It’s been more than three weeks now since I drove away for the last time from my “empty nest,” and moved to a new place much closer to where I work. You can well imagine just how much upheaval and chaos and emotional turmoil went into leaving a large country house where I’d lived for 32 years and raised four children to adulthood. I had thought that once I unpacked a few boxes and settled in, I’d sit down and write for GB about my new horizons. The downsizing. The nine-minute commute. The beautiful views of Lake Michigan glittering in the sun as I drive to and from work.
But instead I am moved to write tribute to The Meatball, an extraordinary feline who impacted my life like a meteor for the past several years, and whose health faltered and then failed just as this new chapter of mine began.
No one knew just how old The Meatball was when my son adopted him from a shelter near the university where he was a student. Possibly eight years old, possibly nine. As my son perused the many caged felines hoping to find a home, a black and white cat stared back at him and, he said later, it looked like it stuck its tongue out at him. Ever the non-conformist, my son took this as a sign from the universe that this was the cat for him.
Meatball (we added the “The” over time as his legend and stature grew) settled in as my son’s pet in the student apartment, although he quickly earned a reputation for destructive behavior if he felt he was being ignored. No pile of clean laundry was safe from his unwanted attentions. Likewise for electrical cords. In short, he didn’t present a profile of a house guest you wanted to host.
The tide turned on the following Christmas. I have described The Meatball as a “life altering” animal for me, and this has been true on several occasions and on several planes of existence. The first of these came when my son had asked if he could bring his pet home for the holiday. Mindful of The Meatball’s reputation for exceptionally bad behavior, I drew a stern line in the sand and said “no.”
I had much on my mind at the time, and none of it was good. Elderly relatives were failing in swift succession 120 miles away in Chicago, and my own Christmas Day was going to be devoted to driving back and forth to my home town to visit at two hospitals and a nursing home. My soul was feeling pretty curdled. I served a festive holiday dinner to my children at my place on Christmas Eve, then metaphorically handed them over to their dad for the “real” Christmas dinner the next day. Somewhere along the way I learned that my son planned to make his own hundred-mile-plus journey to return to his apartment before dinner was served, just to check on his lonesome pet.
I woke early on that cold Christmas Day, and busied myself with details and addresses and directions and paperwork. And as I fired up the car in the sunlight, something in me shifted like ice calving from a glacier, and I called my son. I knew there would be no way he’d be awake at that hour, but I left a voicemail for him as I pulled out of the driveway. Yes, when he drove back to Madison, he could bring The Meatball home. I started to smile, grin even, as I set out on my grim and grueling journey. I felt like The Grinch at the end of the Dr. Seuss story, whose heart unexpectedly grew three sizes.
A year or two later, The Meatball moved in with me. It was only intended to be a two-week stay, while my son sorted out his living and roommate arrangements at the beginning of the semester. But weeks turned into months, and I eventually became enchanted by this cat who chirped like a bird and seemed to think he was a dog. I started playfully warning my son that he just might not get the cat back. Then, when my son graduated and left the Midwest for a job on the West Coast, The Meatball settled in at my house for good.
My house sat on roughly fourteen acres of fields and woods, with a walking path cut along the perimeter. I had walked the path, which ran through rows of pine trees and beside meadows and forests, briskly for exercise over the years, focusing on the distance I covered and concentrating on not tripping over a tree root. My exercise laps were quick and efficient, and if whatever dog was in the family at the time came along for company, he never slowed me down.
Enter The Meatball. He was not content to survey and rule The Great Indoors, but liked to be outdoors for hours, lazing in the grass, stalking mice in the garage, stretching out on the patio in the shade of a chair. One day I set out for yet another “exercise walk” with Lucky, the dog, while The Meatball poked around the yard. I don’t know what made me turn around shortly after we started, but turn I did, and saw that the cat had followed us into the woods. Now there are things out there in the woods that would be happy to snap up a middle-aged cat for lunch–coyotes, owls, foxes, possibly even cougars–and so I felt compelled to stick with him as a protector. He slouched ahead, slightly bow-legged with a “smile when you say that, stranger” set to his shoulders. He lagged behind. He galloped to catch up, looking like a little piebald cow pony bringing up the herd. He was utterly hysterical to watch.
Well there went the concept of walking in the woods for exercise, right out the window. And I didn’t mind at all. Over the course of the next couple of years, these walks in the woods with Lucky and The Meatball were a near-daily event. Deep snow and heavy rain would shut us down, but the days we walked far out-numbered the days that we didn’t. And for the first time in the three decades I had lived surrounded by these woods, I stopped and looked around. With the “hurry up and wait” quality of walking with The Meatball, I had oodles of time on my hands to just stand still and soak in the glory of the nature around me. Rafts of golden maple leaves above me in fall in places I hadn’t even known had maple trees at all; raindrops clinging to dark blue berries after a storm; dark, silvery bark on trees that looked like dragon scales; back-lit leaves and vines appearing translucent against the setting sun. And for the first time ever, I appreciated the incremental change of seasons on a day-by-day basis. There is no turning back from that gift.
In the last few months, as an offer was made and accepted on my house and activity ramped up to get things sold, boxed, moved or repaired, The Meatball showed signs of slowing down. At his age, I didn’t think it unexpected. He was, after all, around fourteen or fifteen years old. He no longer galloped to close the distance between us on our walks, so I just made sure that I stayed closer to him in the woods. He started to have difficulty jumping over the “pet gate” that separated Lucky the dog from the dish of cat food in the utility room, so I removed the gate and parked a couple of folding chairs in the doorway instead. Easy for The Meatball to walk through, but enough to keep Lucky out of where he didn’t belong.
One of the “high anxiety” concerns of mine during the two months leading up to the real estate closing was the need to find a place to rent that would let me arrive with three pets. There was Lucky the dog, of course, and The Meatball, and another cat, Smokey, who had been the starter cat for the family ten years earlier when I was going through the divorce. There was no way I would get rid of any of them to make my task easier, and so I searched and searched and searched until I found a neat three-bedroom ranch house on my favorite side of town and signed the “pets allowed” lease with a sigh of relief you could heard on another planet.
And here was The Meatball’s last life-changing gift to me. Despite my best efforts and broken heart, he died just eight days after I moved in. The two weeks around the move had been the worst in my entire life, in great part because of all the expected traumas and last-minute adjustments about the house combining with the multiple visits to the veterinarian, the emergency treatments, the false hopes, the rallies, the seeming improvements, the decline, the tears, the inescapable, cruel finality.
In the days that followed, I felt as though at the end of his life, he had led me to this place, in a lovely quiet neighborhood, with large maple trees and friendly neighbors and well-tended lawns and flower gardens by the dozens near to the lake and my favorite park. Had he not been with me, I would likely have pushed the “easy button” and settled for an impersonal cookie-cutter townhouse or condo that set the maximum number of pets at two, and provided no elbow-room or character or lawn space or privacy. I love where I have landed. And I am thankful every day.
And so adieu The Meatball, a companion like no other.