Taming a Wild Heart (hint: you can’t)

Just as I was beginning to accept that Dolly was gone and that I would have to stop looking for her, she appeared on the path in front of me. I was running the same route I’ve been running every day since she went missing – past the black house where she was last seen escaping a barking dog, and into the scrubby bush that overlooks the motorway and Porirua harbour. I tell the kids I’m going to do some exercise, but really, I’m searching the neighbourhood for Dolly. I wear exercise pants to make the whole thing look more legit, and I wave to the neighbours as I pass with a serious expression on my face like I’m training for Iron Māori.

But I’m not training. I’m looking for Dolly.

For a cat with a wild heart, it’s paradise. The bush is dense and full of birds slow to flight; pūkeko with fat backsides and ducks that roam in pairs. Blackbirds flit through the branches like tiny peripheral explosions against the crisp blue sky. Who would give this up? What cat in their right mind would trade their freedom for a bowl of dry biscuits?

This is what I tell myself as I run. I imagine Dolly stalking through the twisted undergrowth with sharpened claws at the ready, lioness heart beating in her chest. I write and rewrite her story afresh every day as I heave and haul my way through the scrub. The banal alternative endings won’t do. Dolly isn’t wandering aimlessly around the streets with an empty belly. She didn’t die under the wheels of a car. No. Dolly’salive. I can feel her āhua out here in the bush. The wild called her and she responded.

It was at that moment – that precise moment, that Dolly stepped out of the bush and onto the path in front of me. For a minute I thought I was mistaken. The mind plays tricks. The eyes can conjure whatever the heart wants if we concentrate hard enough – and Lord knows I’ve concentrated hard.

But this time my eyes weren’t lying. There really was a ginger cat on the path in front of me. It was skinny and scared and looking straight at me. I stopped. I stared. The cat stared back.

‘Dolly!’ I whisper-yelled. ‘Dolly!’

Legs too short, wearing a bell, not fluffy enough.

I should have known it wasn’t Dolly. Her legs were too short and she was wearing a bell. But in those brief, suspended seconds of hope all I could see was what I wanted to see: A ginger cat. Lost. A long way from home.

It wasn’t until the cat skipped over to my outstretched arms and let me pick her up that I felt all hope evaporate. It’s surprising how detailed your memory is when it comes to matters of touch. She might have looked like Dolly, but she didn’t feel like Dolly. Her fur was wrong. She was too light and too boxy. Not nearly fluffy enough. When I instinctively went to turn her over so I could cradle her, the only way that Dolly would allow herself to be held, the little ginger cat with the stubby legs protested and shot out of my arms.

Summoning the energy to keep running after you’ve found and lost your pet all over again is like trying to read a book when you already know the ending. I kicked myself for wanting to believe that Dolly would come bounding out of the bush into my arms. Never in her life had she responded to the sound of my voice, much less launched herself into my arms.

In the Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo, Peter, who is searching for his long-lost sister, declares that it is a terrible and complicated thing to hope and that it is easier to despair. This is how I felt every time I looked at the two unwrapped presents with Dolly’s name on them under the Christmas tree. Bobbie had bought them with her own money two days before Christmas with an unwavering faith that she would return. But it’s an awful thing to look at unwrapped presents under the tree day after day, just as it is an awful thing to walk past the cat food aisle in the supermarket or to notice that the cat scratches all over your daughter’s stomach (the wounds of unrequited love) are almost completely healed.

Eventually, in frustration, Cormac tore open the presents and threw them away. A heated argument ensued but as we yelled and pointed fingers it struck me that we weren’t fighting about Christmas presents torn apart but about the futility of hope. We’re all so different in how we deal with loss. Some of us need to believe in miracles, some of us want to extinguish hope entirely, and some of us, for better or worse, need to write and rewrite the ending until eventually, one rings true.

‘Better to be like Liam,’ Cormac said bitterly. ‘He never loved her in the first place so he doesn’t care she’s gone.’

And Liam, who thinks much more deeply than he lets on, said ‘That’s not true. I want Dolly to come home because it would make the people I live with happy.’

It was hard to keep arguing after that so we talked instead about the precariousness of love. About how pets are the training ground for the real thing. Where else do you learn to love the right way? Which is to say, selflessly, knowing that nothing is guaranteed and everything is temporary. You love at the expense of your own heart. Loss is inevitable; all you can hope for is a decent shot at it, a chance to make some memories and a life that doesn’t end prematurely or painfully – and even then it’s debatable; the size of the loss is commensurable with the number of years you get. Perhaps it’s better to aim for less.

Cormac said that the worst thing about losing Dolly was not knowing what happened to her. That we would always have to live with the question.

I pictured him tossing a coin with hope on one side and despair on the other.

‘She was never meant to be domesticated,’ I said, knowing that if Dolly came back right now I would lock all the doors and windows and never let her leave again. ‘You can’t tame something that’s wild at heart. You can’t make someone stay that wants to go.’

‘Can we get another cat?’ he said, ignoring me, and I laughed because it’s such an obvious and seemingly easy thing to do when a hole opens up in our lives. We fool ourselves into thinking we can plug it with something that looks and sounds the same as the thing that’s missing. Something that performs all the same tasks and possesses the same basic qualities. But the particular shape of someone we’ve loved and lost is particular for a reason.

‘You can’t replace Dolly,’ I said. ‘Why would you want to? We have to accept her loss if we’ve got any chance of getting over her.’

Even as I said it, I was thinking about the way Dolly used to follow him around the house at night when it was time to go to bed; how she’d curl up in the space between his feet and purr to the rhythm of his teenage slumber. I was thinking about the irony of losing the very thing that I’d used to try and fill a different sort of gap; a broken-family sort of gap.

It made me think of hope and despair and cats that look the same but feel different, of questions without answers and endings rewritten. It made me think about the healing of scars, and the time it takes to get over small losses, let alone big ones.

But would I do it all over again? Would I still choose Dolly?

This is the question the kids always used to ask me whenever they caught me cuddling Dolly or writing stories about her. Even though she chewed through electrical cords and attacked my wool and once shat on the bed while Nana was in it, would she still be the one I would choose?

I’d always reply in my best, detached tone of voice. ‘No, she wouldn’t.’ I’d have chosen the fat black cat with the squashed-up face or the lazy looking tabby instead.

I was lying, of course. Everyone knows I’d choose Dolly again, every time. I just hope she knows that, wherever she is.

’It was incredible that the elephant, who had arrived in the city of Baltese with so much noise, left it in such profound silence. As the elephant forgot the city of Baltese and its inhabitants, so they, too, forgot her. Her disappearance caused a stir and then was forgotten. She became to them a strange an unbelievable notion that faded with time. Soon, no one spoke of her miraculous appearance or her inexplicable disappearance; all of it seemed too impossible to have ever happened to begin with, to have ever been true. But it did happen. And some small evidence of these miraculous events remains.’

Stories about her, for one, and all the many alternative endings.