The look.

by tamarjacobson

Last November I brought home a pair of kittens. They were four months old. The last of a litter of six, who had all been adopted before I found them in a large cage at the KAT's pet store. In retrospect, I probably acquired them too soon after my beloved Ada's death that October. I had not even begun to grieve her, and yet the house felt so lonely without her, that one morning all of a sudden I found myself on the way to the pet store. After looking at the choices of paired kittens in different cages, I settled upon Oscar and Mimi. Little gray Oscar seemed fragile and vulnerable, and I loved him instantly. His sister, Mimi, was strong and healthy – lithe and sharp-eyed. My love for her would come later. As I drove away from the pet store, I had noticed that Oscar's eye was becoming milky but that did not deter me. I decided that with a few eyedrops and a lot of love, he would be cured quickly. I had also observed that he was especially quiet and quite inactive for a kitten that young, but still I soldiered on. 

As it turned out, Oscar was very ill with Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), and within a few months would die. He became weaker, blinder, more unstable on his legs, and unable to run, climb and play with his sister. Mimi, on the other hand was becoming larger, stronger, and more robust. She had a healthy appetite and would eat almost all Oscar's food, especially since he would leave his bowl after one or two bites. For the few months of Oscar's life, I hovered anxiously by their food bowls trying to coax him to eat more, while keeping Mimi from gobbling up what he was unable to digest. It was a constant battle, and watching little Oscar become weaker and more ailing was excruciating. I tried to hold onto his life, all the while blaming myself for not being able to help him more. 

During this time, I started to notice how I would stare at Mimi: When she hid from Oscar and then charged out pouncing on him in play, take food from his bowl, prevent him from sitting on any chair in the living room, and finally, even when she would simply walk into a room. Sometimes I whispered under my breath about her to myself, "The beast." Or, "that greedy beast." I began to dislike myself around her, feeling guilty and ashamed for unkind thoughts toward her.

One day, as Mimi tussled with Oscar on the carpet in my study, I became disturbingly aware that I was glaring at her with hatred. The feeling came from somewhere very deep inside me. I held still trying to understand what was happening to me, when suddenly I understood to the very core of my being, that when I was a young child, my mother had glared at me like that. Indeed, I knew that look intimately. I had seen and felt it like a knife, cut into and through me, countless times growing up. At first, I felt nauseous, as if I was about to throw up, and then I started to weep. Tears poured down my cheeks in torrents as I sobbed for what seemed like forever. I experienced pain in my chest, and joints in my arms and legs, and burning sensations in my stomach. My head started to throb. I was in agony remembering those looks from my mother – terrifying and rejecting. Her anger, and what felt like hatred, of me penetrated to the core – heart and soul. 

When I was done crying and the pain began to dissipate, I left my chair, and sat limp and exhausted on the rug close to the two kittens. I picked Mimi up in my arms and buried my head in her soft fur, shedding just one or two more left over tears. I whispered into her ears, "I am so sorry, Mimi. I am so, sorry." She lay quietly purring as I realized I was apologizing to little Tamarika (my father's nickname for me) from all those years gone by, that young-me-child, who had never heard that apology until that moment. I felt released and relieved, and a peace came over me. 

From that moment I have not only looked at Mimi differently – that is, like a typical kitten who needs to play, eat, grow and develop – I have grown to love her. I was able to comfort her when she searched and pined for her brother days and weeks after he died, and for the following four months, I loved her with every fibre of my being. I thought I was healing her from my hateful glares, but, in fact, all the while I was healing myself. I took the story of that incident to my therapist, and from then on have experienced a shift in my own psychological development and awareness. Indeed, I started to allow myself to really experience my early childhood pain – so necessary for shedding ancient shame and fear in my present life and relationships. Recently, when we acquired a new kitten, who coincidentally was also named "Oscar," I was happy to see Mimi gently and kindly take him under her wing in a playful, yet nurturing way.

More importantly, though, once again I had reinforced and reconfirmed my theory that our own early, emotional memory of punishment affects our feelings and interactions with children around discipline. For while I understand cats and children are very different, I realized that if I had not allowed myself to confront the agony of remembering fear and rejection from my own mother's glare, I might not have prevented myself from hating and even perhaps, abusing a small, innocent kitten …