The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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Andy was already twelve when I met him. He lived at our local dharma study group center, where we talked about impermanence, suffering, enlightenment, compassion, old age, death, the meaning of self, and in what sense the mind could be said to continue beyond death. Andy made the rounds from person to person during these discussions, staying the longest with those who enjoyed his company the most.
He was a stately and dignified being. I would guess he weighed more than sixteen pounds. He had long whiskers, a striped black and gray coat, and a broad nose, like the muzzle of a lynx. When I scratched his old scarred ears and stroked his back, he would swish his big front paw from side to side, bent at the wrist, flexing the claws on the wooden floor. It was a little dance that said, “Oh, I like that.” With his eyes half-closed, he would rumble his deep, throaty purr and push the back of his neck against my hand. He maintained a quiet, undemanding, unassuming presence that seemed like the embodiment of our meditation practice.
I live in a high field, overlooking a river valley. My land is surrounded by forest. It is a good place for feral cats. When Andy was fifteen, his owner, Bob, asked me if I would take him. I said yes. Bob’s wife is allergic to cats and suffers badly from asthma.
I already had one extremely jealous cat, Louise, who stays outdoors most of the time, because I could not trust him to refrain from placing his smelly territorial markers on my rugs. (Louise, a male, was given a female name by a woman who used many assumed names and suffered from a chronic identity crisis. Her cat now suffers from a chronic identity crisis.)
For the first few days after he arrived, Andy wandered around and around my house, emitting deep, mournful cries. When I let him in, he found a spot on the rug that had been watered by Louise and baptized it again with his own spray. Then I decided that he, too, would have to get used to living outside. I put his cushion in the corner of the breezeway, near the entrance to the garage; he was old and had to be able to get away from the winter wind and lie on something soft.
Louise hissed and spat and growled, trying to steal Andy’s food and drive him from the land. Andy bore this treatment with patience. He sat and stared down at this aggressive, sable-coated, snarling, feline bully, and the corners of his mouth turned up slightly to expose the tips of his old fangs, as if he had tasted a bad piece of fish. Not until Louise slashed him did he respond; even then he tried to avoid battle, by growling softly and leaning back into a sitting position — Louise in his book did not rate a true combat stance — swatting just enough to make the younger cat retreat; then Andy turned and walked imperiously away.
Forced to share the same territory outdoors, the two cats developed different strategies of slipping into the house to get warm. Louise sat in the window looking pitiful. Andy waited at the kitchen door and pranced in when somebody stepped out. He trotted swiftly across the kitchen to the nearest heat register and settled down on top of it.
I let him stay long enough to warm up, and then said, “All right, old man, time to go.” He always knew. At first he tried to sidle off, but when he was definitely caught, he never struggled. He could read from my face that he was going to be expelled. His response was to look put upon, and do nothing. I would carry him gently out the door, and place him on the breezeway cushion; after I returned inside he gave a few mournful yowls and accepted his fate. Louise would hide under beds, squirm, fight, turn, and grab my shoulder — he was like a cartoon cat, crying, “No, no, please, don’t send me to Siberia, I’ll be good.” I detached his claws from my flesh one by one and heaved him without ceremony into a snowdrift.
My woodshed adjoins the basement. In the winter I bring in logs to feed the wood furnace. When I swung the door wide, Andy was waiting; he dashed past my legs and climbed up the cellar stairs to the kitchen. If he saw me chasing him, he froze in the middle of the floor and dropped his head — he had too much dignity to run — and allowed me to carry him down and replace him on the ragged easy chair in the shed where he slept. But sometimes I would feel softhearted and let him stay in for a while. This sequence worked into a routine: he looked up from the chair when I entered the shed; if I didn’t return his glance, but went directly to the woodpile, he dropped his face back down between his paws. As I heaved the logs into the basement through the wide open door, he made no attempt to sneak past. Neither was he bothered by the sound of the crashing wood.
But if I returned his glance and said, “Hello, old man, how are you feeling?” he replied with a chirp, stretched, went into the basement, and paused on the cellar stairs, waiting for my word. Then I would say, “Go on, Andy, it’s okay, go ahead up. Go on.” And he hustled up to the kitchen. Once there, I gave him tuna fish and milk. When I scratched his ears, he did the little dance with his front paw.
In April, the cats were buoyant; they crept around the driveway, stalking phantoms, drinking from puddles, and sniffing the spring wind. Andy came out of the woodshed and sunned himself on the picnic table. Louise crept over the crumbling stone wall, nosing into holes. Andy rolled in the dirt, scratching his back on the little stones. Louise followed me across the yard, asking to jump on my shoulders and ride wrapped around my neck. Both cats prowled down opposite sides of the driveway, leaving on separate expeditions to the forest, ready to leap into the bushes at the slightest sound of a wandering dog. At sunset they came back up the same path, Andy trailing well behind, silhouetted in the sinking rays of the sun.
