My Cat Saved My Life

from WHAT'S ON QUEEN, AUGUST 10, 1999.

Books in Review

"I had not dealt with death very well," says Phillip Schreibman in his book My Cat Saved My Life. The average reader is likely to agree. Mr. Schreibman does not handle death well -- but then, those deaths he has been called upon to handle (his parents dying within a few years of each other from lingering, debilitating illnesses) have been tediously traumatic.

A different person, even suffering such painful loss, may well have recouped and carried on. Another may have descended into self-pity. Mr. Schreibman does neither. He looks for answers and finds meaninglessness. Ahead he sees nothing; behind, illusion. Speaking of his parents' deaths he says, "In a flash of absolute clarity, I was made completely conscious of the power, the terror, the blankness of death."

This overpowering loss of purpose separates him from any and all sense of meaning. Worse yet, because of the strain of constantly having to make difficult medical decisions during his parents' illnesses, he also becomes separated from even a superficial contact with the world around. "Like the time delay on a radio talk show, everything was screened out and censored before it reached me."

C. S. Lewis, in his classic work A Grief Observed (a merciless record of his own bereavement following his wife's death), says: "Reality, looked at steadily, is unbearable."

Certainly, Schreibman found it so.

For him there is no salvation by means of the latest psycho/spiritual/clinical fad. Positive thinking, Prozac, dynamic visualization, support groups, belief systems: none of these can fill the gap that comes when Reality itself is negated. And it is nothing less than the existential loss of reality that Schreibman suffers from when he first meets his feline savior, Alice. In short, My Cat Saved My Life is not a potential cinematic vehicle for the Warm and Relevant Humourª of Robin Williams. In fact, at its core, this is not even a book about a man and his cat. It is a book about nothing and Nothingness.

On the other hand, of course, it is a book about a man and his cat.

We are introduced to Alice as an abandoned kitten in an alleyway off Queen Street where Schreibman comes to the rescue before the Fat Boy can get his hands on her. The Fat Boy is a neighbour whose dog had been kept outside in a wooden box for so many years it became misshapen. Eventually the dog disappeared and when Schreibman asked about it the Fat Boy told him that according to his father it was now working for the Toronto Transit Commission. "I'm still not sure," comments the author, "if that is a startlingly original euphemism for death or if I've been on that bus once or twice. Or both."

What follows the cat's rescue is a strange, and sometimes disturbing, relationship. Partly it is just a story about a man who learns to feel again by means of his pet. Cats are both familiar and mysterious; autonomous yet dependent. They can take all the love a person is willing to expend upon them without ever showing a desperate need for it. All pets are therapeutic, but for those whose emotions have short-circuited, cats can be invaluable.

But Schreibman's story goes far beyond the expected plot-line of man-taught-to-love-again-by-means-of-an-animal. Schreibman, it's safe to say, doesn't so much need to learn how to love again as he needs to learn what the point of love could be in the first place.

As he begins to thaw, Schreibman enters a state in which it would seem his entire waking attention centers upon his cat. He initiates the intriguing experiment of following her on her daily rounds. He enters what he calls "Cat School," the first lesson of which is both prosaic and restorative -- the need for sleep. They begin taking cat-naps together followed by stretching exercises. Next Alice heads outside for her daily rounds with Schreibman tailing behind.

"We would wander around the garden, from tree to bush to shrub to grassblade, checking, I suppose, for cat messages. Alice might find a spot, perhaps under the cedar trees, and settle down, not sleeping, just sitting. I crouched beside her and waited."

As time passes, Schreibman reconnects with life, with "Creation," as he calls it from his Jewish/Kabbalistic background. This does not mean that he reconnects with the life of activity and purpose going on around him. He is not learning to be sociable again, to "get back into the world," to "carry on." He reconnects with the life that is at the core of all this human activity. It is, in fact, his own life, the life underneath his name, occupation and habits, that he establishes contact with -- and then, not so much as a reconnection as a new discovery. And it is this life that he refers to in the title.

"What life had Alice saved? It was here, now, the life taking place in the moment I was in whether I was aware of it or not. It was the life I was wasting, the gift of time I was frittering away, ignoring the wondrous experience of this place, Creation."

My Cat Saved My Life is a most unexpected work. Alice is not a beloved pet who has "touched the heart" of her owner, but a non-human consciousness who shows a human consciouness what lies at the root of both. "I probably would have died without noticing that I was living if I had not met her," he says at the end. The reader can decide the truth of his conclusion.


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