Nine Lives Aren’t Enough

Abe on the way to the next stage

Have you had that experience where you meet someone you take to immediately, where something about their manner, their look, maybe even how they hold their head, has an irresistible charm? And how sometimes that person needn’t have two legs to qualify, but four?

My sweetheart Alice and I were house-sitting for a few days in Sonoma County a bit back, visiting friends and spending time out on the coast for an article about Ft. Ross. We’d arranged to swap houses with a couple in Santa Rosa, them taking care of our cat and us taking care of their cat, Abe, who was 20 years old. Now, 20 years old isn’t merely elderly for a cat—that’s an age where they’ve been receiving feline Social Security for a couple of generations. That’s a venerable cat, a centenarian, one of the ancients.

So we had some trepidation about caring for him—could he get around, could we leave him in the house alone, what if he got sick? When we first saw him, he was sleeping so soundly that it was hard to get a handle on his ways. Not that our noise could wake him, because he was essentially deaf. But when he first rose and came out to us in the living room, that instant appreciation happened: he had a distinctive way of soft-stepping with each paw, a dainty way of gently moving his long, lean frame forward that was delightful to watch. He was immediately curious about us, coming close, looking into our faces, appreciating our petting with a soft squeak.

The squeak was the most his old vocal chords could muster in the way of a meow. But we loved him right off. Abe the cat, Old Abe, Honest Abe. When he wasn’t sleeping his long hours, he was quite alert and notably conscious of human company, looking you in the eye for acknowledgment and conversation, even one held in squeaks, falling on closed ears.

A Cat’s Charm Sticks

He slept on the bed with us that first night, fast friends, and I was afraid I would crush him by turning over on him. But it worked out fine, though his frailness concerned us when we left for hours at the coast. But he was happy when we returned and happy over the days we were there. When Alice and I returned to Santa Cruz, we remarked several times about his charm. We had to return ten days ago to Santa Rosa for a memorial for one of Alice’s oldest friends, a sad thing, but we were happy to see old Abe again and renew the acquaintance.

But we’d been warned that Abe hadn’t been doing that well, having had some respiratory trouble, probably with allergies. So we were more fearful now than when we’d first heard that he was 20. But he was again charming, friendly and responsive, and through the sadness of the memorial, we were happy again to be with Abe. I spent a while sitting with him on the house’s big rug right before we left, petting him and telling him we hoped to see him again.

So when we heard the other day from Abe’s owner that his breathing problems had become overwhelming, and that she had to have him put down, it was a blow. She had cared for Abe as family for all of his 20 years, and indeed he was her family. Her and her husband’s loss is tremendous, but it surprised me how much I felt it. But maybe not so surprising, because as I suggested at the beginning, some people charm you from moment one, and Abe was that guy.

The Soul’s Lasting Light

Despite my long years of Catholic school (or maybe because of them), I don’t believe in a paternalistic God, looking down on the billions of us with loving benignity. But I do believe there is something immortal in us, however it dwells within us, and that it continues on when the body fails. And I also believe that animals have a soul—you can see it when you look, with attention, into their eyes.

And I’ll probably sweat in hell for this too, but I don’t buy the standard concepts of heaven either. But here’s how it should be: heaven is a baseball game in a beautiful old stadium, where the beer is a dime and hot dogs a quarter. The home team is ahead by two runs and you’re feeling good, with family and friends. (And there are no damn Yankees.)

And if we go extra innings, Abe, I’ll get you another beer.

A Writer’s Workshop: Memories and Memorial Days

Malibu, wondering if I would taste better with a steak sauce

Out and about for the Memorial Day weekend, we seemed to have a wand wave of favorable signs: There was the kite string that led up a rocky hill in a beautiful canyon at Ft. Ord Dunes State Park that I picked up and tugged and lo! a beautiful turtle kite sprung high in the air, heretofore unseen high on the cliff.

And then strolling that pretty beach, the amazement of three hang gliders very slowly moving past us above, so low that we could easily see their expressions. And then later, our first time at the Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge (whose title might be bigger than the park), seeing a determined red-wing blackbird harass a big turkey vulture completely out to the park, and then fly back, very close to us, into the wetlands area he was defending. I’d seen small birds annoy hawks, but never one so focused on ushering a vulture to the door.

That seemed like a pretty good day of small wonders, and we settled in with the great Boulevardiers we’d barreled for a month to mellow appeal in our 3-liter barrel and toasted the glory of small things. When our cat brought the small bunny to our door to display her hunting talents, that’s when the wonders went awry, for us at least.

The Goddess of Small Dead Things

Our cat Malibu, who was semi-feral when we adopted her, spends a good deal of her time outside. We are grateful if rueful for the rats and gophers she eviscerates on our outside doormats, and more grateful yet that she seemingly has no talent for doing the same for birds—we don’t see any remains or feathers on the rural property.

But a bunny.

A young bunny, soft gray, its staring eyes knocked into forever, their last sight my cat’s flashing teeth. She’s never brought back a bunny. There’s a moral inequality there, of course, where we sigh over the gophers and forget them an hour later, but feel strong ethical queasiness about a young rabbit. The artificial hierarchy of living things expressed in the quick, unreflective emotion: oh god, she’s killed a bunny!

Writers Try to Capture Quicksilver

So, an interesting day for a writer—that childlike feeling of glee when I saw that kite rise out of nowhere, and the plunging dismay upon seeing my cat’s bloodletting. I have a sharp sense that writers should keep a look out for those instances, the reminders that we are animals as well, subject to those flights and grottoes of emotion, often multiple times in the same day.

To be able to describe how that works with characters in stories is tricky, because it’s easy to resort to a kind of “she felt a stabbing in her heart” kind of writing (if you’re in a close third-person narrative) rather than something that gets closer to those hummingbird wings of something that flashes and then is gone, but perhaps creates a layer that lingers.

And on this Memorial Day, I salute my father, gone now near seven years, who served in the Army Air Forces in WWII and the Air Force in Korea, a waist gunner in a B-17 for many runs in the European Theatre and Korea. Considering the precarious exposure of waist gunners. and how many didn’t come back, he may have been surprised he made it. But my mother, my three siblings and I are happy he did. Thanks, Dad.