When you stop to think about it, it's odd that human beings develop such a deep bond of affection with dogs and cats. We don't have that much in common.
Ballerinas and truck drivers don't usually hang around together, nor do rocket scientists and newspaper columnists. Yet they have far more in common with each other than they do with dogs or cats.
Nonetheless, people routinely develop deeper bonds of genuine affection with their pets than they do with all but a handful of their fellow human beings. Why is that?
The question came up last week when I lost the best cat I ever knew and felt the pain of his parting as keenly as I would a human friend. And that's odd. Though we both had hair on our faces and both enjoyed sleeping on the couch, we did not have a great deal in common. We aren't even the same kind of mammal. How could such a friendship ever bloom?
After all, in human relationships, we tend to pal around with people with whom we have something in common people about as smart as we are, people who like the same hobbies we like, people who enjoy the same jokes we do people who like us most of all because we are so much like them. There is a lot of self-flattery in our choice of human friends.
But look at my rather typical relationship with a cat: A cat has an I.Q. of about 3 and mine is at least 10 points higher.
A cat eats raw birds and mice and I refuse.
A cat is a squat little hairy thing that walks around outside in all kinds of weather on its hands and feet. It drinks out of a toilet. And it breeds in the bushes. No matter what you may have heard, I have done none of that.
So at first glance, a cat isn't the sort of person you would expect to become friends with, let alone develop a bond of affection that can be broken only with pain.
Nonetheless, if you see a man and his cat a cat and his man strolling across a yard together, you can plainly see the bond between them in their body language. You can see by the way the cat runs toward the man when he comes home and from how glad the man is to see his pal that these two widely diverse creatures are friends in the full sense of that word, not just in some master-pet arrangement.
And when the cat dies in one of these cross-species friendships, the grief is sharp and deep so much so that, when my old pal Sterling died last week, I was filled with wonder at my own reaction. How could something so different take so big a bite out of my feelings with him when he went?
Part of it is that anything familiar that works out well is hard to part with, whether that is a car, a comfy old hat or your left arm.
But a hat doesn't rub up against you. It doesn't come running when you come home. It doesn't lie on the couch with you and help you watch football.
And it doesn't talk to you. Sterling talked to me. I guess that's strange because I read a cat book one time that warned people against the talking of Siamese cats. It said they meow too much.
And they do. If you say a word to them, they will meow back each time you do it. The cat hears you make an unintelligible sound and it makes an unintelligible sound back. It's a conversation with a cat and it always made me laugh.
I don't know what we talked about because he couldn't understand me and I couldn't understand him. But we talked daily without anything to say to each other at all. Strong relationships are like that. The talking matters more than what you say.
And it doesn't really matter much that you are different. Companionship doesn't require similarities. Affection doesn't require a lot in common, if it is generously given and honestly returned. Differences can be more charming than alarming if you open up your heart.
And so I now sit here with the pangs of his passing still fresh and I wonder, if that hairy little runt and I could get along together so well, then why can't the Irish and the English? Why can't the Jews and the Arabs? Why can't black people and white people? We humans are the same species. It should be such an easy reach toward each other by comparison with Sterling and me.
I wonder about such things as I walk through the yard these mornings, feeling the weight of his sudden silence. I never understood a word Sterling meowed to me but that's what his friendship said.
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