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ralph robert moore
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the sword gets shorter over the years
may 1, 2004
A few Sundays ago, April 4, we were watching DVDs in bed when Mary, going out to the kitchen to get more ice water, noticed there was still a lot of cat food in the white styrofoam bowls arrayed across our kitchen floor.
We originally fed the cats twice a day, in the early morning when I got up, windows still black, again around five, when Mary took her prescription medications, but had been adding two more feedings during the day, for Chirper.
Chirper, the oldest of our cats, all of fourteen, has always had trouble with his teeth. Last year, after new infections set in, in the few molars he had left, we had his remaining molars pulled, leaving just his front fangs, much less prone to infection, and still enough teeth to eat. That finally solved the infection problem, but immediately after the operation, back home with us, he started losing weight.
Chirper has always been robustly stout, but now, a few weeks after his surgery, he was gaunt, little more than face, meow, spine, tail. So we started feeding him whenever he asked for food, two or three extra helpings a day, and he put some weight back on, not to where he had the girth he once did, which bordered on obesity, to be honest, but at least to where you could feel meat on either side of his backbone.
So all seemed well. He lost the love of his life, Elf, when she died of feline leukemia in the late nineties, and his best pal, Rudo, who died last year of kidney failure, who he would sleep with on the bed, nose nuzzled up into the long-haired plume of Rudo's black tail, so he was melancholy, maybe something odd to think of a cat experiencing, but animals do feel all the emotions we do, yet even in his melancholia he still jumped up on the bed to be petted, and when we played with the cats with our laser mouse, a handheld device that puts a glowing red dot on the carpet, the walls, across the furniture, he wouldn't leap and pirouette like the younger cats, but he would at least stand in the middle of the bedroom carpet, watching what was going on, and sometimes, when I danced the jiggling red dot right in front of him on the carpet, his orange and white paws would pat the carpet, left, right.
So this particular Sunday, April 4, why was there so much wet cat food left in the white styrofoam bowls? Chirper would normally have methodically eaten each bowl's contents, the bowl itself sometimes edging forward across the floor, because of its light weight, Chirper taking a step forward, two steps, to follow the food.
We experimented. Put fresh white styrofoam bowls up on our white kitchen counter, bent open the top of a new can of cat food, used a salad fork to divide the brown food within the can among the three bowls, put one directly in front of Chirper's nose.
He bent his head, sniffed the food in the bowl. Didn't try to eat it.
That evening, we decided to not cook what we had planned, and instead just reheated the leftover hot cheese chicken we had in the fridge, serving it over rice. We watched The Sopranos, and Deadwood, but our hearts weren't really in it.
The next morning, I called the vet, to arrange to bring Chirper in. By now, he was just lying full-length on the kitchen floor. We offered him food, which he didn't even sniff. Offered him water, of which he drank huge amounts, then vomited it all up, a wide, wide spread of brownish water across the kitchen floor. Then he lay his chin on the rim of the water bowl, gazing down at the water, but not drinking.
We had seen the same behavior before, in Elf, in Rudo, just before they died.
We were able to get an appointment at ten o'clock that morning. While we were waiting for the time to come when we should drive to the vet's, we took a walk in our backyard garden, morosely deciding where we would bury him. That's how sure we were he was dying.
Our regular vet was out for the day, so we settled for another. She looked at Chirper in the examination room. Felt under his abdomen, his front paws lifting off the hard white of the examination table as her probing fingers elevated him.
"His organs seem okay. His kidneys aren't enlarged, I don't feel any tumors, but obviously, he's lost a lot of weight and he doesn't look good." She inclined her head to one side. "We'll have to run some blood work. At this point, with the excessive water drinking, I'd say it might be a thyroid problem, or diabetes, both of which are treatable, or a kidney problem, or cancer. Given his age…if it's cancer, or kidney failure…"
I nodded. "We understand. We've been through this before."
