Last week my son Michael came to Whidbey Island for a weeklong visit. It was the first extended just-you-and-me time we’d had in years, and we determined to make the most of it.
One of the highlights of our time together had us laughing so hard for so long that I thought we might have to be rescued – but Mike is a full-time EMT, and in a moment of catching our breaths he assured me that a call to 911 wasn’t necessary for this affliction . . . and then we started laughing all over again.
It was a beautiful sunny day and we were the only visitors at the Olympic Game Farm near the town of Sequim on the Olympic Peninsula. Currently a sort of drive-through zoo, the Olympic Game Farm was originally designed as a holding facility for the animal actors of Disney Studios. It now focuses on in-need wildlife. The predators (lions, wolves, bears, tigers) are housed behind fences, which is sad when you see that, no matter how well-cared-for they are, their lives have become so resstricted.
So what was so funny? Visitors get to drive slowly on the curving paths through the Farm, to be greeted by shaggy yaks and bison, huge Roosevelt elk, and single-minded llamas, all intent on getting you to give them slices of wheat bread through the open windows of your car. These critters have absolutely no table manners! Did you know that a yak head (up to the horns) can just fit into a Honda Fit window space? Their tongues are huge and blue and they drool over the edge of the window. At first my laughter was half fright and half delight as these amazing creatures got up-close-and-personal. Mike was driving just a few miles an hour, with a llama face looking nose-to-nose with him, while the llama was galumphing at the same speed as the car. As if that weren’t funny enough, my comedic son started speaking for the critters in cartoon voices, all the while laughing uproariously (and somehow keeping the car on the track and not damaging any animals – or the car). There were also moments of awe, as we dug our fingers into the fur of a bison, or realized how really big an elk is.
On our way back to Whidbey Island Mike and I talked about other animals, the ones we’d encountered so far on the island – lots of deer, Great Horned owls hooting and coyotes howling at night, and a beaver dragging an alder branch across the road to a swampy ditch. I told Mike about the feral cat I’d rescued a few days earlier: the yellow tabby was in my front yard staggering around with his head stuck in a deli food bag. The bag was just small enough that when he had tried to lick the last bit of food at the bottom of the inside, he couldn’t get his head out. He was terrified, couldn’t see where he was going, couldn’t figure a way out of his dilemma. I knew I could have been clawed or bitten, but he responded to my voice, let me touch him and pull the bag from his head. Then he rocketed away on his residual adrenaline. He paused for just a second, several yards away, to look back and (maybe) say, “Thanks, Lady.”
Which leads me to a story I want to share about another cat who, in his dying, helped me make an important decision. And, in his death, that cat granted me a deep personal wish. This story begins forty-five years ago, with son Mike on his ninth birthday. He had found a kitten in the alley behind our Indiana home – a little gray ball of fur smaller than Mike’s hand. “Can I keep him, please?” How could a mom say no? I reached over to pet the tiny kitten’s head . . . and he bit my finger.
“Oh, you poor little darling,” I said. “You’ve had a hard life so far. We’ll give you a soft pillow and warm milk, and you’ll grow up to be a sweet, loving house cat.” Wrong. He continued to bite deliberately and unpredictably all his life. We named him “Hoppy” for the funny way he walked. We should have named him “Curmudgeon.” Of all the cats who owned us over the years, Hoppy was the least lovable.
Thirteen years later, Hoppy lay stretched out across a floor heat register, thin, ragged, sick. He had not eaten in three days, except for a few licks of half-and-half which he couldn’t resist under any circumstances. He was not in pain, but it seemed he was dying. I had a decision to make. Would I take him to the vet, via the car trip that always terrorized him, possibly only to have him euthanized at the end of the terror – or possibly to bring him home healed? Or would I leave him alone, soaking up the warmth from the register, letting nature take its course, possible to die unnecessarily – but certainly to do so in peace and relative dignity?
I decided to leave him alone.
A few months later, my father lay stretched out on his couch, very ill. He was sallow, coughing, bone thin, refusing to eat, refusing to seek medical help. I had a decision to make. Would I force him to go to the doctor, probably to be sent to the hospital which was more frightening to him than anything else in the world – and possibly to be made well again? Or would I leave him alone, in the familiarity of his apartment, possibly to die there – but certainly to do so in relative peace and with at least as much dignity as I had allowed my curmudgeon cat?
I decided to leave him alone.
The cat lived.
My father died.
Both decisions were good.
Four years after that, Hoppy lay dying. There was no doubt about it this time. He couldn’t even be bribed with half-and-half. He lay at the edge of the kitchen floor, unable to move any further. He’d been there for two days, watching us with his usual resentful stare whenever he could open his eyes. I put a towel between the linoleum and his bony body. He hadn’t enough life left in him to bite me for it.
I sat with Hoppy as he died. Even while his heart still beat, he died from the outside in – his tail, his ears, his paws became cold, though his belly was still warm. Finally he made a small sound, a single mew; he stopped breathing, and grew cold all over.
I went out to the back yard to dig a grave for Hoppy, lining the grave with fresh wild catnip. I wrapped his body in the towel, placed it in the damp brown, dusky hole, and covered it with flowers and dirt.
As I sat beside the new grave I said to the dead cat, “You have been a lousy cat all your life, you damned curmudgeon. So I ask now one favor, which surely you owe me. I ask your feline spirit to teach me to grieve well.”
I do not know how much time passed before I was next aware – maybe five seconds, maybe five minutes. The first thing I had to do was breathe. I had not inhaled for an eternity. My sobs had been so intense they were silent, too deep to find any audible expression at all. The spirit of the nasty cat had granted my request. I grieved well. I grieved for the cat. I grieved for my father. I grieved for the many losses of my life, named and unnamed.
The spirit of the cat had taken me into a timeless, mystical realm. This was confirmed by another four-legged creature. Hannah, the black Labrador who lived next door, usually greeted me with gusto, paws on my shoulders, tongue all over my face, and enthusiastic tail threatening to disassemble the dog. But this day she sat quietly at the base of the maple tree, a few yards from me, watching, seeming to guard the mysterious time warp I had entered. When I could function again, I motioned to Hannah. She came over, tail wagging gently, and lay her head on my lap. This was sacred space, and we both knew it.
Whether it is joy or wisdom, comfort or qualms, awe or laughter, or even a chance to be a hero for a moment, the gifts offered by the four-legged neighbors in our lives are priceless, and I am deeply grateful for every one of them – even the yak slobber.