This post is about the defense mechanism of disconnect. Disconnecting is probably one of my primary defense mechanisms. I don’t mean disconnect in the sense of mere detachment. I’m not entirely sure I understand this dynamic, because it’s definitely one of those ‘can’t see the picture because you’re in the frame’ type things for me.
To even write about this, I’m having to sit and puzzle out when we got our barn cats. It means reconstructing a time period when I was falling into a clinical depression, so many things became blurred. Some fourteen years ago, we moved into this house. The move into the place we still live was the culmination of a year of chaos, some trauma, and a kind of abandonment. It’s another story entirely, but there were reasons I became clinically depressed. No matter how I try to piece this together, I can’t remember exactly when the barn cats came, except that it was after we moved to this house.
I remember that it was a group of four siblings (two males and two females). I remember insisting that my husband agree that the males would be neutered and the females would be spayed; i.e. I wanted responsible care ensured. It wasn’t long after the group arrived that one of the females died, and then one of the males disappeared. We weren’t sure what happened to him. Maybe he wandered, maybe it was a predator. He had a name, but I can’t remember it. Even when I went to the barn to feed or milk the goats, it was as though the cats weren’t there for me. I don’t remember seeing them when I helped out with barn chores.
Ahh. Mid-post, I couldn’t stand the blur. I found one of my sons to see what he remembered. He was so small, but he remembered enough for me to piece together my fragmented memories.
Yes, four half-grown cats. They were offered to us, and my husband wanted us to take them. We had a cow, some goats, and chickens, so it made sense to have barn cats. It’s a practicality that I grew up understanding, but I was resisting our taking those young cats because they were half feral. They tolerated human contact, but they were definitely not tame or cuddly. My husband thought that would make them better mousers. I thought it spelled trouble. He agreed to my condition for getting them respectively spayed and neutered, and their early vaccinations. I don’t think I came out to the barn to see them, or even tried to see them, but I heard the kids chatter descriptions about them. And now I remember all their names: Tiger, Princess, Fluffy, and Blacky. Fluffy was the most feral, aggressive, and never let anyone near her.
At this particular time, we also had two Newfoundland females, also siblings, now half grown and around a year old. I’d wanted just one Newfoundland because we had so many small kids, and we live in an area that has moose, elk, coyotes, bears, and cougars. I didn’t want to worry about the kids playing outside, and my research said that a Newfoundland would stick to the kids like a big nanny dog. When we went to get our Newfie pup, my husband talked me into getting two. I was uneasy, but didn’t listen to my gut. This eventually created a serious problem that resulted in having to let both dogs go. Because the two siblings, Rose and Emma, were never apart, they remained more bonded to each other, and displayed a type of pack attitude and behavior not normally seen in a Newfie. They started to wander around the property together instead of hanging near their family.
This was around the time that I’d been to a doctor because the impact of stress had started causing constant adrenaline surges that not only kept me from sleeping, but were wreaking other kinds of havoc with my body. I was put on four prescriptions simultaneously, and the result was an almost zombie like state of emotions. This was me during the time of the barn cats and Newfies. If a car had crashed outside my kitchen window, I’m not sure I would have felt anything, but would have mostly just made detached observations.
One day, I could hear a ruckas and commotion and distressed voices. A neighbor called because she saw Fluffy fighting with the two Newfies in the field. By the time my husband got out there, Fluffy had retreated to the barn, but when they found her, she was in the hayloft, seemingly unmarked with no sign of a wound, but dead and stiffening in a snarl. My boys were so upset. My emotions were numb, but something in me blamed myself for what happened. Somehow, this happened on my watch. A dead cat and crying kids. I can say this now, years and years later, but at the time, I just disconnected from it. Shortly after Fluffy died, Blacky just disappeared. At that point, the disconnected cemented.
I found a dog trainer to sell Emma to, and Rose went to a family experienced with Newfoundlands. Tiger and Princess almost ceased to exist inside of me, other than names I occasionally heard from my husband and kids. Tiger and Princess remained on, and gradually became more acclimated to the kids and to my husband. This much I gathered from listening to conversation. The giant dog, Bandit, that was protecting our goats, started to do double duty between his goat herd and his human herd.
Thirteen years later, our gentle giant and faithful guardian, Bandit, was dying of cancer. We decided to give him hospice care for as long as possible. The cancer was a kind of bone cancer, and he couldn’t use one of his back legs. We started to use a makeshift sling underneath him, and then help him get outside to relieve himself. We took turns doing this for our faithful friend. He was about 140 pounds in his prime, so even though he’d lost weight, it wasn’t easy. I started noticing that a cat was often waiting outside the door for him. I was told it was Tiger. Up until this time, if both Tiger and Princess had walked up to me, I wouldn’t have been able to say which was which. Even after all those years.
