I’ve been drawing and painting cougars a fair bit these past years but admit that I’ve never actually seen one. When I was living in British Columbia I was terrified of seeing one but hardly anyone who wasn’t being attacked by one actually had. That was the gist of it - cougars are shy animals and for the most part they leave us humans alone. Yet as more of us enter their habitat, establishing our gardens and golf courses and attracting the local species of deer, mostly mule deer and white-tailed deer, it's become harder for the cougars to distinguish between deer and other fortuitous types of prey. Especially if they're hungry. A few days after I arrived on Vancouver Island, where the British Columbian capital of Victoria is situated, a cougar sprang from a rock ledge and gobbled up two corgis belonging to a woman who was taking them for their morning stroll along the Brentwood Bay beach.
Like most predators, cougars will go for the smallest and weakest, which was hardly reassuring to a shorty like me. They are also liable to attack in the early morning hours or late in the afternoon, which is when I usually go walking after a day at the desk. I was determined at the time, however, not to let my fear of them deprive me of this salutary recreation. I walked and I watched. But all the while with my heart doing cartwheels in my chest.
Long ago, when asked what I was like as a child, my mother paused and then provided one word. Fearless, is what she said. Of course, overhearing this, I was tremendously pleased. Particularly as it wasn’t at all true. Maybe I was good at hiding it, but I was fearful of a host of things. A horde, you could say. To begin with, I was afraid of fish (don’t ask why, that’s another story); of a boy who lived in our apartment building; of the red-haired chow dogs that prowled the street where my grandparents lived; of the murderers I read about; also painted-face clowns. The sinister tones of the radio mysteries I listened to (because my mother acted in them) sent shock waves through me. When I was seventeen, no less, I begged my parents not to go out and leave me alone with my two younger brothers after reading William March’s The Bad Seed. (Believe me, as a means of sending terror ripping through you, the movie based on it doesn’t begin to compare.)
Yet, it’s also true that I was capable then of feats of derring-do I couldn’t contemplate in my dotage. I was sanguine driving, and I’m certainly not today. I climbed tall trees without qualm and took off like a bird from high-diving boards – head first, with barely a ripple in the warmly receiving water. I was totally, and foolishly, fearless in affairs of the heart.
But as I grew older I changed. Motherhood, it has to be said, made me frightened in a way I never had been before. All the things that could happen to a child overwhelmed me, so much so that I often found myself afraid to show my very deep love, lest something might happen to take a child away from me. This, I imagine, is something akin to what parents felt in earlier times, when children’s mortality was the rule rather than the exception. Perhaps it’s what makes them seem so harsh in our eyes today. I became more anxious as well about what was happening in the world. Inward- or outward-looking, I could scarcely control emotions so alarmingly intense. We were deep in the midst of the Cold War when my first child arrived, and the sound of a low-flying airplane had me hugging him so hard it would surely startle him if I were to do so now, fifty odd years down the track. Fifty years down the track I still worry about him, his siblings, and their children, and their children and children yet to be. The older I get the crueller the world seems, and humans the cruellest creatures in it.
Age has set off its own battery of alarms. I now have a fear of falling. I fear I won’t manage when my partner dies or he won’t manage if I go before him. I’m frightened by the prospect of not managing anything, and foisting the care of me onto overburdened others. I see before me a bleak horizon of ever-increasing helplessness, unavoidable loneliness, and of course the end of it, the ineluctable fate of all of us, humans and animals alike. Yet strangely and happily, the more I have to fear the less I do. There are numerous reasons for this, but I'll narrow them down to three - love, laughs, and cougars.