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“I am grateful to have been loved and to be loved now and to be able to love, because that liberates. Love liberates. It doesn’t just hold—that’s ego. Love liberates. It doesn’t bind.” ~ Maya Angelou
In December 2020, nine months into the pandemic, I decided to adopt a rescue cat.
His name was Marshall, a domestic medium-hair cat with a soft, shiny coat of white and brown hair. I was drawn to his profile because he had this subtle hint of sadness in his gaze. He was gentle, inquisitive, and enjoyed belly rubs. The foster carer reassured me that Marshall would be a great cat for a novice pet owner like me.
I signed up for a four-week trial starting three days before Christmas.
I leaped into this new experience with an open mind. I never had a pet before, and I used to keep my distance from any animals. I had only started to pet dogs and cats few years ago, and it felt so nice that sparked my curiosity to wanting to experience the “unconditional love” that pet owners gushed about. I imagined enjoying some loving companionship in a single household during the pandemic lockdown. I was confident that I would be able to love and look after a pet, just like everyone else.
Marshall settled well into his new home. He was eating, drinking, napping, and exploring the whole apartment within two days. His favourite thing to do was to sit on the large, white-stone top kitchen island enjoying the view of city skyscrapers. When I went out, he would curl up like a ball and nap behind the TV cabinet. Then he would greet me by rolling on his back and purring when I came home.
However, I began to feel uneasy and tense, like I could not relax and just be in my own home.
I thought it was important to put Marshall first. So, I had a strict morning to-do list: cleaning the litter box, feeding Marshall, topping up fresh water and biscuits, brushing Marshall, vacuuming the floor, wiping all surfaces, and bringing out his toys. All before I started my own morning routine.
I thought it was important for Marshall to learn to “be a good cat” and know his boundaries: No going into the wardrobe! No jumping on the kitchen bench during meal prep! No drinking dirty dish water from the sink! No eating my air plants! No coming into my bedroom at night!
I also thought it was important to make sure Marshall had some playtime and belly rubs. But only for five to 10 minutes in the morning and again at night. To me, playtime felt like a waste of time when there were so many chores and stuffs to do.
One night, I woke up with a full-on panic attack: my body drenching in cold sweat, my heart racing as if it’d jump out of the chest, and my subconscious mind falling into a vortex of fear, shame, and self-loathing.
“Why don’t I feel bonded with Marshall? What’s wrong with me? Well, I took so much care of him!”
Taking a deep breath in, my rumination paused for a second. Wait. The way I cared for Marshall mirrored exactly how I was looked after as a child: living a rigid routine of “sleep-eat-study-repeat,” being told to “be respectful” and “know your place,” spending time only on activities that were “useful for the future,” little playtime, physical touch, and “I love you.” Desperately wanting the flashback to stop, I curled into the foetal position under my soft grey weighted blanket, gently rocking myself back into sleep.
The next day, sleep-deprived and guilt-ridden, I contacted Marshall’s foster carer the next day to end the adoption trial after two weeks. I would never forget Marshall’s big, sad eyes when he sat in the empty toy box staring at his belongings on the day he left.
Since then, I doubted myself for a long time. I felt like a failure because I did not give Marshall the love he deserved. I felt clueless and confused about love and loving. Looking back my four decades of life, I have never said “I love you” to anyone or anything. Not to my parent, my sister, or my friends. Not even when I met my favourite boy band in my teen. And I have never had a romantic partner. I cannot help but believe that there must be something wrong with me that I am unworthy of love, incapable to love, banished from love. Alone and invisible.
An epiphany came to me when I sat through a loving-kindness guided meditation one day.
“May I love myself as I am. May I accept myself as I am. May I be at ease with who I am.”
There’s nothing wrong with me, or Marshall, and what happened between us.
We are always good enough as we are.
Just because someone or something doesn’t work out, it doesn’t mean I am a failure.
Just because no one has said “I love you” to me, it doesn’t mean I am not worthy of love.
Just because I don’t say it out loud, or hug it out, it doesn’t mean I don’t know to love.
The truth is, I have been loving my family and friends in my own unique way. I make time for them no matter how busy I am—whether it is a quick 10-minute phone call during a busy day or spending an afternoon together people-watching in the park. I celebrate their successes, listen to their sorrow, and keep their secrets safe. I show them how much I care through small gestures, like a bunch of fresh flowers, a handwritten card, or a surprise delivery of donuts.
The most important of all is the love between me and myself.
It is okay for me to just be.
Be patient with my head and be gentle with my heart.
Be brave to let my voice and feelings out.
Be curious with new experiences but be light with outcomes.
Love is always here. Within me. Around me. In and out of each breath.
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