Saturday, 17 June 2017

Basil's bath

In theory it is perfectly possible that there's a person reading this blog who doesn't know that I used to have a cat called Basil.

Basil was also called Baz and he was the greatest cat I've ever known. He was amazingly smart, kind, tactful, loyal, pragmatic, brave, resilient, interesting and determined, he didn't suffer fools gladly but he did suffer them, he always knew what he wanted and he always met your eyes with a frank, steady gaze that was full of knowledge and awareness of what it means to look like that into someone else's eyes.

We got Basil in 2000 - he was about two or three then and he'd previously been called Lester.  He died in 2014 after wasting away with a degenerative kidney condition. His ashes are buried in the garden under an apple tree and some roses and herbs.

We have Vinnie now which is not at all the same. Vinnie, well, he's OK but he has a lot of problems and I just don't have the inner resources, at this juncture of my life, to sort out a cat's issues; dealing with my own is enough of a challenge.

I've finished grieving for Basil, but last week when Facebook produced this June 2011 picture of him and me I was startled and upset.

Basil never liked being bathed, and he always protested, but he would submit without losing his poise. He came and went inside and outside as he pleased so he was never one of those super soft and clean indoor cats. When he got bathed, maybe four times a year, he would be so lovely and clean afterwards.

In this photo Basil is being washed not in the laundry trough but in a baby bath filled with water that's cloudy because it contains QV Baby bath oil. Lenny had been washed in the same water a few minutes previously.

I look at myself in that photo and I see a very vulnerable person. There's a vein bulging in my temple that I never see unless I've been exerting myself on a very hot day, and my breasts are pushing forward in a way they never did before or after breastfeeding. On 12 June 2011, Lenny was 43 days old. I think it must have been about then that I suddenly remembered I hadn't always been like this. That realisation brought a feeling of panicked loss mingled with hysterical and overwrought efforts to immediately fix the broken stuff, ie everything, which stayed with me until it was finally dissolved about eighteen months later, in another cloud, one created with pharmaceuticals. What this photo shows is me asserting to myself and to Basil that I did still care about him now that I was so consumed, in such a groggy, surreal, shattered way, with the new baby. Basil was very neglected in the early months of Lenny's life. He was fed and watered, but he wasn't played with or cuddled or hung out with. I didn't stare into his eyes. I barely noticed he existed.

This photo seems to be the only one I put on Facebook but at least thirty were taken on this occasion. I got Dorian to take a few and I took many more. There are such a lot of pictures because almost as soon as I thought of giving Basil a bath in Lenny's bathwater, I also thought I could probably parlay the exercise into fodder for an autobiographical-yet-scholarly essay about identity shifts and having a baby, and I wanted pictures for reference and for illustrating the finished thing. Meanjin is what I was thinking. Yeah I know how that sounds and I am cringing pretty fucking violently over here right now. But it was the same basic urge: oh shit what the fuck is this? I used to think and write, oh shit, I have to do that again, If I don't/can't then what? This forever? And you know, now that I really think about how all that felt and what I tried to do about it, what makes sense of it is something my doctor said to me recently about what my own babyhood seems to have been like: being seen (and loved) couldn't be counted on, and what helped was being as good as possible and doing things as well as possible.

You find your way into becoming a parent by drawing on what you saw and felt in your own childhood. You're a parent suddenly and there's this baby. You make sense of the incomprehensible baby by drawing on your own long-ago experiences. That vulnerable baby in front of you wakes up your own vulnerabilities. But you're standing where your own parents once stood. You patch your new self together from bits of your child self and bits of your parents. I just wanted to know that I hadn't irretrievably lost myself and to be sure of it, I needed to be seen. (With hindsight, it would have helped me if I'd done more things with friends during maternity leave.)  So in the complete sequence of photos is dirty Basil, wet Basil, then fluffy clean Basil who has been dried using an old bath towel onto which I'd written his name, with a black texta, in fancy lettering beside a drawing of a cat food tin, to echo the big white towel embroidered with a dinosaur and Leonard which we used to wrap Lenny in after his daily bathe on the kitchen table.

Basil never quite got his old position back. It was terrible when he died, because he was really unwell before the end. We still have that embroidered Leonard towel. I never wrote my brilliant essay for Meanjin but I did get Dorian to take this photo of me and I put it on Facebook. That's being seen. And I'm thinking and writing now. And I'm still here.


Ampersand Duck said...

I really connect with that haze of early days and the distorting of self, especially in regards to parenting and being parented. Thanks for writing about this, I think there's lots of room out there for writings about the... I hesitate to say 'dark', perhaps the 'twilight' encounters with the early parenting days/months/years. My old cat, Karma, also went from adored focus to guilty sidebar, and I still feel bad about her final years. So I hear you. Be kind to yourself xxx

JahTeh said...

When I had my baby nobody talked about the terror of being responsible for this little life. Something I had managed to hide since small suddenly ambushed me and I had nowhere to hide anymore. Even today I cannot hold a baby without that terror creeping up behind me, it lasts even to great grandmother time. My granddaughter sent a photo of herself with baby strapped to her chest and she is climbing half way up a mountain and the ground looks a long way down. I mentally clapped at the joy on her face and wished I had had such courage.
The cat I have now climbs on me, puts his paws around my neck and sleeps, like a baby.

lucy tartan said...

Thanks sweetheart.

lucy tartan said...

You know, I've just remembered, a visit to you at home - maybe during the trying to conceive era? I don't remember going to Canberra while pregnant - you said, very casually, 'of course you completely lose your mind for a few years' or something very like that. Which is exactly what happened. Thanks xxx