I thought I’d reached the highest peak — the impossible zenith! — of true love when I met my now-spouse Sabrina 10 years ago, but I knew nothing, nothing at all, of love until my eyes met the soulful gaze of Lady Di, the 6-week-old, fluffy, grey-haired kitten we adopted from the ASPCA 8 years ago.
Even though the name Lady Di captured her incomparable beauty, we immediately renamed her Maude because it better suited her offbeat personality – offbeat being a euphemism for her extreme social discomfort and all-around twitchiness, which mirrored my own. My feelings for Maude were so large and all-consuming I finally understood an American idiom that formerly perplexed — and unsettled — me: I love you so much I could eat you!
Because she was an infant, and because we had an older cat named Fernando, who pimp-rolled through our small apartment looking for mischief 24/7, we were advised to keep her in a smaller space for the first few weeks. From our bathroom, her new home, her sweet, mouse-like meows seeped out from under the door with heartbreaking persistence. I had to soothe her. Never mind that she’d flee behind the toilet as soon as I entered her domicile, I’d scoop her into my arms, amid an endless succession of choking meows, and kiss her in a full-on frenzy of love — or at least, I thought it was love.
One night within her first week home, I woke up to the sound of a cat toy and Sabrina’s soft, lilting voice. I scrambled out of bed and eavesdropped at the door and I couldn’t believe my ears. I was stricken, like I was witnessing Sabrina in the throes of passion with another: I heard Maude fearlessly rollicking among her playthings with Sabrina.
As soon I lumbered in and loudly asked, “What’s going on?” Maude raced with superhero expediency to her preferred position in my presence — behind the can.
“We’re just messing around,” Sabrina, whose capacity for patience and empathy rivals Gandhi’s, said.
“It’s 2:00 a.m.,” I replied.
“I know. She was crying,” she said with a mouth full of frowns.
“She was? I didn’t hear her,” I said.
“Yeah, you were in a deep sleep,” she said.
What I heard when she said that was: You aren’t as good a mother as I am. And I pathetically shuffled back to bed so the duo could continue their late night romp.
Once Maude was old enough to freely traipse through our apartment, she continued to flee from me, even when I wasn’t lunging to grasp her. Watching the way Sabrina mothers Maude (and the human daughter, Marty, we’d have five years later), I learned three fundamental things about how to love someone that I’ve not mastered, but am always cognizant of.
Resist the Urge to Merge
Unlike me, who clearly (albeit subconsciously) wants to return to the oneness I knew in utero, Sabrina respectfully acknowledged from the get-go that Maude is a separate entity with needs, wants and emotions distinct from her own. Because she gave space and resisted the temptation to maul her with love, Maude sought her out frequently and to this day, Sabrina is her favorite companion. As often happens in the earliest stages of falling in love, I wanted to merge with my beloved and failed to see her existence as something independent of my own. Remember the tragic, tumultuous love affair between Catherine and Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights when Catherine dramatically declares: “I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.” That, I’ve learned, is an immature love. It’s a projection that seeks to reattach the umbilical cord to create a sense of wholeness that’s elusive and childish. Recognizing and honoring that your partner, child or pet exists outside the fantasy world you’d like them to inhabit with you is a crucial first step in creating a healthy bond. “Let there be space in your togetherness,” Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran once wrote, “Stand together, yet not too near.”
In my quest to become a single unit with my Heathcliff, I was totally out of sync with Maude’s needs. Maude, a sensitive creature full of phantom kitty fears, needed me to move a little slower, talk a little softer, and give her the space to come to me. When I asked Sabrina, a child therapist, where I was going wrong, she gently nudged me out of my own head by telling me to ask questions about her state of being — Is she hungry? Is she scared? Is she sick? Does she want to play? — and respond accordingly. “Attunement is fundamental to the healthy development of any relationship,” she said. I was sure she was talking about us, too. How much of our relationship was I tripping in my own bubble of bliss? I knew it was time to firm my feet on the ground and connect to Sabrina, too.
Come Out Of Your World…and Into Theirs
I’ve definitely got a silly side and live for laughs, but I’m not always good at reducing myself to cat and toddler forms of fun, which include spastically wielding motion devices for Maude’s enjoyment and pretending (over and over again) for Marty’s sake that I’m her baby and she’s the mama. Unlike me, Sabrina seems to have an endless appetite for elementary levels of fun and consequently, she’s almost always the preferred playmate. “Don’t you get bored and tired doing this over and over again?” I once asked Sabrina as she continued to run around the house with Marty on her back playing “Running from Mama Monster.”
“Of course,” she said, “but she loves it.” (Subtext: You’re selfish!) Once I started getting on the ground to inhabit Marty’s world and made more efforts to entertain Maude (as opposed to myself), it completely enhanced my relationship with both of them.
Incorporating all this into my daily life is a work in progress, and there are still times when I surrender to the temptation to quasi-cannibalize one of Marty’s sweet chubby legs, but little by little I’m getting there.