The Blessing of the Animals

They bring you solace in hard times. They crave your touch and quicken to your smile, and they make you want to give and give and give. Four writers share how their significant animal others inspire and heal

by Catherine Newman, Lauren Slater, Mira Bartok, Jo Ann Beard
cat lying on couch image
Photograph: Phil Toledano

The Last Baby

By Catherine Newman

In the back seat of the car, the baby is crying. Like most babies, he quiets down a little when we’re moving, then starts up again when we hit a red light. Instead of coming to a full stop, I jerk the car back and forth—accelerator to brake—hoping to jiggle him from his misery, just as I did with the two babies before him.

The fact that this particular baby is feline rather than human is turning out to be a surprisingly minor detail. (You can buy a new china pattern, but hey, it’s still a plate.) I am filled with dotty, nearly heartbreaking devotion and also something like despair. What have we done? I think, just as I did when our son was born 10 years ago, and again when our daughter was born three years later. Life was sailing along so nicely—why did we rock the boat? At night, the kitten sleeps on my chest with his whiskery face pressed into my neck and his needly little claws kneading the tender skin there. If I try to dislodge him, he whimpers pitifully, and I can only imagine how bereft he feels—missing his cat mom and all his furry little brothers and sisters—so I let him stay. He purrs if I cough or sneeze. He purrs if I whisper in his ear or stroke his cheek or scratch under his chin. He purrs and purrs like a tractor engine, and come daylight, I am exhausted. But his paws smell like taco chips, his ears are as big as satellite dishes, and he is ours.

“They sleep most of the time,” everyone had said about the babies—and this was true but also not true. The cumulative hours of awakeness were not long, but they were surreally packed with many lifetimes of nursing and spitting up and pooping and crying. And here we are again: The kitten is like the corny calendar pictures of a kitten—a gentle ball of fur asleep in a basket, on the couch, in a salad bowl, inside a shopping bag. So how he finds time to eat all the plants, poop on the kids’ wizard hat and shred a bag of bagels is a mystery. But there is no turning back. We are exhausted and also sick with love. Plus, he brings out, in the kids, something like the opposite of sibling rivalry: They love him as much as we do, and love each other more for the shared experience of devotion. They lie on the bed to watch him sleep, and every time he stirs, there’s a collective chorus of squealing admiration. “Oh, did you see him yawn?” “He’s breathing so cutely!” “Did you hear that little snore?” It reminds me of the videos we made of our baby son, grunting and inert on his changing table. When he bats once at his mobile, you hear me whisper to my husband, “Oh my God—did you get that on film?”

At night the kitten has what we call the bedtime crazies and tears around the house like a maniac, careening into chair legs, his claws scrabbling against the hardwood. He cries over his shots at the vet, and I say consolingly, as I have said so many times to my kids, “Poor, poor baby.” He falls down the stairs and chokes on his food and falls asleep while he’s playing, a felt mouse still clasped in his small, fierce jaws. He tumbles into the empty bathtub, pees on the carpet and chews an elaborate pattern of teeth marks into my leather belt. And how I feel is healed.

I have two children and too many blessings to count, and yet I have longed for one last cottony little baby to hold. I didn’t always; two had seemed like plenty. But then there was an unplanned pregnancy that ended almost before it started: a moment of a two-lined stick, then three or four days of breathless expectation that left, in its small wake, a vast longing. My obstetrician showed me the ultrasound image of my uterus, collapsed on the floor of my pelvis like a deflated party balloon. “I’m not saying you couldn’t try again,” she said, but I felt old already. I didn’t want to start all over again. At least not exactly.

First published in the Decmeber 2012/January 2013 issue

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