My esteem for Brian Doyle’s writing is well-known by readers of this blog here, here, and here and many others who have stood still long enough to hear my applause, so I’ll not further strain that point, but I return to Doyle long enough to acknowledge a gift of his: his imaginative penchant to give every animal he mentions unique personality. A remarkable quote from page 56 of his novel Marten Martin asks. . .
And to those who say animals have no chronicles and annals, no literature and sagas, no common memories and master storytellers, I say, are you sure? How would you know. Just because you have never seen them, they do not exist? Are you sure about that? Don’t be.
. . .that theme continuing on the next page. . .
The fact is that there are more stories in the world than there are fish in the sea, or birds in the air or lies among politicians. You could be sad at how many stories go untold, but could also be delighted at how many stories we catch and share in delight and wonder and astonishment and illumination and sometimes even epiphany.
Brian Doyle caught and shared many of those stories in his books, which a few of his few detractors think childish, and therefore maybe I’m a child at heart, but surely not only I but all who love and laugh and sometimes weep at animal stories. You probably have caught your own animal stories, saved somewhere deep within your memory because they are loved so much. How about sharing those stories, getting them out where we can catch them with you and enjoy them too?
Inspired by Doyle, I’ll do my best to tell you the story of a remarkable and well-traveled cat, a happily remembered player within the drama of our family, an almost-giant orange tom named Homer, shortened from a longer name, Homer Rodeheaver, given to him when he first came to live with us, a previously-owned name known well by Annette and me from youthful church experience when that owner was a prominent gospel singer, conspicuous on radio and records, and a lyricist and composer of quite singable songs now largely forgotten. He, i.e., the cat, and a partner named Cleo, a diminutive gray tabby, had succeeded Mozart, also a gray tabby, whose few years among us ended precipitously after he escaped early one morning through our back door in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, and disappeared, not seen until later that day lifeless on our front lawn and wrapped in a small blanket where our younger daughter, Elizabeth, nicknamed within hours of her birth, Bizet, the story of which is also worth telling but not here, returning from school, found him with great sorrow. The mystery of the blanket and circumstances of his death was solved when our next door neighbor, a dear lady named Libby, noted cat lover with a purple house, reported that she had seen him collide with a vehicle on busy Route 129 in front of our home and had lifted his body from the highway. Mozart had succeeded Beethoven, the first of our musician cats, whose life on earth also ended too soon but from major illness and whose story was sufficiently significant to merit space in a religious periodical, the Covenant Companion, written by the inestimable humorist and teller of stories with the straightest face possible, Dr. Ted D. Johnson.
Homer and Cleo joined a rather motley dog that our son, Mark, had named, Shannon, expected to be a standard-sized yellow lab but remained, shall we say, petite, who had replaced our matchless Sam and never had a chance to measure up to Sam’s much-storied reputation among us but who, dying in old age, provided a story often told (but not here). All of this took place in the late 1980s, and when in 1991 our career pathway led to Seattle, Homer and Cleo accompanied us across the nation and lived quietly with us until my retirement in 1995. By that time Bizet had joined us in Seattle, and since
Annette and I were about to launch what became an 11-year RVing escapade, and since Bizet elected to stay put in our nearly-downtown Seattle condominium, Homer and Cleo opted to stay too, but soon after, Cleo at age 13 became gravely ill and passed, leaving Homer a solitary cat for the first time in his life. His misery must have been intense, but he kept the stories of his grief to himself. Had he been more verbose, as are Doyle’s animals. we would surely have learned from him the pain of such significant loss.
Soon Bizet accepted a job offer in Cambridge, and Annette and I flew back to Seattle to help her empty the condo and put it on the market for a quick, one-day sale, and then began a long trek back east with Bizet and Homer, who more-or-less comfortably settled into his half of the rear seat and floor of Bizet’s little black Honda she’d named Black Betty but spent many boring miles asleep on the front seat console. We did allow a goodly amount of time for sightseeing with the result that Homer is memorialized copiously in photos taken in famous settings.
Our intended side trip into Yellowstone National Park was blocked by early snow, but we made other essential stops such as Wall Drug and the Mitchell Corn Palace in South Dakota, and further on my hometown, Essex, in southwest Iowa, Homer dutifully showing great interest and often awe at each stop, although surely realizing the far greater significance of Essex for his family history.
