When I was five, I had a cat named Jennyanydots* whose anxiety rivaled my own. Jenny was a scrawny, mostly-feral, bushy-tailed shadow who you only saw in rapid streaks of white and gray as she darted, terrified, from one hiding place to another.
For one reason or another (though I suspect it was our shared anxiety over the vacuum cleaner), Jenny developed an attachment to me. She spent the majority of her day squeezed into my bed frame, tucked away in the space between my twin mattress and its stowed trundle. Every night at bedtime, I turned down my covers inch by inch, timing each movement carefully to the sharp seconds clicking on my clock, imagining my body as an airless cloud, floating effervescently from the floor to my pillow. I kept my movements so slow and slight that Jennyanydots-the-scared-shitless cat could just detect the vibrations of my body depressing the mattress springs, and know that she was safe to join the world for her allotted moment of affection.
And so, every night, Jennyanydots pushed her sunken, shaggy body Gollum-like from under my bed, crawling with wide, cautious eyes halfway to my pillow, where if I stretched my arm as far as it would go, I could just manage to run my fingertips across her chin.
Jenny was not my family’s only cat. We also had Loocie–the semi-antisocial gray puffball my mom had discovered and domesticated in our old condominium’s garage; Sadie–the cat with a white face and black markings under her nose that looked a little too ironically like a Hitler mustache; and Simba–a fluffy, orange, majestic animal who had been part of the family before my sister and I were born, and therefore suffered the most abuse; there’s an old home video of Joanna chasing Simba around the house with a slotted spoon, smacking him on the back and squeaking with joy.
Our homes, from my earliest memories, were revolving cat doors of hisses and lint brushes. It was never completely clear which of our cats were cats we had acquired on purpose, and which were feral cats my mom lured into the house with comforting coos and cans of tuna. This continued when my sister and I moved out. By the time I left Fort Campbell for Monterey, the total count of animals in my parents’ care included:
- two on-purpose cats (Elvis and Gus Gus),
- one wandered-into-the-house-one-day outdoor/indoor cat who will bite you on the face at 4:00am because she wants attention (Poppins),
- one extremely ugly feral cat who has continuous oozing skin lesions and once tried to kill on-purpose-cat Elvis so he was banished outside (Reggie),
- an on-purpose corgi because my dad was sick of all the cats (Rinnie),
- a feral cat my mom named Granola because she was eating granola when the cat showed up on the back deck,
- and a family of raccoons who live off outdoor dishes of dry cat food and who haven’t yet been inside the house, but I’m sure my mom is working on it.
Sometime early in this childhood filled with feline friends, I developed an empathy problem. I started to feel really sorry for these cats. And then, perhaps more worryingly, I started to feel sorry for these cats because I saw myself as these cats: anxious, frightened, untrusting, and often antisocial. I crawled under my covers at night and learned how to lure Jennyanydots into the soft flannel sheets with me, where we would sit together in complete darkness, not moving, and feeding off each others desire for affection and fear of sudden movements.
This empathy phase turned out to be less of a “phase” and more of a “personality.” By the age of six I had my favorite stuffed animals on a rotation system that allowed each of them to spend two nights a week in bed with me; the others sat in a haphazard heap next to my bed, face down, so they didn’t have to stare in jealousy at their nightly rival. By 10 it was a daily struggle to decide which pencil to use in math class (orange sparkle pencil? green eraser pencil? purple pony pencil?), because even though purple pony pencil was clearly the best pencil, the other pencils were doing everything they could to be good pencils too, and I’d be a total bitch if I didn’t at least recognize the hard work they put into their pencil potential, praying one day to be picked for times tables.
By 12 I’d learned to feel deeply, intensely sorry for a wide array of animate and inanimate objects. I stopped watching TV shows like “I Love Lucy” and “Kenan and Kel” because I couldn’t get through an episode of the title characters’ whacky hijinks without making myself sick with shared situational anxiety. It didn’t matter that everything was consistently back to normal at the end of the episode; Ricky still loved Lucy, Kel still loved orange soda, and nobody ever went to jail or the morgue despite having pretty much asked for it. It didn’t matter because, though the shows were very fake, my anxiety was very real.
As you can imagine, this made human relationships a problem too. I was so afraid of hurting other people that, as a teenager, I was in the habit of breaking things off with boyfriends by systematically ignoring them until they dumped me. I couldn’t intentionally cause pain to a person who didn’t at least see it coming. Not even through AOL instant messenger. I knew I’d be able to feel that person’s hurt emanating from the pixelated words and forced frowny-face emoticons. And with all the hurt I felt every day for cats, and pencils, and the kid who got picked last for dodgeball, I was convinced that my body could not hold any more hurt. And to be the cause of that hurt was…impossible.
