Getting to heart of loss
Illustration: Astrid Chesney
Last fall I lost my cat Gattino. He was still a kitten, or at seven months, an adolescent. I had just started letting him outside unsupervised. One day I went away for two hours, and when I came back he was gone. We put up fliers everywhere, including in people's mailboxes; we checked shelters and vets. For weeks people reported seeing him; I believed them because Gattino had one blind eye, and in headlights only one of his eyes lit up. Apparently he was quite close by. But we couldn't find him. We couldn't believe he didn't want to come home; it was already quite cold, and he was a fragile cat.

At the same time that this happened, I figuratively "lost" two children I have been involved with for six years. I met them through the Fresh Air Fund, an organization that facilitates inner-city children (usually black and Latino) coming up to the country to stay for one or two weeks with a rural family (usually white) to experience animals, nature, and privilege. The two children were Dominican kids from a single-parent, brutally poor household. They were beautiful children, inside and out. They were also emotionally damaged in ways too complicated to describe here. That didn't matter. I don't have children of my own, and I loved them. We developed a relationship with them that went beyond the organization through which we had been introduced. They came to visit us at Christmas and sometimes their birthdays. I met them in the city on occasion. I sent them books, helped them with their homework, paid for them to go to Catholic school. There were a lot of problems throughout the six years, a lot of tears. Kids who have been treated badly all their lives have difficulty taking in love and a vision of life in which they count, even if they want it. And what we could do was limited. The girl, who was older, got kicked out of school, started running with violent kids, and dropped away from us. I still send her books and talk to her on the phone every now and then. Last year I took her to see a play. But for the moment, anyway, she is gone. The fall that the cat disappeared, the boy began to move away too. It started with him the same way it started with her; he would spend hours doing his homework with me, and then he would not turn it in. He would come up with a variety of excuses for this. But the real reason was clear: He wanted to fail because it was expected of him, by virtually everyone but me.

Gattino had been in trouble when I met him too. I was traveling in Italy when I found him, a tiny, half-starved, sick kitty going blind in both eyes. I didn't intend to take him home with me. I thought I would nurse him to health and then put him back where I found him, where he would at least have a fighting chance. But during the five weeks I spent with him, I got too attached to leave him. He was still sick when it came time to leave (his respiratory illness was chronic) and technically too young to travel—but I moved hell and high water to get him on the plane. I got him home, and he was incredibly happy to be there with us, and incredibly loving. And then lost him.

I spent months looking for him, hoping against all odds to find him. I didn't. Sometimes I would sit looking out the window with tears running down my face, and I would think, "Love is a truly terrible thing. And I have picked the wrong people (and creature) to love."

But when I was out looking for Gattino, sometimes I would think something else. I would think of how brave he was, how intrepid. Like many animals, he had a big heart in his tiny body. During the 16-hour trip home from Italy, he didn't cry once. He sat in his carrier gazing at me alertly; he sat in my lap and played with me; he played with the little girl next to me; he would've walked up and down the aisles if he could. No matter what happened to him out in the cold, he would've met it with absolute presence and courage. No matter what, he would've been absolutely himself. That is a kind of love; a kind that doesn't have expectations of how things should be, or how people should be, either. It is a love that respects what is, even if what is involves something terrible for yourself and those you care for. It is very tough and unsentimental; it is also very gentle. It is a kind of love that is difficult for human beings to have. It is something we can learn from.


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