By the middle of December our neighbour’s two cats were sheltering in the warmth and safety of a cardboard box in our covered porch. By the first week of the new year, the number had fallen to one; marmalade-and-white Molly, (aged 19 years), died – leaving Polly on her own for the first time in her life.
This is a hard thing for a cat to cope with, particularly an elderly cat; hard for her owner, and hard for us too. Over the next few days I watched Polly closely while she retreated into solitary sadness and didn’t eat. Occasionally she would roam around looking for her companion and then curl up again and go to sleep.
During this time I must have sketched her dozens of times. Something about her sadness made me want to connect to her in whatever way I could, and drawing does make connections for me that nothing else does – I think, though I can’t prove it, that the connection can sometimes work both ways. Whether it does or not, after a week she started eating again, started to look at us, talk to us and lie on the sofa with us. She rubs her head on my hand, leans on me, looks straight in my eyes and purrs.
I’ve often wondered exactly what happens when I draw. I know I do it for a lot of different reasons, and drawing from life with the subject right in front of you is an entirely different thing from working from a photograph. Sometimes it’s just because it’s a compelling and exciting thing to do, because I see something that I want to experience in a way that’s more meaningful than taking a photograph. Sometimes it’s to capture a moment and preserve it, so that years later when I look at a drawing it works like a time-machine and carries me back to a time and place with all the feelings I had at that moment. Sometimes it’s actually to escape from the present – or rather, to screen out everything else in order to make things bearable; 29 years ago on my first visit to Pakistan it was the only way I could cope with the onslaught on my senses as I experienced for the first time what it’s like to be immersed in the everyday life of a world so different from my own. I just looked at one thing at a time, and drew it.
And sometimes, it can be a way to cope with being with things the way they are, simply by being present with them and accepting them. Pain, fear, sadness, illness, death – they’re all things we run away from if we can, but running away doesn’t make it feel any better and we need a way to be able to stay there in the moment, something that makes it bearable, that feels like coming home. The sadness or sickness or even the death of a cat doesn’t compare to the sickness, for instance, of a child, that Richard Johnson writes about in this piece for the Washington Post, but at all times of confusion and fear we need a way to ease the pain and to stop running. And that’s what drawing does for me.