starting the goodbye
that old cat, a country cat, has been a feisty cat since the day he sprang forth from the icehouse beer cardboard six-pack in which he’d mewed the whole way home.
he was a kitten then, a wee striped thing, and he’d come to fill a gaping hole in our little family.
you see, we’d had our hearts broken time and time again back in the baby-hoping years, wishing and praying for a someone to carry home someday for our little one, who’d turned from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4, and still was all alone, without a someone to share a room, to fight over books in the back seat, to venture off into our tiny back yard and spend the afternoon making like it was the amazon jungle, or the dark side of the moon. or, heck, looking down the road (and that’s what mamas do), there was no one yet whose hand he’d hold on the someday when i die.
fact was, there’s only so much breaking a heart can do, and then it’s time to wipe away the tears, make peace with what you’ve got rather than long for what you’ve not, and, well, when talking to a friend, a friend with many cats, and more on the way, you nod and murmur, “hmm, maybe…..”
and then you rejoice at the news that your kitten has been born. you wait six weeks, and when the father of your four-year-old is out of the country, for heaven’s sake, you drive out to the farm to meet the furry little fellow.
and, oh, you feel your heart go thwallop. and you see your little boy melt down onto the floor to meet what will pass for, um, a brother.
and you tuck the little ball of stripes into the nearest carry-all you can find, in this case the cardboard six-pack left from someone’s weekend beers.
and home you drive.
and out you let those stripes.
and he hightails it straight for your toes.
so many toes he charges for, he nibbles, he pierces with his razor kitten teeth, you hear these actual words come from the mouth of the father of your child, once he’s back from faraway country: “either he goes, or i go,” you hear him say. (and deep inside you snicker because you know forever more you’ve got one fine yarn to tell.)
and of course neither the ferocious toe-smitten kitten nor your mate heads for any door.
and you grow to love said cat. you catch your little one curled up with him, stroking him, making houses for him, trying to coax him into his kindergarten backpack.
you screech when said kitten leaps from tree limbs onto rooftops and when, uh oh, he can’t get down. and you hold your breath as the one who issued he-goes-or-i-go declaration hauls out the ladder and climbs precariously to the little rascal’s rescue. again and again and again.
and you walk through city alleys, crying, calling his name, every time he goes and gets lost for days on end, stuck in tight spots and dark cellars where, egad, drugs are sold. (you discover the latter after you’ve tiptoed through the labyrinthine basement blackness with the helpful chap who gangbangs on the side.)
oh, lord, that cat puts you through the wringer. and you love him more with every cock-eyed hair-raising chapter.
and then, some 13 years pass, and the cat you never could contain, the cat that roams all night, and leaves body parts on your doorstep, he slows down one summer. loses weight. is hardly his feisty self.
you fear he’s slurped too many murky waters from the birdbath, darn it. or perhaps he swallowed one too many critters from the tall-grass jungle.
and the boy who once carried him home, who stroked him, and cooed to him the whole long way, the boy who loved to tell the story of his name, how he came to be turkey baby choo-choo hi cat bye cat, the boy whose legs are now so long they spill beyond the borders of the bed (though the cat finds room to curl there, each and every morning), he is the first one to crumble when you point out the cat’s all bony just beneath his fur.
when you point out how he barely leaves the hollowed-out spot beneath the old roses in the garden, where he now spends hours napping. or is it that he’s feeling rather ill, and just can’t muster what it takes to up and stumble toward the house?
all at once, you all realize how time has passed and this chapter might be coming toward a close. how this cat that carried you from all alone and four to seventeen and very much a real-live brother has shared some fine adventures, stories to be told forevermore. and how, along the way, you’ve come to count on that rare breed of loyalty a boy and cat can surely share.
and you realize that even if it’s not the very end, the goodbyes begin in measured spoonfuls.
and so for a whole hour one summer morning, you sit on bricks, beside the spot where he’s gone limp, you stroke your blessed furry cat, you honor him with gratitude that’s deep, will last forever. you whisper words to him, tell him he was mighty in his glory days, showed what cats are made of, hauling home whole herds of chipmunk parts, and mice tails too, fierce hunter.
you consider the gentle side of that ol’ cat, how he climbed upon you in the morn, pushed his paws into your chest, as if kneading breadloaves, one paw after another, sure sign of cat love.
you think back on all the times when that cat, he leapt to your rescue. how when you were sick or sad, he always had a knack for climbing in your lap, for licking you with that scratchy sand-paper tongue of his. uncanny, how the cats smell hurt rising from the ones they love.
and with a cat–or any creature, after all, maybe even with a caterpillar if you name it, feed it, let it out for so-called walks (though more likely bends-and-stretches)–love’s a two-way street.
and, oh, what with college round the bend, and all this slo-mo cat decline, it seems we’ve come to the part of the story where the grace-filled parting starts unspooling.
where we gather up all the hours and the days of our entwined lives, where we sift through the parts that make us laugh out loud, and the ones where we held our breath and begged the heavens for his safe return.
love is like that towards the end. if you’re blessed to see it coming. if you’re given long slow mornings where you have a chance to look into each other’s eyes and hearts, say thank you for the bond that will not break, the bond that got us through a dark place, the pawing at the door so many times, when in on cat feet crept the next best thing to a little brother, one who never fought for books, but did play along in the amazon jungle.
that old cat is moving slow now. and we are mustering the start of our holy blessed vespers, the sacred rites of thank you and thank you before the last goodbye.
not always do we get the chance to tell the stories one more time, to whisper thank you and good bye. i know too well how suddenly sometimes death can come, and we’re left gasping. without goodbye. i know too that cat or dog or bird love is real. and its loss leaves a gaping wound. hopefully that old cat has a few romps left. he’s the cat my boys grew up with, he’s the cat who’s made us laugh and cry. and one thing’s certain, there’ll be more of both. have you been blessed to whisper long goodbyes? or were you too cut short?