Creature Comfort

©2000 Marie-Lynn Hammond
First published in Chatelaine, July 2000


Oligodendroglioma. What an ugly word, I thought, when the doctor first pronounced it: an ugly word for an ugly thing that had just been found in my beautiful sister’s brain. We – the doctor, a nurse, my sister and her partner, my other sister and I – were all crowded into a small, windowless examining room at Toronto’s Princess Margaret hospital. I was already feeling claustrophobic. Now, that huge word, like the tumour it described, seemed to swell malevolently and swallow up whatever space remained between us.

My mother always used to say that bad things come in threes. I wanted to tell her how grimly right she was, but I couldn’t. Both my parents, long-divorced, had recently died. My beloved, vibrant mother had gone first, in April 1998, after a brief, horrendous struggle with a particularly virulent cancer. As soon as she’d been diagnosed, my sisters and I had flown out from Toronto to Summerland, B.C., and taken round-the-clock turns at her hospital bedside. Three weeks later she was dead.

The day after her memorial service, I went to visit my father, who’d been admitted to hospital in Victoria. Ill with emphysema, he had been slowly fading for many years, but I was still shaken to see how frail my once tough, macho pilot father looked.

Eight weeks to the day of my mother’s death, his worn-out heart stopped beating. I got back on a plane and returned out west. I tried to tell myself that my parents were in their 70s, that stories like this happened all the time, that I was too old to be an orphan. Still, I was beyond shock. Most of the time I functioned mechanically, like a robot – notifying relatives, booking flights, arranging death certificates – but a robot that could burst into tears at least once a day without warning.

The morning of my father’s funeral, my sister Denise developed a headache. The headache persisted and got worse. On July 9, four weeks later, doctors performed an emergency biopsy and discovered that thing: fast-growing, inoperable, in the right frontal lobe of her brain.

Throughout these traumatic events, I had no spiritual faith to sustain me. Although brought up Catholic, I had given up on conventional religion years ago, and found no comfort in thoughts of a divine plan or Heaven’s future rewards. All I knew was that the universe was a chaotic, unjust place, and that my good, kind, sweet sister was dying.

The universe was also a lonely place. I had no special person to lean on, to cry with or to hold me, because the man I’d been living with, the man I thought was my life-partner, had left me shortly before my mother took ill. By the time my godmother died in November of that year – another bedside vigil, another funeral – I felt I was living in a slow war, with loved ones dead, dying or vanishing all around me.

Despite weekly sessions with a therapist, I fell into a suicidal depression, which I called “the black pit.” Everything that had ever given me joy or solace – music, art, writing, friends, good food – no longer offered any comfort. Except, that is, for animals.

This is one of my earliest memories: an Edmonton summer, I’m not quite four. My parents take me to visit a ranch, where a bay horse is tied to the corral fence. Someone lifts me up and plunks me into the saddle. I sit there, in the shimmering July heat, while the grownups chat below me. Nobody leads me around, but it doesn’t matter. I’m practically vibrating with excitement.

A few minutes later, my father reaches up to take me out of the saddle. I resist. I grip the pommel with my tiny hands, screaming and flailing about angrily. Somewhere in my barely germinated self I know that I want to stay on that animal forever.

All my life I’ve been drawn to animals, both domesticated and wild. I was the kid who wanted to pat every dog she passed, who was equally mesmerized by llamas or lizards, cockatoos or cows. I’m still enraptured at the sight of any non-human creature, but after that first, transcendental experience at the ranch, I became horse-crazy. Perhaps it was the intimacy of the contact. Talk about getting close to nature – these generous animals willingly allowed me on their backs, a privilege I have never taken for granted.

My parents weren’t horse people, but when I was nine they bought me a pony. Later, they let me acquire an unruly chestnut gelding with a mad, unstoppable gallop. I loved Traveller ferociously, and he carried me through several years of pimply, unpopular adolescence. Through horses I came to know and develop a special fondness for cats, because it’s a rare barn that doesn’t have at least one or two.

At 22 I moved to Toronto to study art, which gave way to folk music. Singing in coffeehouses, I could barely support myself, so I regretfully gave up riding. A month after moving, though, a kitten found me. (They say you don’t choose cats, they choose you.) Prunella, a little tortoiseshell with a comical, two-tone face, was literally thrust into my hands by a stranger who was threatening to dump her at the pound. Sweet-natured “Prunie” was my companion for over two decades. She was succeeded by Pippin, a soulful Humane Society tabby, and Sumoki, a silvery Burmese – sleek, affable, amusing, the Johnny Carson of cats.

