Written Saturday, 26 January 2019
It’s 3.38AM where I am right now. It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten up in the middle of the night to blog - years. But my heart is heavy, and I have a feeling that if I don’t put my thoughts down somewhere, I won’t be able to go back to sleep.
Just before this, I was tossing and turning before finally rolling over to Alan’s side of the bed and whispering, I can’t sleep. He is a light sleeper, so he immediately woke up and said, “ Why can’t you sleep?”
I’m thinking about all the cats - and dog - I used to have.
“What about them?”
Now I’m quite sad.
When I was a kid, we didn’t take any photos of them, and now, I can’t remember that much about them. I’m trying to remember why we gave each of them away, and I can’t remember everything anymore, I whispered back, blinking back the tears that quickly came.
“Oh… well, they’re in better homes now,” came the sleepy reply, followed by a comforting back rub.
A handful of memories
I rolled back to my side of the bed, trying to understand why I was feeling so sad. It occurred to me that I had never fully grieved this part of my childhood before. All throughout my childhood, we had various family pets. They were either a) adopted from a shelter after my repeated begging, or b) picked up (by me, of course) from the streets.
My parents, bless their hearts, tried to accommodate me as much as possible. But when there was one too many shoes destroyed, one too many vet visits that put a dent in their pockets (when feeding three kids was challenging enough), or one too many fleas crawling around the house, it was time to say goodbye.
The last time, it was easier. I was in college and I had a camera to take pictures of Tiger and put him up for adoption on the internet. A lovely couple adopted him, and he even had the company of another little kitten they adopted. I continued to see photo updates of him after that, via Facebook.
With all the other pets, it was much harder. Today, my memories of them are in bits and pieces. I don’t have a single photo to hold on to. Just haunting memories and a lot of guilt. Guilt that I should have tried harder to keep them. Been a better child so my parents would have allowed me to keep them. Or read more books so I would be able to deal with the issues that got them sent away.
One of the most haunting memories I have is when one of our cats, who was supposed to have been spayed at the shelter, gave birth to a stillborn kitten. I think the experience was as difficult for my mum as it was for me. “I have never seen a cat cry before. But that cat really looks like it is crying,” I remember her saying.
Then there was the mischievous kitten who got stuck in the coils at the back of the refrigerator that one time, who loved durian and would hop sideways in joy when my father fed durian to him. There was Honey, our dog who always greeted us joyfully when we got home, and with whom my brothers and I spent many hours running around the garden with. There is the very first kitten that we rescued, tiny, wet, and miserable, hunched up in a corner next to a drain in the pouring rain, that grew a gorgeous fluffy coat and became an affectionate house cat after we brought her home.
Beyond these bits and pieces, there is not much else I can remember. And mostly, that was what had kept me up. I was trying to form a coherent timeline of names and dates and reasons… and I was heartbroken I couldn’t.
Backtracking a little bit to what prompted all these thoughts - tomorrow morning at 9.30AM, we are getting on board a ferry to Estonia to adopt a rescue cat. This will be a cat that has been hope for and waited for, for almost a year. Before I moved to Finland, I discussed adopting a pet with Alan. It was something that was incredibly important to me. We talked about a timeline of three to four months after I moved so I’d have some time to settle in first.
Four months later, we still weren’t ready. I was not going to adopt another animal and go through giving it up again. I, at least, wanted to be sure. We talked about a dog. We talked about a cat. We talked about kittens and puppies. After enough time and thinking and articles and books, we finally decided. Because we work in the city and live in the suburb and I often work long hours and Alan travels for work half the time, it wouldn’t be fair to keep a dog at home alone for so long. Kittens have a lot of energy and need play and company as well. Plus, kittens are easier to rehome than adult cats. So we decided on a cat.
Hence the late-night thoughts.
What this post was originally going to be about
When I was thinking about writing this week’s blog post a few days ago, it was going to be quite different. I was going to write about seasons in life and how for most of my teenage and adult life, I was so focused on getting married and having children, like a good Christian girl. I was brought up in church on Bible stories where women who had lots of children were considered blessed by God and women who were barren were unloved.
All my friends from college remember me as the girl who said during orientation that, “one of my dreams is to have enough kids to have a football team.” When the movie Cheaper by the Dozen was released, I was in love with that ideal. A house full of pets and (biological) children. That’s what I always thought I wanted.
Then I got married, and reality collided with fantasy. As I discovered more about myself, what values are deeply important to me, and what kind of future I want to have, I realized a few things. I realized I never want to raise children to believe many of the things I believed growing up. I never want to raise a daughter thinking her value centers around keeping her man happy or having a large brood. I never want to raise a son in a community where he would be counseled and have the “demons cast out of him” and told he needed to be cured if he were ever to come out of the closet.
