The Brief Lives Of Animals

Fairy and Fluffy, Glen Clova, Scotland

Fairy and Fluffy, Glen Clova, Scotland

Written on 3rd June, 2019.

Last night I lost a dear friend, Misty. We had to euthanise her to relieve her of the pain associated with advanced kidney failure. This was supposed to be a personal obituary, a way of remembering, but it ended up a little differently. In the process of remembering, I recalled the moments when I’ve been most aware of magic in my life, even if it’s still a difficult thing to define.

I grew up in the rural West Country, on the border between Devon and Dorset. We enjoyed green summers and our house was surrounded by yellow rape fields and tall deciduous trees. On a clear day you could see the ocean emerge beyond the woods. As a child, I spent most of my time among those trees and in the fields. I built dens in the woods, collected fallen leaves, traced the same old paths through the undercliff and found new ones. I found the ruins of old settlements. I made up stories.

Sometimes I encountered magic. I’d pick up fallen baby crows and try feebly to nurse them back to health; I prised voles and field mice from the mouths of our cats, Fluffy and Fairy (mother and daughter). Once I went to the sea and saved a beached fish. Seconds after returning it to the shallows, I saw it leap from the sun-dappled water further out. I perceived it as a thank you, a final goodbye. Closer to home, I’d climb trees with Fairy and Fluffy, who watched me with caution, meowing with the intonation of an anxious parent as I reached new heights. Fluffy would gently tug on the cuff of my jeans as I approached the goat in the neighbouring field, who she thought suspect, or the pond, which she thought was deep enough to drown in. Fluffy liked music. For some reason she particularly enjoyed Holst’s Jupiter, which I sang to her while she nuzzled close.

One night in autumn, the weather turned. It was one of those nights when tragedy seemed inevitable. The wind howled through our chimney and chilled the living room, I shivered upon hearing the rain filtering through the trees whose branches rustled against our windows. Fluffy never came home. After a day of searching, we found her on the country road near our house. Rigor mortis had already set in.

A year after Fluffy died, my mum arrived home with a new friend I would come to know as Misty. She was a tiny inexhaustible fluff ball, a Norwegian forest kitten. To begin with, she slept in my bedroom, though really she never slept and I’d wake up with scratches on my ankles, which she wrestled with as I tossed and turned beneath the sheets. I can’t believe this was sixteen years ago already.

I never forgot Fluffy, who was with me through the first third of my life so far. For many years, her daughter Fairy lived on, her legacy. Fairy had been the runt of a litter, small, neurotic, needy. I empathised with her, because don’t so many of us feel inadequate from time to time too, but go on to lead big lives?

Initially Fairy, who was slowing down, didn’t take to Misty. When they moved to the Cairngorms, in the Scottish Highlands, I think they became closer. They kept each other warm at night. They ran through the pine forests and across the highlands, uninhibited by walls, only by their own self-enforced territories. Misty was in her prime, (unfortunately) ravaging the Scottish wildlife, killing mice, baby rabbits, the occasional baby stoat for sport. During my weekend visits from university, the pair of them slept on my bed. Misty was a shoulder cat. Fairy needed to be held more delicately. Once, Misty caught her paw on a thorn. While it didn’t inflict much harm, it revealed the extent of her wanderings when she knew no one was looking; no kitchen surface was left untouched. On snowy days, Misty would sometimes sit on the windowsill staring out. It would be anthropodenial to say she didn’t feel something looking at the new world appearing in front of her eyes, that would melt away after a few days. I wish they could have stayed together forever there, the pair of them, but sometimes life gets in the way and it’s time to move on. That’s where I picture them though, adults in play, in the midst of a world so vast and wild. Together, they moved to Anglesey in North Wales, to live with my mother.

I didn’t see Fairy on her last day on earth. I’d left home, I was in London trying to make something of my life. She died hunched over her feeding bowl. Aged 20, she lived a long, I hope happy life, but I was sad all the same to have not said goodbye.

Misty lived for four more years. Though my trips to my mother’s house were infrequent, it was in these last years I got to know her best. It’s in old age that cats slow down, become lap cats and start revealing their accrued wisdom. Their lives are shorter but perhaps they learn faster. She stopped hunting (I can’t remember her last kill—I wonder if she could), and followed the sun around the garden. She slept on my bed, lay on my lap as I read and worked. She had these deep eyes that looked intensely into mine. It was an all-knowing look. Knowing what, I’m not sure, but I felt contented in that connection; I felt understood on some deeper non-verbal level. When not with her, I often dreamed about her. I loved her with an intensity that’s hard to describe. My husband and I planned to retire her to a leafy London suburb like Forest Hill. She would live out the rest of her days sleeping on our bed and sitting on the windowsill that looked out over the urban forest, or so we hoped.

Unfortunately, this plan never came into fruition. Due to a series of difficult circumstances, including my own ill health, we never found the right place in time. I got a call from my mum one day in late May to say Misty’s health had severely declined, that she could no longer walk and wasn’t eating, that I ought to come quickly.

