Early last January, two months before he was diagnosed, I spent two weeks visiting my folks in Northeastern Pennsylvania. One of the things I did while I was with them was accompany them to Philadelphia to pick up "Molly," a seven-week old Siamese kitten (a Christmas present from my siblings and me to our mother), from the breeder from whom we had purchased her.
My father had not been especially well through the Fall of 2002; it seemed he was being plagued by perpetual cold and flu-like symptoms. At the time of my visit he was suffering from a new ailment - pain in his foot.
"I liked the sound of your bone spur so much, I decided to get one myself," he told me ruefully.
He was referring to the calcium deposit that had formed on my right heel several years ago. Thanks to a series of cortisone shots, plus the implementation of a regular walking program, the "spur" no longer troubles me. But it was a painful nuisance for awhile, and I was sympathetic that Dad might be suffering from one. When he described the symptoms to me, however, I frowned slightly - this did not sound like the problem I had had. Since he was scheduled to see his doctor, I said nothing (the pain turned out to be a blood clot. Clots are often a sign of cancer. We - my family and I - are becoming well-educated in these things nowadays).
Two or three nights after we brought the kitten home, I walked into my parents' living room to find my father asleep in his recliner with Molly. The kitten was curled in a tight ball high on his chest, up near the left shoulder. My father's right arm was lying across his middle, and his big hand almost completely covered the tiny kitten like a large blanket.
It was a cute enough scene for me to tease my father about it the next day (Dad really hates to be charged with cuteness by his children). My mother asked me why I hadn't snapped a picture. I told her I had thought about it, but hadn't wanted to wake the two sleepers. But this was only partly true.
The other reason - the bigger reason - was that there was something about seeing my father that way that made me feel...odd. Odd in a bad way, a sad way. When I think of it now, it still makes me feel that way, and my heart hurts as though an animal has drawn four blunt claws across it, tearing it.
It seems to me that there are many such "odd" moments in my life - odd moments that are associated with the people I love, and they can evoke such powerful feelings of joy or sadness in my soul that I know I'll never need any photograph to remember them with the utmost clarity. I asked my husband once if he ever experienced anything like this. Either I did not express myself properly at the time, or he has not - he seems to look back on his past, and the people and places in it, as though they make up the current of a great river, sometimes flowing fast, sometimes slow, but always steady. This seems to fit with his calm, laid-back nature. But I, with my fierce passions, my capacity to love and hate with equal intensity, have the often turbulent flow of my life studded with these almost epiphanous moments. Scary moments, like seeing my grandfather in an intensive care unit shortly before his death when I was still a child. Joyous moments, like meeting my husband at La Guardia airport before we were married after several months apart. Playful moments, like hearing Steve tease his younger sister. Peaceful moments, like watching the sun set from Chacoa Canyon with Tim and his wife. Moments of serenity, rage, pleasure - too many to name.
And then there are the heart-rending moments, like the one I described with my father. What causes these moments? Sometimes the reason is obvious. The episode with Dad was not so obvious. I'm not sure I wanted to figure it out, but once my mind began working on deciphering the riddle I was powerless to stop it. Did I come up with an answer, you ask? I think I did. Oddly enough, it was the kitten who showed me the way.
You see, Molly was so tiny when Mom and Dad brought her home - she couldn't have weighed more than half a pound. A Siamese cat's fur is so short and sleek that it seems there is nothing to the kittens' little bodies. The breeder warned us as we left to keep her warm on the way home - the sharp winter air could be fatal to such a young kitten, and indeed she was a creature that loved to be warm (she still is). From the very beginning she insisted on sleeping in my parents' bed with them, a thing that worried them when she was still very little, for fear that they would roll over and crush her, or smother her in the blankets. In those early days, all she wanted was to be held while she slept, and my enchanted mother obliged her. Molly slept anywhere and everywhere.
But my Dad never slept in his recliner - not since his days tending bar late into the night did he fall asleep sitting up from sheer exhaustion. And though, on that January evening (before the winter winds began to truly howl in our lives), he still appeared hale and hearty, though his color was still good and his hair still thick and still a deep silver, he somehow seemed to me to be as fragile as that tiny kitten cuddled securely near his shoulder. When I think about that day, my throat tightens, I feel a prickling in my nose and my eyes, and I wonder whose hand - if any - is sheltering my father, the way his sheltered Molly.