Risking for Love

Animals are wonderful teachers of love. We have a wonderful elderly cat named Sam who is a beautiful example of overcoming fear in order to be loved.  He is very large, almost 20 pounds, and is mostly a Maine Coon with tabby-like dark gray markings. We got Sam from the animal shelter 16 years ago. He was 3 months at the time and was terrified of our dogs. At that time we also had 5 other cats. Sam immediately bonded with the cats but for the next 14 years remained afraid of our golden retriever dogs. He would not enter a room if a dog was there. If he was outside and saw a dog he would run as fast as his large frame would allow. Of course no dog can always resist a fleeing cat, and so sometimes he would be chased in fun by the dogs. For the most part though the dogs ignored Sam, but for his part he always practiced caution around the dogs, never allowing himself to come closer than 20 feet.

Over the years four of the cats died. That left just Sam and Ben, who were inseparable. They ate together, slept together, walked together and even drank their water together. When Ben began to decline two years ago, Sam did not leave his side until the moment he actually died. Now Sam was alone and his grief was big. I sensed that he would not accept a new cat and hoped that our love would be enough for him. Even though we held him a lot and fussed over him, I could tell that he was still very lonely, wanting a companionship that we humans could not give him.

We have a dog named Lucy who loves attention wherever and whenever she can receive it. After Ben’s death we noticed how Sam would edge closer and closer to Lucy. At first it was just being on the same deck at the same time. Lucy would sleep and Sam would sit far away just observing her. This went on for months with Sam moving perhaps an inch closer each day. One day I was sitting outside when I saw Sam come and sit right by Lucy’s head. Lucy must have sensed that this was a big step for him, for she lay very still with her eyes open and did not move in anyway. Slowly and with great caution Sam reached down and began licking Lucy’s head. Lucy’s tail softly thumped on the deck, but she otherwise remained still. After he licked her face he rubbed his head against hers and then walked over and lay down beside her and began to purr. This was the beginning of a special love relationship between Sam and Lucy. It is now quite usual to see Sam even lying on top of Lucy. He even puts up with Lucy’s awkward slobbering tongue, a deep insult to most felines. Sam could have let his fear of dogs continue to dominate his life. But day by day he worked to overcome these fears so that he could receive what he most needed, the giving and receiving of love from an animal friend.

How about you? Do you sincerely want to get close to someone but are afraid because they are so different, might reject you, seem more worthy than you, or any of the many reasons why we don’t push past our fears to get close to someone.

When I was 18 years old I traveled for the first time to meet Barry’s parents. Barry and I had been together for less than a year, but already our love and connection was very deep. In my youth and naivety I assumed his parents would be just like Barry, a great listener, thoughtful and deep in his conversations. When I met Barry’s New York City Jewish family I felt as though I had stepped onto a foreign planet. Everyone was talking at the same time. For a family member to be heard by another they simply yelled louder than the others. This volume increased steadily to a deafening racket until Barry’s dad would yell louder than the others and tell everyone to be quiet. Soon the cycle repeated itself all over again. Barry sat quietly, oblivious to what was going on.

The hardest part for me was that no one was listening to anyone else. Throughout the meal times with Barry’s family I sat totally quiet, not daring to speak. I had come from a family in which only one person spoke at a time and the rest listened. Even when we had large family gatherings of my Swedish relatives, no one interrupted and everyone listened to the others, even if they disagreed.

For several years, whenever I would visit I was afraid to speak. But slowly, just like Sam, I edged closer to Barry’s parents. My need to love and be loved by them grew stronger than my fear. In the beginning I would cautiously say a word or two. But then I realized that no one was listening to me anyway and so I became bolder and spoke whole sentences. I even experimented with raising my voice to be heard, or confronting them if I felt unheard. I bravely found my way with them and have grown to have a very loving relationship with Barry’s only living parent, his mother.

I could have allowed my fears to keep me from developing a relationship with Barry’s parents. I certainly had my reasons. But in overcoming these fears I am the one who received the most, for they had so much love to give to me. It just looked different from what I was used to.

As I finish writing this I glance out the window and see Sam cuddled up close to Lucy with the other two dogs nearby. A look of pure contentment is upon his face. When he notices me he looks up and gives me his “Sam smile” as if to say, “Tell them it’s worth it to push past your fears of being hurt. There is a great blessing of love on the other side.”

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