We both kissed Chirper on top of his head, left him overnight for the blood work results to come in. Did our food shopping for the week. Went to Hobby Lobby, where Mary bought some patterns and fabric. One piece of fabric she bought, two and a half yards, for a blouse, had cats on it, with yellow and white colors. She held it up to me. Chirper colors. This would be her Chirper blouse.
A little after seven that night, we got a call from the vet. "It's diabetes."
"And that's treatable?"
"Yeah." I gave the thumbs-up to Mary, who was sitting on the edge of our bed, looking at me with red eyes. "You'll need to give him insulin shots, once or twice a day, probably twice a day, but he'll be all right."
Another thumbs up. "So what's his prognosis?"
"At his age, provided you keep up the shots, I'd say he probably has several years left."
"Doctor, thank you so much."
"I'll call you again in the morning, to let you know how he's doing. We'll need to keep him here a day or two, to get him stabilized, but then he can come home."
We were overjoyed. Such magical words. He can come home.
The vet called us around seven-thirty the next morning, to say Chirper was dead. He died during the night. Evidently, there was more wrong with him than just diabetes. The vet was sheepish, as she should have been. I could have gotten mad, what she did was unintentional, yet the giving of false hope is the cruelest slap, but I was too numb to do anything more than arrange to come in and pick up his body, and hang up the phone.
Mary and I moved into our home, where I'm typing these words in my upstairs study, in July of 1991.
Although before we got together, in early 1979, we had each owned houses, once we were together, to a large degree because we moved so often to different areas of America, living a few years here, a few years there, we had never owned a home together. We were apartment dwellers, for over a decade, living our lives with strangers on the other side of our walls.
Because we so often threw everything in the trunk of our car and moved on, we never had any children, which was fine with us, but also, for the same reason, never had any pets. In the winter of 1990, after we had been in Texas for about half a year, we knew this was a state we wanted to stay in, and thought about getting cats, the jewel eyes, purring rubs and lifted tails which each of us had always had throughout our separate childhoods.
So while still living in an apartment, in Carrollton, Texas, a suburb in northern Dallas, we got two cats. One, Nei, died a month after we brought him home. The shelter we got both cats from was a breeding ground for infectious diseases. The other, Elf, survived. We got her a playmate, Rudo.
Shortly after we brought Elf and Rudo home, to where our family expanded from just the two of us, two who always placed quiet home life above all else, we realized, feeling as good about Texas as we did, and still do, that we wanted to put down roots. We started looking around for a house, where there's no one on the other side of the wall, and eventually commissioned with a contractor to have a home built for us.
That's a great feeling, the morning after you move into your own house. The night before, you carry your lover in your arms over the threshold, you're unloading all this heavy, dusty furniture from the moving van, and an endless procession of cardboard boxes, dumping them in the rooms immediately off the front door, your front door, you own this front door, you're not just renting it, and after all that's done, since there's no food in the refrigerator, there's not even a refrigerator yet, just a tall, empty niche in the kitchen, it's on back order, you get a big red and white bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, eat half of it sitting on boxes, tired, sweaty, then go to bed.
In our case, Mary woke up first the morning afterwards, made some coffee, then wandered through all the brand new, white-painted rooms, downstairs and upstairs, looking at all the potential, the security. She told me about her wanderings after I myself woke, an hour later. What do you think of, when you think of your lover? One of the first images I have of Mary, in our twenty-five years together, thinking the word, "Mary", is her walking through the different bright, blank rooms here, coffee cup in hand, and how happy she must have felt. I would love to see her face as she went from room to room. Perhaps someday I will.
After we were here a few months, we both came down with a terrible flu. Since we rarely got sick, the flu ravaged us particularly hard, all the worse because we were both sick, and therefore couldn't care for each other. At one point we had to go out to the supermarket, we were completely out of food, I mean soup, vegetables, stale Saltines, everything, not that we had much of an appetite, but our stomachs were indrawn and growling, so we pulled on mismatched clothes, drove with two hands on the wheel to the nearest supermarket, staggered down the aisles, bumping into each other, both holding onto the shopping cart's back handle, expanding rings of bright light emanating off the merchandise.
