Written through more tears and smiles than can be explained. . .
Theriomorph tagged me with a meme that you’ll see is particularly close to my heart.
An interesting animal I had:
It took nearly thirty years for me to realize I can never “have” an animal. I don’t buy them; I adopt and rescue them. I don’t have pets; I share my home with family. Just as I can never own a moment of time, I can never own an animal.
If memory serves, each and every creature with whom I’ve shared a bit of life has brought with them fantastical spirits which could be described as nothing less than interesting. Nary a one of them could be called ordinary or mundane. To say their souls blessed me would be a profound understatement.
I’ve journeyed with the likes of seahorses, ducks, a tarantula, shrimp, a snake, and even a baby squirrel I rescued many moons ago. And that doesn’t cover all the dogs and cats and fish and rabbits, or even the cows and horses and pigs and fowl of many feathers.
And yet there still remain two names most vividly seared into my memory.
Arco the Doberman. She brought such joy to our lives that it scarcely does justice to say she was interesting. Nevertheless, she was just that.
Dad had a rule that she had to keep two paws on the floor when it came to being on the furniture (keep in mind she was a large dog). Seeing that Arco knew she was as much a part of the family as anyone else, she bent the rule until it nearly broke—but not quite. She’d back onto a piece of furniture until only her front paws dangled to the ground. She would essentially be “on the couch” yet equally would be in compliance with Dad’s rule. Her view obviously was such that, being a person, she could sit on the furniture like everyone else. She simply let her feet touch the floor like the rest of us did. Problem solved.
No one dared mess with us kids with her around. The whole reason for adopting her stemmed from a simple fact with female Doberman pinschers: Unless she has puppies, she will adopt human children as her own puppies as she grows, and this creates in her an innate need to protect them at all costs. She came to live with us when we were but young’uns. It didn’t take long for her to realize we were her pups, her kids, and she, as our mother, needed to see to our protection. I can remember her backing one of my uncles against the front door, her mouth firmly planted on his crotch, simply because he took her by surprise and didn’t get our blessing before storming into the living room. And at another moment, she guarded another uncle who sat on the couch without moving for fear of his own life. Until we said it was okay, she intended to put herself between us and anyone who might be a threat.
Yet when dealing with us no gentler soul could be found. As children, we molested that poor dog as human offspring are wont to do, yet she put up with our antics without a single complaint. After all, we were her children. But look at us wrong and she’d be on top of you in a heartbeat. Even my father learned that disciplining us sometimes meant putting her outside first lest he be the target of her wrath. A raised voice, a pointed finger, or even a sudden move could result in immediate attack. She was truly the protective mother no one dared challenge.
Then there’s Henry. I doubt there’s much I can say about him that I haven’t already said, perhaps even several times. And still I’ll try.
He was my friend, my brother, my confidant, my distant family and intimate stranger, my beloved, my teacher and student, my anesthesia and alarm, my world—nay, my universe, and he was the soil for my roots, the guide I followed in darkness, the image I saw when all else became invisible. He was my companion.
Henry lived for almost 22 human years (104 feline years). As I’ve said time and again, Mom and I always thought he’d outlive the entire family. He certainly tried. As his body succumbed to age, I pampered him through his frailty and ensured our relationship didn’t suffer. I picked him up so gently that one might think him a porcelain statue, one so carefully held in my arms as to be padded from even the weakest zephyr. I provided ad hoc stairs to help him get up and down from the bed; he would sleep nowhere but with me, and I needed him there as much as I needed each breath, so how could I respond otherwise to arthritic bones and aged muscles too stiff and weak to leap up but a short distance? In those final years I treated him like a dry leaf fallen from an autumn tree.
Through most years together and some apart, he remained my Henry:
For reasons I couldn’t understand, Henry always had been my cat. He found comfort in my lap when no other was acceptable or welcoming. Sitting on the floor in front of the back door at my parents’ old house, we would dance albeit with more joy in me than him, and we would embrace each other afterward in celebration of his survival and my entertainment, though there was no cruelty involved and he tolerated it only because of that fact. I was the only one who stayed up with him all night when he became so ill that he wandered about the house in delirium, wailing in tones horrific and rending of the heart, first in the bathroom by the toilet and eventually in the hall with his head stuck partway through the closet door which leaned uncomfortably against his neck. He slept with me when all others were denied. If I was sick or distraught, he knew it and would respond accordingly. Comrade spirits in life, we two had an understanding, the crux of intimacy between human and cat, that place wherein the master predator gives itself completely to the companionship and love of another and learns to rely trustingly.
