I never wanted a cat. Cats were never part of my destiny. We had no pets growing up, though I desperately wanted a dog. I am a dog person through and through. There was one time, a while after our dog Sam left us for the great dog park in the sky, that we thought we might get a cat from the rescue centre; since Sam was so irreplaceable, and we needed to rescue something, we got some chickens destined ironically for the dog-food factory. When the pandemic hit we spent our lockdown days sitting amongst and marvelling at their funny little ways. A chicken will eat almost anything, and even though we witnessed (disturbed to this day) Eleanor gulp down a whole mouse - to the chagrin of the others as they chased her for it, we wondered if a cat might be a good idea. Off with us en famille to the cat house in the rescue centre, each cat’s sad story pinned on a card for us to read, each cat with its arse to the glass, could not care less about us and our pity. Let’s go and say hello to the dogs, we decided, while we’re here, and since the cats so clearly want nothing to do with us. We came away with a smelly thirteen year old Collie-Spaniel mix, stone deaf, riddled with arthritis, a murmur on his heart, bothered by dermatitis and, we soon discovered, a penchant for barking at nothing at all.
Brandy hated the chickens but they tolerated each other. What he didn’t tolerate though, was any neighbourhood cat making an appearance in our garden. Ah Brandy, I used to think, you and my mother would have gotten on well: she also liked to run out when she saw a cat sitting on the wall, brandishing her sweeping brush and telling them to clear off. As I said, cats were never meant to be part of my life. Well, the pandemic passed and so did the old dog. Life moved on and we welcomed into our home my daughter’s boyfriend. And his two cats.
My daughter assured me I’d build up a resistance to my chronic cat allergy. I actually did, though my heart is still broken with what they’ve done to the legs of my furniture, while nearby scratching mats lie unscathed. Cat trees adorn the house, but they choose to sit in a hanging plant basket (on top of the plant mind you). They jump on the kitchen counters for God’s sake. I used to spray disinfectant, now I just accept it. They want to sit there, so there they sit. I understand now why cats rule the internet. Of course we have fallen in love with them. What I didn’t expect though, was for them to love us. I am the mad chicken lady of Stillorgan, yet here I sit typing with a cat on my lap. If Meza doesn’t want me to type she will sit on my keyboard, so I work quickly (cat lovers will forgive any typos ;) This love took time to come, especially from Luna. Like most cats, she doesn’t suffer fools, so we were honoured when she began to rub herself against our legs and present herself for belly rubs. My husband and I have trained the puppy (oh yes, there’s a puppy now too) to wait her turn while we throw scraps to the cats. We have broken all our rules about animals and it has been the damn cats that have done it to us. Then Luna disappeared.
For two full nights she could not be found. It’s a trauma I cannot even write about. Suffice it to say we spent forty eight hours tearing the house apart, room after room, nook and cranny and impossible spaces, all were searched, several times over. She did this before when she first came here and we found her eventually, her having hidden in the eaves over night. But this time, this indoor cat managed somehow to get outside, and there she stayed until she was found, going on for a third night, on top of the chicken coop. I cannot fully express our relief having her back safe and sound, but for the next three days she barely moved. My daughter and her boyfriend were the only ones she let near her, hissing at the rest of us. Three full days she slept. Then, yesterday evening she simply got up and rubbed against Geoff as he was cooking dinner.
"We have been forgiven", I whispered. As if to clarify that, she jumped onto the kitchen counter, showed me her bum and sat down comfortably on my lap. She purred, I gave her some Reiki. And she rested her head on my arm.
Back in the day when my drama school was in full swing, I ran classes concurrently so that parents could drop siblings together at the same time, rather than dropping and picking up all afternoon. Often times, we’d combine two classes for warm up games, giving the children the opportunity to get to know both teachers, which was handy if either of us needed cover. My right-hand girl at the time – Angela, would occasionally take the opportunity to nip outside for a quick vape. She would convey this intention to me through a series of mimed actions (we were drama teachers after all), and over time the mime shortened simply to her ‘dropping’ a magical puff of smoke and stepping slowly away backwards. I would nod my comprehension: she was about to disappear in and for the purpose of said puff of smoke. As with all my teachers, we had a symbiotic relationship: they could read my mind (usually along the lines of: “How do I open this Facebook yoke?”); during live performances, we communicated clearly from backstage right to backstage left through a series of exaggerated facial expressions.
Working together gave my young teachers the chance to learn from me, and I gained the joy of just being with them, for teaching during the early years with only children for company, could be a lonely affair. I considered it a bonus to be working with young people, teenagers from youth theatre to young adults who just wanted to stay on in the school while they were in college. It meant I could keep my finger on the pulse of whatever was cool. They were young. I was older. And being older was considered a good thing. I was respected. I mentored. I understood memes. I learned how to dab. Downtime was fun but so were the classes. My youth theatre group adored improvisational drama and they were positively heroic in passing their enthusiasm onto the younger students. I loved training by example – above all that the children should feel they’d found their tribe; let them know we actually like them, cheer them for their traits and quirks, their particular talents and abilities. They in turn would pass on this encouragement and kindness amongst each other. I could look around me, at my students and at my teachers, and bask in the energy emitting around the space, the buzz in the room. It felt good to have created all this from one single student in my mother’s dining room back in 1992. Being the oldest person in the room was an honour and nothing to be ashamed of.
And then I turned fifty. It didn’t happen on the stroke of midnight exactly, but it crept up on me while I was minding my own business, going about my life exactly as I had before, excepting the gathered knowledge and wisdom that comes with the years. It was there, this skulking thing, when I updated my LinkedIn profile – ‘You might want me on your team’ I suggested, thinking what a fine thing it would be, offering insights only an older woman knows. It was there as my enthusiasm began to wane, applying for yet another job where I wouldn’t be granted an interview, where I might not even get a reply. It was more visible than me, this dreadful thing. One day, I learned its name: they call it Ageism and it makes me disappear. In two short years I went from founding a start-up business to being shunned by them. I’m a self-assured person, so it took a while for me to realise they weren’t interested in my resume: they had the measure of me by the time they read ‘born in 1967’. I think back to those days teaching people to be confident, of how the gaps in our ages was an advantage, how there was everything to be gained by us all, young and old. Like Angela, magically disappearing into a puff of imagined smoke, I had begun to slowly back away from the idea that anyone might employ me.
Before I fully faded into oblivion though, I applied to a local private hospital, and lo and behold, they took me on. For the past year I’ve been working as a clerk on a ward, and while I often yearn for my former life as a creative and a business owner, it’s hard to beat a regular salary. (Imagine if I could have it all though!) Meanwhile, this employer has saved me from disappearing entirely. Recently, one of my colleagues, a member of the housekeeping team, told me she has begun to wear a brace to hold her shoulders back. I took her aside and showed her some exercises she could do, but it occurred to me that slouching her shoulders began in her head, and so I told her to keep her chin up; when she walks onto the ward, as those automatic doors open before her, she should walk, shoulders back, into her space full of confidence, faking it if she has to. It occurs to me I should do the same, walking forward, not backward, for the space around me is full of potential still; magical puffs of smoke in which anything might happen.
(Next blog: What Nurses Really Want!)