Andy disliked the hard pellets of cat food that I gave him. In the morning he meowed at the door, looking hopefully and hungrily at the dish I brought out, until discovering it was pellet food; then he nosed it briefly, and turned away, sometimes kicking his feet as though burying a mess. If that was all he had, he would spend the day eating it. “Andy, don’t be so finicky,” I used to scold. “Those pellets are good enough for you.”
Every morning at 7, during the summer, I was out in the garage, doing carpentry. As soon as I lifted the garage door, Andy pranced in and sat on a sawhorse, or took a comfortable crouch on a hay bale, and began to talk. I used to ask him, “How come you’re so relaxed around power tools, Andy? How come you don’t leap and run like Louise does?” He chirruped and purred, and washed his face. If he wanted attention, he would lie down on my plywood, right in the path of the skilsaw. Then I would laugh, take off my dust mask, sit down on the hay, and let him rub his face on my arm.
I was building dormers and sky windows in my house to let in the stars. My father had stacks of barn board left over from dismantling his old barn years ago. In high school, my friends and I had used that barn to kiss girls, make beer, and get drunk. I wanted to finish the inside of my new meditation room with the boards. Each time I went to pick up the wood, I noticed how fast my father was deteriorating.
He had stopped shaving and bathing and was incontinent. I had already taken over his finances, because he could no longer distinguish bills from donation requests, and had forgotten how to write a check. I watched him dish out food for his cat, put the dish on his kitchen table, and sit down in front of it, ready to eat; he would have eaten the cat food, but he couldn’t find his fork. He forgot that his wife was dead. He forgot the ages of his grandchildren, thinking that they were still teenagers, and was unable to recognize them as adults. My niece was supervising him for the time being, but I would have to decide soon where he was going to live. For years I had watched him and my mother agonizing over what to do with their parents, never realizing that I would face the same problem with him.
As I cut the old barn boards with my saw, getting them ready for my meditation room — Andy crouching on the hay bales watching me — the whining blade, releasing sawdust, seemed to release also a flood of childhood memories. I had seen my father shoot the family cat when I was ten. The cat writhed and struggled. I ran home weeping, threw up, and flung myself on my bed. My father came upstairs to comfort me, and I called him a murderer. He said the cat had not suffered, and I called him a liar. He didn’t punish me for saying those terrible things. He patted my shoulder and walked away. Now I gave half a thought to taking him out in the woods and shooting him, as he himself may have wanted me to do, when he had been in his right mind. But my motive was tainted. I wanted to inherit his house.
I also wanted to tell him what a rat he was for making my mother’s life miserable for forty years. But I kept remembering how he taught me to defend myself against bullies in school, and how, when I had been cheated out of ten dollars by my first boss on a job at age fourteen, my father had stood up to the man and got my money for me. But it was too late for any of that. All I could tell him now was to eat his dinner and sit on the pot. Much of the time he could not even remember my name.
I trimmed my new dormers and windows with pieces of this old family history, letting the sun pour into the upstairs rooms through the opened roof.
In early January we had two feet of snow. While I was blowing it out of the driveway, Andy followed me and meowed. “Quit bugging me, Andy,” I said. “Your food is in the garage.” I was worried and irritated about my father, and I didn’t feel like paying attention to a cat. To be truthful, I didn’t feel like paying attention to my father, either. I had to figure out how to get him into a nursing home, and how to pay the bill after he was there. Meanwhile he had to be bathed, changed, and fed every day, and restrained from wandering around his neighborhood in sub-zero weather without a coat, trying to cut down trees.
I looked at my face in the mirror. It was wrinkled. I was gray-bearded, like him. Maybe I was forgetting things lately. But I always did that. Oh well: one of the joys of Alzheimer’s, so I’ve heard, is that you make new friends every day. I tore open a teabag, threw the tea into the wastebasket, and stirred the wrapper with my spoon.
Over the weekend, I practiced meditation and heard Andy yowling in the yard. I assumed he was just voicing his usual complaints about having to stay outside. He was making deep cries, like he did when he first came to my place and missed his old home. Those irritating cat-yowls kept interrupting my practice. One of the shrine candles burned low and cracked the glass of the holder, and the broken piece fell onto the shrine. I don’t know why the physical environment responds like this to what is happening in our minds, but it does.
Andy showed up for feeding. He leaped onto the front landing and tried to get in, but my foot barred the door. It was a reflex action. He turned away, patiently, as he always did, and I heard nothing more from him all that night.
Monday morning he was crouched in the yard next to the rear wheel of my car, with his head down between his paws. I called to him and he made a pitiful moan. I brought him in and put him on a cushion next to the kitchen register. His tail was frozen stiff and he trembled and cried every few minutes. He took a saucer of milk but could not stand up. I went to work. In the evening Andy was lying on the floor, still yowling, but no longer had the strength to drink. He seemed to have no control over his bladder; he had been peeing and his fur was wet.