Finally arriving in Boston Annette and I, with Homer, returned to our trailer, and Bizet found a home in West Concord, just beyond the famous landmarks of Concord and the North Bridge but an easy walk to a commuter rail stop from which she would travel five days every week into Cambridge.
When Annette and I were about to begin our annual fall trip to Jacksonville, Florida, Homer left us and joined Bizet in her second-floor apartment for long days alone, but presently, he had the company of a tiny and very noisy kitten, a gray tabby who immediately got the name Screech, to be a constant annoyance to an entirely sedate, senior adult cat accustomed to daily solitude and good memories of Cleo, and on numerous occasions, Homer, his patience stretched to the full, with one swat of a very large paw, sent Screech flying across the room. Given time, they developed a rapprochement of sorts to become friends, and Screech, outgrowing his childish voice, had advanced to a new name, Junior, that clearly defined his role in that cat-loving home.
Before long, Homer became lethargic and was feeling not at all well. His illness was diagnosed as feline diabetes and being of advanced age and treatment not viable, his condition declined and his ending foregone. The old orange tom, age 16, who had been a remarkable friend and companion, departed. Bizet’s sadness, and ours, was intense.
Because Homer’s great passion was to find safe and exclusive places to hide and sleep, preferring paper grocery bags that his considerable size stuffed to capacity, his quite-emaciated body was wrapped in a white towel and lovingly placed in just such a bag. A large garden plot shared the site with the house, and there we dug an appropriately-sized grave for Homer and, tenderly, laid his body in it. After we’d filled the grave, I located a concrete stepping stone to cover the grave. The odyssey of Homer had ended.
That left Junior entirely alone on the long days that Bizet was in Cambridge. Although Brian Doyle might well have known and could extensively describe the loneliness Junior was experiencing, we lacked such acute hearing. One day, however, Junior let us know clearly. Bizet came home to find him missing. It quickly became apparent that the screen of a window open to the roof of the back porch was missing, the only likely assumption that Junior had managed to force the screen from its position and had then leapt from the back porch roof, a drop of at least eight feet.
The search scene then shifted to the back yard but was soon over, for Junior had not escaped or hidden himself. He was in the garden, lying very still on that concrete slab covering the grave of his closest friend, at peace, showing no desire or intention to escape.
And to those those who say animals have no chronicles . . . no common memories . . . Are you sure about that? Don’t be.
Epilogue: Junior lived on serenely for many years that soon included a move to a new home in Maynard, Massachusetts, and the arrival of a new friend, Skip, Bizet’s partner, but no other cat to provide company. In 2009, Bizet, Skip, and Junior transferred to Portland, Oregon, providing Junior his own transcontinental journey and a new home to which he readily adapted. Great trauma arrived, though, when another animal, a petite dachshund—although Junior had other names for him—arrived to make life more precarious with strange sounds and unpredictable actions and smells that reminded Junior of his earliest chidhood and a gigantic animal and warnings from his mother to hide from the beast, but the new animal was hardly larger than his old friend, Homer, and some ancient instinct from a long-ago rain forest told him to stalk the intruder, but when that intruder showed no concern, let alone fear, the instinct waned. The two of them did manage a sort of entente that enabled a reasonable life in the same space, and as Junior listened to the constant yapping of two similar animals next door, he felt grateful for the relative silence of the animal their family called Louie. Try as he could, though, Junior could never make himself enjoy company. Considerable satisfaction came when his family departed the house, the other animal in tow, leaving him alone, but when hours of aloneness stretched too long, dismay set in as he imagined some other unknown human appearing to present his food and attempt being affectionate. Junior, too, while still quite young had been diagnosed with feline diabetes that required daily injections of insulin, which he tolerated quietly, aware his family was not hurting him and that he always felt more healthy for a few hours, and somehow, as years passed, he found himself leaning toward greater friendliness toward all the beings that shared his life. He lived reasonably well into his 17th year, when he died in 2016, leaving his family for the first time in many years sadly bereft of a cat member and remains to this day without replacement.