Once a week, my father calls to tell me how Theodore is doing. Not well, to sum it up, but every Sunday afternoon, there is a progress report—or more accurately, a painfully detailed description of his decline. "His sight is going," my father informs me one week. "He bumps into things and it really hurts." Another week, I hear about Theodore's failing coordination. "He gets food all over his face when he eats, and forgets to wash it off. The rest of the time, he drools. He's a mess." Next, it's his legs. They're so stiff he can hardly move. "He creaks when he walks." My father's wheezy sigh reverberates in the receiver like the hollow sound heard when holding a seashell to your ear. "He's my ninth cat, you know," he reminds me. "One cat to mark each decade of my life, as it were."
I know the chronology of his cats by heart.
The first had been Abby Tabby, who'd wake him every morning by breathing on his eyelids when he was a little boy. One day, she crawled into a dark place to die. "I cried for weeks," he said. "I didn't cry as much when my own mother died."
After Abby came Buster, a yellow tomcat who was rambunctious, randy, prone to roam. When my father left for college, Buster understandably grew bored with the old farts at home and took off for good, too.
In New York City, where he got his first job, my father met Ginger as he wobbled out of a Greenwich Village bar at three a.m. She was sitting in a tree on which he was planning to pee. With the impetuousness of the young and the vulnerable, she fell for him and followed him home. I don't know what became of her. My father was always evasive about that. Naturally, I suspected the worst. He neglected her and she died, a little forlorn heap in a forgotten corner, while he calypsoed in Jamaica on vacation or wassailed in some fashionable Upper East Side watering hole.
Next was Omar Khayyam, a silver Persian, the perfect ornament for a velvet ottoman. He was disdainful, imperious. He peed on the antique Kerman, mated with the sofa pillows, and sashayed across the dining table in the middle of parties, waving his plume of a tail perilously close to candle flames. My father adored him, of course, and loved to recount how Omar threw up a hairball on some visitor's mink or sampled the pâté on the tray of canapés, to the guests' horror and my father's delight.
"I married my next cat," my father used to claim. My mother cast withering glances at him every time he said it, which was rather often. Tabitha was my mother's cat, acquired long before she acquired him. "She loves that cat more than me," he always made sure to announce to dinner guests, usually between the entrée and the dessert, after he had finished off a flock of martinis and a bottle of Mouton Cadet.
"Daddy, please," I would plead. I knew where this line of conversation was headed. From the time I was old enough to use the correct fork with each course, my parents required me to join their company at the dinner table, wearing my party dress and party smile, and desperately hoping that somehow that evening's script would be different.
It never was, though. Everyone always laughed at my father's remarks, though I saw nothing funny about them. My father would call to the Siamese, who was inevitably draped over my mother like the perfect fashion accessory. "Pussy, pussy," he'd croon. "Pretty pussy, pretty pussy. Whose pretty pussy are you?" Then he would smirk in a way that made a certain male guest look uncomfortable and my mother's perfect ivory cheeks turn the same color as her Paint the Town Red lipstick.
"Shut up, dear," she'd snap. "You're drunk and disgusting." She'd glance at me as I sat with eyes closed, perfecting the art of invisibility. I had just about convinced myself that if I could not see the faces at that tense table, then they could not see me either. "You may be excused, Phoebe Kate. Dora will give you your dessert in the kitchen. Say goodnight to our guests now."
My father's next cat came disguised as my tenth birthday present. He took me out to lunch at his club. As I sat, dwarfed in the oversized burgundy leather wing chair, dutifully trying to consume the bloody rare T-bone he had ordered for me, he grinned over the rim of his cocktail glass and said, "Have I got a surprise for you, Bananas Foster." He used that nickname for me when he was feeling expansive, claiming I was just as sweet as his favorite dessert.
After we finished eating, we walked around the corner to the pet shop, where a beribboned cat carrier awaited me with a card saying "With love from your dad." Miss Kitty was pure white with unusual little black markings on her forehead that looked like bangs. "Can't you call her something less prosaic?" my father sighed, rolling his eyes. The name on her pedigree papers was Camilla's Silver Mist Maiden of Glenmorrah. She was a beauty, but she was neurotic, unhappy. She either refused to eat or ate too much and then threw up. She fretted for attention, but shied away from any proffered affection and went into hiding if anyone came too close. "The most unsatisfactory cat I've ever known," my father pronounced, as he tried to flush her out from one of her hiding places, like a hunter in the jungle after big game. "What the hell is the matter with her?"
When my parents parted company, he got custody of the cat. My mother made sure of it. "Serves him right. He's the one who made her weird." During the weekly dinner visits with him, as I fidgeted behind my fettuccine in the over-decorated and overpriced Italian restaurant where we always dined, my father complained bitterly. "That goddamned cat is driving me insane. Do you know she bites her nails? Crack crack crack all the time. With all the possible cats in the world, I have to get the maladjusted one. God." Then he would glare at my plate. "This place got raves from the food critics. Must you order spaghetti every week, Phoebe Kate?"
Finally, Miss Kitty vanished. One night she was under the bureau, cracking away at those claws, my father claimed, and the next morning she was nowhere to be found.
"Poor little thing," my mother wrote me when I informed her my birthday gift had mysteriously disappeared. "She probably threw herself out a window to get away from the bastard. But he'll never admit it." By then, I was grown and gone from whatever had passed as home, living on the West Coast, trying to invent a reasonable facsimile of a life, trying to like sashimi and sailing, trying not to overdress or overeat or over-react—all serious faux pas in Southern California. I just managed to learn the latest trends when the kaleidoscope of contemporary style would turn again, and I'd need to develop a taste for tahini or take up tai chi. I felt like a juggler, perpetually spinning plates on sticks for an audience whose expectations kept escalating.
