Clovis the cat left home last month. I have been away quite a lot and he was not home to greet me when I returned home mid-month. Clovis usually likes human company and attention. He moved into our home a couple of years ago in a storm (we originally named him Doris after the tempest that brought him to us) and very quickly settled in. Our house is not his only home and he makes frequent visits to neighbours’ houses. He is very much the street cat; everyone knows Clovis. But in June he was a ghost cat. There was evidence he was still around as food disappeared at night. Of Clovis himself, no sign. I visited his other homes and no one had seen him. Missing his company and concerned about his welfare I borrowed a ‘cat cam’ from my cat sitters – Catherine and Martin at Home Loving Cats, who were wonderfully supportive of my growing anxiety about Clovis.
The cat cam recorded Clovis, entering my home at 5.58am:
And leaving again at 6.01:
He looked healthy and purposeful. I simply had to accept that for whatever reason Clovis had temporally returned to his previous feral life (if now maintained by regular meals of cat food).
It is tempting to explain his change in behaviour as a feline reaction to my absences. June has been quite a month. Bookended by my sister’s chemotherapy treatments # four and # five out of six for breast cancer; my elderly father having spinal surgery; my partner undergoing brain surgery to remove a Grade II tumour (non-aggressive) and my daughter heading off to the USA to work on a summer camp. I have been on the move. My sister lives on her own about a two-hour drive away; my partner’s job moved the same week his tumour was diagnosed and is now living over three hours away. Fortunately, my parents are just down the road.
It is tempting to anthropomorphize Clovis’ behaviour and to assume that he is upset or cross with me for diverting my attention to others and not being around to attend to his feline needs. Such an explanation attributes a human understanding of time to Clovis that cats simply do not have. Yes, he probably has picked up on the changing moods in my home, my own and my daughter’s absences. But to have feelings of anger or neglect require synthesising past, present and future. Clovis being a cat lives in the present and is simply doing what he needs to do, he is not punishing me. All I can do is wait for him to return. It has been perfect cat weather- not too warm, but dry – I probably need another storm to bring him back.
While June has been a nomadic time, it has also been a time of waiting. Waiting for Clovis, for chemo, for surgeries. In her recent book about time and care, the psychotherapist Lisa Baraitser examines the necessity of Enduring Time. She examines how the time of care evolves around staying, maintaining, repeating, delaying, enduring, returning and ending. Like Clovis, care requires a focus on the present. It is not a time for looking back, for remembering past wrongs or rights. The uncertainty of the future also numbs the potency of anticipation. Care also has to be a time of hope and love. The problem I have with enduring is that it negates these, there is a heaviness to endurance that I want to resist. But it is difficult to find a different word. The alternatives that readily come to mind: persisting, persevering, getting on with, all have a similar connotation. So I had to get my thesaurus out to find an alternative.
I have settled on abiding. Abiding retains the feeling of staying and suppressing agency rather than moving on . To abide means to stick with the rules determined by others. Abiding also suggests staying with unconditional love. There is a religious connotation to abiding, particularly through the hymn Abide with me. Written by the Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte in the mid-19th century, Abide with me was inspired by a verse in Luke 24:29 and Lyte’s memory of the words of a dying friend. The hymn is often sung at funerals and remembrance services. Nonetheless it is much-loved hymn. A favourite of Mahatma Gandhi, the Royal Family (it was sung at the weddings of both the current Queen and her parents) and football supporters (it is played before the FA Cup Final). These diverse occasions for singing the hymn capture the quality of abiding to stay with others out of love and hope.
The everyday experiences of care are though, as Baraister describes, measured by not moving on and the stillness of being immersed in a recurring present. My partner has regular physiotherapy and a routine of regular exercises to get him back on his feet. My sister’s chemo is repeated and the cycle of treatment, reaction and recovery endures. This repetition is unpredictable; her reaction is different each time. We attempt to plan my visits to coincide with when she is more poorly, but these always seem to fail. My sister has been admitted into hospital twice following treatment, the first time with an infection and the second with a reaction to antibiotics. Both times after I have left. So we think we know when she will be at her worse, but it is impossible to predict. Treatments and surgery are means, not ends. My partner’ surgery will be followed by radiotherapy. My sister is still to have surgery, and maybe radiotherapy. Progress is happening but it is almost imperceptible. My sister’s latest MRI scan showed that her lump is retreating. After two weeks my partner can now move his left foot forward and back and three of his toes.
