Despite having accumulated a long list of things to write about for the next few months, and with one story needing just a line or two more to be finished, I had to write this one instead. Over the past week or so a gentle tug of an idea has kept coming back to me: I needed to say goodbye to Max.
For the past 20 years Max, our rather disheveled orange barn cat, roamed our place; he died in late March, the feline equivalent of a 96-year-old man. Max was, I might add, both remarkably healthy and incredibly tough most of his life.
I thought mightily about writing about his passing during this Black Plague of a spring we’ve endured, for fear of being too depressing, but Max’s departure, although sad, isn’t to be my point at all; he taught us quite a lot with his life.
Max may have had a wood rasp of a voice, irritatingly poor personal hygiene, and an uncanny ability to be lying wherever I needed to walk — double the points if my arms were loaded or it was dark and I was toe-searching for a step — yet he endeared himself to us out of his remarkable consistency. He was always here, always around when we needed a friend to talk to, a companion to sit with — whether we wanted a lapful of hair or not — or to serve simply as proof that there are some things that never really change in this ever-changing world.
My daughter, over for a sunny spring recently, and who chummed around with the old boy for over half her life, shook her head while lacing her boots and said, “It seems so strange that he’s not here.”
Max seems to have steadily provided what we need in tough times like these: someone — something — on whom we can depend. Faith may very well be defined as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen,” but it can also come in the form of knowing, for two decades anyway, that we were going to see Max sitting vigilant on our back step, or curled up in his woodpile bed, or lying with one eye open in his favorite sunny spot on our deck. We used to know that all was right with our world when we pulled into the driveway and our headlamps caught Max trotting across the illuminated backdrop of the garage door, ever vigilant and “on patrol.”
Over the years, Max’s world — like our coronavirus-infected one right now — became more and more constricted, yet it never really seemed to bother him. Eventually, he gave up roaming our woods or taking his chances with the traffic to snoop in the cornfield across the road, and at one point, just a few years ago, he quit sleeping in his straw-laden bunk in the barn. After that, we turned to bringing him into our garage in cold weather, allowing him the luxury of a litter box and a milkhouse heater. His hearing — or lack of it — got so bad that we took to clapping our hands to get his attention at mealtime, but he took that in stride, too. My long-suffering wife tended to his messes, his pills, his hunger; when it came to Max, she did all the heavy lifting.
By the time he was 16 or so, Max’s domain was limited to a magnolia tree in our front yard to the west and a tree stump along our woodline to the east — a self-imposed St. Helena for a once-ferocious lion who never weighed more than 10 pounds. Perhaps his penchant for endless exercise, good sleep, and always cleaning his plate served us as a worthy example as well.
To the end, Max showed courage and affection. In fact, on the eve of his death he slowly followed me much of the way out to the mailbox, as if he wanted to push his limits a little; perhaps it was, in his mind, a last hurrah. But, another story reinforced in us where his heart truly was.
One day, about a week before he left us, he came around the corner of the house with a mouse in his mouth. Ellen, over for our usual walk, came inside to tell us that Max looked so proud that he had once again served as the great hunter, his trophy on display in his remarkably in-tact teeth. “He looked so happy,” she said.
For a few days, we just couldn’t tell her — or I guess him — that I had emptied the mouse (unusually flat-headed) out of a garage trap just the day before; Max had just stumbled across it as he nosed around our back hillside. It was his final hunt.
Don’t feel bad that we had to say goodbye to Max; he lived a good long life; we all should be so fortunate. In these dark days he taught us contentment, trust, devotion, even a sense of adventure. It just seems so strange that he’s not here.