animal spirit family story

“I need a cat.”

My son wandered out of his room after his first online class of the morning knowing just where to look. Either cat will happily succumb to his attentions, he is part cat and they know it. Tigey has to be hunted under the couch or even outside under the shed. Lilly is usually more available, sleeping on my bed, dug deep into my shirt shelf in the closet or hiding in a basket above the washing machine.  The heftiest of our two cats by far she’ll settle into his lap, more furry potroast than cat, purring while he absorbs his humanities class. This may last for two hours or more.

I stopped Truly from bringing her guinea pigs to her remote learning classes unless it was “Wacky Wednesday.” So long as she wore pants on Wacky Wednesday, the Pigs of Guinea (as we call them) were more than welcome. They too are quite portly, animals tend to balloon out when fed by me. Truly is back in school for 4 days a week so her Pigs are left alone until she swoops in after school to invite them to watch TV or share a snack. She strokes their faces with hers, reads them books and attempts to fashion clothes that are comfortable for them to lounge in.

Our household includes one dog (Bella), two sibling cats (Tigey and Lilly), two guinea pigs (Pip and Nick), and numerous assorted fish. This is the smallest number of animal household members we’ve had since my late wife Terry and I first moved to our homestead back in 2008. There we had rotating hoards of feral kitten broods, a visiting albino pitbull the size of a small horse that ate more at our house than his own, chickens, turkeys and about 150 toads in a pond no bigger than a pig wallow. Oh yes and the underfed horses that we adopted at the end of the road. All this and we still had not hit maximum occupancy.

Bella was the first. She was the realization of a childhood longing, the first medium/large breed dog I had. It was only when we moved to some serious land that I felt I had the right to have one.  Now at 12+ years old she naps most of the day and usually snores when she sleeps. There have been many times since Terry died that I have laid down on the carpet with her, wrapped my arms around her scruff, just to feel a grown up sized being who I loved laying next to me. Burying my face in her fur I pull her weight into me and breath deep. Nothing calms me like her musk-dusty smell and the weight of her chest against me. I know when I snuggle with her my nervous system will reset after just a few breaths.

When I was a kid, dogs were my healers and nursemaids when my Mom had her hands full. I was sick often enough that she couldn’t always hang with me, our dogs kept me company when the world hurt too much to be a part of. We sniffed each other, stared in each others eyes. I made lifelong oaths of devotion to them, they obligingly ate my ice cream. They wagged, I stroked them, I kissed, they pawed. Laying with my pack meant I wasn’t alone, but also that I didn’t have to talk to communicate. It meant that resting for 2 hours in the middle of the day was not wasting time, but rather doing something very important.

It meant that just being was enough.

I don’t know why Tadg thought he needed a cat that morning. It could be that one of his friends was petting a rabbit during class. Several of his gaming friends often have rabbits on their laps while they play together. So. Sweet. But I do know that holding that cat fed him in a way nothing else can. It is a quiet, safe intimacy he can call on whenever he needs. I don’t think my kids would be as strong and happy as they are now, after losing such a loving and present Mother, if they didn’t have animals in their lives. The feeling of total acceptance animals effortlessly convey gives us all room to feel and express whatever we need to. They can easily hold our broken hearts, its not a burden for them. But they’re also not boundaryless giving trees, kids need pushback too.

Animals were the first beings they had to negotiate their own relationship with, on their own terms.

When you live on a farm or homestead you get to see the give and take of animals and kids. When your child grabs an animal the wrong way, tresspasses in some way, they learn quickly. Bella was good at this. She tolerated what was appropriate for the age. Toddlers may mess with my ears with no consequences, four year olds cannot. Babies can grab at my fur, ten year olds better pet or get nipped at. Papa can reach into my mouth and pull out that chicken bone I snagged from the trash, everyone else can eat my dust.

Truly has always had a way with animals. When she was barely able to walk I found her at the end of our walkway poking at a lazy King Snake about 4 feet long. It glanced up, saluted with its tongue, and then meandered off to eat something. Turkeys  were a tough playmate once they were past the pullet stage, but hens could be worked with most of the time. Just stay away from the rooster, or ask Papa to deal with him. Some horses weren’t nice, but most were ready to be her best friend. Toads do not like to be cuddled but can often be studied for long periods without too much distress. For True, the world has always been populated by children and animals just waiting to be her best friend.

My dear friend Lora Jannsson pointed out recently that animals teach us compassion every day. This struck me as so ridiculously, profoundly true we should have learned it in kindergarten. Those animals we call pets, or family, often give us the most affection of all the beings in our lives. They are infinitely patient with us, willing to wait until the end of time for just one more serving of love. Wild animals often just let us be, which is a kindness. Ravens don’t seem to mind me watching them, so long as I’m not near a nest. Yes, a few animals want to eat us, and some may want us off the planet (can you blame them), but taken as a whole we’re not only at the top of the food chain, we’re at the top of the love chain.

We get it all.

I’m an older single Dad, the world always feels uncertain to me, with Covid, even more. Each moment with my kids can have an edge to it that feels at once juicy and a little risky. Something as simple as opening a pickle jar for someone means stepping into vulnerability. Somehow our animals absorb all of this, become a furry safety rail for me to lean into. 

There are times when I find and animal to give to one of my kids because I know its what they need.

When I wake at night, with everyone asleep, its only a few steps for me to find myself back in my childhood bedroom with two small dogs curled on either side of me. Though I was isolated by sickness, the fullness of the world was wrapped around me because I was not alone. Now I lay not with sickness but with the rawness of our times, the rawness of single Dadhood. Still I am not alone. Still their quiet presence assures me that there will be a tomorrow, and then maybe, everything will be OK.

Blessings to you and yours during this time of great change.

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