Caress and Carry
The cat – and he is that now – does not understand that the various parts of my body are distinct. Where I pet him with my hands, he merely feels flesh flattening his long fur. When he wants to play, he will sometimes pounce on my knees, as if expecting them to grapple back. And when I stretch out on the carpet, he pokes at the place on my side where my shirt rides up, asking exposed skin to respond in kind. To him, any gesture, even the mere collision of bodies, can be a caress.
Animals understand things about contact that we have long since forgotten. In Seattle, Meto, my mother’s dimwitted goldendoodle, would approach Catherine in the morning and extend a single paw. For this, she seemed to expect neither treats nor praise, wanting nothing more than the gentle pressure of a hand closing. Courtly as she was, however, she would forget about Catherine minutes later, having wandered out of the room and then in again. Taken aback by the suddenly alien presence, she would stand, barking her alarm, in the doorway. Still, I think she would have been content to sit with Catherine, pads to palm, forever. Contact assured her that the world was stable. In touch, we make the things we love real.
Sometimes too we must touch the things that frighten us to rid ourselves of them. My grandmother learned that she had cancer a month or two before I did, though hers was of the colon, and was large enough to have spread. Worrying over her condition was a preparatory exercise for doing the same with my own. Nevertheless, the seriousness of her condition eluded me at the time, partly because the West Coast seemed far away and partly because events moved so quickly. It was stage two, we learned soon enough, and operable. She was in surgery within a week. The incision was small, the thing they removed less so. My mother saw a photograph of it resting in the surgeon’s cupped hands, its mass underscoring the literal gravity of the situation.
A dog’s paw has weight when we grip it, as a tumor does when we carry it, within or without. However strong we are, holding a thing, any thing, pulls us down slightly. This is why we hug: When we circle ourselves around one another we hold each other up. For a moment, you take on my burdens and I take on yours – the one and the other in equal measure – so that we can both stand with confidence. Sometimes, like Meto, I hesitate when someone moves to embrace me. I don’t step back for fear of contact, but because the intimate generosity of the act takes me by surprise.
And what surprises us more than the fact of love? On the last warm weekend of the year, some of our friends rented a farmhouse in rural Maryland. Catherine and I arrived last, dusting up the driveway in the early hours of Saturday afternoon. Coming from the garden, a bundle of turnips in hand, Thom opened his arms by way of greeting when we approached. Happy as I was to see him, I felt my brows scrunch together and my head cock to the side, briefly perplexed by the realization that I had a friend in him, that he was real and that friendship was real.
In the evening, Thom and Marin harmonized in the basement while the rest of us lounged on long couches. I kept photographing them, trying to capture an experience that already had the texture of memory. Though we were deep in fall, I wanted to ask them if they could sing Belle and Sebastian’s “A Summer Wasting.” Buoyed by song, surrounded by the voices of my friends, I thought back to a July night in a larger barn, when I cried as others sang. Then as now, what could have been a summer of wasting away had merely been a summer luxuriously wasted. Each in their own way, my friends had wrapped themselves around me, held me up.
They had held me up, each according to their nature. The day that I was diagnosed, my housemate Lydia had heard me passing the news on to my mother. What does that mean? my mother had asked. It means I have cancer, I snapped back, too fast and too loud. Always in motion, even when she is still, Lydia was coming down the stairs as I spoke. I felt her pause between steps when my words made their way to her, as I must have secretly hoped she would. She waited out of sight in the kitchen until I had hung up. Occasionally evasive, but never aloof, she came into the living room and perched like an inquisitive bird on the arm of the couch. Then, the simplest, kindest thing: She laid one hand on my shoulder, telling me with a touch that this was no dream from which I would awaken.
Sometimes while I am writing, the cat makes a ball of his body on the unmade bed beside my desk. When one of us picks him up to carry him into another room, we cup him carefully between two hands to let him go on sleeping. Encircling himself, he is like a small planet, a tiny globe of flesh and fur. Lifting him aloft, we make his gravity our own.