We drove back home, weakly carried our bags through the garage into the kitchen, ate something, crawled back into bed. Which is when we heard a cat meowing.
Mary wearily raised her head from her pillow. "It's not Elf or Rudo. They're right here. Their mouths aren't moving."
I managed to croak, "Maybe they're ventriloquists." Rolled over, went to sleep.
The next day, the meowing started up again, while we were lying in bed, blankets pulled up to our chins, watching a least objectionable program.
Feeling a little stronger that day, we investigated.
No, the meow wasn't coming from the garage. No, it wasn't coming from upstairs.
Mary walked over to the back door, hugging herself, coughing, pulled the white curtain to one side to look out the French door panes. "Rob, there's a little kitten on our back patio!"
I shuffled over, put my face next to Mary's, looked through the pane.
Sure enough, a small, orange and white kitten, the color of a Creamsicle, lying on the concrete of the patio, near our door.
Mary's blonde eyebrows knit together. "Should we give him something to eat?"
"No. He'll just keep coming around."
Later that day, back in bed, we heard the meow again, closer.
The orange and white kitten was walking along the brick casements outside our first floor bedroom, casement to casement, meowing at us through the windows.
That early evening, while I was heating up soup at the stove, Mary said, "He's at the back door again. Ants are crawling on him."
I looked out the back door panes.
He was slumped against the brick outside wall by the back door. As I watched, a tiny black fire ant worked its way up into the white and orange fur of his leg.
I unlocked the door. "That's it. Let's bring him in."
I opened the door wide enough to reach out, grab him around his ribby middle, haul him up off the concrete, inside our home.
Elf and Rudo immediately ran over, nostrils sniffing.
We took him through the kitchen into our bedroom, then into the long bathroom off our bedroom, shutting the bathroom's double doors.
I put the kitten on the vinyl floor. We both pet him.
He was overjoyed, purring loudly, rolling onto his small orange and white back, front and back paws lifting in the air as we rubbed his stomach.
He had a deep red gash in one of his legs, and it looked like one of his ears had been cut with a pair of scissors. Why do some children hate life so much?
We fed him, gave him water, kept him isolated in the bathroom in case he had any infectious diseases.
The next day, we took him to the vet, figuring we'd get him fixed up, try to find a good home for him. We got a call from the vet towards the end of the day. "Your cat's ready."
On the drive over to pay the bill, Mary in the passenger seat gave me one of those sly, Are you thinking the same thing I'm thinking? smiles that, with a couple, can refer to sex, the leftover pizza in the fridge, or, in this situation, Should we keep him?
We named him Chirper, after a harmless creature in a Sega role playing video game we were working our way through, level to level.
After we received the phone call telling us Chirper was dead, we had another cup of coffee, sitting in the breakfast nook, both staring off, the "long stare" you fall into when life has gone bad.
I put down my empty coffee cup. Glanced over at Mary, her face shadowy, in profile. "Let's go now, bring him back home."
We took our pajamas off, pulled some clothes off the hangers, put them on.
Mercifully, the vet's was relatively uncrowded when we got there. One of the older assistants recognized us standing in the short line, gave us a wan smile, and ushered us into an examination room.
"Do you want to talk to the doctor?"
I shook my head. "Thanks, no. We'd like to just pay our bill now, whatever it is, then have Chirper brought to us. Can we do all this as quickly as possible, Agnes?"
She closed her eyes. "Of course."
She was back in a few minutes, with the itemized bill. Four hundred dollars. I wrote a check.
We sat in the examination room, leaving the door open, ignoring the magazines on the table between us, looking up at the ajar door a couple of times when we heard footsteps in the hallway outside, but the footsteps each time were people going somewhere else.
After about five minutes Agnes reappeared in the room carrying in both hands a standard-sized cardboard box, sealed with tape at the top. On the side it read, Refrigerate Upon Receipt.
I took the box from her, feeling the weight inside, thanked her.
