog I love the cat more. When the cat is on my lap, purring away, demanding nothing but a little scratching, I love her more. When the cat is meowing to be let out, then let in, then let out, then let in, I love the dog more. I know; it’s terrible.
Here is what I’ve learned through this.
- Dog people have self-esteem. Dog people believe they deserve the unconditional love a dog provides. They don’t feel guilty that the dog runs to them when they come home, follows them around the house, watches their every move. They are comforted by this. They love this about their dog. I, on the other hand, am horrified by this. I live in a constant state of guilt. Now, as I write this and my dog lays at my side, I feel guilty that I am not playing with her. I am not deserving of a dog.
- Cat people struggle with self-esteem. Cat people think we only deserve minimal attention. We accept that when our cat seeks us out, purrs for us, rubs against us, that we are being given the tiny morsel of attention we deserve. We don’t expect anyone to be happy we’ve arrived home. We settle for the off-hand moment that our cat acknowledges us. It is enough to fill our needs, because we don’t feel deserving of more.
If that was all I’d figured out, I’d be okay with it. Unfortunately, I have learned something more important with my new cat.
Before I say this, rest assured that she is as great a cat as Tigger was. She responds to me the exact same way, with some minor adjustments to appease my dog.
What I have learned is that cats don’t respond to people, they take care of themselves. When my cat sits on my lap purring, it is a biological response designed to elicit my petting. She isn’t coming to me because I’m upset, or needy. She’s coming to me because she is needy. In direct contrast to my dog, she is serving herself every minute of every day, while my dog is serving me, every minute of every day. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that cats are the narcissists of the animal world.
I’m really bummed to find this out. I’m not bummed to find out cats are selfish creatures. I can live with that. I still adore them and plan to have many in the years to come. What I’m bummed about is the realization that Tigger didn’t come to me in times of need; I was always in need. I always needed attention, loving, assurance and affection. Tigger didn’t sense that, anymore than I realized how badly I needed it. There was no magical connection, no inherent sense of my feelings. Tigger was serving herself when she came to me. Yes, she got me through some difficult times, and I’ll be eternally grateful for that. But she didn’t do it for me; she did it for her. It is just a sad truth that I was always in need of affection and reassurance, and my needs collided with hers.
I don’t remember learning the truth about Santa Clause, or the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny. I imagine if I did though, it would feel much as I feel now; a kick in the gut that says “idiot; it was an illusion and you fell for it”. While I plan to be the crazy old cat lady, I have a new found respect for my dog. And a new understanding of me as a teenager, in such desperate need that I’d attribute my salvation to a cat.
Tigger, if you are in heaven and can read this, I’m sorry! I still love you. You’ll always be my Santa Clause.