My cat Baby Boy is the best cat in the whole wide world. He’s huge. He’s soft and fuzzy. His tummy, as is often noted, is the softest thing in the universe. He nuzzles and cuddles just how a person would want to be cuddled – with passion and deep affection. His purr could rock a baby to sleep. He is an evolutionary marvel and a stone cold killer.
He is exceptionally good at killing things. He has his own hashtag regarding this talent – #justfacesandspleens. Whether for love or for just the pure artistry of it, he routinely curates the bits and pieces of his prey into delicately displayed entrail arrangements. When it’s a vole, he’ll typically leave just the horribly buck-toothed upper jaw and spleen behind. Hence the hashtag.
But this cat is far more than a mouser. At dinner one evening several years ago, we watched in fascination as Baby Boy came in from the field dragging something as large as himself. The words, “what is that . . .” had just left my mouth when we realized that he was schlepping a large male pheasant. The next words that came to mind were, “what’s he going to do with that . . .?” The question no sooner left my tongue when the answer came: he would sit down and methodically devour it. It was truly a sight to behold.
Something I’m fascinated by is his blithe disregard for any moral matters of life and death. As an apex predator, I suppose he is preconditioned not to think about whether living or dying has any meaning. If you have sharp teeth and claws and an appetite for baby rabbits, well, then . . . I’m reminded of the line of a poem by DH Lawrence used to such great effect in the movie GI Jane: I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself…
But I can’t help thinking about those baby rabbits.
Recently, at dinner, the topic of death came up. It happened in the way that conversations with tweens often does. “If you had one hour to live, what would you do?” asks the youngest. Geez only an hour? “You can’t really knock anything off your bucket list in an hour,” I reply. “Watch Star Trek?” Try again. “Go swimming in the lake if it’s summer?”
“It’s winter, Dad.” The youngest has such a deadpan sometimes. We went around the table in a chaotic call and response. Other permutations arose. What if it was one day? One week? Invariably this kind of conversation ends in giant pre-teen eye-rolling when I pull out a quote by Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan or Mary Oliver. This night it was Dylan: “If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.”
Daaadddd…!!! [Eye roll, eye roll, eye roll]
I will never understand the resistance my children have to attempts to bring a little cultural knowledge to their otherwise Tower Defense saturated existences. The conversation eventually rolls around to the various genetic propensities of my children’s ancestors. On their mom’s side there are some pretty resilient male descendants. From me, however, their genetics spell different, shorter, life-spans. My paternal grandfather died in his mid-seventies from cancer, and, it was noted, my own father probably won’t make it to his mid-seventies.
This tripped me up in a throat-closing kind of way. I was fourteen when my maternal grandfather died – the same age as my oldest. I didn’t know him very well. I did know he was one tough bugger. He survived a major heart attack, half a lung removed from cancer, and the loss of one of his legs to gangrene.
When he lost his leg, he and my grandmother had to move to an apartment in town. It was just down the street from our house. I don’t have many memories of them from the time before they lived in that little apartment complex. Our family developed a ritual around my grandparents, and if I knew them at all, it’s because of this ritual.
Every Friday around five, whoever happened to be available would drop by for “happy hour.” Drinks would be served. High-balls for adults, cokes and icecream bars for kids. As a pre-driving aged kid, I didn’t have much choice about whether I would attend these gatherings, but I always liked them. Sometimes my uncle Larry and aunt Bernie would stop by with one of their kids – my much older cousins. Sometimes my cousin Randy or his father Denny would drop in. These were the people my grandfather spent the second half of the twentieth century farming with. There was a familiar yellow glow to the lamplight in the small apartment, and many very loud voices. My grandfather was also very hard of hearing.
Grandpa Chuck would get a drink, which he wasn’t supposed to have, and then he’d cajole one of the visitors to make him up another. There was a candy dish. It was lovely. By the time I was old enough to form coherent memories that included context, Grandpa Chuck was old in a way that made it impossible for me to understand him. My cousin Randy tells the story of when my grandfather bought a brand new truck (1979) and let him drive it to high school sometimes. He reports loving the feeling of being behind the wheel of that brand new vehicle, that he was pretty hot shit behind the wheel of that thing.
I knew that truck well. Like my brother before me, I learned to drive on it. The final driving test for my brother and I was not parallel parking, it was – can you get down the hill at the lake and back up it in the truck. Prefer parallel parking. It was definitively not hot shit. It was the kind of truck that if you hit something with it (like, hypothetically, the concrete posts that protect the corners of gas stations) and all the doors still close, you didn’t have it fixed. I’m relatively certain the title listed the color of the vehicle as ‘baby shit brown,’ and while my brother and I loved that truck, it was a beat up piece of crap when I got to it, and the man who’d bought it was many years gone.
Which has me wondering what my children will take away from knowing grandpa Steve? I looked at my oldest and say, “You’ll probably know Grandpa Steve about as well as I knew Grandpa Chuck.” This seems to catch him off guard a little because he doesn’t have a ready reply for such a statement. He can’t know what my experience was, but I catch a glimmer – just a glimmer – of knowing how much life could potentially be in front of him (may he live a long and glorious life!), and how relatively nascent his experiences have been so far.
It takes a great deal to impart even a little perspective to a fourteen-year-old, and while part of me would keep them innocent and unknowing about the world for as long as possible, the better part of me is glad to see the dots connect behind my son’s eyes. Ancestors. Family. Legacy. Youth. Time. The increasingly gaunt figure of a grandfather. Most importantly: A future yet unwritten.