Secret Souls

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Gus’ first birthday happened to fall on Father’s Day this year. This was a coincidence I found both auspicious and cynical - “What do you want for Father’s Day?” people would ask me, halfheartedly, and I’d reply something non-commital, equally halfheartedly, because I was on the level with them. Father’s Day, we all knew, is kind of a wash.

I doubt I’m alone in thinking this. Most dads, if pressed, might be able to cough up something material (”A video game!” “A movie!” “Ask me when you’re older!”) but in their heart of hearts probably have more genuine desires that are less addressable in a Hallmark card - desires that might sound like these: “I don’t want much for Father’s Day except maybe a few hours of uninterrupted sleep or a good beer with a good game,” or, “I want someone of authority to look me in the eye and guarantee my son will live a long and happy life,” or perhaps, “I’d like my cat to come back from the dead”.

That last one was the desire that came banging around in my skull like a bell clapper this year, especially on the day itself, when I appointed myself chief videographer and found myself getting snagged on the empty cat tree where it stood in the sun by the window, widowed toys still where the cat left them, clumps of his hair still clinging to the fibers of the posts.

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I got some good photos of Gus, of course, and his birthday was, I think, a roaring success. Families converged, made merry, cake and ice cream were consumed. Father’s Day was there too - awkward and standing to the side, including in its haphazard presence most of the men I’ve come to know. Interacting with them was funny - we made an art out of briskly wishing one another a Happy Father’s Day with a knowing lilt to our voice, implying through intonation a secret pass phrase, which when translated might sound something like “Welcome to the secret club of being a Dad, when Dad Jokes become funny and embarrassing the shit out of kids really does become an amazing hobby - also, what the hell did you ask for? Socks?”

It was a day of dissonance. A one year old and his birthday cake on one side of the room, dads who didn’t necessarily know how to be celebrated on the other side, and off in the corner an empty cat tree that stood as a reminder that all was not well in a house full of sun and laughter, that one of us was missing, and that despite so much to be grateful for, our little family still had a broken wing, and a fractured heart.

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For those who do not know, we lost our cat, Hiro a.k.a. “The Nugget” on Saturday, June 9th - one week before Gus’ birthday (and Father’s Day, but now you begin to see how absurd attaching that qualifier feels in the context of it all). We don’t know what happened to him except that he died far earlier than we were anticipating. We think it was a brain tumor, but we don’t know for sure, as we didn’t have the cool $4000 to drop on an MRI or neural scan.

I remember growing up I thought people who wept over cats were a little out of their minds. To be fair, I might still be right about that. Maybe I’m a little out of my mind, or maybe Nugget wasn’t quite a cat. Amanda and I theorized about this relentlessly; we concluded, over the years that he lived with us, that he was an Indian prince reincarnated as a cat to learn how to be better after having been a positively awful person in a previous life, as evidenced by Hiro’s arrogance and love for “the Ladies”. Yet despite us teasing him about his supposed backstory, we came to love him for his depth and his loyalty, for his courage, for his kindness, and for the strange way he always knew when you actually needed him.

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Dogs protect us in the physical realm. Cats protect us in the spiritual realm. Cats are spirit guardians - some cats are more complex than others. The most complex among them are more nuanced and interesting than the vast majority of people I’ve met - Hiro being the best example of this. He was the first cat that I truly and deeply loved. He was Gus’ guardian and protector, up until the end, when he tried to hide himself away as he felt his mind breaking in his little head.

The death of Hiro so close to Gus’ birthday put something into stark relief for me, though if you asked me what, I honestly wouldn’t be able to tell you. Something, to be sure, something about mortality and how fragile, how un-guaranteed life is. Something about being grateful for who we love being somewhere we can touch them, can hold them, can scold them. Never before have I been so deeply and profoundly grateful to be frustrated or annoyed - in the days following Hiro’s death, I was prone to sudden bursts of crying, especially when Gus tried to get into a cupboard he wasn’t supposed to get into, or tried to eat something he wasn’t supposed to eat. I don’t think I’ve ever cried quite the same way as I did when Gus came home for the first time after Hiro was gone and tottered through the house, looking in rooms and closets, calling out “Eyna? Eyna?”

Eyna was Gus’ name for Nugget. It was his first word, in fact, the word he said when he saw the cat after long absences. It was the word he said after waking from night terrors, when his parents turned on the lights and patted his back and brought him to see the cat where he lounged in the tower - “See?” we’d say, “It’s alright, it’s okay. See? There’s your Nuggy. There’s your Eyna!” and Gus would snivel and hiccup and bleat, and at the sight of the cat would slowly calm and then - like dawn on a plain - came the smile. “Yeah, see?” we’d say, kissing his tears, “It’s your Eyna,” and we’d put out Gus’ little hand to the cat where he lay, prone and soft like a bunny, to put his tiny fingers through downy fur, saying in soft voices, “Gentle, Gus. Gentle. Gentle.”

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Gus won’t remember Hiro. I don’t know why, but that is what hurts me the most. For Amanda, it’s that we always told him we’d take him to Disney World and put him up in the so-called “Cat Hotel,” a promise we never kept nor will we ever keep. For me, it’s that Eyna was Gus’ first friend, the one who calmed him at night, the one who banished the nightmares back to the dark, the one who taught him the meaning of gentle. Eyna was his co-conspirator, the friend with whom he examined and cataloged all the secret souls of this marvelous world: the breeze from an open window; flower petals; errant carpet strings; the movement of shadows along the walls.

Gus won’t remember any of it. That breaks my heart in a little glass corner that I didn’t even know existed. It’s what I’m thinking about as I take the video of Gus’ birthday celebrations, as the camera lens pans by instinct to Hiro’s tower, where I expect in a moment of absentmindedness to find the cat lazing grouchily, only to find the tower empty, full of nothing but summer light.

Life is fragile. Life is precious and beautiful and is never to be taken for granted. Gus is now a year old and with every day becomes more beautiful and radiant and brave and curious and stubborn and sweet. He kisses with an open mouth, and claps whenever he does something he perceives as impressive. He is clingy and kind, blue eyed, blonde haired, and blessedly, beautifully alive. For him I am grateful. He and Amanda are a variation of the secret reason why a lot of dads, when asked what they want for Father’s Day, don’t usually have an answer. If you’re a Father on Father’s Day and your children are safe and happy…what more could you possibly want?

I don’t know.

Socks, maybe.

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