Caring is not about being purposefully active but simply being present. I sit quietly in my partner’s or my sister’s kitchen and work at my laptop. I make regular drinks and cook. I remind the patient to check their temperature. I clean my sister’s house (her faithful companion is an Alaskan Malamute so there is no shortage of dog hair for me to sweep up). I go out for walks. I crochet. I listen to their optimism and sometimes their anger, not at what is happening to them but the world around them. This is not a time for political discussion rather simple acquiescence. The stillness of care is tiring. Returning home is always difficult. I have to return home because I have multiple caring roles (and I need to visit my father who is making the quickest recovery of all three). I also need to have some time for myself (and hopefully Clovis!). I am always at a loss when I return home, not quite sure what to do with myself now I have my time back.
Solitude of treatment
It is easier for me to adjust to this time of care than for my daughter and nephews. My nephew shaved his head in solidarity with his mum to raise money for the hospital where she is having her treatment. It is not raising money that matters for him, but doing something to help. We are so hard-wired into expectations of progress and experience that these are our default responses. Lots of people offer assistance and we are all maintained by the kindness of family, friends, colleagues and strangers. But having people around can be difficult and there is a unique loneliness to undergoing long-term treatment. On the one hand it is difficult to get out and see people, but when people do come to visit it is too much effort to engage. When I last picked up my sister from chemo treatment there was an older couple in the corner of the treatment room, the wife was having treatment. The nurse came to discharge and commented that they would be glad to get home. The wife politely disagreed, treatment days were their sociable days, when they saw other people. Now they had to return to the solitude of home and no doubt the unpredictability of post-treatment sickness.
Life goes on
It might be clichéd to write that life goes on, but it does. I am sustained by updates from my daughter’s time on camp in upstate New York: pictures of idyllic hills and lakes, videos of camp sing-a-longs and a request for a food parcel from home (even in another continent she relies on her mother). I lounge on the sofa vicariously watching Glastonbury, not wishing to be there as I have had my time at festivals in the sun and the mud, but reminding myself of other times and letting myself imagine what we can all do together next year. Work continues. In June I approved proofs of an article and a book chapter, completed a paper on experiences of failure in academia, submitted another paper based on my own research and finalized my contribution to a collaborative book review. Even though I work on my own on these outputs, they all came about through requests and connections with friends and colleagues. At this time, I am very appreciative of the direct and indirect support of these relationships.
I am in a very fortunate position at work as I am currently on research leave, funded by a three-year Major Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust. It is always an honour and a privilege to be the recipient of such an award but this is especially true for me as the award facilitates my nomadic caring. I can work anywhere. The irony of my project is that it is on busyness. The full title of the fellowship is The Social Life of Busyness in an Age of De-acceleration. I cannot take credit for the title, it was very generously suggested to me by David Bissell. Even two years ago when I was writing the original application for the fellowship David encouraged me to resist interpreting busyness as outcomes of the assumed progressive speeding up of society, but to explore the recursive qualities of being busy. I have learnt so much about the disassociation between being busy and moving forward in the past months. I continue to track my time, using my adaptation of Laura Vanderkam’s methodology. Keeping a track of how I spend time has been very valuable. It is reassuring to see the time sheets fill up and the distinctive multi-colour patterns of each week. I realised a few weeks ago that I had not taken any time off work. All the ‘missed’ working time spent travelling or waiting in hospitals I had made up in evenings or weekends. So now I am using my annual leave to have time for myself.
It rained yesterday and as predicted Clovis returned home to sleep on my daughter’s bed. He appears to have promoted himself to child number one in the house while my daughter is away. At least this waiting has come to an end. There will also be ends for my father, partner and sister. My father’s pain is reduced and he can drive again, my partner will complete radiotherapy and physiotherapy and will regain the strength in his leg. For my sister the outcome is maybe less certain but the odds are in her favour and I only have hope, not fear. For now we all abide with each other. This is the time of our lives.