A review of Juliet Marillier’s “The Gatekeeper”in The Sum of Us edited by Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law (Laksa Media Group, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille
In 2007 reports abounded of a cat in Providence Rhode Island who predicted the deaths of more than 100 residents in an older adult care home. Oscar, the “miracle cat” was worked as a therapy cat for the residents and was reported on by geriatrician David Dosa in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. Dosa reported that Oscar would nap near patients a few hours before they would die, and he eventually wrote the book.
Oscar evoked a number of questions by the public around omens as well as the ability for cats to smell impending death. Oscar was also the inspiration for Juliet Marillier’s short story “The Gatekeeper”.
Highlighting a cat in a collection of short stories about caregivers and caregiving evokes the interesting relationships between humans and animals, and the emotional labour that our pets do for us. Marillier’s cat, who names himself Cat even though everyone around him has a different name for him based on the cats that they had when they were younger, constantly works to make sure that the residents feel safe and cared for. Marillier brings attention to the constant work that cats do, ensuring that their humans are emotionally healthy and well. Cat has integrated himself into the care routines of the older adult care home where he is working, checking on patients when human staff aren’t sufficient in the care home for the care needs of the population. Cat is often with patients at their deaths when human staff are busy elsewhere.
Marillier writes Cat as a servant of the Egyptian cat goddess Bast, and Cat believes he has a religious duty to make sure that he can give comfort to human beings, and, particularly those human beings who are transitioning into death. Rather than simply being part of the expectations of a pet’s role, Cat’s care for humans becomes his religious duty, complicating ideas of care.
In “The Gatekeeper”, Cat’s role is questioned and he and the man who rescued him and brought him into the home, Tariq, may have to leave because the home, with its strict policies considers the presence of a cat to be a question of hygiene. Rather than listening to residents about the importance of having a therapy cat, administration at the older adult care home decides that the cat shouldn’t have a role there. This relationship to the cat is further complicated because Tariq is unwilling to give up Cat (who he names Hamza), and, as a result may lose his job. Tariq is Afghanistani and has precarious employment in Australia due to his immigrant status. He is perceived as unqualified for others jobs that he could have and positioned as a care provider. His loyalty to Cat/Hamza comes into conflict with his need for employment and his ideas of care, a style of care based on personal connections with the residents, is already suspect in an older adult care culture that is often based more on efficiency and bodily needs over the emotional needs of the residents. Cat provides for the emotional needs that a neoliberal health system doesn’t allocate time or funds for. He provides care for the price of treats and connects residents to feelings of safety, comfort, and memory.
Marillier’s “The Gatekeeper” operates in the realm of speculative fiction to open up critical questions about health care and ideas of quality of life, while focusing her narrative on human-animal relationships. She brings attention to the devaluing of emotional labour and care work, highlighting the therapeutic potential of human-animal interactions, and human-human interactions in a home. She provides a cat’s eye view of the nursing home system, taking the narrative out of the hands of doctors, nurses, and PSWs and envisioning a new type of care work.
To discover more about The Sum of Us, visit http://laksamedia.com/the-sum-of-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause-2/
To find out more about Juliet Marillier, visit http://www.julietmarillier.com/