No one has ever taught me as much as Henry taught me. From the value of quality versus quantity to the deepest meaning of love, he remains my life’s greatest educator. Never before him had I learned to cradle a life so gently in my arms. Never before him had I learned to appreciate the differences between value and extent. Never before him had I learned to see well beyond me to the greater needs of others. He taught me about the true power of denial. He taught me the meaning of pain and truth:
I sobbed, leaning lower and stroking his black fur and mumbling to him. “It’s OK, Henry,” I said. “You’re OK. We’re going to make it better. We’re going to take away the pain.” I hated myself for saying it. I felt deceptive, a liar telling his child that the pain is how we grow when what is necessary is an understanding that the pain means we are hurt, that our body in one of its many forms is damaged, that we need healing that words rarely provide. I despised myself immensely for such cheap contributions to his final moments.
In those final moments of his life, he taught me so much more. . .
Might I somehow metaphysically consume him and take all that he is into my own self? Can I bestow upon him more living through my own essence and life, finding in that act an ability to extend my parental care beyond mortality?
All thought was gone from me; only my heart acted. Despite thinking it impossible, I leaned even closer to Henry and embraced his body next to mine as the doctor tenderly inserted the needle, slowly but deliberately injected its contents, and removed it in a motion swift and targeted so that very little notice of it might present. He stroked Henry lovingly one last time, then again touched my arm ever so briefly before turning and leaving the room.
I wept. Oh, how I wept. I listened to his breathing and held him close to me. I continued talking to him through my own tears, assuring and reassuring him that he would be OK, that the pain was soon to be gone, that no more suffering would befall him, and that he need not worry about me anymore, just himself. The life drained out of him with slowing breath and with it, my soul poured forth in tears. He who had been so near to me took his last intake of air and laid it upon my face with the whisper of his being. Oh, how I wept then. My tears fell upon his still fur. My own wailings transformed into unmanageable gasps of air. Measured only in a few brief minutes, the decades of his life vanished on that counter as he lay wrapped in my arms and held close to me, and with the going of his light so too left a part of my soul forever lost to me, that part of my own living measured in doses of Henry.
. . .including one of the most important questions in life:
And now I wonder. Was it better for him to be in an alien place, frightened and stressed in his already weakened and ailing state, the cold of stainless steel, tile floor, hard counter, fluorescent lighting, and needle surrounding him on all sides and pressing in on him, yet cloaked in totality by three people who loved him dearly, there in the not-home and not-comfortable to take his final breath? Or would it have been better for him to face his death in the comfort of his home where he knew himself to be safe, in that place wherein he could be Henry, embraced by those familiar walls and ceiling and floor that had been his home for so many years, undoubtedly suffering as his body failed uncontrollably, yet in that section of the cosmos wherein he was the all of himself, where he knew he was safe and loved? I do not know the answer to that question. And it vexes me.
And he taught me this:
May I never — never — be without this level of compassion for my children: The Kids. May I never be without this level of compassion for my family and friends. May I never lose the ability to suffer the loss of a pet without embracing the strength to do it again and again and again. May I never exist without the will and power of mind to care for the least of these, whether they be human or otherwise. May I always understand the joy of loss and the sorrow of love.
An interesting animal I ate:
Although I’ve given up eating meat, I spent a great deal of my life consuming the flesh of animals with utter abandon (shame on me!).
Shark jumps to mind as possibly the most unusual kind of animal I’ve eaten (and how barbaric that sounds. . .). Well, shark and opossum.
I found the shark meal to be entirely untempting, if not inedible. Tough like rubber and almost flavorless, I suspect my experience had more to do with the chef and the recipe than with the animal itself. Then again, maybe not. This was in Nuuk, Greenland.
As for the ‘possum dish, I can only say Louisiana folk can certainly cook up a tempting bit of marsupial. I find it rather distasteful looking back on it; at the time, however, I struggled with gluttony while serving myself bowl after bowl of spicy, tongue-tingling ‘possum gumbo.
Then again, I’ve also filled my tummy with the likes of dishes made from crickets, ants, and grubs. Interesting? You bet!
