Where Did I Go Wrong? – 13: Furry Felines of Furious Fortitude

I’m going to let you in on a secret. Likely after this secret you’ll think less of me, but bear in mind I didn’t have to share this secret with you.

I’m scared of cats.

No, not like cougars and lions. House cats, the ones we pretend to have domesticated. Now, I don’t hate them, but I suffer a literally paralyzing fear of them.

This is the only fear that I have. High spaces, cramped quarters, death, public speaking, these things bother me not at all. Only cats. It is a completely irrational fear, I’m aware. It’s irrational for several reasons.

First, I’m pretty sure I could take a cat in a fight. In fact, I would dare say that I could take MANY cats in a fair fight, even more if I was allowed a baseball bat. So why should I fear that which I can overcome with relative ease?

Second, if somehow the cats got the drop on me and managed to kill me, that’s fine. Now, I’m not suicidal, or even depressed, I just suffer no fear of death. All of us are going to die sooner or later. Some of us may live to a ripe old age and pass away in a hospital with machines violating all of our orifices. Others might die peacefully in their sleep (like my uncle). Still others may die screaming in a horrible car wreck (like the passengers in my uncle’s car). The fact remains, none of us are getting out of this alive, and we may as well enjoy it. That said, why should I be scared of anything if I’m not scared of the termination of my life?

As a brief aside, I did not have an uncle who fell asleep while driving a car, thus dooming him and his passengers to death. I didn’t even come up with the joke in the first place. I apologize for misleading you and promise not to do it again.

Third, I don’t fear the big cats (the aforementioned cougars and lions as examples). Now if you locked me in a cage with one, I’d be a little apprehensive perhaps, cautious even, but ultimately I’d prefer it to being in a room with a house cat.

Lastly, I am not scared of kittens. Seriously, itty bitty kittens are adorable. How can you not love them and want to play with them? Now please someone explain to me how my brain decides not to be scared of something until it reaches a certain age, and then it’s terrifying?

I don’t care if your cat weighs 500 pounds and is essentially a sofa that never moves. I don’t care if it’s the sweetest, gentlest cat in the world. I don’t care if “he’s like a dog really”. If it’s a cat, I fear it deeply. I sometimes have nightmares about a demon cat trying to kill me. I never have anything but pillows to hold it off with. I never win the fight, I just keep trying to hold it off until I wake up.

I can’t even say for sure how this fear began. My best guess is when I was attacked by my babysitter’s cat at a very young age. He was supposedly the nicest and sweetest cat in the neighborhood, until I went to pet him. Now I swear to you, I did nothing but attempt to pet the cat. I wasn’t trying to hit it, taunt it, abuse it, frighten it, molest it, or rape it. I went to pet the cat, and was clawed. Even today I can see the scar (although it’s so faint I don’t show it to anyone out of embarrassment).

Another source might have been the movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I watched it several times as a kid, and just rewatched it as an adult. The cat in that movie is terrifying. I think it’s actually the cat that features in my nightmares.

Anyway, this unique fear has caused me to be the subject of scorn and derision on many occasions, as well as putting me in some sticky situations. What follows are a collect of cat stories.

My grandfather had a cat. Nobody liked this cat, but nobody liked my grandfather either, so it worked out pretty well for them. When I would stay at my grandfather’s house I would usually sleep on a couch (until my mid 20’s, when I argued for a right to sleep in one of the 5 bedrooms). The first night I slept there after he got the cat was one that will live with me forever.

I’m suddenly woken up from my slumber to find the cat laying on my chest staring at me. I can not move. I can’t cry out to my sister on the next couch over to help me. I can’t roll over to dislodge the cat. I can not move. As I stare at the cat he very slowly and purposefully closes his eyes and goes to sleep. I spend the next 7 hours staring at the cat. After that night my sister often would help me trap the cat in an empty bedroom before we went to sleep. We made sure it had a nice comfy bed, and we always let it out in the morning.

I’ve NEVER let my fear of cats lead to abusing cats. I have nothing but contempt for anyone who would abuse an animal, especially domesticated ones that have been taught to trust and relay on us. What kind of person can honestly violate that kind of trust?

My friends have always known of my fear, it’s impossible to hide. One day I was invited over to a friend’s apartment. She realized I was terrified of cats, and she had what seemed to be dozens of them. Commando style she herded the cats to one side of the apartment while escorting me into her room. This is when the problem struck. The doors on either side of her bedroom had been modified so as to allow the cats easy passage from one room to another. These weren’t cat-flaps, these were just big squares cut out of the doors. She quickly blocked the squares with plastic tubs. This alerted the cats that something was going down. Suddenly from both sides countless hordes of cats began pawing at the plastic tubs. Plastic SEE-THROUGH tubs. I could WATCH the cats trying to get to me. It was worse than any scene from Aliens, and quite honestly worse than any demon-cat nightmare I’ve ever had. I honestly don’t remember how I got out of that apartment, I think I may have passed out.

