The year before we started graduate school together my husband and I rented a small apartment in Maryland, not far from a metro station. I was working at National Public Radio (NPR) and Scott was finishing up his Master's degree at a school nearby--parenting was a distant spot on the horizon for us. The apartment was small but attractive--hardwood floors throughout and a tiny galley-style kitchen where we could make our small and increasingly ambitious meals. Everyone in the building kept to themselves; most of the tenants worked and come 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. they'd be home again, safely shut behind their doors, enclosed in their own little worlds.
In the apartment above us there lived a single woman in her early forties named Susan. She had two beloved cats--her babies, but this we didn't find out until later, after we had lived in our apartment for some months. We saw her, but she didn't talk much and always passed us by with a somewhat blank stare, followed by quickly averted eyes. One day our paths crossed in the street on the way home from the metro. I was carrying a small bag of Iams kitten chow for our newly acquired black and white kitten. When Susan saw me with the bag of cat food her face positively lit up and we had clearly become kindred spirits in her eyes. We walked the entire two blocks back to the apartment with her dispensing non-stop advice about cat-care.
From that point on we saw her almost every day and every day she would ask about our new kitten. She opened up incredibly after that--but only to us. I'm still not certain what she did for work, since she always seemed to be in her apartment, no matter what time of day it was. She confided to us that she had been in a serious relationship for about five years with a Middle Eastern man who left her somewhat abruptly to marry someone from his own country. Eventually she confided more: that she had attempted suicide not long after this man had discarded her. Then, at the recommendation of her therapist, she had bought the cats, and the cats became her world--her lifeline back to the land of the living.
One night Susan stepped on an empty cat food tin and cut her foot badly. Scott took her to the ER and I stayed behind to clean up her kitchen floor. Even then, with her foot bleeding, she was in a state of agitated excitement about how her cats would be affected by the accident, casting anxious backward glances at them as my husband helped her hobble out the door. The cats watched me from the counter while I mopped up the blood (who would have thought feet could bleed so much?), with an air of clinical aloofness. They didn't seem the least bit perturbed by what had just happened, but perhaps they were hiding it well. Cats are mysterious that way; my son says they keep secrets, and I couldn't agree more.
That we derive so much from our animals is a fact hard to argue with. While we no longer rely on our family pets to help us survive physically, we might rely on them emotionally: for solace, emotional strength, company; for the pleasure we get from stroking their fur, or watching their eyes watching us--waiting for the tail wag or for the arched back that signifies their pleasure in being a part of our lives. We know that our animals, for the most part, need us to survive physically. They seem to rely less exclusively on us individually in an emotional way; rather, they rely on humans in general for love and affection and for physical care. But that's not always the case. The other day I was showing the kids my old diaries and I found a small pile of black and white photos I had taken with my Dad's old Minolta camera. The pictures were from our short trip to California, for my grandfather's funeral, back when I was 18. It had been years since I'd last been to California, and seeing the town where my father grew up--seeing his pride at showing us the familiar places that made up the landscape of his childhood years made a great impression on me. When we made our way from the airport to his hometown and to my granddad's home we found his dog--a big hulking German Shepherd dog, left alone. He was engaged in running in jagged, broken-up circles around the wide perimeter of my granddad's property. Tongue out, eyes wild with his pursuit, he made his way around the house, stopping at all the spots where he used to find my granddad--out in the workshop, or the side stoop, or the shredded lawn chair in the back garden. He would stop and sniff, catching the tantalizing scent of the human he so loved for a moment and then losing it, running and running but never finding my granddad at the other end. Like a child who has lost a parent, he had no understanding of what had happened to my granddad; just that he was gone and that he wanted to find him.
I don't know what happened to the dog--I'm not sure anyone stepped up to take responsibility for him; or if they did, I'm not sure they kept him for very long after that--he really seemed to have been driven mad by my granddad's disappearance. When I think about that German Shepherd dog I inevitably think about Susan, too; her cats unwittingly gave her what she needed when not many other people (or even she) could. It was clear, though, that Susan needed them more than they needed her. But an animal can need a person in that all-consuming way as well, and that fact to me will always seem remarkable.