I sat over Andy and prayed that he would have a rebirth as a human in a place where dharma is taught, adding that I would take a rebirth as a cat. “Thanks, Mister Big Deal Meditator,” he might have snorted, “I would rather have had a winter in the house.” But animals do not reproach. They just respond, always with total honesty, and amazing dignity. The expression on his face was vivid with weariness and pain, his whiskers dragged sadly, and he cried with every breath.
I called Bob, who had been Andy’s responsible human for fifteen years. Bob met me at the local veterinary clinic. The vet said that Andy was badly dehydrated, his eyes were sunken a full centimeter, he probably had kidney failure, he suffered from exposure, and he had no back teeth. “Before we could even begin to diagnose his other ailments,” said the vet, “we would have to restore his body fluids, probably with intravenous injection. We’re looking at a long, hard road to recovery, and we can’t be sure he would make it even then, and he may only live a few months after that. If I could bring him back, it would be for you, not for him; he sure would not enjoy it any. Some owners have a lot of trouble letting go of their pets, and they want to be sure in their own minds that they did everything possible to save the animal, but I don’t think you’d be doing him any favor by prolonging his life.”
Suddenly it was clear to me why Andy had been turning up his nose at the cat food pellets; he was not “finicky,” he simply could not chew them very well. The kidney failure might explain the dehydration; on the other hand, he was probably too infirm to make it into the woods to the spring. Maybe Louise had been driving him away from it. I winced at the word “exposure.”
Bob wept. “Andy and I have been through some tough times,” he said. “I found him by the side of the road when he was a kitten. I was going through a divorce. He used to sit on the lumber pile and watch me while I was building my house. After I got the shell up, he came in and made his own home in a corner. Once he was gone for days, and he came back all slashed and torn up and swollen with infection. The vet told me to have him put away, and I wouldn’t do it, and we saved him. But he was ten years younger then.”
I realized now why he had been so comfortable around power tools.
“His name is Andover,” said Bob.
I had had him for a year and had never known his full name.
Finally Bob gave the nod to a lethal injection. The vet disappeared with the cat for a few minutes, and then gave us the body wrapped in a box.
We went to a lounge for a few farewell toasts. Behind our table was a blown-up photograph of a group of long-dead trolley employees, standing next to their car, taken probably sometime in the 1880s. In the picture they were young. They stood with folded arms, leaning on the step rails, looking at the camera, smiling and proud. They looked like happy dandelions, waiting for the mower blade.
Bob hugged me before we left. He said, without a trace of sarcasm, “Thank you for taking care of my cat.”
I let Louise into the house, gave him plenty of water, and filled the cat’s box for him. He could hardly believe his good fortune. He kept cringing when I approached, expecting to be thrown back out into the snow. He peed properly in the box, lapped the water, and came upstairs to sleep with me, purring and rubbing his head against my hand.
“Okay, Butt-face,” I said, “you’re the beneficiary.”
The temperature outside went down to twenty-six below zero Fahrenheit.
Then I dreamed that I moved into a new house with my father; the house had no roof. He climbed slowly upstairs to his room, near the open air. I looked into a first-floor room, deciding that he would be better off down lower, where he wouldn’t be exposed to the cold.
Suddenly the house was empty. Andy’s ghost, translucently white, jumped onto the stairs. He was puzzled by his new status; he didn’t seem to know whether to go up or down.
“Go on, Andy,” I said. “Go on up.” I motioned to the ghost with my hand, the way I used to wave him up to the kitchen to get warm. “Go on, you can go.”
He hopped, nimble as a kitten, up to a second-floor landing and looked back at me, as if asking what to do next. There were no more rooms. He was already on the top floor.
“Go on,” I said. “It’s OK, keep going.”
He turned and leaped into the sky, and was gone.
I opened my eyes. Lying there in bed, looking out the roof window, I saw the full image of Orion the Hunter, framed in the glass: the stars delineating the body, the three-starred belt, the shorter three-starred sword. The minutes ticked by. Orion gradually moved out of view, striding past in the night, disappearing behind the roof, star by star. Louise crawled against my warm flesh. The room was freezing cold.
I went down to the cellar and threw some logs on the fire, glancing at the empty chair in the shed.
Stephen T. Butterfield
A Cat Story by Stephen Butterfield [Issue 174] is a spiritually void piece of hip self-congratulation. I am reminded of modern relationship confessions, in which writers tell of cruelties to ex-lovers, all explained away by alcoholism or co-dependency or Mommy fixation or bad karma — and in the telling are working to demonstrate their incredible sensitivity to how imperfect and human they had been and how wonderful they have become.
Despite the shallow overlay of Zen, Butterfield has ignored a basic premise of Buddhism: the preciousness of all living creatures. No Buddhist master would sit in meditation ignoring the cries of an animal in torment.
We humans are shameless. We will use anyone and anything. As writers, we might know better. Shame on the narrator. Would that he’d gotten his head out of his hara. Would that he had come through this lifetime as a cat.
After due paws for catsideration, let me tail you, this pusses me too fur.