In the Middle of the Night:
A meditation on animals
by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of
Atlanta, Jan. 28, 1998)
It's 3 in the morning in California. I have been coming
here for five or six days nearly every month for a year-and-a-half now for
school. But I've found no way to convince my body to stay in bed beyond its
East Coast rising time on the first day out here. So, as usual, I am sitting
in the middle of the night on my motel room balcony in Carpinteria, south
of Santa Barbara, overlooking a courtyard that even in January is shamelessly
lush with flowers, ferns and tropical plants. El Nino, the cause of all suffering
everywhere now, has brought heavy rains to this area, but to a traveler from
anywhere else this area still looks as strangely unnatural as paradise. The
air is cool, I smell the ocean, even across the highway, and I am amazed
by the luminescence of the coral impatiens under the milky light of the courtyard
Consider this, then, a letter from paradise, written at 3 a.m., between the
strange space of the dreams from which I have just awakened and the activity
of the day before me.
My dreams have reminded me that the most conspicuous presence in my life
right now is actually an absence. Two weeks ago, I had to "put to sleep"
my cat of nearly 17 years. A calico who had never been sick a day in her
life, Doo Doo, as I cruelly nicknamed her, suddenly developed diabetes and
began a rapid decline.
I went through this with another cat, Chester, my companion of 13 years,
five years ago. In his case, I gave him insulin injections twice a day for
two years, expecting every day for him to drop dead. Finally, I came home
one day and found him in the middle of a seizure that killed him. In the
same week that Chester died, two beloved friends also died. It was a bad
Chester, hugely fat, was the most sociable cat you ever met. People often
called him a dog in a cat suit. Somehow, I sensed that it was right to prolong
his life with insulin injections. Doo Doo on the other hand was a terrible
recluse, a misanthrope. In fact, her "real" name was Cinderella, because
she hid behind the mop and broom for two days when I first brought her home
as a wild kitten the Humane Society had trapped.
Chester immediately adopted Doo Doo as a kitten and, as long as he was alive,
she'd have nothing to do with anyone else. In fact, she despised her own
offspring. She got herself knocked-up one Christmas when I let a freezing
old tom cat into the house. Her pregnancy and delivery were nightmares. She
had no maternal instincts and, as if to blame me for her situation, would
deposit her kittens in my bed every night as I was sleeping, and then slink
off someplace alone. Did she hope that I would roll over them and simplify
People often said my two cats were reflections of me. One, Chester, could
not control his appetites, and the other, Doo Doo, most enjoyed her own company.
Now, when Chester died, Doo Doo and I were forced to fall in love with one
another -- like two misanthropes in a bad movie. She demanded continual attention
from me, sleeping with me, no matter who else was present in the bed. (At
least, unlike Chester, she never developed the habit of leaping upon the
bed at the moment of orgasm, screeching, like a rooster announcing dawn.)
Any transgression of Doo Doo's demands -- a shared bed, a perpetually overloaded
food bowl, constant head scratching, and a pillow on which to curl at my
feet while I wrote -- infuriated her and resulted in the habit that inspired
her nickname. Yes, she protested my disregard of her needs by wantonly defecating
-- once in my bed, the day after I returned from three weeks abroad.
Chester was an extrovert. All of his energy was poured into the world. Doo
Doo was a cranky introvert. She shrank from everyone but me. I have longtime
friends who never laid eyes on her, seriously. When I went to see her the
last day at Pets Are People Too, I could see so clearly that she was miserable.
Whereas Chester actually seemed to enjoy the attention of taking pills and
shots, Doo Doo was horrified, miserable. I knew that prolonging her life
was not the right thing to do.
And yet what a terrible thing to shorten it willfully. I held her as the
doctor gave her a fatal injection. I cried deeply, feeling that I betrayed
her trust as I scratched her head and then asked the doctor to kill her.
I'd complained that pets are cruel for living such short times, but, for
God's sake, my relationships with my cats have outlived all of my human
relationships. How many marriages or friendships last 17 years? I cried for
her. But I know I cried for all the suffering death in my life, too. In the
'80s, I attended the deaths of countless friends -- several of them hastened
to avoid the terrible suffering that AIDS causes. We are all born fated to
die, often suffering.
The reason all of this arises at this moment -- at 3 in the morning on the
other side of the continent -- is that I have awakened from a dream of Chester.
I dream of him frequently, as I do of a dead parrot, Jade, who lived with
me nearly 15 years and has been dead about 10 years. I keep awaiting Doo
Doo's arrival in my dreams and it frightens me that she has not yet appeared
People who have no affection for animals or who are simply embarrassed by
their own sentiment for them, can't abide this kind of eulogy for a dead
pet. But I mean to imply more than my personal grief here. I find myself,
for the first time in more than 20 years, without a relationship with an
animal, and in the withdrawal of this kind of relationship, I find myself
suddenly getting what all those crazy animal rights activists and Greenpeace
types are talking about.
I have shared my life intimately with pets for decades now, just as we as
species have always shared the planet with all manner of animals and plants.
I am astounded at how much I have taken my relationships with animals for
granted. Like most people, I was taught that animals are mindless, dangerous,
soulless -- almost machines, as Descartes called them. (In reality, of course,
the word "animal" is from the Latin "anima," meaning "breath" or "soul.")
This thinking allows us to discount the value of animals, to treat them as
objects of our own uses. Their lives, we think, depend on our permission.
But when I consider how enriched my life has been by my own pets in such
mysterious ways, I have to wonder how our lives as a human community will
be altered psychologically by the continued extinction and devaluing of animal
life. I am aware that my cats, through their simple touch, had the power
to calm me. I refuse to trivialize the importance of our psychological
relationship with animals by adopting absurd beliefs in literal interspecies
communication. It is something far deeper and more sensual than that -- like
the soul of the world itself singing through the ecology. We don't talk to
animals. We sing with them, each in our separate ways. My home is utterly
changed by the absence of an animal. It sings differently. So it could be
with the world.
The Channel Islands off the coast here were surrounded by whales a few months
ago: huge creatures that rise up beside boats, exhaling a terrible smell
like anchovies, and fixing the boats' inhabitants with a curious eye. A friend
who lives here, an intellectual and hardly the sort to do such things, tells
me she went out on the boats day after day to experience the whales and how,
always, she stretched out her arms to them beseechingly, unconsciously. It
has changed her life, she says, shocked. "The whales gave me back my body."
Yes, I think that is it. Before the animal, we are returned to the Garden
of Eden, our primal past. We stretch toward it, seek to recover our dark
animal hearts and, incredibly, the animal sees us and responds. And by such
glimpses, the heart of the world itself is seen and adored.
I'll see you in my dreams.
Copyright 1998 by Creative Loafing | Published Jan 24,
Archetypal Advice |