Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

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Lose a Cat, lose a Father….

Yesterday we – my wife, Caroline, and I – attended a service for the interment of my father’s ashes. A few hours later we picked up a new cat, a 6-week old male kitten we’re calling Basmati – ‘Basmati Rice’, geddit?! Baz, as we tend to call him, is settling in remarkably well and is a real delight after what seems to have been 6 months of loss.

Personally I would never admit to being religious or, in any sense, ‘spiritual’ beyond having a strong but rather vague conviction that there is something bigger than me ‘out there’.  On the odd occasion I do think about it, I tend to think of this ‘something’ in God-the-Father/Allah-the-Compassionate terms – which I attribute to cultural memes rather than any spiritual intuition. And I certainly consider myself far too rational to entertain anything superstitious!

Yet, for several years now, I’ve had the thought that I would lose Artemis, my cat, and Ted Rice, my father, within a very short time of each other. Of course, I could rationalise this by arguing that both were approaching the end of their natural life and had already lived significantly beyond the average age of their sex and species. (Artemis was 19 years old and my father 83.) Or maybe the PURPLE vMEME’s tendency to believe in signs, omens and superstitions was simply tuning into something that rational science can’t comprehend…? Certainly, it would appear from studies of primitive peoples such as the Kalahari bushmen (eg: Richard Katz, 1982) and Australian Aborigine tribes (eg: James Cowan, 1993) that at least some of their number can ‘tune into’ and be informed by something way beyond the ken of conventional modern science.

PURPLE was certainly the dominant vMEME in terms of giving meaning to both relationships…so maybe, just maybe, there was something intuitive in that thought that I would lose them pretty much at the same time…?

I acquired Artemis on 5 October 1991. I already had a 7-week-old black male, Merlin, I wanted company for since (just like today!) I worked long hours. My girlfriend of the time knew I was looking for another kitten and alerted me to a kitten some friends of hers had found in a barn on their farm in the hills above Keighley. When I saw this (approximately) 4-week-old kitten, apparently abandoned by her mother, I thought she was the ugliest kitten I had ever seen: a blobby belly on short stumpy legs, ears bigger than her head, bulging eyes, a coat that looked like someone had thrown a range of creams and browns over her in totally random fashion and one half of her face a totally different colour than the other. (Split straight down the middle, like the villain, Two-Face, in the Batman comics!) But, as long-time friend Linda Scurrah commented many years later: “Artemis has grown into her looks. She’s quite beautiful now she’s older.”

Merlin, sadly, didn’t last that long – getting knocked down when he was just over 6 months old. But Artemis survived illnesses, sequential girlfriends and multiple moves, to become a true companion. I talked to her and, to some degree at least, I thought she understood my mood, if not the content of my words.

Pure Behaviourists take the view that animals don’t have cognitions but I am in no doubt that Artemis had certain basic expectations – schemas. She expected stroking if she made certain noises or approached us in a certain way. If she went and sat by her bowl around about evening meal time, she was indicating clearly that she expected feeding.

Some would say I am anthropomorphsing but I am convinced something akin to the PURPLE vMEME functioned in her brain. Throughout all the moves and all the girlfriends, Artemis coped with it all as long as I was there; but, if I had to stay away overnight, I’m told she would prowl the house looking for me and acting distressed. Sometimes, if I just looked at her when I had been ignoring her for a while, she would purr – apparently pleased that I was giving her attention. It appears I mattered to her – that, from her side as well as mine, there was some kind of desire for mutual affiliation. Indeed, I would be prepared to stick my kneck out and say Artemis craved affection. Eg: as she got older, I could still tempt her to a bit of play occasionally…but then she would lick the hand she’d just pawed, look at me in what I meta-stated to be a pleading way and start purring.

Artemis, 2006

Artemis, 2006

I’d also speculate that there was some degree of RED operating in her very basic selfplex. Eg: if I was eating chicken, she would howl at me until either I gave her some or she would get frustrated and try to snatch it from my plate – even though she had her own food down that she was usually quite content with. She knew what she preferred and she would try to intimidate me in to giving her what she wanted.

Artemis was also choosy as to which of my girlfriends she was prepared to associate with…or not. Around 7 years ago Caroline and I were decidedly relieved when Artemis did take to her.

Other prominent temperament traits Artemis displayed included great caution and nervousness – which may have her longevity. Tied in with that, she was a coward and would never defend her territory. That is, until she started displaying mild signs of feline dementia and seemed to forget she was a coward, charging at much larger cats and succeeding in driving them out of the garden!

Like most higher mammal pets with their owners, Artemis would not hold  my gaze for more than a second or two – indicating that she accepted I had greater power. However, in the last 6 months or so of her life, Artemis did  take to holding both mine and Caroline’s gaze from time to time. But we  meta-stated it was not in an aggressive way but more as though she was  searching us for something.