Realizing all these things, among other things, led to me deciding to leave my marriage and any romantic notions I had left of marriage and children.
Skipping a few steps
After I got divorced, I couldn’t look at photos of couples getting married or people posting up pregnancy photos for awhile. It was too painful. But then, I was able to unpack. I had rushed ahead towards achieving these things which I thought would make me “more” as a woman, without realizing I was already enough. And that my dreams were as valid as any other woman’s. Things went wrong when I skipped a few steps.
Before the marriage, I had other dreams that I should have chased first. Like living alone. Like adopting a cat that would be my own, that I would be financially responsible for and that no one could tell me to get rid of. Like paying for a long trip for my parents to visit countries they’ve never been to. Had I done those things in that order, perhaps I would have realized that traditional marriage was never for me. Some of us learn the hard way.
These days, I look at pictures of wedding and babies and I get excited and happy for those smiling faces in the photos. The reasons behind them - love, new beginnings, hope - had never changed for me. It’s just the idolization of them is no longer there. There is no longer a fixed goal or timeline I am rushing towards. I want to make my decisions fully conscious, and when I’m ready. That’s why it took us a year to decide to adopt a cat. It’s not a decision to make lightly. And this summer, I’m incredibly excited about bringing my parents over for three weeks to Finland and a few neighboring countries.
One thing at a time.
A lot of questions
Anyway, I’ve sidetracked again. To get back to the topic of cats… my heart was feeling particularly heavy tonight because of all the things above, and more. More - meaning that I’m terrified that if I am able to feel this way about cats and dogs - how much more will I feel about a baby? How could I have ever thought having a baby was something to achieve (about me) when it is nothing but an incredible privilege and responsibility (not about me)?
And more - meaning that I am also heartbroken that I live in a world where this week, a large number of Christians I know on my social media feeds are outraged and furious about abortion laws being passed in New York, when there are still 153 million orphans worldwide.
Let me be clear - I believe life has value. I believe every baby should have a fighting chance at life. I believe hope and miracles happen in dark places. But I really have to wonder if an abortion law is our biggest problem in the world today. I really wonder if people who post and share these articles have sat with a pregnant teenage girl so traumatized by how society would treat her that she is willing to self-harm or kill herself to get out of her situation. Or spent two minutes trying to imagine how that could possibly feel.
I really wonder if people understand that making things illegal usually means more people die when they resort to desperate, unsafe alternative measures. I really wonder if people take the time to read that in countries where abortion is illegal and women who self-abort get punished for murder, it is not the rich women who get reported but the poorest women. Making things illegal also makes them expensive, and discriminates against the poor when people who can afford to have “matters handled” discreetly will continue doing what they need to do regardless.
I admit I do not know everything, and if someone would like to point me to thoughtful evidence of where abortion has increased after being legalized, I’d love to have that conversation. But on the contrary, I have read that often, when women receive proper health care and counseling along with it, they might change their minds about their decision. I wonder if people understand that systemic decisions like laws should be looked at systemically - that is, from a bird’s eye view.
It’s not so simple as “I’m for or against.” Can we not see the world we live in and understand the decision is not black and white? Most people respond to news like this from their own lens, their own individual perspective. Why is it so unthinkable to vote for a decision that clearly saves the maximum number of lives? Doesn’t every life have value?
And this is how I know I’m not ready to have children yet. I’ve not made peace with the idea of bringing new life into the world, made in my likeness, for no other reason than that the child carries my DNA and perhaps looks like me, when there are so many others out there without a home. I respect every parent’s decision to become a biological parent - I wouldn’t be here if my parents did not make that decision. I think the miracle of life is a beautiful thing. I just think it is as beautiful for an unwed pregnant teenage mum or a poor family who cannot afford to raise their child. My privilege is hard to ignore, and so I know I’m not ready.
Some goodbyes, thank yous, and last thoughts
It’s 5.00AM now, and I should catch up on sleep. But before I go back to sleep, I’ll think about the handful of memories I’ve had of my past pets and say goodbye to those whose names I can still remember - Fluffy, Honey, Pepper, Tiger. And I’ll thank them for what they taught me tonight. I’ll do better with the knowledge I now have to care for the ball of fur we’ll bring home tomorrow.
And I’ll keep reading and writing and sharing words that remind us to stop and pause more. To have more kindness and more empathy instead of judgement. If I should ever have a child some day, I’ll pray he or she will grow up in a world with less puppy mills and orphanages, where it matters less to us whether animals or babies are “purebreed” or “biological”, where our hearts are big enough to have compassion for all animals and all people.