Love and Loss in Gaitskill’s “Lost Cat”
Three months ago, I adopted a beautiful little dog and named her Lina (she leans on my flatmates and I a lot). When I first brought her home, I was distraught - beside myself with the reality of responsibility this new little life meant for me. Since that first week of sleepless nights and endless tears, we’ve settled in to a routine and slowly fallen in love with one another (her perhaps a bit faster than me). In those first few days, I felt like I had post-partum depression. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, didn’t want to get out of bed and couldn’t stop sobbing. Disclaimer: I have never been pregnant and do not have children. This disclaimer itself pre-empts the belittling I bestowed upon myself: I was being dramatic, I was being overly sentimental — she was a dog, not a baby. Reading Mary Gaitskill’s Lost Cat helped ground the feelings I have for Lina — the look of love we often share, the monumental impact she has had on my life, and the deep fear I have of losing her. All animals die. Death is the one true fact of life, and the death of our pets is one truth many of us learn young. When I was growing up, my dog was the brother I never had. He’d lick the tears from my face as I broke down in young depression. He died when I was nineteen, liver cancer. He was running around the day before, my mother told me. I managed to return to my childhood home whilst he was still clinging to life and rushed to the vets to see him. I held his head as he died, saw the love in his eyes for the final time.
Gaistkill’s essay asks us who is worthy of grieving. It asks us who, or what, we are allowed to be completely enamoured, in love, obsessed with. Her love and grief for the cat she rescued, Gattino, mirrors the love and grief she is experiencing with two siblings she helps to care for, which simultaneously mirrors the love and grief she aches over concerning her late, complicated, father. Gaitskill whispers to us the intense love she feels for the kitten on the front cover and the resulting obsession that takes a hold of her after his disappearance. In the same whisper, she tells us of the two siblings ‘Caesar’ and ‘Natalia’ (likely pseudonyms) she comes to love. Gaitskill and her husband take part in a programme that pairs ‘disadvantaged’ New York inner-city children with relatively rich families living in the nearby countryside. They take in Caesar first, a Latinx boy who comes to them angry, afraid, and desperately seeking love. Gaitskill gives it to him, desparate to love, and Caesar’s older sister Natalia follows in tow later. Gaitskill acknowledges and admits the problematics of these relationship dynamics. She is a rich, white, socially advantaged woman ‘saving’ these poor, ‘disadvantaged’, children of colour. The children already have a mother, a mother who Gaitskill gives money to out of pity. Caesar holds Gaitskill accountable for this, eloquently and bravely asking her if she thinks she’s better than his mother. The writing throughout the essay is searingly honest. Yet, it is not self-flagellating. Gaitskill finds curiosity in the terrible things she thinks of, finds interest in the way our feelings, relationships and love entail difficult and ugly aspects. She shows this in the parts describing her relationship with her late father, the fact she screamed at him for what she had perceived as a lack of reality to their relationship. Only later does she realise their relationship was real — what it wasn’t was her version of the ideal.
Lost Cat is mystical, calling upon psychics, intuition, spirituality and magic. Upon their mentionings, Gaitskill half-chastises her use of them, mocking them in one sentence and then submitting to her reliance on them in the next. Thoughts from Gattino come in to her head, telling her he’s scared, afraid, dying. She mocks herself, whilst secretly holding the part of herself that believes these thoughts to really be coming from Gattino himself. Gaitskill allows the pretenses in this essay falter quickly, her complex and seemingly contradictory feelings about her loves and her losses laying beside each other to show the rawness of her relationships.