Saying Goodbye to Seeku

PHOTO: NANCY WALTON

And then there was one.

 Until a few weeks ago, we had been a two-cat family for years. Walter, our newest addition, was a two-year-old rescue, fun-loving and goofy and uber-friendly. We added him to the family and quickly couldn’t remember when he wasn’t around. Seeku, our old cat, was about thirteen when Walter joined us.

About two weeks ago, at age sixteen, we took Seeku to the vet to have him put to sleep. He was suffering from cancer, and it was the kindest thing to do for a dignified old man who no longer had even a passable quality of life. But we worried about how to talk to Georgia about it.

Seeku was, as Chris pointed out, Georgia’s oldest friend. It hadn’t hit me until the prospect of the vet trip loomed – Georgia had never known life without Seeku. I actually acquired Seeku before I had Georgia, and lived with him sleeping on my stomach and chest at night for a year or two before I became pregnant; that large lumpy thing in my abdomen meant that Seeku lost his sleeping place. He moved four houses with me, has bonded with multiple house-sitters, has drooled on many a dedicated cat-petter and has hunted his share of Toronto birds and rodents.

Like many cats, he loved to be out at night. Leaving him in would result in despondent howling and worries about being accused of animal cruelty. So I would let him out, and every morning he’d be at the back door, some days proudly sitting with a mouse or a sparrow at his paws as a gift. In one house we lived in, just east of downtown, there was a local chipmunk that everyone in the neighbourhood adored. Neighbours fed him seeds and nuts, and we’d all be slightly competitive about whose backyard ‘the chippy’ visited more. When the chipmunk would come around, we would hurry Seeku into the house, and he’d watch from the living room with eyes like slits, and what we know now was a slowly-forming evil plan.

One lovely summer morning, as I sleepily opened the sliding door to let the hunter in, I noticed in passing that he seemed a bit more fluffed up and proud than usual. Looking down, I saw with horror that the night’s victim was …yes, beloved chippy. I let out a little scream and nearly dropped my coffee. Recognizing that the chipmunk was beyond saving, I gave him a proper if rushed good-bye.

I then had to smile somewhat stiffly and shrug guiltily every time a concerned neighbour asked, “Oh, have you seen old chippy? Where could he be? I’ve got some nice seeds for him!” As if summoned, Seeku would then swagger by with what I think was a triumphant cat smile on his face, and a self-satisfied swoosh of his tail.

Despite this bloodthirsty tale Seeku was, in a word, great. He was a cat with a big but reserved personality, who spent his days exploring the neighborhood and hunting and nights curled up on the bed. When he’d crawl up to sleep on my chest like a sphinx, I’d feel his paws kneading softly into my collarbones. We were like roommates, checking in once in a while to see how the other was doing, but with respect for each other’s space. Then along came Georgia.

Most cats see Georgia as a bit of a mini King Kong with grabby huge hands, lots of loud energy and absolutely no sense of ‘gentle touch’. Being faster than she is, cats can typically escape, and Georgia doesn’t mind that they run. But Seeku never did. When she was a toddler, she was very slow to toddle around and easy to escape, but he never ran away. He never seemed to be angry with her as she groped him, opened and closed his eyes for him, examined his teeth for plaque, scratched him two or three inches away from where he wanted to be scratched, or forced a hair-covered cat treat into his mouth.

He would occasionally crawl into a random cardboard box as cats are wont to do, and Georgia would join him if the box was big enough. He’d make room and create a photo op. But he never ran away.

Once when she was a baby, Seeku scratched her. He was sleeping with his head hanging over the side of the couch and she approached with stealth. Okay, not exactly stealth – more like a giggling screaming excited hyena – but he was a very heavy sleeper. Before I could cross the room she had pulled on a precious whisker and woke him from a deep sleep; out of reflex he reached out and scratched her face. Now imagine the same giggling screaming excited hyena, but substitute ‘giggly’ and ‘excited’ with ‘horrified’ and ‘hurt.’ For days, she shied away from him.

But soon enough they were cuddled up together again on the couch, with Georgia babbling through her life story while he listened.

Seeku on Georgia's lap

This was their life together. Georgia told Seeku many a secret, and let him know of her triumphs and disappointments. Each afternoon when she came through the front door she called out, with great joy, “Hey Seeku, I’m home from school!” She wouldn’t care that he rarely, if ever, raised his head to acknowledge her. They sat beside each other watching TV without a word or movement between them – just both being themselves, together. He just accepted her as she is, and I suspect she’s never realized how special he really was for that.

When we talked to Georgia about the fact that Seeku was dying from cancer and was going to be home for a while, but very sick, we weren’t sure how she’d take it. She is lucky enough to not have had to have death explained to her very much before that. The abstract notion of what death really means is hard for someone who lives very much in the moment to understand. Or so we thought.

