Wonderful Thanksgiving with a dozen or so good friends, tons of food, two dogs, and lots of music. C and I used the holiday as an excuse to clear away the last of the boxes, and very nearly got them all (there's always more.) Worked all morning, cooking two brined turkeys, one stuffed with lemons and onions, the other with garlic, and making string beans with garlic, pignola nuts, and soy sauce, and salad, and stuffing with fennel more pine nuts, and and and...
Guests started arriving around 3:00--G came first with his new lady-friend, and a lemon cake, ice cream, wine, champagne, and Amaretto. His new woman is lovely, a nurse, very kind and sensitive and straightforward. I liked her immediately. Then more and more guests, each bearing food, until the kitchen and then the dining room table were overflowing. C had imposed some order on a process that in earlier years has been described as "delightfully chaotic"--that is, he made sure things were vacuumed and cleaned, laid out plates and silver beforehand, and in general, made everything proceed more smoothly.
All the while he was doing this he was torn up about his cat Dede. Dede is sixteen--she's been with him since she was a baby, through divorce, remarriage, redivorce, cross-country moves, job changes, school, and his motorcycle accident. She's seen him through more ups and downs than any one person in his life and has always been her sweet faithful black-catted, green-eyed self.
But the last week or so her green eyes have been getting dimmer. She has been refusing food and not drinking enough water. He took her to the vet a couple of days ago, and the tests were inconclusive--she was very dehydrated; they tried to re-hydrate her with a needle, it didn't work. Her kidney functions were okay, but her liver was off. More tests would have to be done to figure it out--ultrasounds and so on. And Dede hates going to the vet, like any good cat would, she moans and cries when she's put into the carrier, and she resisted the big 12-guage needle they tried to push into her to get more hydration going.
She's sixteen years old, and getting feeble. She doesn't spring from the chair under the windowsill; she's less and less interested in food, although we've been able to tempt her a little with saucers of half'n'half, and bits of ice cream, and tiny plates full of turkey slivers.
So all through Thanksgiving, while we served and poured and greeted dear friends, it was heavy on his mind; when would he have to make the call? That kind of responsibility is agonizing. I wished she could just die easily and peacefully of natural causes, but that couldn't be guaranteed. She might have some kind of obstruction, she might suffer, she might be alone when it happened.
Our dining room now has C's grand, and his upright piano in it. The guests included several members of WingIt! who are all musical. Amar got on one piano, and his son, a musician, got on the other and they began improvising a furious duet. It was wonderful to see them, two bodies but one musical soul, speaking back and forth to each other via the pianos. But C had stolen away upstairs. I followed him and found him in tears in Dede's room. We held each other while he sobbed and the party went on without us downstairs.
Fortunately, it had already gelled--you can feel the moments when the party starts to have a life of its own, guests take an interest in each other, new friendships are formed, and the host is no longer needed. I could hear laughter and music from downstairs, shouts of laughter as Vinnie the dog, who was having a field day getting fed illegal treats by everyone, climbed up on a guest's lap, although at 50 pounds he is not anyone's idea of a lap dog. I could hear Amar and his son continue their musical conversation, one that defied any generation gap and went right to the soul. I could smell the delicious smells of turkey, melted butter, and hot coffee. And I held C's warm heaving body in my arms, felt his tears wet my neck.
Later, when he was able, C came downstairs and rejoined the party, just as Jonathan was leading us all in song. We sang Dona Nobis Pacem, and some more rounds, and some carols, and other songs, and then someone asked C to play and he sat down at the piano and bent over it, his long sensitive fingers barely touching the keys. Then he was playing, pouring heart and soul into the music.
I looked around the room. Faces were rapt. Amar was nodding and grinning; his wife was beaming. G's new girlfriend had her eyes closed and her head thrown back, deeply absorbed into the music. I could see the light turn on in people's eyes, the light that said, "This is pretty good--no, this is more than good, this is coming from a deeper, richer place. Pay attention."
C was playing for a room full of music lovers and artists, and the deep listening grew around him as he played on, one piece, then another. When he was done there was wild applause. He slid shyly off the piano bench, his face red, and disappeared into the kitchen to collect himself. There was more music and talk and singing and playing, and the party mgradually broke up around 8:00. Theron stayed behind to ask C some questions about music, and I could hear the two of them lstening to a tape and then figuring out the chords on the piano while I quietly cleared and washed dishes and put things away. I was glad to do it. I knew music was the most healing thing C could focus on in that moment, and that Theron, with his friendly, contemplative monk's soul, was the perfect person.
Then I heard Theron singing a ballad for C., something about the wounds and betrayals of war and I came out to listen and clap along.
We were left with two refrigerators full of leftovers, and the enduring sweetness and grief of the night. Dede has been sleeping on our bed, and sometimes in our bed, with us, when she deigns to. I find myself trying to memorize her elegant little black profile, her snub nose and Egyptian bearing. She's still purring like a motorboat, and lapping weakly at the dishes of ice cream we offer her, but she's moving as little as possible--I had to hold the dish in front of her nose for her to get to it.
Today, the day after Thanksgiving, C made the fateful call to the vet who promised to come by tomorrow morning. Then he cried again, and I held him. This thing is so hard. Not only to say good-by to Dede, his faithful companion of decades, but to be the one who decides the moment when her life should end. He has gone back and forth and agonized about the decision for the last week. There's little I can say that's helpful; just be there to hold him and witness this deep tender wordless love between man and cat that I've been privileged to be a part of.
After he called the vet, we went for a hike--it was another perfect day, cloudless, clear blue sky, warm and fragrant. When we got home we went out back and picked the spot for the grave and C started shovelling. Sometimes his tears were falling, and other times we were joking and laughing, grief and fullness and ordinary life all mixed in together. He dug a good deep hole, and we talked about what to bury with her--some toys, some food. I promised I would say Kaddish over the grave.
It has been a sweet poignant time between us, not without its own challenges. It was hard to pull off a joyous celebration while at the same time preparing for a death, but I think, by the grace of God, we managed it. Neither thing was compromised--the house was full of good food, and laughter and song, and there was room also for tears and the acknowledgement of this eleven pound bundle of fur and curiosity and mischief and love. The acknowledgement of how huge she's been in C's life, a friend, a playmate, a witness, an anchor. We'll let her sleep in our bed again tonight, if she wants to. And we'll go through whatever tomorrow brings together.