Eventually I began to ride again. Owning a horse was still beyond my means, but I started taking lessons at a barn where the owner also let me ride the trails. I lived for those weekly outings to the country and the endorphin highs I got from being around horses again.

Then, about a year before my mother got sick, I made the mistake of volunteering with a cat rescue group, fostering strays until they found homes. I say “mistake” because I often had a dozen cats and kittens in the house, and three hard-to-adopt ones – two feral (wild) females and a little orange male tabby with a heart murmur – stayed on, bringing my permanent total to a crazy-cat-lady five. But what a wondrous mistake it turned out to be. Now, faced daily with my sister’s suffering and my grief, I seemed to find relief only in the company of animals.

Another memory, this one more recent: Denise and I are sitting in my spare room with my current crop of foster kittens. It’s early summer, she’s started having seizures, her limbs are weakening, and despite all the drugs she’s on, she still gets relentless, blinding headaches. A second tumour has now invaded her brain. We both know she’s dying, we both know it’s hopeless, and yet, as four enchanting fluff balls tumble about us and slam into each other like miniature furry bumper cars, we’re oohing and aahing and giggling like fools. Kitten therapy, I call it; it’s about the only time now that we laugh.

I have two younger sisters, but I was closest to Denise. For several periods in our lives we had lived together. When her relationship with the father of her child ended, I helped her raise her daughter. We had a powerful, loving bond that encompassed being sisters and dear friends, but also went beyond: we knew that no matter what happened, we would never desert each other.

No wonder then, as her illness progressed, the various treatments failed and I had to imagine life without her, I began to really come apart. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t eat. And, even though music had been my life for many years, I stopped playing or even listening to it, and I stopped reading, because anything – a news story about cancer, a particularly poignant lyric – could send me hurtling deeper into the black pit. I would probably have just curled up on the floor, alternately stunned or sobbing, if it hadn’t been for the cats. They insisted I play with them, feed them, clean their litter. They forced me out of the house to pick up supplies, which made me more likely to pick up food for myself as well.

And they didn’t talk, for which I became profoundly grateful. After long days in tense conversation with doctors, nurses, home-care workers, lawyers and family and friends, I was exhausted. Silence became a balm, and the rich, communicative silence of animals even more so.

The purr of a cat on my lap, the silken swish of a horse’s tail as I rode through still woods – these wordless moments became my form of meditation and kept me in the present, because that’s where animals live, inhabiting fully each ticking second of time. If only for brief interludes, the cats and horses brought me out of my head, out of my grievous memories of my mother’s pain and my conflicted relationship with my father, out of my dread of a future without Denise.

When I wasn’t with her I spent a lot of time taming feral kittens, which needed to be handled every few hours. As I stroked each tiny, terrified creature, I tried to keep my breathing slow and deep, until the kitten began to relax. During these sessions the world around me vanished, and my mind became as pure and empty as that of some Zen monk.

The horses also kept me in the present. I often rode skittish young animals that liked to buck and shy. On such mounts I had to bypass thought and memory to focus, through my body, on each nuance of the horse’s mood and movement. At the same time, when I rode the trails after my lesson, I could revel in the shapes of clouds scudding over the hills, the scent of newly mown hay, or the sudden surprise of a deer emerging from green shadows.

I needed those small, sensory holidays from the big grey poisonous city where my sister lay dying, because beauty heals. As I watched the cancer destroy Denise’s physical beauty, as her shapely limbs atrophied and the drugs made her delicate face swell up grotesquely, I hungered for the beauty of animals more than ever. The mysterious liquid grace of a cat, springing from the floor to the top of a bookshelf, or the muscular ripple and sleek curves of horses galloping summer fields – these sights I drank in like tonic.

One last memory: another image of my sister, not long before she died, surrounded by all those who loved her most. It’s early October, and sun streams through the bedroom windows. She is resting, as she does most afternoons now, with her loyal grey cat draped over her, his head in the crook of her neck. By now she’s so paralyzed she can barely move, or speak, or see. But she can still hear his deep purr; she can feel the tickle of his fur against her skin and his weight on her chest, and we know, because she has told us, that as she rides the waves of pain and morphine toward her final, unfathomable destination, he brings her comfort.

I understand that comfort. For almost two years, except for the occasional hug or massage, no one touched me. I came to crave physical contact with the horses and their enormous, gentle warmth. I loved the feel of their satiny bodies and the way I could lean against them, surrendering my weight to their broad, breathing flanks. At home, I welcomed the cosy cushion of Pip the tabby in my lap, her head pressing into my hand as I stroked her, and I still can’t fall asleep until the Burmese has crept under the covers and curled his velvet body against mine. If I weep, he thrusts his nose in my face, making small whimpering sounds as though imploring me to stop.

And I do.