My biggest problem with this fear is the paralyzing factor. When I see a cat, especially if I’m not expecting to see one, every muscle in my body freezes, and I can NOT unfreeze them. The best example is when I left my apartment to go to work one day. I locked the door behind me, turned around, and there was a cat on the other side of the hallway. It stared at me, making it very clear it had no intention of moving. I stood there for 30 minutes. At any point I could have reached my hand back about two inches to knock on my apartment door. Daniel would have answered and rescued me. two inches was way too far for frozen muscles. After 30 minutes Daniel did emerge however, as he had work as well. Upon opening the door and seeing me still standing practically in the door frame, he asked “Where’s the cat?” Once he realized I couldn’t respond, the lifted me up and moved me out of the way so that he could shoo off the cat. He was my personal hero that day.

One last story, and of a different sort. A homeless cat had taken up residence in our apartment complex. Daniel and his friend David named is Sirius (they were both astronomers, and thought themselves quite clever naming a cat after the “dog-star”.) Even I would on occasion leave out food for Sirius, but I’d never go near him. One day when I was going to the gas station Sirius quickly rushed in through my open door and curled up by my back window. I was flabbergasted. Part of me just wanted to lock up the car and run away, possibly to another country. I couldn’t do that though, I didn’t want to be responsible for the cat’s death, nor be without my car until it did pass on. I tried to shoo the cat out of my car, but it was very happy where it was. Finally I performed the bravest act of my life. I got in my car. I think I drove about 10 miles per hour to the gas station, watching the cat in my rear view mirror the entire time. Sirius never stirred. Finally when I got back home, he got out. I decided at that point that I had a pet cat. A pet cat that terrified me, and probably secretly wanted me dead.

Later that winter we had a particularly bad cold snap. The temperature got down to the single digits. I told Daniel that we simple could NOT leave Sirius out in that weather. Daniel was a cat lover, but still wasn’t entirely sure about my plan. We had no litter box, and pets were against the apartment code. I finally persuaded him to line the bathroom with newspapers and put the cat in there for the night. True, he’d be locked in a small room all night, but it was going to be better than sleeping in the freezing cold. What happened when I needed to go to the bathroom that night? I didn’t, I held it, like a man, a very very scared little man.

I’ve been working very hard on my fear over the past several years. I’ve even progressed some. If I know there’s going to be a cat, I can move around it….unless it gets close enough to touch me. Even an unexpected cat doesn’t cause me to lock up for more than a few minutes anymore.

I think ultimately there is probably a simple way to cure this fear. Since I don’t fear kittens, all I need to do is raise a cat from a kitten. Seriously, after caring for a living creature for a year or so, I doubt I’ll wake up one day terrified of the thing.

I may even do that someday, but for now I’m sticking with my dog.

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Where Did I Go Wrong? – 12: Funeral for a Friend

This story will probably not be terribly amusing, nor is it likely to be all that entertaining. This story must be told because of the stories that preceded it. Over the course of reading these stories we’ve bonded, you and I. Although we may never have met, if you’re this far along in the book, we’re friends. Since we’re friends, I think it’s important to tell you about a mutual friend of ours.

Daniel, who has featured in many stories, and in many ways was the brother I never had, died in July of 2008, he was 27. His death was sudden and a shock to everyone, although it probably shouldn’t have been.

Daniel suffered from diabetes since birth. It was a very severe case, where he had to not only watch his diet, but regularly use medicine to keep his body functioning correctly. It was complications of this diabetes that led to his death, but I’m skipping ahead.

Daniel was my roommate through almost all of college. Even when I briefly moved back in with my parents, I still slept on his couch more often than my own bed. He was always there for me, even when nobody in their sane mind would have been. My battle cry for the longest time was “DANIEL!” to which he would always come running.

Not that I want to paint Daniel as a saintly figure, he wasn’t. Some people would frequently accuse him of being a jerk, which he could take a great amount of joy in being. The last several years of his life he was described by some (myself included) as that old man sitting on his porch yelling at kids to stay off his lawn. He hated talking on the phone, was known to yell at people for cooking steak the wrong way, and was a complete and utter slob.

He was also one of the most loyal friends I’ve ever known.

Daniel was a graduate student in the astronomy department, and he loved teaching. He was a devastatingly bright young man, and that’s part of what made his death so baffling.

In the course of my time living with him, I noticed a pattern. About every 18 months or so, he’d get frustrated with his diabetes. He’d seemingly declare that he would no longer be a slave to his disease. He would eat what he wanted, when he wanted, and would take his medicine irregularly. Every time he did this the result was the same, he ended up in the hospital.

