Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Stealing Home

This past winter, Derrick was attacked by a bulldog. It’s not quite accurate to say “attacked,” since I don’t think the bulldog wanted to harm him—it was more like the psycho canine version of Capture the Flag, with the flag being furry and flamepoint. In any case, the timing was terrible—Derrick and I were out in the hallway for his morning walk, and he displayed his nosey-neighbor habit of dashing into any apartment with an open door just as the guy with the youngish, etiquette-challenged bulldog was leaving. They rolled, they tumbled; the owner stumbled as he tried to grab Santino. I pretty much screamed the entire time but somehow managed to open the door so Derrick could get back to our apartment. Which he did…followed by the dog.

When Lorenzo saw them run past, he leaped on top of the air conditioner and went textbook Halloween Cat. Within what was probably just a few seconds, Santino’s owner finally grabbed him and they got outta there. Derrick was left with bloody back paw pads, at least 6 fewer claws and an hour-long case of Big Tail. Lorenzo hid on top of the kitchen cabinets and stayed there for half the day, big round frying-pan eyes like he didn’t know who he was, or we were. We were all in a daze.

D. was way too stressed for a vet visit until the next week, but I did call the animal communicator. Derrick, typically a cat of few words, said even less than usual--he was still trying to process what was going on.  Lorenzo shared what they were both feeling:

“Attacked in our own home! We never thought that could happen.”

That just about killed me. Both of my guys were dumped on the streets by their original owners, and I promised myself, and them, that they’d always be safe and protected. But that day, I screwed up royally. The encounter with Santino was like a feline September 11th.

For the next few weeks, the whole house felt…piloerect. And I began to think a lot about that tired, mired myth of home, sweet home. About things that have happened to past and present friends, people I’ve worked with, strangers whose faces give away their stories… a lot of bad shit happens in places that people call home. From whoppers like physical/mental abuse and addiction to different-sized things like lies and love that gets withheld and not allowing someone to be who they are…  And oh, the stories of children abused in their homes that hurt us all so deeply, instantaneously. Nixzmary Brown, the little 7-year-old from Brooklyn who was tortured, molested and killed by her stepfather… Myls Dobson, 4, found murdered earlier this year, emaciated and covered in bruises and burn marks, while in the care of a babysitter… What did home mean to them?

One night after the bulldog incident I awoke thinking of Lotus, Gaza and Memphis—3 uromastyx lizards I took care of years ago during my work with a herpetological society. They were seized at U.S. Customs, stolen from their home somewhere in the Middle East and shoved in a box with dozens of other lizards, shipped to America to be sold in the exotic pet trade. We were asked to take care of them while a court case was pending; they were weak, stressed and sick, so it was more like hospice care. We tried to be hopeful anyway. 

Apparently they were of a species that was least attractive to pet owners, but I marveled at their soft pebble-gray skin, dinosaur heads, spiky Sex Pistol tails, kind eyes… they spent a lot of time being very, very still, like old, otherworldly Romanesque cathedrals. Despite my best efforts, you can fill in what happened—first little Memphis, then Lotus passed away. Gaza was so, so thin but still hanging on, eating her alfalfa that I sprinkled with Bach remedies (I tried everything)… I asked the animal communicator to check in with her. She’d never spoken with a displaced uromastyx before, but Gaza told her she just wanted to go home. And she just couldn’t understand why she wasn’t able to.

My heart fell. I knew she could never go back, and I knew deep down that a 75-gallon tank with full-spectrum lighting and a bunch of heat lamps in a New York City apartment was so, so wrong.  There was no home for her now, anywhere.  When she passed, I imagined her dreaming herself back to soft, silken sand near the hottest rocks she could find. A blinding sun shining down lizard love and life.

And so, for Derrick and Lorenzo and Gaza and Nixzmary and Myls and anyone else for whom home hasn’t always been home—I propose a change in definition. Maybe home is not a place, but a series of actions… Moves and moments we can take, no matter where we are, that show and let us know we are safe and supported and surrounded by everything we need.

For Derrick, that means Tiggering through the apartment and spinning out as he takes the corners… that slight uplift of his tail when you say his name… the way his paw pads open and spread like pink petals when I pet him… For Gaza, home is this little shimmy in the sand she’d do while sunbathing, belly-down…

For Lorenzo, aside from this…

…home is a very slight rearing up, a la My Little Pony, at the moment he knows a treat is forthcoming.

For me, home is doing most things for a longer period of time than most people do them for. Home is barefoot, home is blinking through raindrops while soaking wet, home is sitting on the floor, home is Bing perched on my knee or sighing into my side, home is leaping through hallways if there’s enough space…

And when you’re not limited by walls or a map, home may be something you never thought to look for… melting wax, chasing snowflakes, shaking a tambourine…

What’s your dance, homie?

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