Where do you find meaning in the world? A recent Pew Research Centre survey of pandemic-era adults in 17 countries produced a vast range of responses to that question, although many of those answers could easily be distilled down to just three words: family, work, pets.
The multiple stages of the pandemic have made many of us profoundly aware of what we have, what we cherish and what we have lost over the past two years. The chaos of the crisis has also been oddly clarifying, too, refining the essence of our complicated lives down into basic wants and needs.
My own life is the approximate sum of that trifecta, too, and the final one of those three words – pets – is where I find a huge accumulation of loss over the past two years.
As a family, we lost three cats during the pandemic. The happiness they had long created in the house was replaced by the still, stale air of sadness when they left us.
The first to die was Toohey, a handsome Arabian Mau, who was a rambunctious presence in our household for all but the first three months of his nine-and-a-half-year existence.
He strolled into our lives in summer 2011, moving swiftly from street to sofa cat. He died at home at the start of the pandemic, suddenly and unexpectedly, just as shelter-at-home orders were being instituted. Even now, if I stop for a moment, I can still hear the shallow breaths of his final hours.
We cried for days afterwards, barely believing he could have been stolen from us like that. Worse was to follow.
For all of his life, Toohey had shared space in our house with Kittycat, an affectionate bundle of white fur, who had walked into our building in the early months of 2010.
Kittycat was by then, we think, about 18 months old, and already a mum, although her kittens had been spirited away. She had been living in the shrub and shade of the three-storey apartment block where we lived, but she obviously decided we suited her needs just fine.
She always had a way of shrugging off whatever challenges her life had thrown in front of her – we came to understand there had been many – and gave us so much joy over the years.
But at the beginning of 2021, Kittycat made up her mind that her life had been full enough and she walked out. Cats can and do wander off at the end of their lives to withdraw. Kittycat followed that course.
We spent days combing the streets of our neighbourhood, calling her name, showing pictures of her to every passer-by and then we reluctantly accepted that she was gone.
We never did find her body or have a chance to say goodbye. Our hearts were broken again. Like Toohey’s sudden death before it, Kittycat’s disappearance seemed emblematic of the discombobulating nature of the ongoing pandemic.
In between those two deaths, our younger son had scooped up a malnourished scrap of a two-month old black cat we called Murphy from an alleyway not far from our home. I think we knew from the very early days of him being part of our family that his young frame was not built for this world.
He stopped walking, eating or drinking a month after he began his faltering rehabilitation with us. We trudged to the vets in hope in November 2020 and left in despair. Murphy's law had well and truly been applied.
The sadness that enveloped our world was almost overwhelming in the months after this series of calamities, but in April we decided to fill the void they had left behind.
Two seven-year-old brother cats called Victor and Ralph (it is possible that their names were once Viktor and Rolf, after the fashion brand) found us via social media, after their foster home parents posted about them.
Their backstory was complicated. We know that they spent years together growing up, were separated for a period in adulthood and then reunited again by the time we found them.
The period of separation was full of uncertainty and they clearly wear the scars of that trauma every day. It took them weeks to settle into their new lives with us. They’d often prefer to stay still rather than explore, trapped in their own vortex of uncertainty and inertia about their new world. Maybe they sensed the sadness of what had come before them.
When we tried to take one of them to the vets for a routine check-up a few weeks ago, his brother lashed out at us as he thought we might be separating them again. The old wounds have not quite healed, but in time we feel sure they will.
Victor and Ralph are very different from the previous occupants of our home, not least because they had never experienced the outside world before. That changed a few days ago. We've had a "catio" built for them, a project inspired by my colleague Evelyn Lau, which is their very own patch of safe outdoor space.
Our two cats are navigating this new space in their own way – sometimes tentatively, sometimes confidently – which is just fine. We are just glad they are with us.
Our own journey back from the brink of sadness feels broadly in sync with theirs. Our healing processes are progressing on similar tracks.
They are learning to navigate a new normal, just like us, and we have found meaning once more.