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

I didn’t imagine that a kitten would pull me through the last dregs of this unexpected grief—we were getting him “for the kids,” after all—but that’s what happened. He is a baby, plain and simple: He sleeps on my chest, and I am trapped and happy beneath him, woozy with love. His breath reminds me of my daughter Birdy’s milky exhalations; the smell of his newly washed fur reminds me of the sucked-on aroma of my son Ben’s thumb. I think of how my parents got a dog when their last baby, me, left for college, and I get it, even though my own nest is far from empty. If a loss of any kind has left an empty space, I think a pet can fill it perfectly, without the long-term complications of raising a human. The stakes of the kitten’s bad behavior are pretty low. We don’t care if he’s smart; he will never grow up and leave us or even, really, grow up at all. He will die: As Carol Anshaw puts it in one dog lovers’ novel, “Taking on a pet is a contract with sorrow.” But the sorrow is for a later day. For now, the kitten rolls on his back to get his belly rubbed. He closes his eyes, and my own fill with tears of what you might call joy.

CATHERINE NEWMANis the author of the (human) parenting memoir Waiting for Birdy. She lives with her family in western Massachusetts.

Middle-Aged Horsepower

By Lauren Slater

There she goes, my girl. She squeezes the horse’s sides, then gives a swift kick, and the animal begins to canter. I stand outside the riding ring and watch as she flies by—no helmet today, so her hair is a single stream—her hands holding the reins in the correct position, thumbs up, her body moving with the gait, which starts slow and rocking and then, as she goes round, picks up speed, the hooves hitting the dust harder, and harder still, until both girl and horse become a blur I can no longer really see but feel, through my feet, and smell, the huge horse pungent, his tail lifted high in a proud plume.

My daughter is 10 and loves horses, each and every one: the Appaloosas and the Arabians, the Abyssinians and the Camarillos, breeds distinct in their markings and temperament but majestic mammals all, 1,000 pounds on average, with teeth large and sharp enough to take a finger or even a whole hand, although horses won’t, they don’t; even the stallions, the wild ones, the cranks, have only rarely harmed a human. One of the grandest animals in the kingdom and yet easy prey, the horse has eyes set far apart so he can see the edges, the places where predators hide.

Once a week we come to this stable for my daughter’s lesson. Once a week I stand off to one side and watch her fly right by me, something in me aching, some shout that won’t come out, words like wait, like hey, like once upon a time. And then, when the words compel me, I turn from her and head up the hill, the barn before me blazing red, its insides darker than a closet until my eyes adjust, the long aisle, the meaty beams, the stalls with the horses still in them, turning in slow circles or hanging their heads over the doors, their names inscribed on silver plates affixed below. There’s Pride’s Starlight Tanya and Sweet Revenge; there’s A.M. White Night and Milky Way, a horse with a swirl of stars on his rump, big white blurs that spiral into themselves. I sometimes whisper the names, or even, if no one is around, utter them out loud, each name pure poetry to me. Perhaps I’m a sap; I’m certainly nostalgic, seeing in my daughter and the horses she rides a much younger me, the girl who once jumped four-foot fences and galloped through the woods, holding on hard to the bristly mane as my mount cleared a stream, a stack of wood, coming fast around the corners in a forest packed with birch.

First published in the Decmeber 2012/January 2013 issue

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