Saturday, February 19, 2011


She sits across from me, drawn, gaunt, eyes red, and tells me that she can't sleep in her dorm room without her cat. When I ask her why, she tells me that it is only because of her cat that she can tell the difference between a night terror and something that she should really be afraid of. She sees ghosts. She is sensitive to the presence of things that should remain in other worlds. If her cat remains unaffected, the ghosts aren't real, and she can feel as safe as she is capable of feeling.

That afternoon I will write a letter asking that she be allowed to keep her cat with her. I won't explain exactly why.

In the early days of mining, men sent deep into the earth to hammer out coal would bring a caged canary with them. The canaries, prized for their delicate metabolism, would begin to sway uncertainly on their perch in the presence of trace amounts of methane or carbon monoxide, gases that presaged untimely death by suffocation or explosion. The sight of a dying canary sent the wary miners clawing for the surface. My client's hope was that her cat could keep her safe from fates even more horrible than a lack of oxygen or a cave-in triggered by an underground blast.

Many of my clients come to me bearing such cages. They scan the environment, hypersensitive to that clue that will remind them of just how unsafe their world is, the clue that will send them clawing for the surface, scurrying back to bed and under the covers and safe for another day. They miss classes and end relationships based on the swaying of a canary. They avoid the harsh glare of life, the seeped methane of distrust, the carbon dioxide of a poisonous memory. They live underground, their days dimly illuminated with the faltering beam of headlamps and dingy lanterns. There are days when I feel that to convince them to let the canary fly free is just too jolting and unkind, and I sit with them in the dark, and we watch the canary breathe, both of us mindful of the fragile respiratory rhythm of life.

There are those glorious days when we watch an unfettered flight, the canary soaring, striving to be more than a simple harbinger. I love those days, but I value them the same as the other days, as they are all part of the miner's life. The cage is never discarded, as there will be more descents into darkness. Canaries are easy to come by, a dime a dozen, and as often as they have failed to do their jobs they are still the closest thing to trustworthy that many will ever find.

And on some days, that's enough.

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