When I was five years old, mom bought me a kitten. I will never forget the day she pulled him out of her pocket, all 1.5 pounds of him nestled in her palm. I was completely in love in no time at all. We named him Scungilli after Grandpa’s favorite Italian meal.
Scungilli was independent, fearless, and outspoken. When he liked something, he would meow loudly. He would cuddle you to death, but only if he was in the mood. And sometimes he would hide away for hours–heaven knows where–to get some much-needed space from human idiosyncrasies.
Most importantly, though, Scungilli was cautious. He would approach strangers inquisitively, but keep his distance. He would size you up extensively before letting you approach his head for a pet. And if he sensed that something about a stranger wasn’t quite right, he would meow persistently, look at us, then sit on his haunches and let the stranger know that he or she would have to get through Scungilli to get to us.
Without ever realizing it, Scungilli taught me why it is important to protect the people I love, why it is smart to size people up before letting them into my home or my heart, and why it is integral to be independent, fearless, and outspoken in this great big world with unknown possibilities…
The year I turned twelve, my parents and I adopted Chopsticks. She was two pounds the day mom and I picked her up from the shelter. Mom named her after the chopsticks she had been trying to teach me to eat with for the last two months.
Chopsticks was daring and adventurous. She would leap from heights that would make mom scream in panic. I remember watching her before she would take a jump. There would be a couple of moments of hesitation before she would decide that yes, she could make it. When she would crawl up to an exceptionally high platform, she would take a minute to look around and see who was watching her. And then, just like that, she would jump, landing on all fours and proving anyone who doubted her wrong before tiptoeing off to a nap.
What I remember most about Chopsticks, though, was her patience. She would stand by quietly while mom or dad got her food ready in the morning, never meowing too loudly or waking anyone up before the alarms went off. When it was time for her to go to the vet, she would sit silently on the doctor’s table awaiting his arrival. She would even curl up in the back seat for a long car ride, never getting antsy or disagreeable, and would hop out when we arrived and stretch her legs like she understood the process as well as any of us around her.
I remember writing an essay for school on patience–an attribute I have never been terribly good at acquiring–and thinking of Chopsticks immediately. To this day, I am convinced that I owe my love of ridiculously high roller coasters and stupidly difficult balance routines, as well as the knowledge that the best things in life are worth the wait, to the seven-pound cat I loved so much…
In the summer of 2004, my best friend called me from a local animal shelter to tell me that I absolutely had to see the cutest kitten ever born. Having spent the better part of my life among cats–and knowing that he was more of a dog person–I had my doubts about his assessment. So I went to see her for myself. An hour later, she was in my arms in the car, less than a pound, headed to her new home with a bed and more toys than Santa could fit in his sled.
Mom took one look at her and named her Bronte after her favorite author. From the start, Bronte was more complex than Scungilli and Chopsticks. She was a finicky eater, particularly antisocial, and didn’t like to be picked up. She also didn’t like strangers one bit–any of them–and would make it well known with a series of hisses that once sent a refrigerator repair man running from the kitchen in terror. She was labeled “mean” by a few, “crazy” by some, and just plain “unlikable” by others. And I got the sense that she didn’t care one bit.
In 2005, I got sick with a terrible flu. You name the symptom, I had it. Bronte never left my side. She would curl up beside me in bed while I slept, follow me from room to room while I coughed, sneezed, and searched for Tylenol, and let anyone who approached me know that she was guarding her mama and that they better darn well have a good reason for being there.
At some point, I came to understand that when times got tough, Bronte was never too far away. If I was sad, had a fight with a friend, suffered a loss, felt under the weather–there she was, just a few steps away, watching me closely and letting visitors know that she had her eye on them too. Bronte didn’t care what others thought of her–or what I thought of her, for that matter–but she understood loyalty more than most people I had encountered in my life. And for that, I will always be grateful…
In the summer of 2009, I brought Emma home, a then two-pound Maltese whose facial expression in a photo eight weeks prior had won my heart.
Emma was my first puppy, and having spent many years around cats, was much more high maintenance than I had imagined. Plus, there was the occasional barking, which definitely took some getting used to. But there was so much more, so much to learn from a little white puffball with more energy than I knew something so small could harness.
She loves to give love. Don’t get me wrong, she likes to receive it too. But giving kisses is what makes her happiest.
She has a zest for life every single day. Say the word “outside” and she is up for any challenge, big or small.
She stops to smell the roses. Literally. This dog loves the smell of flowers. But also, she really appreciates the little things in life–a good nap, a tasty cookie, a relaxing walk, giving kisses to mama.
But there is something else. Emma can’t talk. She can’t write. She can’t sing or do any of that fancy human stuff. And yet she lets people know that they matter every day–me, my family, my friends, the doorman, the folks at the nail salon and the health food store. She makes them smile and laugh. And without ever saying a word, she lets all those people know that she cares about them every chance she gets.
Imagine the kind of world we would live in if more people did that.
Everyone who knows me knows how much I love animals, how much kindness I think they bring to the world. But it wasn’t until I put this all down in writing that I realized just how much they shaped me into who I am today, and just how grateful I am for the lessons they have taught me.
I hope I have given my pets just a small portion of the goodness they have given me.
So take a minute to think about your pets. Let them teach you. If you are anything like me, you have a lot to learn from them. And your life will be that much richer for it.