One suggestion that she already knew something about death without us talking to her about it suggested that she’s  picked up the odd thing from her occasional visits to Sunday school with Grandpa and Grandma.  A while ago, my hair dryer broke. We realized it was broken as she was standing at the sink, wrapped in a towel post-bath, waiting for her lovely long hair to be dried. We explained to her that the blow dryer was broken.

“It’s dead? The blow dryer’s dead?”

“Yes, Georgia, the blow dryer’s dead.”

“Oh well. It’s gone to see Jesus.”

We were astounded. I mean, it was a very good blow dryer. But still.

We realized that, in terms of being uber-good parents who prepare their kids for a talk about death, we were total and complete failures. Two reasons.

First, she knows about things dying, but only in the context of inanimate objects, as we use that expression freely in an unthinkingly casual manner: Electronics that lose their charge – “The iPad died! Charge it up!” – or things that break – “Hey, the vacuum died! Better get a new one.” Not the ideal messages to give your kid about death: Once something dies, you either charge it up again or get a new one.

Second, as most of her experiences with death have been animals she knew, someone said to her that the dogs and cats and horses (Shamus, the old Walter, Charlie, Boz, Lucy the horse) she has known who have died have Gone To The Happy Hunting Grounds. Yes, you know the place. It is not easily explained but has roots to the Lakota indigenous peoples in the Great Plains. I’ve looked the phrase up a few times and it relates to the afterlife being a great green paradise where hunting and game are limitless.

In terms of Seeku, our great hunter, it was easy to make the case to Georgia that once he was gone, he was on a great plain somewhere chasing mice in the sunshine. But we worried that it was just a bit too easy and that one day, we’d have to explain that a person that she loved was there.

Then we’d have to explain that there was no visiting and that they’d never come back, and all these things would make the Happy Hunting Ground suddenly a much darker place.

seeku

So we took a deep breath, fearing the worst and opted for the straightforward approach, explaining to her that Seeku was sick and that he was dying.

 “He’ll feel better tomorrow?”

“No, Georgia, he won’t feel better. He’s very sick and he’s going to die.”

“We’ll be sad?”

“Yes, we’ll be sad.”

“Oh poor old Seeku.”

“Yes, poor old guy.”

“He’ll go to the happy hunting ground?”

We looked at each other, worried. “Well, yes, he will.”

“With Shamus and the old Walter and Charlie and Boz and Lucy?”

“Yes, with Shamus and the old Walter and Charlie and Boz and Lucy.”

“He’ll go in the blue car?”

We look at each other, confounded. “Wellll, yes. We’ll take him in the car to someone who knows the way there.”

“Okay.”

And off she went to play.

We looked at each other, this time in complete surprise.

At the end of the day we realized that Georgia, in her own way, has made some pretty complicated connections between a whole bunch of belief systems and experiences and random sayings, and she’s far better prepared than we are to deal with death.

And of course, she still has Walter. She’s been coming home after school the last few weeks, bursting through the front door and yelling out with joy, “Hey Walter, I’m home from school!”

The Reason We Translate

So I wrote and rewrote a whole column for this week. And then I scrapped it.

Around midnight, what it was that I really wanted to write about came to me. I got into bed and noticed the book The Reason I Jump beside the bed. I’ve read this book, have given it to others and recommended it to many. Like many people who have reviewed the book online, I found it beautiful, interesting and fascinating to read.

But unlike many of those same reviewers, I didn’t find it particularly helpful.

It didn’t help me understand the reason Georgia barks, repeats the same questions for years or needs help in the very specific ways that she does. Many web reviewers talk about how helpful the book is, in the same way one might talk about a guidebook for a foreign city or a legend on a particularly complex map.

But I simply was unable to take the things I learned about Naoki Higashida and apply them to Georgia. A few things struck me as I read the book, but they were more like a familiar scent twigging a vague memory than a concrete comparison to Georgia’s behaviours.

For anyone who hasn’t yet read the book, it is a translation of the thoughts of a then-nonverbal middle school boy with severe autism. Nagoki Higashida spelled them out, literally and painstakingly through the use of an alphabet grid, in order to answer the questions people most frequently had about his behaviours. Higashida’s ideas are translated by KA Yoshida, who’s married to David Mitchell,  the author of Cloud Atlas and the foreword to The Reason I Jump.

Many people have referred to the book as an ‘opening up’ or ‘accessing’ of autism, and while that’s great in spirit, I worry about that claim for two reasons. First, it dilutes the pure value of the narrative in the book. The prose is beautiful, sad and challenging. To say that it fulfills some kind of generic purpose – to help the rest of us ‘understand’ autism – is really giving it far less value than the text deserves. Second, it assumes that all one needs is a kind of guidebook for autism and voilà, all those people with autism are all figured out.

The reason I translate: a photograph of Georgia, the mystery girl

I suspect that a travel guide for Italy won’t help you in the mountains of Nepal just as one account of autism can’t possibly help you understand ‘what it’s like’ to have autism. One single guidebook for autism will only ever give you insight into one single person’s experience.

