Sunday, August 24, 2014
There's a Lesson In This Somewhere
The story of Smokey begins with Fellini, half a year even before Smokey was born. After school on a spring day a couple of middle school kids came down our street with a box of kittens. “Free kittens!” Ali said breathlessly as she came inside, with the emphasis on “free”. Her Dad looked at her and replied “you’d have to PAY ME to have another cat in the house”. Even before she could argue, Little Mark was behind her, kitten in hand. “Look, Daddy,” Ali was taking the sweet path, “look how cute. You can’t not want to have him”. Ali is batting her eyes at her father, smiling warmly as she presents the striped tabby kitten to him. I am watching, hoping even, that she can talk him into it when the tiny cat hisses at Big Mark and tries to bat at his face. Mark jumps in, “Dad, he is really little. You scared him. He is a nice kitten.” Big Mark is not convinced, not interested and not even willing to consider adopting the kitten into our home. “Out” He points to the door. The kitten and kids leave the house. We have a dog and a cat and in truth, we don’t need another pet. I follow the kids out front.
By fall the kitten has grown into a young cat and he has fully inserted himself into our family. He still hisses when Big Mark talks to him but he sleeps with the kids and lives peacefully with the other pets. He is called Fellini. One Sunday afternoon a neighborhood kid lifts him by the tail and Ali intervenes to stop the abuse but Fellini is petrified and attacks her. I am there but it happens so fast that there is blood soaked through her shirt and her face has a deep gash above her lip that nearly goes through to the inside of her mouth. There is screaming from the neighborhood kid who gets a punch from Little Mark, screaming from Ali, me and finally Big Mark whose gentle nature has been turned upside down at the sight of his injured daughter. I think Fellini is going to be murdered. I sort of want him to be murdered, I am that angry. Ali, despite her wounds, goes to Fellini’s defense while Little Mark locks the cat in his bedroom so that Big Mark can’t get to him. Later. We’ll kill him later, after we get back from the hospital.
By the New Year all that is left is a little scar above Ali’s lip that sort of looks like kitten whiskers. Ali points that out to the extended family after dinner as she sits with Fellini on her lap, petting his soft belly. Mid-January Fellini is outside long after the other cat and dog come in for dinner. I call him from the back door and Little Mark is calling out front. He doesn’t come back by bedtime. The next morning, sunny but cold, Ali is looking for him before school. I look during the day. Big Mark is traveling but the kids tell him about the missing Fellini every time he calls. They have signs around the neighborhood but the cat has not come back. Every night before bed, Ali stands outside in the cold and shakes the box of cat food, hopeful that Fellini will come home. When Big Mark sees this he is moved by Ali’s heartbreak and doubles our efforts to find the cat. For weeks, Ali stands in the cold, shaking the box of cat food. Every night she goes to bed without Fellini.
“I never wanted that damn cat and then I wanted to kill it when it scratched my baby but now I just wish I could find it”. Mark is sitting at the table after the kids are in bed, talking to me. “I feel terrible about this. They are heartbroken”. It is February and the days are getting a little longer and I am starting to have thoughts of spring. Sunday morning Big Mark announces that he is getting the kids a new kitten for Valentine’s Day. “Even if Fellini comes home?” they ask. Even if. Monday, Mark is traveling again and he calls me to say that there are no kittens anywhere. He has called the SPCA, pet stores, stopped at an Amish Farm. Nothing. It isn’t the season yet. By April there will be hundreds of kittens. “But Daddy, you said that it is a Valentine’s gift!”
I run into a woman at the SPCA who tells me that she has kittens at her house. Mark is still away but he made an agreement with Ali and Mark that if we found a kitten, we could get it without him so long as he got credit for it. The three of us go to Marcus Hook where a lady has two ferrets, a wolf and a tiny gray kitten in her row home. It takes her nearly half an hour to get the scared kitten from under the china cabinet, the whole while Little Mark asking her why she has a wolf in the house. We bring the kitten home and when Big Mark gets back from traveling the next day, they have it named Smokey. This kitten is quiet, sweet and not nearly as handsome as Fellini. As he grows, he develops a snaggle tooth and a tendency to be dusty with sticks stuck to his fur. He never hisses, misbehaves and isn’t the kind of cat that needs much attention. He fits in easily with the dog and cat and knows enough to hide from the neighbor kids.
By the end of spring that year my life had changed so much that I often think of it in two parts. Before and After. Before Big Mark died and After Big Mark died. Smokey was one of the few things from Before that we took with us to the After. He made the transition with as much difficulty as me, Ali and Marky but instead of tears and misgivings, he hid in the attic and then shit in the carrier on the way to Downingtown.
We perfected our veterinary skills on Smokey. When he was around 3 years old he came home with a portion of his ear missing and Ali became adept at wound healing and infection control. When Mark was in middle school he removed a 12 inch piece of grass from Smokey’s nose that was caught in the cat’s throat. I’ll spare the details but it was truly a feat of surgical genius executed on our hall sofa. There was Ivermectin treatment for mange and because our math skills are so bad, we calculated the dose for nearly two days before we would give it to him. Smokey was not a fastidious cat so he was often covered in spider webs, lint, dust and dirt. His tooth hung over his lip in a way that made him creepy looking and his gaze was intense and unknowable. But we knew him. Smokey was always the first pet in the house to come to our sick bed. It was as though he knew when we needed comfort. He liked to sit on my lap when I’d type away at the computer. He was tolerate of Mark’s young, obnoxious cat but also mentored him in cat manners. Smokey was polite with guests. In his younger days, we would joke and say that he had a second family because he would go out early and come back late. In the last few years, his expeditions didn’t take him too far from the porch but if he was out when I walked the dog, he’d follow along.
Smokey lived a good life and earned a peaceful rest. The problem is… The thing about it is…Smokey is our last link to our old life. He is the last living thing I shared with my husband, that Ali and Mark shared with their father. The story of Smokey is symbolic of the best part of Mark. The gentle man who would not kill a cat that injured his daughter, the confident man who would be proud that his son hid the cat from him, the generous man who would search for another cat when it was the last thing he really wanted in his own life. And so it goes. I move forward. Plough ahead. Press on. With bits and twigs of memories that fade into nothingness the further away we get.