There was one week where I didn’t hear from him at all. Him disappearing over a weekend wasn’t unusual, but when Wednesday came around and he was still gone…that wasn’t normal. His phone was turned off, so on a whim I went to the nearby hospital and asked if he was there. I was promptly directed to his room. As soon as I walked in he said “Oh good, I was about to call you, they just discharged me.” I began yelling at him. Not only had he done this before, but he didn’t even call to tell me where he was. He claimed his cell phone was low on power, and he wanted to save the power for when he was discharged. I yelled at him some more, and he admitted that no, he had failed to think to ask his ROOMMATE to just BRING HIS CHARGER to the hospital.

Daniel was the stupidest smart person I knew. Every time he got out of the hospital, he’d always swear he’d learned his lesson, and then time would prove that he hadn’t. Living with Daniel was occasionally frustrating, and when I finally moved out of his place, I needed some space. I barely saw him the next year.

Finally realizing I missed my friend, I called him up to ask him if he wanted to be in another short film of mine (he’d previously starred in several), he was reluctant, but I badgered him into it. He didn’t sound well, and he told me he was feeling sick. I told him to take care of himself and got off the phone. He died two days later, and I was the last person to talk to him.

I got a call that night from some friends while I was at work. They hadn’t heard from Daniel in a while, and were worried. They had finally convinced the police to break open the door, and he was dead. To this day I still wish more than anything that call was a cruel practical joke.

The biggest problem was that nobody knew where his mother lived. The people who found him gave the wrong last name (she’d been remarried) and wrong city. I knew how to get to her house, but not her number or the actual address. So at 1am I packed my friends up in my vehicle and drove them out to Daniel’s mother’s house, so we could wake her up and tell her that her son was dead. I hope that this night will always stand out as the worst night of my life, because I doubt I could deal with something much worse.

The only part of this story that remains to be told is the funeral itself. Daniel’s mother called me the night before the service to ask me to speak. I had hoped to speak, but finding out the night before? No pressure. Not that I actually bear any kind of grudge, the woman had been through a horrific ordeal, my prep time for a speech was not going to be top of her priority list.

The funeral was PACKED. The entire funeral home was standing room only, from the room itself all the way to the entryway. The physics department of our university rented a bus to ship down students and faculty. People from The Rocky Horror Picture Show arrived in full costume (per Daniel’s mother’s request). As I said when I started my eulogy, when you pack the funeral home to capacity, you won at life.

I don’t care what you think of the afterlife, I really feel like Daniel was with us all that day. First, the funeral director kept calling Daniel by the wrong name. He kept referring to him as David, which was the name of his brother, and also the name of another friend of his who spoke. After getting the name wrong a couple times Leah (who was the leader of Rocky, and basically a Den Mother to us all) stood up and declared “His name is Daniel jackass!” I like to think that Daniel was speaking through her at that moment, except she’s always like that.

The funeral director went on to say all sorts of things about Daniel that proved to us they’d never met; we slowly began to get angry. Our anger quickly turned to sadness when they played the bagpipe version of Amazing Grace, and everyone began crying. I was standing in the back with all my friends when a thought shot through me like a bolt of lightning. I said aloud to those around me “You know, if Daniel’s watching us right now, he’s thinking ‘bunch of pussies’”. That broke the tension, and a wave of laughter spread through the mosh pit. Daniel’s mother turned around to see me in the middle of a giant circle of laughter, and smiled. She absolutely got it.

Now my whole life I’ve used humour as a defense mechanism against life. Whenever things got too much, I would just start laughing. My philosophy has always been that in moments of extreme stress/sorrow/pain/whatever you really only have two options, laugh or cry. I pick laugh every time, it’s not like any of us are getting out of life alive, might as well have a couple chuckles along the way.

This event hit me harder than anything I’d ever encountered. In some ways I doubt I’ll ever fully get over it, but I’ve learned to move on as best I can. When he died there were only two jokes I was capable of making, as distressed as I was. I made them frequently, and to anyone who would listen, and I’ll share them with you now in an attempt to bring something a little uplifting to this whole depressing episode.

The first pertains to the fact that he was reluctant to be in another film of mine. My joke was that he really could have just said no, instead of taking the hard way out.

The second joke had to do with the fact that the funeral home was across the parking lot from a hospital. I postulated that it probably saw a lot of business, since the first rule of business is location, location, location.

I realize they weren’t funny jokes, but it was the first time in my life I didn’t really have anything funny to say.

I suppose if there’s going to be any point to this story at all, beyond simply sharing my grief, it’s the following. Had I known he was going to die, I never would have spent that year away from him. But that’s the point; we never know when something like this could happen. That means it’s extremely important to make sure that the people around us know how we really feel about them. You never know when you’re going to run out of time, you should tell your friends and family NOW how much you love them.

Go ahead, I’ll be here when you get back, I promise.

R.I.P. Daniel, your axe-wielding, underwear-clad antics have touched us all.

R.I.P. Daniel, your axe-wielding, underwear-clad antics have touched us all.