Tuesday, November 14, 2017

In Praise of Cats and Surgeons

Two events have coloured this autumn for me.  The first is the arrival of two new kittens on September 2.  They came from Regina Cat Rescue and they came with stories.  Tuck, the black cat, had a feral mother who visited one of RCR's feeding stations.  They gave her a safe place for the birth of her kittens and when she was finished nursing spayed her and let her go back to the way of life that was comfortable for her.  We have called him Tuck because early in his time with us he was quite shy and tucked himself in the most improbable places.  But I have wily patience and taught him that playing is more fun than hiding.  Once he was more comfortable, he was more likely to "tuck" his face under your chin or in his brother's fur.  He remains an introvert who seems to spend some of his time just observing the world, curious about how it works.  He is a large, gentle guy who, I predict, will become a philosopher cat in time.

We named Lyra after a bright constellation because he is a bright, outgoing, curious, smart.  Lyra and his siblings were found under the stairs of a business on Roleau without any mother in sight.  Either they had been abandoned or their mother had been grabbed by a coyote or a hawk.  After waiting four hours to see if their mother would return, they called RCR, which has a volunteer whose particular gift is help animals without mothers get a toehold in this world.  Kittens who are fed "by hand"--which is to say cuddled by a person and fed with a syringe for quite a few weeks--tend to be very cuddly and affectionate, and this is borne out by Lyra's personality.  Lyra's world contains some fairly deep puzzles.  If I pour water into his upstairs bowl, it stays in the bowl.  But when I let water run in the sink, it goes away.  When I drink out of a clear glass, it disappears into my mouth.  Why, if there is a sink full of water, can't he put his paw in on the edge and pull it toward him--like every other toy in his world?  And then there are mirrors.  One day he sat up on the vanity in the bathroom and looked at his reflection.  Then he looked over at my reflection.  He looked at his again, then at me, and then again at mine.  I could see the mice turning the little exercise wheels in his brain:  if that shows me Mom, then this must be me.

Tuck and Lyra are not siblings but they are brothers.  Having been fostered together, they developed an early bond that is remarkably strong.  They wrap their arms around one another or wash one another's faces--until that turns into what I call "lick, lick, lick, chew, chew, chew"--a kind of safe rehearsal of self-defense.  There's no growling, but a lot of posturing,  lots of chasing that then turns into play with one of the catnip mice we've bought for them.  They are half joy--joie de vivre, really, and half love.  I frequently wake in the morning to stereo purr--one cat on either side of my pillow purring away, a cheek next to mine or the top of a head pressed into my hair.  They may be the most affectionate kittens I've ever had.  Or it may be that being retired and having been taught by Twig about the inner lives of cats, I'm simply more attuned to their moods, habits, and needs.

They came into our lives about a week after Bill's time in hospital that I wrote about in "Bittersweet."  In some ways that was fortunate:  he was still home, gaining strength, and he could learn their personalities, be distracted by them, laugh at their antics, and cuddle with them a lot.  They were obviously still here about a month ago when Bill had a second episode that called for major surgery (three hours of it) in the middle of the night.  It's still his story to tell, so I'll simply say that there were a couple of things that could have gone very wrong but that didn't, thanks to the extraordinary skills of the surgeon who happened to be on call that night.  Bill is on the mend, but has a ways to go before his energy is back to normal and he can return to work. 

One common denominator between kittens and recovery from surgery is mindfulness.  When you are raising wonderful, playful, cuddly kittens and are still learning about their personalities, you pay attention.  I still set aside some time after dinner and dishes to play with them.  While part of that play is laughter and delight, another part is attention.  What arouses their curiosity?  What challenges do they like to add to their play?  Similarly, when you are taking care of someone who is trying to build his stamina after surgery--someone who isn't all that keen to eat, but who must eat, you pay attention.  When does he need a nap?  Does he look comfortable?  What food might tempt him to eat a little more?  The surgeon told us to walk every day--not far, and certainly not quickly at first--and our slow late-afternoon walk down the back lane became a time to pay attention to changes in Bill's energy and to the waning autumnal light.

The second common denominator is gratitude.  I am so grateful for the little guys who seem so happy to have joined my household.  And I'm obviously grateful for every little change in Bill's sense of well-being and energy.  Gratitude, I find, is always a good foundation to build on.  But what I've found is that having a life right now that is infused with gratitude has changed me.  In some ways, I'm a very patient person.  In other ways I'm not:  if someone is wasting my time, I get edgy and even cranky.  But early in his time home, Bill had some questions about his progress that he could put neither to his regular doctor nor to the surgeon, both of whom were away.  So we spent 3 hours and 45 minutes at a walk in clinic with a very thorough doctor who did lots of tests, who took x-rays, and who was informative.  While all this was unrolling for Bill, I was sitting in the waiting room reading Salman Rushdie's new novel, The Golden House.  (I dunno.  I love Rushdie, but the jury is still out on this one.  It's great political satire on the present moment, but I have a feeling it's not built very carefully.)  I'd need a break, so I cleaned out my wallet.  Back to reading Rushdie.  A break to read The Leader Post.  Back to Rushdie.  It never even occurred to me to be impatient.

Bill and I have an equal opportunity household.  We've divvied up the basic household tasks between us with attention both to our strengths and preferences and to how much time each of us is  contributing.  But he can't lift over 8 pounds for the next several months, so I'm doing a lot more than I used to.  He usually cleans the house, but that is obviously falling to me.  And to make matters worse, Lyra is not afraid of anything--not afraid of vacuum cleaners or dust mops.  He's curious about why I'm moving everything on a table or why I'm looking under a chair.  Am I going to find a toy?!?!  As a matter of fact, it helps to have a catnip mouse in my pocket, but it also helps to let his sense of curiosity and fun infect me.  Yesterday, I decided to move all the chairs out of the dining room so I could do a thorough vacuuming.  (I'd been giving that room what my mother used to call 'a lick and a promise.')  Each time I moved a chair out of the room, Lyra jumped up to take a ride.  He did the same thing when I moved the chairs back.  When we were done, I laughed and he wrapped his arms around my knee and jumped up and down like a puppy asking to be picked up.  He purred in my ear.

Could it be that gratitude makes it easier to "go with the flow," to see the whole of the situation before you and to foreground what you're grateful for--Bill's growing energy or the way Lyra's playfulness puts house cleaning in a different light?  There have to be limits to gratitude--principles I haven't thoroughly worked out yet.  I'm certainly grateful when I hear good news stories about climate change, but those stories don't outweigh everything we're not doing.  People in Puerto Rico don't seem to have much reason to be grateful for U.S. aid in their recovery, though I'm sure there are many human-scale moments when they help one another out and when they are grateful.  But that doesn't excuse U.S. negligence.  There are wrongs in the world--injustices and meanness, greed and stupidity, abuses of power.  But if the down side is just the down side, the half empty glass, and not something you need to get mobilized to combat, taking a moment to think of what you might be grateful for is not only prosocial--grateful people are kinder, more empathetic, and more generous--but healthier for you and those around you.  I hate swimming upstream.  Gratefully going with the flow leaves me with more energy to fight when I need to.

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