I was seven when my parents brought home a gray kitty and said I could name her. Immediately smitten with my first four-legged friend, I landed on the name Lucky. She was newly separated from the warmth of her mother and siblings, and her lonely wails pierced the nighttime household. Ignoring my parents’ order to teach her independence by leaving her alone at night, I would sneak out of bed to offer her warmth and comfort.
Lucky and I developed a strong bond, as she bestowed her deepest affections on me over any other family member. I would sing to her, mostly Disney songs (she seemed particularly mesmerized by “A Whole New World” from Aladdin). She slept with me every night, and I tolerated her restlessness because it was important to me that she knew she always had a home with me. Often my favorite subject for amateur photography shoots, Lucky was a comforting companion. After I failed a test or got in a fight with my parents, Lucky was there when I just needed a soothing presence from someone I couldn’t possibly disappoint. She died after I moved away for college, and she was the last animal I lived with—until this spring.
Choosing and chosen
Our relationships with animals can mirror, predict, or serve as practice for our relationships with other people. Lucky’s snuggly love in my childhood gave way to boyfriends over the years, but it’s hard for me to be vulnerable with romantic partners and even harder for me to not search for an exit strategy. My pattern of giving more than receiving during the beginning of a relationship—natural when you’re caring for a kitten but less desirable in human partners—often left me exhausted and unbalanced.
I fell for my most recent partner like I always do: quick and hard, enjoying his monopolization of my time until his affection began to feel suffocating. Kind of like when Lucky would choose to sleep on my face, but I kept still, not wanting to turn away any gesture of affection, no matter how odd. After the dopamine of the first months with my partner wore off, I became annoyed with things that hadn't bothered me in the beginning.
His initial admiration of my athleticism turned into jealous, territorial behavior when I left to play basketball with some guy friends. His intelligence gave way to pretentiousness. Picking up my copy of The New Jim Crow, he said he didn’t understand why the book was so popular. I asked if he’d read it. “No, but I looked through the table of contents and I think she left a lot of important stuff out.” Little things became big things, sort of like how my allergy to fur occasionally throws a wrench into my immune system. I learned that it’s not enough just to be chosen. You also have to do the choosing.
I wrestled with getting another cat over the years, but my hectic schedule wasn’t optimal for a furry friend. About a month into living alone during quarantine, friends encouraged me to provide a temporary home for a cat. I filled out an application with Philly Paws, bought some cat supplies, and headed to the shelter to meet a potential new buddy.
After meeting about eight different cats, I saw Nana, a nine-year-old black cat with sweet green eyes. Nana had been in the shelter for only one day after her owner of eight years passed away, and she was hesitant to trust my outstretched hand. But she mustered up the courage to approach me and graciously allowed me to pet her.
The first few days with Nana were tough. She was very anxious and only wanted to hide. I cried from the stress of her fear and refusal to eat. After hours of us sitting in opposite corners of the room, Nana slowly warmed up to me. A week later and Nana didn’t leave my side, sitting on my lap as I wrote, taking afternoon naps with me, and cuddling with me while I read at the end of the day.
Already wrapped up in the laid-back lifestyle of cat companionship, I found it frustrating to see my productivity levels go down with Nana around. And one morning, after giving Nana a kiss on her head, like I had been doing every day, she abruptly clawed my face, leaving three bloody gashes. Although there might have been many underlying reasons for this aggression, the honeymoon period was over. Two weeks later her adoption was finalized, leading to a difficult goodbye with Nana crying and hiding at the sight of her new owner.
My time with Nana was an emotional whirlwind, spanning sadness, anxiety, affection, and fear. After speaking with my therapist, I drew many parallels between my experience fostering a cat and my love life. When dating someone new, my pattern consists of initial excitement, lack of focus on anything but my affection for the other person, an action or words bothering me on a deep level, and then me craving solitude again. Maybe I can break the cycle with my next companion, feline or human.
Over the past decade I’ve became disillusioned with pets, not really understanding why humans spend money and time on them. After walking dogs daily as a side hustle, I felt like giving affection to a pet was a job. But housing a cat again reminded me why so many homes are filled with pets. Initially aggravated with spending so much time worrying about Nana’s needs, I later recognized how human connections with animals can translate to how we treat all living things, strengthening our tools for empathy, compassion, and love.
Every day since meeting Nana, I think about getting a kitten, and spend an embarrassing amount of time watching cat videos on TikTok. Nana helped open up a part of my heart that had been closed for a very long time. Being tired and hurt after human relationships, I didn't feel I had the energy to let someone in again. Nana reminded me that the hard parts could be worth the good.