Out in the parking lot, where a light rain had started, I beeped open the rear door of our CRV. I leaned over, put the box, which was cold, on the backseat, then ripped off the top seal.
"Let's make sure it's the right box."
I didn't know what we'd find inside the box. What in fact was inside was a standard, thirty-gallon black garbage bag, sealed at the top.
My right and left thumbs pulled through the plastic material, sideways, away from each other, feeling a heavy weight shifting inside, which gave me a sense of dread, in that you have your hands around something you can't yet see.
The spreading rip bared the interior of the black plastic bag, and sure enough, there inside, chin curled down to his orange and white chest, was our Chirper. We saw him a million, million times alive, and now for the first time, we saw him dead.
"Dead" means very little until you look down at the face of someone you love, and they are dead. Inanimate. No more moments. Everything, now, in the past. A memory. Such a fucking, ridiculous, extravagant amount of life inside them, for so long, and now nothing, all gone, forever.
So what do I want to say about Chirper?
He was not an ideal cat. Because he had been abused at an early age, while he was still out in the world of front lawns and the sides of roads, he was skittish throughout most of his life. Even with us, at first. Loud noises would frighten him, and whenever we approached him, these two towering figures, massive hands lowering, I could see the flight vs. fight conflict in his eyes. He pissed in all the corners of our carpets, even though we had litter trays everywhere. If you petted him too long, although he very obviously enjoyed the petting, craning his head back, exposing his orange and white neck, wild-eyed, he'd suddenly get this look in his eyes and turn, banging his front fangs down on the top of the web between a petting hand's thumb and index finger, springing away. I always got the sense with him that he nipped at us despite his best efforts not to. He didn't want to nip, but his nature caused him to, when he got too happy. Maybe it was a test. Maybe it was not being able to give up the past.
He spent more time on our bed than any of our other cats, hopping up by our blanketed feet, then slowly, shyly working his way towards the open sheet area by our torsos, kneading the mattress with his front paws, casting us constant up-from-under looks like, May I humbly approach? He loved to lie between my chest and the bicep of my left arm, resting his head on the bicep, kneading, kneading, kneading his flexing front paws into my left armpit, eyes closing, body purring. I'd pet his back while he did this, and his kneading and my petting would slow down at about the same rate until he fell asleep. His whiskered profile would be motionless for a while, then he'd wake up, get up abruptly, as if surprised where he was, and leave.
He loved Elf. He'd wrap his front orange and white paws around her, lick her until her gray torte fur was sopping wet, sticking out in spikes. At night, between us on the bed, he'd sleep on top of her, while she was dying of leukemia, to keep her warm. When she finally died, something went out of him. He got that lost look in his eyes, which he never shook.
He was my cat. Like Elf was Mary's cat. If I were in the bathroom, he'd hop up on the bed, tolerating a pet from Mary, but looking down the bathroom tiles, waiting for me.
We developed this communication between us, based on our eyes. I read that cats sometimes give "eye kisses", where they shut and open both eyes, several times, at each other. Is that true? I don't know. But I tried it with Chirper, looking at him lying at the foot of the blankets, opening and closing both eyes at him. Miraculously, after a few times, he opened and closed both eyes back at me. What a thrill! Communicating!
Afterwards, I noticed he taught the same communication to Lady's kittens, to where one would come in the room, look at Chirper, or us, and do the double eye blink. We'd do it back.
One early Saturday morning, years and years ago, before there was so much death in our lives, I was lying in bed, awake but lazy, when I heard a loud, crackling noise outside our bedroom's bay windows (it turned out a tree had fallen into our backyard garden). Chirper, hearing the unusual noise, swiveled his head towards me from the carpet, rapidly double-blinking his eyes.
I understood immediately what he was asking.
"Is everything OK, Daddy?"
Staring into his frightened eyes, I double-blinked back.
"Everything's fine, Chirper."
In my previous Lately entry, for April first, I mentioned I had a dream about Rudo, our long-haired black cat who died a year ago.
