While Holding the Cat (Or: Wile, Holding the Cat)

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The beginning of Holy Week—the week of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter—and I’m sitting in a chair looking the window, trying to drink a cup of tea while holding our cat, Zeke. Not an easy task, especially since Zeke can’t seem to get settled, but during this year of COVID-CRUD, the two of us have bonded, probably because I have more patience than I did a year ago, so I wait him out.

Which is sort of what I get to thinking about. If I rise halfway out of my chair (which I can’t because Zeke has finally curled up on my arm), I can look through the window down to some crocuses poking through the ground. Spring is here, along with Easter and all it signifies about resurrection and new hope. Mary Lee and I have been double-vaccinated, and for the first time in a year, the grandchildren are coming to spend the weekend with us.

And I’m not sure I want any of it.

I think of the little delights of the previous year—not the big delights like reading and writing and flailing away at my banjo, those will go on no matter what—but the little delights that I’d never have noticed if I hadn’t had more time to consider them:

The squirrel who nearly every morning while I do my exercises bounces from the limb of one fir tree across the hollow in the back yard to the limb of another fir, making the trees look like they’re dancing.

The wooden butter knife I use to scrape the sides of the cone filter when I make coffee that always reminds me of Jeff, the guy who made it: a free spirit and real artist with wood, as well as someone I used to play music with, BCE (Before the COVID Era).

 The painted little wooden bird houses on my neighbor’s fence, which at first I thought were really kitschy until she told me her granddaughter had made or at least painted them for her, which suddenly made them really, really cute.

The pale yellow remains of the last remaining pumpkin I grew last year and kept on the dining room table until after Thanksgiving when I put it on the patio where the squirrels (probably including the one who bounces across the gully in the morning) ate the insides out of, so I threw the shell into the hollow where it still lies, weighing only a few ounces but still holding its shape.

Seeing my old friend Andy on Zoom, which is a bitter-sweet delight, since he’s battling Parkinson’s and is himself only a shell of the witty, intelligent man he was when I first knew him but who continues to handle his decline with a grace that I can only hope to maintain should anything like that ever happen to me.

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It’s probably some form of mental inertia, but I tend to grow comfortable, even in my discomfort.

Sitting in my chair, petting Zeke, I recall his predecessor, Koshka (which is the Russian word for cat—actually, female cat, which Koshka wasn’t, but we didn’t know it at the time [that the word meant female cat, not that we didn’t know Koshka’s sex]) whom we bought as a kitten after my daughter Laurie was diagnosed with cancer. In Laurie’s last visit to our house, shortly before she went into the hospital where she spent the last two months of her life, I took a picture of her holding Koshka (probably what turned me from a dog to a cat lover).

In the following years, Koshka grew to twenty pounds of CAT, his size enlarged by his being part Maine Coon and having the tail the size of a furry zuchini. He was an imposing presence, not unlike my grief, and his moods seemed to mirror mine. If I felt isolated and withdrawn, he disappeared; after I began meditating, he’d jump into my lap and curl up, his breathing a match for mine.

During one particularly bad time when Laurie’s absence was a palpable ache in my heart and I was angry at everyone and everything, he developed a urinary infection, and I remember the time his howling woke us up in the middle of the night, and I saw him standing with his back arched in the middle of our bedroom floor, staring at the cross on our meditation alter, sounding as if he were screaming to God, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

As years passed and my bouts of intense grief grew less frequent, Koshka dropped to about 12 pounds and lost all but four teeth. But as if to remind me that grief is the gift that keeps on giving, the summer before he died, somewhere around my daughter’s birthday, he got in a standoff with another cat who’d wandered into the yard, and, when I tried to pick him up, sank one of his four teeth into my arm, sending me to the hospital (missed an artery by 2 cms.).

Twenty years after Laurie’s death, when Koshka fell in the bathroom on his way to the litter box and refused to leave and we called a vet to come to the house to help him die peacefully, I grieved for a week—not, I realize now, for an old cat, not even for my daughter, but for the loss of the grief that had defined me for twenty years.

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Zeke lifts his head, which is his way of telling me he wants to be scratched under his chin. In size and temperament, Zeke is as similar to Koshka as a chickadee is to a turkey vulture. Unlike Koshka, who used to breathe with me in my lap while I was meditating, Zeke is usually scratching frantically in his litter box at that time of the day. Which, I’ve decided pretty much reflects what’s going on in my mind lately. I too, have been a little frantic, scratching in the litter box of my mind, worried about my various aches and pains (Leonard Cohen: “I ache in all the places where I used to play.”), my grandchildren’s future, the end of democracy in this country, etc. ad nauseam. Which is probably why I’m apprehensive about the coming of Easter (my favorite Easter gospel is Mark, where the women “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s sure as hell what I would have done.)

But Zeke has calmed down these days. At least, that’s what I think until his mysterious eyes, which have been mere slits, widen, and he bites my hand and scampers away. The next thing I know, he’s batting a toy mouse at my feet, as if to say, “Come on, Wile, get off your ass. Stop looking out the window at the world and get outside and enjoy it. Get ready for those grandchildren!”

Okay, okay. Time to rise. Sometimes you get resurrected whether you want to or not.

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