Ted Rice
My father was proud of being a right-wing racist who thought the sun shone out of Margaret Thatcher’s backside. He considered the trade unions to be the single biggest threat to the wealth and prosperity of the British people and wanted them tamed again – like Maggie had done 25 years previously! Being a classical music man, he despised The Beatles and the long hair hippie culture of the 1960s. He thought young women should still be virgins when they married and that young men should have short back & sides and wear suits. So when my teenager self grew my hair long, wore jeans, listened to Jefferson Airplane and espoused many of the more idealistic tenets of the hippie culture….!

BLUE was so strong in his selfplex that he considered everyone should listen to the TV news every night because everyone should be informed – it was ‘the right thing to do’. My  mother’s PURPLE village gossip mentality seriously irked him and they had  numerous rows about her finding the housewives’ gossip on the street more  interesting than the state of the British economy or the progress of the latest war in Africa.

There was some partial emergence of ORANGE in that he had ambitions to be a director of the company he worked for and was then able to reinvent himself very succesfully as a health & safety consultant after he was made redundant.

But of GREEN there appeared to be no trace. As said, he was a racist…of the England-for-the-English variety. He was a sexist in that it was understandable if men were unfaithful to their partners but women had to be totally faithful. He had no truck with the idea of human rights, believing criminals deserved to be beaten up by the police and that prisons should be such harsh places that offenders would be terrified of going back to jail. Unsurprisingly he was a staunch advocate of capital punishment and believed corporal punishment should be reintroduced to schools. His limited view of social mobility was that only those who, by virtue of intelligence and/or sheer hard work, could rise above their birth class status should be allowed to get on with it; the state should certainly not award benefits to create positive discrimination for the socially disadvantaged.

For all our cultural and political differences, I was close to my Dad…arguably closer to him than I was to my Mum. Though many of our discussions ended in rows – because of the cultural and political factors! – I could talk to my Dad about the world and what was going on. (Any time I raised anything like a problem with a girlfriend, though, it was immediately passed on to Mum – it was her job to do the emotion work!) But problems at work, too, he would listen and offer his advice. He was immensely skilled in management techniques and provided a very useful sounding board as I tried to fathom my way through various issues. My career and the social, economic and political implications of the news formed the basis of most of our conversations – though increasingly his health problems became a pressing topic of conversation after my Mum died.

Ted, celebrating his 80th birthday

Ted, celebrating his 80th birthday

My mother, Betty, died in 2000 (from cancer). For a year afterwards, my Dad was depressed, becoming a virtual hermit and dropping almost all social contacts. Then he developed Myasthenia Gravis, a neurological illness which inhibits the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from working in the synapses at the muscle platelets, effectively preventing the efferent neurons from sending messages from the motor cortex and the cerebellum to the muscles. A Bell’s Palsy-type face droop in 2001 was followed by a collapse of his lungs the following year, necessitating a 5-month stay in hospital – 3 of them in intensive care. After getting the Myasthenia under control with stupendous amounts of medication, mobility problems and excruciating arthritic pain led to 2 hip transplants. Dad then had a couple of reasonable years before gallbladder problems led to a series of collapses and stays in hospital. By January this year it was clear he was deteriorating, with kidney and liver problems eventually triggering the long, slow, downward spiral to the end. I doubt I’ll ever forget seeing him 2 days before he died, screaming in pain and the hospital staff not able to get the morphine into him fast enough.

For all my ‘psychology tricks’, as I call them, that experience has left a deep wound in me. If it was bad for me, what must it have been like for him?

The downward slope and the aftermath
Already on major medication due to her Arthritis, Artemis began fitting late last year. The fitting may have been a by-product of a botched operation to remove bad teeth that left her temporarily blind and paralysed…but it would have been very difficult to prove. With even more medication, we thought we had got the fitting under control. However, a really severe and distressing fit at Easter, with medication at maximum levels, left us with no other real choice. As Caroline said: “What would happen if she had a fit outside? She’d be at the mercy of any predator that was nearby – foxes and so on.”

Artemis hated going to the vet’s in a cat carrier. For all the steep extra cost, I got the vet out to our house. It was important to me that Artemis died in her own home, with as little pre-procedure distress as possible. As she went under, in the conservatory in which she spent so much time, with me stroking her…did it actually make the experience of her passing any less traumatic for her? If I’m honest, I have no idea…but she seemed peaceful. And it helps me…whether or not it helped her.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t give the same consideration – euthanasia – to my Dad. He took another 2 days to die. By the last few hours, they had finally gotten the morphine levels right and he did appear to die in peace…but the 48 hours before must have been a horrendous experience for him.

I was at my Mum’s death bed in 2000. I saw and heard the final intake of breath. (The first time I had seen somebody die in front of me!) Strangely I cried only once for my mother – on a misty November night in the garden 2 months later. I think my focus was so strongly on trying to hold my Dad together in the following months and years that my BLUE never really allowed my PURPLE the privilege of grieving for a loved one. When Artemis’ executioners left – because, being blunt, that’s what we did to her: execution – I sobbed inconsolably for days. My little companion – who at times had seemed unnervingly human and who I sometimes referred to as “my little furry daughter’ – was gone. Even now Caroline and/or I will break into tears, if something triggers certain memories of Artemis. She was such a huge personality and such a part of our lives….