In the dream, he was frolicking around the sidewalks of our neighborhood, much to my alarm, since he was strictly an indoors cat, front paws declawed, until I realized he was, in fact, a ghost, and therefore safe from all dogs. He communicated to me he was happy.
I never dream about our cats. Did I dream about Rudo that night, a few weeks before Chirper died, because Rudo wanted us to know Chirper would be okay?
The night we dropped Chirper off at the vet, the night he died at the vet, I woke up in the early morning, probably around two, to the sound of a cat meowing somewhere in our house. I realized, groggily, Mary was also awake.
We got out of bed, stumbling around, trying to figure where the meowing was coming from, counting cats, but all of them had their mouths closed.
Eventually, we realized the meowing was coming from the top of our carpeted stairs. We bent over on the top step in our pajamas, but there was no cat there.
Rubbing our eyes, we went back downstairs, back to bed.
At that time, we didn't know Chirper had died. We expected to bring him home in a day or two. Never before had we been awakened in the middle of the night by a cat's meow, to where we wandered around in the darkness.
Was that meow Chirper? Announcing his spirit was home again?
Obviously, I don't know.
And I'll never know. Maybe we're not meant to know some things on this plane, maybe it was an incredible coincidence, but I don't think so.
People, like nations, have different ages. The Age Of Spending Every Day At The Beach, The Age Of The Bad Neighbor, The Age Of Forming A Family.
One of our many ages was The Age Of The Original Three, meaning Elf, Rudo and Chirper. It lasted from late 1990, when we first got Elf and Rudo, to early 2004. With Chirper's death, that age, as full of meaning to us as the Victorian Age was to England, has passed.
We love Sheba, we love Lady and her five kittens. But something special, something glorious, something privileged, an entire age, has now passed into history.
By the time we drove back home from the vet hospital, Chirper's weight in the cold cardboard box in the back seat, the rain had turned heavy.
We left him in the back seat, gathering up an axe, a shovel from the garage.
Went out through the kitchen, into our garden.
Elf and Rudo are buried under a spreading pear tree in one of our beds. Dark green ivy covers the ground, purple oxalis, with delicate mauve flowers on stalks, near the front of the bed.
We chose a spot in the dirt near Elf and Rudo, since the three of them were friends, and started digging, in the rain, each brush of the back of my shoulders against the hanging wet leaves of the pear dropping cold drips down my back, but of course, I didn't care.
I dug the hole deep, and wide. I've dug a number of graves over the years, and each one turned out not to be deep enough, nor wide enough, so I went way down into the earth with my spade, and chopped at the edges of the hole.
We went back inside, tracking mud across the kitchen floor, out to the garage.
Picked up the heavy box in the back seat, carried it through the kitchen, more muddy tracks, set it outside on the patio, in the drizzle.
We decided not to bury him in the cardboard box, which was too large, but instead in the garbage bag, but with another garbage bag, one of ours, enclosing it.
So what should we bury with him?
Mary selected a yellow iris in full bloom, plucking it off its stalk.
I chose one of my pajama tops, and in fact the last pajama top in which he laid down by my side, front paws stretched forward, eyes squeezed shut, happily kneading my armpit.
We placed both treasures in the bag with him, touched his orange and white face one last time, then put the bag in the hole.
I shoveled dirt over the black bag, and more dirt, and more dirt, goodbye, until it mounded above the green ivy. We stuck the orange-handled spade blade down into the mound, as we had done with the others buried in our yard, as a marker, until we could find a proper monument.
And it was done.
We went back inside, not crying. You get dull to death. You survive it once, and you know you can survive it always. The disbelief, the horror, the agonizing, face-crumpling grief when someone you love is taken away from you that first time, as a child-- a grandparent, a turtle-- once you see that presence, but absence, the first time, you come to understand what this world is, and adjust. The sword gets shorter over the years.
All the cats, curious what we had been up to out there, greeted us at the back door.
Everyone except Chirper.