We came immediately and spent three days hopelessly watching her deteriorate. On the second day, she managed a fish breakfast. She seemed to perk up, she looked at me voicing her soft trill and I thought that maybe she might pull through. But that was her last meal.

The following day, I witnessed her rapid deterioration. She lay miserably for the most part, limbs ineffective. Bruxism signposted she was quietly in pain, though she became louder as the day wore on. I took her outside to see the sun, where she looked for a moment at peace. I realised how thin her body had become compared to her voluptuous former self. The foxgloves, hollyhocks and meadow grass framed the path where she lay. The trees swayed behind, teeming with life. I became sadder and sadder, conscious that our world is much like Jeff VanderMeer’s dream world in Annihilation; there’s so much life, but there’s also so much death and dying. Cue existential crisis: why live such a vivid life only to die?

We put her down that night. On the long drive to the out-of-hours vet, she looked at me, failing to vocalise a soft meow or trill; I’ll never know what she meant to say. Her eyes looked deep into mine. The choice presented to us was, attempt to prolong her life by putting her through three nights on an IV drip in hospital, or euthanasia. The prognosis for good life quality was poor, however, as her bloods were off the scale, indicating kidney failure and all the rest. She was 16, geriatric in cat years, so the odds were against her. I imagined her being alone in hospital, anxious, scared, only perhaps to gain days or weeks of life while her appetite and legs still failed her. I realised there was only one choice really. After an agonising half-hour, I made the heartbreaking decision to give her a quick and peaceful way out. In her shoes, I would probably have had enough. I wish though she had more of a voice through which she could communicate her own desires and needs. Birth and death are made of something similar; a reminder of the unknown from which we emerge and to which we go. Both can feel vertiginous, though the latter in its finality is crushing.

What I can’t go into detail about here is the stability Misty, Fairy and Fluffy offered me, the unconditional love. I learnt so much from them all. I learnt to be kind, resilient, to be myself in spite of a societal drive for homogeneity. I learnt to respect nature. They helped me through grief and instability and major upheaval. They anchored me to who I once was, and set the seeds for who I would become. They are among the most important persons I’ve been fortunate enough to know. We understood each other without understanding each other. (I realise these might seem like the ramblings of a crazy cat lady—so be it.)

Other animals, and plants for that matter, may not have a means of communication that is easy to interpret, but we need to start trying to listen. We need to read the signs, to stop dismissing connections with animals as anthropomorphism when anthropodenial is likely more harmful. If we recognise ourselves in the world, perhaps we won’t destroy it. Perhaps if we recognise ourselves in each other, and extend our definition of ‘each other’, we might be able to live more harmoniously. It’s a long way off and at times a pipe dream, but I hope we can get there someday.

I don’t want the memories of the animals I’ve loved to fall into oblivion. That’s the expected goal for relationships between humans and other animals. Move on, find another companion animal to love briefly. Their lives are idle, but then so are ours, despite our illusions of grandeur. We are so productive, but often that productivity seems unconducive to the kind of world we want to inhabit. We are animals too, and our own lives are also fleeting, especially if we compare our average life span to that of the Greenland shark or the oak tree, both of which can live for hundreds of years. Mary Oliver said this in “The Summer Day”?: “Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?” I’ve been thinking about that poem in the past couple of days. Life is made of shadow but also light. Just as we see the light of burnt out distant suns lightyears after their demise, I hope that Misty’s light will never go out. I endeavour to hold onto the wisdom I have learnt from my time with her and pass it on.

This afternoon we went to my mum’s friend’s garden. Their garden is actually their home—they live in a caravan set in several acres of land they’ve fenced off to create a nature reserve, living as self-sustainably as possible with a compost toilet, renewable energy, and homegrown food. Their days are spent growing the forest. We buried Misty beside Fairy, whose grave has already been overtaken by nature.

For me, this is re-enchantment: re-connecting with the others with whom we share this world. Seeing the sameness beyond the outward differences. Looking into the eye of another and recognising each other as kin. Being compassionate to those who are alive today while honouring those who came before us by learning from their lived experience. Realising, or hoping, that there is more to the world than this tiresome cycle of living and dying. There is love and there are dreams and there is accrued wisdom; there are languages we are yet to understand and there are still things we have not illuminated in the darkness. I close with the words of Leo Tolstoy, for I can’t say it better: “Here, indeed, outwardly, are we met but inwardly we are bound to every living creature. Already are we conscious of many of the motions of the spiritual world, but others have not yet been borne in upon us. Nevertheless they come, even as the earth presently comes to see the light of the stars, which to our eyes at this moment is invisible.”

*As an editorial team we decided to write a series of blog posts that reflect on our personal experience of magic—perhaps our daily rituals. We’re also keen to hear about your own experience of magic. We don’t expect a long memoir or a comprehensive compendium of your beliefs or rituals—this is the opportunity to hone in on something that’s important to you and explore it. It could be something that has somehow shaped you, grounds you in the present, connects you with nature or gives you a reason to drive on. This is an informal conversation with yourself as much as it is a conversation with others.*