Sara* had come to live with us a few months prior. Arrived on our doorstep, hidden between layers of oversized black clothing, with downcast eyes and nowhere else to go.
So we invited her in.
Now I worried that the stable home we had provided was being tossed around by circumstances beyond our control. But today her face was alight with enthusiasm and this grand adventure provided me with insights into coping with the rough paths we encounter in life, and how pain and loss can be soothed by creature comforts.
It was April 2011 in Christchurch. All I hoped for was a day pottering at home and free of earthquakes. But Sara asked to be driven around the city collecting items from her most recent online shopping spree. Reluctantly I traded my plans for her online trading ones. We hopped in my red Mitsubishi shopping cart for the bumpy journey. GPS was unreliable so my passenger, map in hand, navigated our way around a city that was no longer recognisable.
And tentatively we wended our way in a mother/foster-daughter relationship that had come with no directions.
Now I get a real buzz from staggering to my car laden with purchases marsh-mallowed in tissue paper and garnished with ribbons. But while I love to amass footwear, Sara likes to accumulate animals – in cages, crates and watertight containers. She already had 7 Guinea pigs and a rabbit. Shoes and (some) pets have one thing in common: they like to go for walks. But animals, vulnerable as they are, supply unconditional love and healing powers far beyond the frivolous retail therapy of fashion.
Our first stop was to retrieve a cat from the SPCA. One that had just been neutered and needed post-surgical nursing through the pain before she’d be able to return affection with padding claws and dribbling purrs.
Next we were to pick up a fish. A LIVE fish – a cat-fish! So excited was she to be a new fish mother (does that make me a fish wife?) that Sara failed to see the irony of our transporting set up. Hungry, woolly pompom, perched on lap meows loudly while terrified cat-fish swims around in open bucket kept upright between legs and only inches away from its predator!
As far as Sara was concerned – her new home came with an open door policy for anything with a heartbeat – our burgeoning menagerie would just have to get along.
Then onwards and upwards to an address on the Port-hills for … another fish. But on reaching our destination we noticed fish one floating on top of the water. He had ‘kicked the bucket’! Mortified I hastily found a bag in the back of my car to act as a coffin; qualified instantly as a funeral director and held an impromptu farewell service for the sake of a distraught teenager. All this while perched on the edge of a hill looking down at the surreal ruin that was our city.
That day we faced loss together ‘dust to dust’ for the buildings and ‘water molecule to water molecule’ for the fish.
Fish two, came with a name: Hannibal. No, not Cannibal, though cat fish do sometimes eat other aquatic creatures. On the drive home my thoughts turned to what to have for dinner (fish and chips?). Also how to dispose of a large dead fish. The dogs would dig him up if buried in the garden and he was too big to be flushed down the toilet.
Kitten and cat-fish, Hannibal, were introduced to the rest of the family as one son curiously peeked inside the bag.
“Mum, it moved!”
Sure enough the gils were fluttering and fish one was showing signs of life. (Apparently cat fish can survive for short periods of time outside water). Sara immediately started compressions (on our newly named ‘Lazarus’); while someone rushed to the supermarket to purchase oxygen tablets, and another prepared water at the correct temperature for his fish tank.
Too cold he would die – again – too hot he would be poached.
So what better for a sickly loved one than to warm him tenderly with a hot water bottle submerged inside his aquatic home.
Later, when my household (1 husband, 3 kids, 1 foster daughter, 2 dogs, 7 guinea pigs, 1 rabbit, 2 fish and a convalescing kitten) were eventually settled down for the night, I reflected on pain and loss. We can never totally erase either.
But just when some situations seem really dire, life can take some unexpected twists and chaos, both internal and external, can be soothed with the giving and receiving of love. And who best to provide unconditional loving opportunities but pets?
During the lockdown I've been sorting through some past writings. Gosh life was so colourful with a household of kids! *Name has been changed.