Valentine’s Day is special for reasons other than intrigue. It is the one day when expressions of Love are unabashed, when everyone can declare to anyone I love you without fear of recrimination or shame. Love rules the day - democratic, beyond age, beyond creed, beyond station, beyond rules. And so, a few years back, it was with particular pleasure that I received a Valentine from an old school chum.
Rachel and I had been at college together. We spent long hours cramming for tests and wrestling with physics problem sets alternated with late nights drinking wine and reading romantic poetry aloud. Memories of heady carefree days lingered, but as time went on, our lives drifted into silence.
The large white envelope was postmarked Paris. I opened it up and pulled out a pink card whose cover wished me a happy Valentine’s Day in French. Inside, was a letter. I walked over to the couch with a cup of tea and settled down to read.
First pages narrated usual facts and figures of adult life: a train of jobs, up and down relationships, exciting vacations, and gripping books. Then, the tone shifted from jolly reportage to serious. Even her handwriting changed. The real purpose of her renewed correspondence became clear as she wrote:
You probably think it odd to hear from me in a Valentine after so many years! But you will see that it is most appropriate. I’m writing you because you are the only person I think will understand. You see, I’ve met someone.
It started four years back, after Mother and Honey had passed. That was a grim time. I thought that I could never recover, or that my heart would ever again feel joy. The pain of grief was so great. . .
As that awful winter finally faded into spring, I decided to volunteer at the local shelter. Of course, they assigned me to the phones. “You’re always so cheerful” explained the shelter director, “You’ll be perfect for the job.” (!?!!) Needless to say, that lasted less than three months. It was the endless tragedies af lame excuses that wore me down. ”We’re moving and need to find a home for our 14 year old tomcat. Can you take him?”, “My fiancée doesn’t like cats, so I have to get rid of Barney” and “Muffy just had kittens and we can’t keep them all.” It became impossible to refrain from bursting out in tears or anger – I could never decide which would happen first, so I begged the director for a new post, and shortly, I was promoted to cage cleaning.
The shelter takes in all cats – big, small, Persian, short-haired, black, tabby, with tails, without tails, young, and old. No matter what shape they are in, all are welcomed. The shelter is institutional living, but, I try to reassure myself, they will never have to worry about food or feel frightened and abandoned. They will always have a home.
Each has a unique story, but amidst the tapestry the suffering, there is a common thread of human abuse. In most cases, you would never guess what these soulful refugees have been through. True, some huddle in the corners of their cages, traumatized and sad, but the majority stride about brimming with vigor and fun. It amazes me how other animals seem to be able to put aside their hurt and grab the day! If only we could act like them!
One day, I decided that I was ready to adopt. There was a white calico (very much like my Jenn who had passed years before) to whom I was particularly drawn. However, it was not to be. Sarah made it very clear that she was, ”Seeking SHC ND NC” (which is the shelter’s notation for “Single Human Companion, NO Dogs, NO children”). It was disappointing but our household was an obvious mismatch having three dogs, five cats, two rabbits and a very opinionated Parrot. I decided on a middle-aged cat who had been relinquished because her family was moving to Hawai’i.
She had long silver hair. Unlike others, she stayed in one place, curled up on the top shelf facing the wall in the Older Cat Room. Whenever I reached out to pet her, she never looked up, only purred. I filled out the adoption papers and in three days she came home in a carrier, mewing in fright.
We set her up, away from the madding family crowd, on the four poster bed in the guest room with the bay window overlooking the creek. I made up her litter box, put out food and water and let her settle in the quiet. Happily, after a few minutes of exploring, she daintily jumped up to the bureau and began to eat.
That night, I slept in there to keep her company. I was worried that the barking foxes and other prowlers of the night might be unfamiliar and startle her. She was now part of the family and I hoped that this first night would both invite and please her. After all, adopted cats are given little choice in the matter. . . Turning off the light, I reached down to where she lay, scratched under her chin, and went to sleep.