I understood at some point that, in my desire to avoid hurting people, I ended up hurting them more.
While my ability to form healthy human relationships is improving in adulthood (credit less to my growing wisdom and more to past therapists), my empathy for animals is still a little worrisome. Which is why Jonathan and I took the decision to get a dog very seriously.
We agreed on the tenets of rescuing rather than purchasing, and we were extremely lucky in adopting Loxley; he is a wonderfully average, delightfully dumb, easy-to-please puppy who is happy most of the time. I struggle with leaving him home alone for more than an hour or two, but his general easygoingness makes over-empathizing with him difficult. Loxley was also a surprising champion during our cross-country move. Jonathan knows that I grew up in a cat-centric environment, and he has basically been waiting to come home to a surprise kitten since the first “I do.” But I have resisted brining a cat into the mix because cats are notoriously bad at moving, and we are planning to do a lot of it in the next few year years. A PCS is stressful enough without taking on the fear of a bewildered cat moaning gutturally from his carrier.
There’s also the overseas-move problem with having pets in the military: If you get orders to PCS overseas (including to places like Hawaii), the military will only finance the move for two pets per family. If you have more than two pets, you have to pay out of pocket to move the extras. This doesn’t sound like a big problem until you look up how much it costs to move an animal overseas. And then you remember how much soldiers are paid. Which is why, in military communities, you see a lot of rehoming activity for dogs and cats. In our Monterey community, there’s been a lot of heated back-and-forth from residents who are pro and con rehoming. I don’t want to get into this argument (because it’s gotten much too confrontational for my taste), but I’ll admit that, though there is a slim chance that Jonathan and I will move overseas, I’d like to avoid having more than two pets, just in case. Rehoming is a big ball of empathy and emotions that I’d like to avoid indefinitely.
But rehoming is also how we ended up, very suddenly and against my empathetic instincs, with a cat.
She is seven years old, obese, slightly antisocial, and has feline dandruff on her butt. Charming, right?
There have been at least two (and up to five) moving trucks on our street every week since we arrived in Monterey. Moving is a pretty constant thing in every military community, but in Monterey–where most service members are stationed very temporarily for language or graduate school–the PCS-ing seems to cycle even more rapidly. And the PCS will have to happen as soon as class is over, regardless of you being eight months pregnant and unable to find a new home for your third pet. This is pretty much my worst fear as a military spouse, and it’s exactly what happened to our neighbors.
When our neighbors mentioned their desperation to find a home for Layla to Jonathan one night, he responded by shouting irrationally, “MY WIFE LOVES CATS.”**
My immediate reaction to unexpectedly gaining a frightened, overweight animal who spent three days hiding under our bed and crying was…hesitant. This cat set off every empathy trigger in my body the moment she clawed her way to our doorstep. My instinct (a product, again, of good therapists) was to manually shut off those empathy triggers and decide, with my brain, if our home would be a good home for this cat, and if my heart could realistically handle another animal without imploding.
The first week was a little rough; cats are really not good at moving, even when they’re technically only moving about 15 feet away. Luckily Layla came from a dog-friendly home, so by the time she warmed up to Jonathan and me, she was gaining a reluctant tolerance for Loxley. Who, also luckily, sees the cat as a playmate and not as a snack. (He does, however, see the litter box as a treasure trove of delicious snacks. We’re working on that.)
As soon as Layla started eating full meals and napping happily on the stairs, my brain realized that, after training a dog, a cat would really not be a difficult addition. My heart turned back on and I became quickly very fond of Layla. Though she’s definitely a traditional, scared-of-sudden-movements cat, she is quick to accept human affection and she starts purring appreciatively the moment you extend your hand. She is a sweet reminder that empathy can be a good force when it’s applied appropriately.
Are you a cat person or a dog person? Do you think it’s possible to love cats and dogs equally? Do you wish we could all get along like we did in middle school, and then we could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat and be happy?
*My mom is a really big fan of the musical “Cats.” When my sister and I were in utero, she played a recording of her own voice singing “Memory” to her swollen belly, and I blame this single act for most of my emotional problems and for my embarrassing predilection to Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals.
**I’m sure Jonathan didn’t actually shout anything. It was probably more of a calm mentioning that we’re both pretty good with cats (even ones that may be timid), and that we’d be happy to give them one less thing to stress about during their PCS to Hawaii. But I wasn’t there, and Jonathan thinks this blog is on a mission to make him look like an asshole, so why deviate.