By contrast, my Dad was much less a part of our lives. We  spoke on the phone at least once a week, I travelled to see him approximately once a month – and Caroline would come with me every 2nd or 3rd visit. Christmas dinner with him was an annual ritual.

So far at least, I’ve cried less for my Dad than I have done for Artemis. Again, as with my mother’s death, it’s been all action. As my father’s only child (and the executor of his will), it’s been my responsibility to arrange the funeral, deal with Dad’s financial affairs and apply for probate, and clear out his house, ready for sale. In and amongst these processes, there have been tears but the focus has been mainly on doing rather than thinking. Certainly finding photos of Artemis amongst Dad’s possessions was a trigger for both Caroline and I to shed some tears!

Mum & Dad, 40th Wedding Anniversary

Mum & Dad, 40th Wedding Anniversary

One photo that certainly brought me to tears was the one of my Mum & Dad’s 40th Anniversary in September 1991. Dad was 5 years older than I am now and Mum just 2. They look to be still in their prime, before the cruelties of old age could tarnish and diminish them. My PURPLE feels a great ache looking at that photo. The end of Summer in 1991 was a good time for my PURPLE. Just a few weeks later I would acquire Artemis.

Maybe I‘ll do more crying for Dad – and for Mum? – once everything is done and there is more time for reflection…?

A change in life
I miss my Dad in some different ways to Artemis.

Artemis was in my life every day, working through a variety of situations, ranging from her being a demanding pain to a purring pleasure. Her suddenly not being there any more left a huge emptiness in our lives. One or both of us still think we see her out of the corner of our eyes from time to time. The schematic expectation is still, to some extent, that she is there – or should be there. Caroline and I still hold each other and say we wish we could have her back, we miss her so much.

But somehow the scope of the relationship with my Dad, while lacking everyday impact, was more. Perhaps because of the greater history…? Perhaps because, according to Dale Hay & Jo Ellen Vespo (1988), parents teach us to love them from a very early age…?

Maybe it was simply the cognitive level of the relationship which made it more…? Bizarrely, at the post-funeral bash, I found myself thinking I would have to tell my Dad how pleased I was that my Mum’s relatives were mingling so well with his…when I suddenly realised he wasn’t there to tell anymore! I will miss talking to him.

Then, of course, you can sort-of replace a cat. Not that we feel we could or would want ever to replace Artemis. She will always have a unique place in our memories. But we can get a new cat. We had talked about this possibility and, after my Dad died, Caroline sourced the little kitten who is now Baz. We deliberately went for a male and one who looks nothing like Artemis because we don’t want to find ourselves drawing comparisons. We want to preserve her importance in our selfplexes.

But you can’t even begin to replace a father. (Or a mother, for that matter….)

UPDATE: 14 July 2012.

2 days ago, on the anniversary of his death, after a day’s teaching, I drove from Harrogate to Garstang, to stand by the marker which is all that remains that is tangible of my Dad (and my Mum). It was a near 5 hours round trip to spend 40 minutes with them…but I’m glad I went. On a rare (for this year!) warm and sunny evening, in the tranquil, almost idyllic graveyard of St Thomas, alone amongst the gravestones and the markers, I found that, for the first time I could remember my Dad, without being disturbed by horrendous memories of those last 3 days of his life.

I found that, for the first time, memories came easily to me of when he was younger and healthier…of things we did as a family as well as when I visited them as an adult. For the first time too, I found I could laugh again at some of the memories – at some of the more outlandish and ridiculous things he had said and done. The horrendous final days were still there if I looked for them but they were fuzzy and indistinct – as if partially repressed – so I left them alone and enjoyed my little graveyard reverie of better times.

Over the past year I’ve often moved away from thoughts of my Dad and tried not to engage with them by distracting myself with something else. Interestingly I found remembering my Mum a more easy and pleasant experience. So I’m pleased and hopeful now that I’ll be able to enjoy my memories of Dad.

My intention is to go back to Garstang every year on or around the anniversary of his death and use that trip as a way of honouring him and Mum.

I guess I’ve found for myself some truth in the old adage that pain eases with the passing of time. (For many months, it seemed like it would never ease!)

As for Artemis, we buried her ashes in a little copse on the cliffs above Robin Hood’s Bay and I carved her name into the branch of an overhanging tree. As we love the Bay and usually spend a week in a cottage there most years, as long as we can still climb the cliffs, we can visit that copse.

In a strange way, there’s also a connection to my Dad in her burial place. He had always loved Artemis and often asked after her. When he was no longer well enough to visit us, we bought him a little wooden cat, which had something of her ‘look’, to symbolise her to him. As the carving was of a cat all curled up and seemingly very much at peace with itself, after Dad’s death, we took the carving and half-buried it on top of Artemis’ ashes to serve as her marker.

Of course, the world is a busy place and so often we’re too busy to give much time to remembering those we’ve lost. But it’s good for our PURPLE to remember those in our personal history who have meant so much and to honour our past.



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