In the still dark hours, I woke from a sound sleep and sat up. I hastily looked around to make sure our newcomer was all right. I didn’t have to look far for there she was, lying on her side, relaxed and smiling. Our eyes locked and suddenly a shock wave bolted through me. I was awestruck. I couldn’t believe that she, this exquisite being, was actually living with us! Out of the blue, I was in love.
We have been in bliss ever since. . .I cannot tell you the joy we share – walking through the fields together, listening to old jazz and guitar, watching the sun cascade through the trees. . .I have found my soulmate and a kinder person never lived. Of course, there is no single category that describes her – friend, confidante, teacher, muse. . .“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” And, she loves me. We found each other – somehow. . .
Now you see why I had to write you. I couldn’t possibly tell anyone else. People would think it crazy, kooky- even my “cat friends” would laugh a little. There often seems so much to explain, but then why? And then, how does one put the ineffable into words?
This past year has taught me a lot about love and humanity. I now realize how poorly humans treat love. Our feelings are supposed to conform to rigid categories. A person can say “I love my cat” but can’t say “I’m in love with my cat”. “Being in love” is supposed to be something reserved for humans alone. Most love for other animals remains conditional, subject to the exercise of human whim.
Take the old adage “a dog is a man’s best friend”, few people take it literally. The love and loyalty that dogs, cats, rabbits, parrots, and elephants show their human friends and family goes far beyond that of most humans. Animals aren’t even supposed to be able to feel like us. What and how they act are attributed to simple instincts. The sorriest crimes are committed by scientists who know other species have all the brains, minds, and emotions that rival our own, but fail to act ethically on this knowledge. That’s why I left science, so that at least I didn’t have to live among– and make a living from - lies.
Sometimes, I think human presumption and indifference towards other animals are worse than physical abuse. How many souls wither and die for lack of love? Do we ever take a moment to find out who this remarkable person is underneath his or her fur? Why don’t people stop and listen - find out the aspirations and dreams of another animal? For they have them, like we do, but it’s my experience that the minds and psyches of other animals are so much vaster than our own. It is their profound wisdom and compassion that makes these buddhas so tolerant to human frailties and cruelty. . .
Thank you for listening. I write you for her sake as much as for mine. I wanted one person to witness her in the way that I do. No matter the grace, dignity and wisdom she possesses, she is still treated like “just a cat”. My life changed the moment I fell in love- no, I think I can truly say “the moment we fell in love”. How lucky I am, for it is only in a blue moon that we are ever so fortunate.
So that, my dear friend, is my news. Now send me tales of your latest adventures. Happy Valentine’s! Please come visit so you can meet her. You two will get along famously.
Biggest of hugs
I folded the letter and put it down, tears welling, promising myself to visit them next year. But, as the way life goes, next year turned into the year after and that one became the one after and so on until one day, five years later, having not yet visited them, I received a second card from Rachel. This time there was no letter, only a single line.
“She is gone.”
Looking back on life, there many silly and stupid things that I wish I had or had not done. But, all in all, the mistakes have balanced out with the right. Yet, there is one thing that I deeply regret and that is not making the time to meet Rachel’s great love.
Now when Valentine’s comes round, I no longer think of pink and red cards pasted with white lace. Instead, I smile in remembrance of their sacred love story.
They are a testimony to the boundless nature of love that is blind to the prejudices of the eye. Love’s honesty. No matter what we look like, who we are in the eyes of others, we are one with those we love. Love for and by a cat, chicken, dog, rabbit or lizard is no less than what we might feel for those of our own species
May we all learn to see with our hearts and pledge our souls to those whom we love no matter if they wear feathers, fins, fur, or just plain skin.
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own . . .
You know just what I was there for
You heard me saying a prayer for
Someone I really could care for . . .
I heard somebody whisper please adore me
And when I looked to the Moon it turned to gold
Now I'm no longer alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own.
[1[ Ray Noble. 1935 Blue Moon http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcidhDV4eV4
 Hat, L & R. Rodgers. 1935. Blue Moon.