When Georgia was smaller, she was not what you’d call ‘purposefully verbal.’ In other words, she said a lot of stuff but it wasn’t tied to a purpose, like getting what she wanted or communicating something in a determined way. She’d be outside on a beautiful day and look around at the trees and say, “Bells.” She would enter a room, look at the ceiling and say, “Stove”.

I spent hours and days, scratching my head and trying to figure her out. Bells, bells, bells. Stove, stove, stove. I’d rack my brain trying to think what it might mean. I’d ask her simple questions, show her pictures of stoves, take her into the kitchen and talk about cooking and heat and appliances.

She was, for many years, a true mystery to me. For two or three years she spent her days being a ‘mellow’ baby, but would sometimes wake up at night, screaming and inconsolable. I’d be awake with her for hours, doing everything I could think of, to calm the child who could not be soothed. She wasn’t sick or hungry or feverish. She didn’t seem scared or upset. But she cried and cried.

Over time, I labeled this behaviour. I decided that it must be frustration. I concluded that she was incredibly frustrated with not being able to communicate in order to get what she needed during the day, and the result was a build-up of frustration that came out in the middle of the night. So the next time she woke up screaming and crying, I reacted to what I was calling her frustration.

The label didn’t necessarily help me to stop her crying but it did help me to cope with the crying. I didn’t lose my patience as easily. I could find that place inside myself that was calm, even in the midst of my own fatigue and exasperation. It helped me to put a label that I could understand onto behaviours that I could not, for the life of me, figure out or make better in any appreciable way.

When she was older, she was enrolled for a few years in a wonderful private school for kids with autism and developmental disorders. The founder of the school, Simone, talked to me about the dangers of translating Georgia’s behaviours in order to make them understandable to me.

When she first talked to me about this, I remember feeling immediately defensive. While I may have appeared to be focused on what she was saying, I was doing that whole “uh huh…” thing inside my head. It was one of those moments (we’ve all had them) when you’re listening to someone whom you know, deep down, is 100% right, but you need to get all your inner talk done before you can really listen. That inner talk is the stuff you’ve been telling yourself for so long, and that you know isn’t correct – but, dammit, it makes you feel better to tell it to yourself. So there.

My inner talk was telling me that she was wrong and that I wasn’t translating Georgia’s behaviours into something else – I was ‘understanding’ Georgia! And I was the one who knew Georgia best. Even though I couldn’t ask Georgia to tell me what she was thinking, I knew her. I knew what she was feeling and I knew it best. There wasn’t anything but an accurate reflection of what she really felt. Uh huh. Cue eye roll at self.

At the time, Simone and I were talking about how Georgia would repeat the same question to me, over and over. I found this most difficult in the car, with just her eyes and baseball cap visible to me in the rear view mirror, repeating the same question. No form of distraction would work, nor could any radio station stop the questioning. Driving home after a long, tiring day of work, I would listen to the questioning begin and continue all the way home. If we were going somewhere different, the volume and speed of repetition would increase. It was a test of my patience.

I decided that this was anxiety. Anxiety about something: the trip, the car ride, the destination. When I talked to Simone, she gently warned me against labelling this as something with a specific quality or emotion. She suggested I just think about the questions as information, as Georgia’s attempt to engage in meaningful conversation. It was just information. The interaction was just conversation.

These were still labels on the behaviour, yes, but without the attempt to fit them into a construct I called anxiety orfrustration.

This was one of the most valuable but most difficult things to hear — and process, and try to remember. Rather than labelling her demand for an hour-by-hour schedule as agitation or worry, I need to remember that this was not something that necessarily required translation.

But the desire to translate Georgia’s behaviours into something comprehensible is still there. Her ever-improving communication skills mean that translations are less often necessary. “I’m sooooo mad!” and “I hate this too much!” are easy-to-understand statements, especially when accompanied by teenage posture and attitude. I’m thrilled she’s found a crystal clear way to voice her feelings and needs — even when it’s not what I want to hear. But she remains a complete enigma to me at times, and some days I’d love a guidebook to shepherd me through the mystery that is Georgia.

Sometimes the mystery that is Georgia is simply delightful.

I know now that when she used to look up into the trees and say “bells,” she was looking for wind chimes. I know now how much she loves that sound, and that she can spot the tiniest dollar store glass wind chimes hanging on a stranger’s porch as we drive. She points them out and smiles.

The reason I translate: the bells that Georgia was talking about, shell wind chime in the back yard

We have a backyard filled with wind chimes of all types: bamboo, shells, wood, and aluminum, chimes with spinning birds and tiny crystals, with wind gongs and eclectic shapes. On a warm summer afternoon, you’ll find her sitting on the swing, books spread around her, digging her toes into the grass to make the swing go and listening to the collection of wind chimes sounding softly in the warm breeze.

When we go outside for a walk, she’ll still look up into the trees or on a porch and say wistfully, “bells.” I know that she’s heard a tiny sound somewhere close by. When we both spot them, we smile at each other with something I’m pretty sure is just like understanding.