In 1989 I bought my first house, where I lived with my first wife. This was also the year and time that we purchased our first cat. Her name was Sheba. She was a beautiful feline known as an ‘Abyssinian’. Genetic research suggests the breed originated in Egypt.
Whenever I opened a can of tuna for my lunch the cat would smell it no matter how far away she might be, or how deep in slumber, and she would invariably come running. I would lovingly drain the liquid from the can and reward her hunger with a small bowl of what I called. “Tuna Juice”.
This became a sort of ritual for us over the years, and just shouting out the words “Tuna Juice” was enough to entice Sheba to dash to the kitchen. My wife loved this cat and for a long time I believed that I was offering our pet a nutritious if not delicious snack. A decade hurried past us in the blink of an eye until the day my wife was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer. A few years after that cancer took her from us and suddenly our little family was comprised of just two. Sheba and me.
For many months I was in a darkened world. I drove the cat to my Mother’s home and with hardly a goodbye to this loving animal that had been a large part of my life, I left her there. In the meantime I wandered about in my fog, unsure of what the future held. The cat had inadvertently become the symbol of my pain and all that had been taken from me.
My memory of this time has faded considerably, but I recall the day a friend asked me about my cat. I remarked that I had been pulled away not only from human contact and interaction by the death of my spouse, but that I had neglected Sheba as well. I mentioned my cat’s love of “Tuna Juice”. My friend was horrified not only that I did not share any of the actual fish, but that I had essentially poisoned my pet with salty water that hadn’t the slightest nutritional content.
I realized that what I thought had been a kind and loving moment, was actually an act of selfishness. I had greedily consumed the fish, leaving what would normally have gone down the drain for my cat to dispose of.
This may seem inconsequential and harmless, but to me this revelation was indicative of a much larger issue that was showing up in my life; the realization that I was capable of doing harm while actually believing I was spreading love. Where else was this affecting my life, I wondered?
The truth is, I found it everywhere. The very act of wandering aimlessly, lost in my grief and rejecting the goodness of people and friendships that were pounding at my locked heart was only adding to the pain that the death of my spouse had created in my world.
“Tuna Juice” had become the personification of my own life and the watered-down essence of the joylessness that I was experiencing.
Losing a friend to cancer is one of the hardest human encounters we can endure and something we cannot change. But losing oneself to life is curable.
I had allowed my view of humanity to fade away, replaced by the despair and suffocation of being abandoned. And worse yet, I had given my cat exactly what life had given me.
Isolation. Loneliness. Rejection.
Sheba died too, just a few years later. I would see her from time to time whenever I visited my mother, but I was never able to take her back, to give her the petting and the love and the real fish that she so richly deserved.
Cancer has a way of draining us, not so very unlike that can of Tuna. And love, it seems to me, can work that way too. We can hold back the real deal, while sharing our diluted version and believing we are doing good in the world.
Today I am remarried, happy and grateful for the lessons I see all around me. We don’t have a cat at the moment, but plan on finding one soon. And now I too am living as a cancer survivor. It’s funny how life lessons keep reappearing for us over and over. Sort of like those nine lives of a cat.
What have I learned from a cat, a can of tuna and cancer?
Don’t dilute the love you have. Don’t reject the love you’re offered. And share freely that which you value most.