An interesting animal in the museum:
‘Museum’ is defined as a place where important things are preserved. I can’t think of any animal in a museum that I don’t find interesting. Whether it be a touch of history shielded from us by time, or a touch of history taken from us by human ignorance, not a single creature thus preserved can be described as anything less than magnificent. From mammoths robbed by natural extinction to passenger pigeons stolen by man’s ignorant savagery, a walk through any museum unveils creatures worthy of our reminiscent sorrow and heartfelt respect.
But there is one group of animals that has always fascinated me beyond words: dinosaurs. Undoubtedly my favorite creatures ever to roam the planet, these giant reptiles have enthralled me since I was but a boy. There are three in particular which seed my imagination and inspire wonder: Spinosaurus aegypticus, Tyrannosaurus rex, and my all-time favorite Triceratops. How I marvel at these giants each time I set me eyes upon their fossils. Masters of the world were they, and long before mammals began their evolutionary journey toward supremacy.
Long have our dreams and nightmares been fueled by the likes of these behemoths. Dragons undoubtedly took shape in the minds of humanity in response to our early ancestors stumbling upon dinosaur fossils and footprints. We expend great effort to entertain ourselves with direct and indirect references to these giants from history. To say I am fascinated by them would be to diminish their impact on me.
An interesting thing I did with or to an animal:
Doesn’t that sound illegal? Anyway. . .
I once told Jenny this story. Now I’ll share it here.
I often drive through the lake park on my way home from work. I live on its edge and can more easily reach my home if I do so, but the reasons are more complex and simple than that. After a long day focused on surviving the rat race, there exists a stunning bit of relaxation from which I imbibe just before reaching my garage: to make my way slowly along the lake’s edge, to drive carefully through a wildlife habitat that lies in the middle of a large metropolitan area. The moment I turn into the park, I am transported away from the city and to a measure of rurality and nature difficult to find in these parts.
So it was with glee that I made my way to the lake one hot summer afternoon. Cruising along at barely more than crawl, I breathed in with my eyes and ears the lush surroundings. Then I spotted it.
A large painted turtle was slowly making its way across the tiny road. Vivid yellows and reds glistened against a dark green background as sunlight danced upon skin and shell. Its legs methodically moved back and forth carrying it across warm concrete.
A few bicycles swerved around it at the last minute. Nevertheless, I could see a car moving toward us from the opposite direction. The turtle was in its path.
I swerved my car to the side of the road and stopped beside the reptile. In that position, I blocked all of one lane and half of the other. Any vehicle moving by me would have to drive partially in the grass to avoid hitting me.
To my chagrin, I noticed a police car moving into position behind me. Seeing that I was blocking oncoming traffic and forcing it to drive on the wrong side of the road, not to mention blocking most of the path, I suspected I would have some explaining to do.
Without turning on his lights or siren, the officer pulled in behind me. This put him in a position to look along the driver’s side of my car. As he glanced at me hanging out the window, his gaze followed my own until his eyes rested on this large, wonderfully decorated creature making its way toward the grass.
I looked carefully at the policeman with one question on my mind: What’s he going to do now?
Then a smile crossed his face, a beaming grin from ear to ear, and he waved and nodded to me. He never got out of his car. Instead, he turned his lights on and sat quietly with me as we ensured the safety of this one animal.
As soon as the turtle had moved a few feet off the road and into the tall grass, the police lights turned off, the officer again waved to me, and we both pulled back over to the correct side of the road before going our separate ways.
An interesting animal in its natural habitat:
All of them.
Dare I speak to you of the red fox climbing the hill while Drew and I walked around the lake, his form frozen for an instant as he sized us up, as he carefully weighed his options, and upon realizing we posed no threat as we stood captivated by him, as he finally turned and walked casually down the hill and into the dense forest?
Dare I speak to you of standing abreast marshlands in Florida feasting upon the sight of a massive alligator weaving its way amongst reeds and grasses, occasionally glancing at me, and once meeting my stare—at which point I lost myself in the eyes of a dragon?
Dare I speak to you of a sizable shark swimming near me as I bobbed up and down in the Gulf of Mexico?
Dare I speak to you of the hummingbird flying so near as to brush my cheek with the wind from its wings, a darting creature both vocal and magical?
Dare I speak to you of a million beasts in a million places, each of them the most serene image of beauty no matter the species, and all because I saw them where they were meant to be, in and of nature, members of a global habitat we humans fail to respect?
I can think of no more interesting animal in its natural habitat than the one we leave alone, that we let survive, that we don’t hunt or push to death by encroaching blindly on its territory.