In the Middle of the Night:
A meditation on animals

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, 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 lamps.

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 time.

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 her life?

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 there.

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, 1998

Paradigms | Archetypal Advice | Articles | Essays | Writings Home

What Is SoulWork
Greeting The Muse
Is SoulWork For You?
About SoulWorks LLC
Upcoming Events
Top Of Page
Copyright 1997-1998 SoulWorks LLC