It has been almost five years now since the day I sat holding your hand in the Intensive Care Unit at San Francisco General Hospital. As you know, I talk to you often. Your death a few days later was a turning point in my life. My life today is as different as it possibly could be from the life I had when you were alive. Facing constant death for ten years gave me the courage to claim a different life. But I have not run away as some have suggested. The enormity of what happened in San Francisco will continue to affect me until the day I join you. Today you are very much on my mind and there is a good reason I am compelled to write to you now.

This is the fourth season I have lived in a small tourist village in the Greek islands. When I first came here I struggled with how my concept of life and death clashed with this place where shepherds kill and skin their goats and sheep just a few feet from my door. In watching the process and the attitudes of those engaged in the process I have learned much about myself and the culture I was raised in. I do not and probably never will share the idea that animals are just ignorant beings for us to exploit. Many men these days have adopted the sport of killing to prove their manhood.

I have retained my habit though, of befriending animals and giving them human names. For three years I fed a goat everyday near the castle ruins above the village. I named her Lucy because she reminded me of my dog Lucy in San Francisco. Lucy was very mischievous, an expert in unzipping tourist’s backpacks to steal their food. This spring the shepherd told me she had died during the winter. The shepherd and others in the village find it difficult to understand why I have her photo hanging above my door. I suspect Lucy was really killed by the shepherd for food.

Lucy the Goat

This year I made friends with the pure white wild cat I had seen in past years. She took to sleeping outside my door at night like a sentry there to protect me. I gave her milk in the mornings and other scraps of food during the day. I seem to have convinced her that some humans could be trusted. After a considerable effort on my part we came to that point of love/respect that one only feels in a relationship with an animal. I was ready to give her a name and enter the kind of human-animal relationship the villagers find impossible to understand.

Today my new friend appeared in my doorway at about 2:00 p.m. She looked at me as if to cry out for help. She twisted her head half way around then suddenly her body followed. She was lying on her side, legs shaking with foam coming out of her mouth. Every minute or two her whole body would convulse, then she would try to cry out to no avail. She kept pointing her body toward my door as if she was begging me for help. I stood paralyzed with terror, trying to understand what I should do. I was sure she had been poisoned. 

As I listened to her choking I was transported back to that moment in ICU when the nurse would push the catheter down your throat. I could feel your hand squeezing mine as I watched you shaking your head in vain, trying to be heard above all the fears that made us all blind to compassion. I stood watching the suffering for at least thirty minutes before I finally understood the plea you had sent through the cat. Five years later I have had my chance to redeem myself.

I stood above the cat with my rolled-up beach mat in my hand. I gently pressed one end of the mat on her neck. At the exact moment her body stopped shaking, I felt myself at peace. The fear and judgment all seemed ridiculous now that I had done the right thing. I locked myself in the bathroom and sat on the floor crying for quite some time. I wasn’t crying because I had killed someone I loved. I was crying for all of the wasted moments throughout my life, trying to decide what was right instead of following my heart.

I buried my friend below some rocks overlooking the village. Those who sit upon these rocks will be inspired to mention the sacredness of this place. They will remember their connection to the primal spirit we have forgotten. Those who are not human sometimes have the most to teach us about being human.

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Comment by alsoknownas on April 24, 2018 at 6:03am

A beautiful piece on sentience and discovery.

Comment by Boanerges on April 24, 2018 at 8:06am

My God, but you write so well, so evocatively. I too have difficulty understanding the concept of hunting for "sport". I grew up in a family most of whose adult members were products of the Great North Woods, where hunting had a purpose beyond recreation. That said -- and there's so much more I'd like to say -- the service you did that poor dying creature (of a species many consider expendable at best) was exemplary, and the tie-in you made with human existence was, well, exquisite.

More, please.

Comment by Anna Herrington on April 25, 2018 at 8:06am

Beautifully written, Robert, thought provoking.

...and to spend seasons in the Greek islands sounds pretty lovely, farm life and death aside.

My aunt the farmer and animal herder was the toughest woman I know. Not a speck of 'caring' it sometimes felt, she killed things all the time, although she later told me if she hesitated she'd collapse in tears.... so she never hesitated. "How we eat, honey."

Even as an organic gardener I've turned killer in order to get any harvest.... and yet sometimes, for this poor cat you write of, other times, it is the most compassionate action to offer.

Best to you, Robert, I so appreciate your sensitive soul.

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