The longer our missing recede into the past, the more ghostly and disjointed their memories become. I can pass a picture on the wall every day without even seeing it, forgetting the planes of a face and the set of a body, until I dream in strangely vivid detail, but wake up unable to remember everything. My dream self wanders in a place I do not and cannot anymore, even if part of me longs to stay there — wherever there is — forever, because I feel less lost there.
Mr. Shadow was dumped on my doorstep in middle school, and he lived through multiple moves hither and tither, and many different phases of my life, before cancer took him. He wasn’t just a cat — as though any cat is just a cat — but a part of my life and my history, who I was and who I would become. Anyone who had a pet from childhood through to adulthood understands this unique connection, the intensity of the bond you forge with someone who sees the best and worst of you at the most turbulent times of your life.
Everyone should have an animal in their lives as a child, because we learn a lot by living in collaboration with something that is individual and alive and marvelous but also dependent on us. Animals force us to reconsider trust, and the way we interrelate with each other. Animals demand that we look out for someone other than ourselves. They become co-conspirators but also our consciences, when need dictates, growing and changing and shifting with us. They help raise us, even as we help raise them, even as we line ourselves up for inevitable heartbreak. With animals, we see beyond ourselves and into a future where we will form interdependent relationships with others who will in turn make us develop into better people.
Shadow was always a good judge of people, and he taught me to trust my own judgment. Even if someone doesn’t have an obvious tell, when I feel a little tugging deep inside, I know it’s a good time to disappear into the other room and hide under the couch, no matter how much someone tries to draw me out. He taught me too the value of a gentle touch at the right moment, of being able to sit in calm silence for a while and let things slowly dissolve into the air, becoming less important the longer we sit in stasis. He taught me that sometimes I don’t want to do something, but it’s still the right thing to do, and that I can tell the difference between things people want me to do and things that need to be done.
Sometimes cat people joke, in a bitter sort of way, that we will never have cats again, that we’ll have houseplants and pet rocks instead, but we all know it’s a lie. Shadow taught me that too, because sometimes the right cat shows up on your doorstep, and you can’t do a thing about it.