Now, every single day, Tiger made multiple visits to see his friend, Bandit. Even then, it was as if something resisted and defied my recognizing Tiger. Until one day as Tiger was winding around Bandit’s legs and purring, Bandit just stared at me. So serious, so intent, and so pleading. His eyes didn’t look away, as if he was waiting expectantly for something. I heard myself say, “I promise to take care of your friend.”
Something happened inside of me and my disconnected defenses were breached. Not long after Bandit died, I started to talk to my husband about acclimating the barn cats to the house so they wouldn’t have to deal with the harsh winters anymore. He disagreed. We argued. He disagreed. I’d let it drop, then bring it up later. Again and again, we’d argue. He said they would be destructive, wouldn’t use a litter box, would claw all over the house, and jump on counters. I told him that Tiger loved him, and would probably want to be his little office buddy if he was given a chance. He said that both cats would hate being inside, but that Princess especially would never tolerate it. Over the next several months, I continued to bring it up, and we’d have the same arguments over and over. One night I said, “But I promised Bandit!”
Prior to this, the only conversations we had about the barn cats was regarding how late he fed them. He always fed them really late at night. I never understood why he’d choose late in the dark evening to go to the barn to feed them, but I’d given that one up as a lost cause. I never fed the barn cats; they didn’t really know me. I felt they knew and trusted my husband, so it seemed logical that he’d be the one to coax and acclimate them to the house. I didn’t even know where he kept their food! The day came when I realized that I had to make a choice within myself. Would I keep my promise or break it and let the whole issue go?
That night, I realized he hadn’t yet gone out to feed them, so I slipped out in the dark to do it, hoping of course to start to build trust with them. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t even remember where the light switch was, and I didn’t think to bring a flashlight. Have you ever seen barn spiders? Did I say that I have arachnophobia? I finally found the light, and made my way up to the hay loft. There sat two cats, looking very much alike with long creamy light and dark chocolate colored fur, and little white mittened paws, looking curiously and hopeful at the food I was carrying. I recognized Tiger and greeted him, then said, “You must be Princess. What a pretty little thing you are!” I came in and told my husband that the barn cats were already fed. He raised one quizzical eyebrow and said, “Thanks…” with an unsure tone.
Can you guess the rest? I kept feeding Tiger and Princess. They let me pet them while I fed them. They started purring around my legs when I brought food. I started carrying their dishes to the bottom of the barn. Then to outside of the barn. Part way to the house. Outside the house…. Inside the garage entry! They started showing up outside the garage door to wait for their food!
Finally, the day came when I moved the food dishes inside the garage entry. They were nervous, darting, skittish, but they came into eat! We put a litter box in the entry, and left them inside for an hour. Two hours. Several hours. Still, they kept coming back for food. Winter started to blow in, temperatures were cooling. One night, I fed them, and just left them in the garage. There were two beds made from boxes with comfortable old linens padding them. In the morning, there was a mess by the door to the outside. To his credit, my husband didn’t complain much, and actually cleaned it up. I prayed. The next night, no messes, but they darted out fast in the morning. The next night, the litter box was used!
At the start of this, Princess was not looking well at all. She didn’t look like she’d even survive another winter. Today, she’s not only more spry and friendly, but has started to wander around and visit everyone, even jumping on my bed to say hello. Tiger still spends a good portion of time outside every day to hunt and survey his territory, but Princess has seldom joined him. She likes to snuggle in her box, rolling over so I’ll rub her belly. Tiger visits everyone, but most of all he likes to sit with my husband in his office. On his lap. Purring.
This spring I plan to trek to our back woods and visit Bandit’s grave, next to my beloved little Molly. Now I can tell him that I kept my promise.
What have I learned? Had I never bonded with the barn cats, the day would have eventually come anyway where they would die. I realize now that I would have eventually had to pay the piper with accountability. Sooner or later, I’d hold myself accountable for their care or lack of care, and now at least I have the peace of better late than never. I’m very attached to the mitten paw twins, but especially to Princess. It’s going to hurt to lose them, but I’ll have a cleaner grief with peace. In the end, had I remained disconnected, my greatest loss would have been from not knowing them. You can’t shut out pain and ugliness without simultaneously shutting out joy and beauty. If we feel, we feel.
This is the lesson I’m trying to absorb, so I can be on guard for other blind spots and areas of disconnect.