Around that time, my father inherited Alistair from an old friend who'd died. "He is the ugliest cat I have ever seen," my father jotted in a Christmas card to me. Hallmark was the only mode of communication to span the three thousand miles between us, and we availed ourselves of it as infrequently as familial courtesy permitted. He wrote about his cat. I just signed my name. "I didn't know a cat could be so unattractive," one Easter card read. "His ribs are like slats on Venetian blinds. His fur is greasy, and his skin sags and hangs in wattles, like an old man's. Disgusting."
Alistair preferred to live in high places, where he could look down on the rest of the world. In the obligatory greetings on the customary occasions, my father enclosed photos of the cat that resembled an old rag draped across the top of the refrigerator, or glowered gargoyle-like from the heights of the armoire or grandfather clock. When Alistair failed to budge from the top shelf of the credenza for two days, my father wrote me, "He died of terminal ugliness. Did you know that ugliness is dangerous to your health?"
Yes, I silently screamed, yes, as I tore up the card and went for another appointment with a new therapist, who was already thoroughly fed up with me. He was trying to regress me under hypnosis to past lives, but I couldn't remember any. "Jesus Christ!" I shouted at him in the middle of a session, bolting upright from the couch. "Isn't one crappy life more than enough?"
After Alistair's demise, my father still sent the de rigueur cards but now he just signed his name, too, having no neutral and mutually acceptable subject to write about. Then, on my fortieth birthday, he surprised me with a phone call, knowing very well that I hate surprises. I didn't even recognize his voice after all the stony, silent years. "This is your old man," he repeated, speaking very loudly and slowly, as if I were hearing-impaired or half-witted. "Dad. Pops. The old fart. You remember?"
How can I forget? I thought, clutching the phone in clammy hands. What does he want with me now? I wrapped my arms tightly around myself so I wouldn't shatter into a thousand pieces that could not be glued back together.
He wanted to tell me about Dandelion, a kitten that a divorcee half his age gave to him. She fancied him a lonely man needing company in his retirement. "It keeps getting under my feet," he fussed. "Yesterday I sat on the bloody thing. Who in their right mind would give a kitten to a man my age? If I don't squash the damned thing by accident, it will probably outlive me."
He started calling every week. Dandelion continued to be a nuisance. "I have to remember to put the toilet lid down because I'm afraid it'll fall in and drown," he said. "Last Friday, I couldn't find it and ransacked the entire apartment looking for the blasted beast. It's so little that it's easy to lose. I'm getting too old for this sort of thing."
Finally, he gave Dandelion to the widow in the apartment across the hall. "She was thrilled. ‘You're so sweet,' she said. I told her that I'm a goddamned s.o.b.—just ask my daughter and my former wife. She just tittered and brought me brownies. Now she's invited me over for meatloaf. I hate meatloaf. It gives me gas. How the hell am I going to get rid of the old bat?"
"I don't know," I told him. I really couldn't help him. I couldn't manage to get rid of my millstones either.
My father found his ninth cat outside the Church of the Resurrection one Sunday after Mass. He named him Theodore. "The name means gift from God," he informed me.
"You haven't darkened the door of a church since they threw you out of confirmation class for being incorrigible when you were a kid. Since when did you get religion?" I demanded.
"Since lightning didn't strike this old apostate dead as he walked up the church steps," he replied mildly. "I was quite surprised and really rather grateful."
This Sunday afternoon, when my father calls, he is agitated. When I ask him if he's all right, he says, "Theodore is slipping fast. He gets confused a lot now, doesn't remember who he is, where he is. He just stands in the middle of the room and cries." There is an unhappy pause. "Then he pisses all over himself. It's . . . humiliating."
I listen silently, studying the raw sadness of my bitten nails, childlike and incongruous on the hands of a woman looking fifty dead in the eye. I've got to let them grow out, I think. If not now, when?
My father's sorry litany continues. "He has trouble breathing. Just getting out of a chair makes him gasp for air."
I pick my way around the next question carefully. It's prickly and painful and I'm not sure I want to know the answer. "What can be done for him?"
"Theodore doesn't want to be kept alive with tubes and drugs. He's old and tired."
I'm silent for a moment, then tell him to give Theodore a hug from me.
"Thank you, Bananas Foster," my father says softly.
It has been nearly forty years since he last used that nickname and the sound of it shocks me.
"Don't call me that, Dad. I'm not sweet at all."
"Yes, you are," my father says to me. "You really are."
We say goodbye and the sandpapery old voice is replaced by the empty hum of disconnection stretching over the distance that separates us. Between my California condo and his Manhattan apartment loom rocks and deserts and rivers that are treacherous for old bones and broken souls to traverse.
But maybe, just maybe, it can be done.
When the last call comes, I will not be surprised. I will be utterly feline, perfectly resigned, completely composed. I will turn around and around, from past to present to future and back again, and gracefully settle down in the life that is mine, curling into a soft ball to keep warm and secure in the cold lonely night of no tenth cat.
In memory of Michael
Copyright © Phoebe Kate Foster 2006. A different form of this piece appeared in The Distillery: Artistic Spirits of the South, in 2000. Title graphic: "Found Feline" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2006.