My Cat Saved My Life

from THE TORONTO STAR, October 6, 1998.

Greater Toronto Story:

"A tale of gratitude and hope"

By Jim Coyle

One of the things I like about This Ain't the Rosedale Library is how the proprietors will often stroll over, while patrons browse the shelves, with a book to recommend. Their suggestions tend more to the quirky or obscure than anything Oprah is apt to endorse. And the other day I was presented with one of the quirkiest yet.

It was a slim volume, self-published, with a title pretty much guaranteed to set eyes rolling. All the shop's owner could say was that he'd already sold about 40 copies, purely by word of mouth, and that customers were coming back saying they'd loved it.

It was called My Cat Saved My Life, by a man named Phillip Schreibman.

Schreibman is a Toronto composer who's written music for TV and theatre for the past 30 years. By 1987, however, he had reached a dark and lonely place. His father and mother had died in the previous few years and, at 39, he had been seized by a paralyzing despair.

Like many of his generation, he sought remedies on self-help shelves. He investigated psychotherapy and pharmaceuticals. He delved into philosophy, religion and mysticism. Nothing worked.

``I was stymied; I needed something, a link, and I did not know how I would ever find it or even what it was.''

He could hardly have imagined that it would show up in the form of a sick and scrawny stray kitten he found that spring in the alley beside his west-end house.

He called her Alice. He nursed her back to health. Then, to his astonishment, she repaid the favour in kind.

Unlike dogs, cats are rarely in your face. You must pay attention. The more you watch, the more you notice. And only the most arrogant among us would think animals have nothing to teach.

``As I watched Alice, it became obvious that she was doing a better job of living than I was,'' Schreibman wrote.

He found himself studying a creature who seemed to find everything interesting, whose every moment was devoted to the business of being. While his life had long since lost any component of play, he now kept company with a creature whose day wasn't complete without it.

He regained, by observing a master at it, a sense of being rooted in the physical world. He slept more. He stretched upon waking. He felt better. He sought quiet times and places for contemplation.

He attuned himself to communication without language.

He developed rituals with her, the feeding, the napping, the playing, and came to recognize that rituals ``work to reaffirm our connection to each other.''

In short, he was drawn out of himself, back into the world.

``I was doing my job, the job of all living creatures: I was appreciating Creation.''

It's an uplifting story, recounted with the kind of rigourous honesty and unabashed love that make easy targets for mockers. As a result, Schreibman thought twice about telling it.

``When I talked to the friends who read it, I said, `Is this embarrassing?'

``There are people, old enemies, that I think, I don't want them to read this.

``Even members of my family that I didn't want to read it, I didn't want them to know that things had been that bad.''

Still, he seems to have retained a sense of humour. His book came off the press April 1 - ``I think that's significant.'' It claims only to be ``a small story in the stories of the world.'' And it is.

Yet it manages, as small things often do, to make a large point. It teaches that despair cannot exist alongside gratitude, that anything which makes us thankful usually makes us well.

And cat, dog or cockatiel, that's a story worth telling.

-- Jim Coyle's column usually appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in THE TORONTO STAR.

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