With a Song in My Heart: X is for…

“X&Y” – Coldplay, 2005.

Well, you didn’t exactly think it was going to be Olivia Newton-John’s “Xanadu,” did you?  Though there aren’t a lot of “X” songs to choose from, this one fits the bill nicely.  It lends its title to Coldplay’s 2005 album, which features better known singles like “Speed of Sound” and “Talk.”  It was also the album they were promoting in the first rock concert my then-girlfriend and I ever attended together.  (Double extra bonus:  Richard Ashcroft was opening for them.)  Tickets to said show were her first Valentine’s Day gift to me, after we’d only been dating for a couple of months.  It was a measure, perhaps, of how quickly and deeply we fell in love, not just that she would buy me the tickets but be willing to stand in an ear-splitting din for three hours watching a band – two bands, really – she was relatively indifferent about but knew that I loved.  (The following Valentine’s Day, the only way I saw to outdo this generous gift was to propose.  A card and chocolates wasn’t going to do it.)

There is not much to the song itself; it’s a bit of filler sandwiched between the two more popular tracks on the middle of the album.  The second verse, however, is a fairly accurate description of the first stage of our relationship.  “I dive in at the deep end, you become my best friend.  I want to love you but I don’t know if I can.  I know something is broken and I’m trying to fix it, trying to repair it any way I can.”  Our connection was immediate, offering no room for half-measures, no games, no I’d-better-wait-three-days-before-I-call-back-so-she-doesn’t-think-I’m-desperate stratagems.  Up front, we agreed that we knew we liked each other and that we preferred not to mess around with the so-called rules of courtship (as exemplified by Swingers and every single episode of Friends.)  It was a tremendous weight off one’s shoulders, I must confess, after a year spent in and out of temporary dalliances with other women that were dominated by such frivolities.  Obviously we still harbored those same fears of being hurt, of committing and losing our way.  My professional life, too, was in tatters and I questioned where I had the temerity to enter into a serious relationship when I didn’t know whether I’d have the rent next month.  Something was indeed broken.

It came to the point after several months that the choice for me was to either sever another, damaging relationship or lose the one that was teaching me to smile again and that there was a sublime world beyond the borders of my small, inwardly focused life.  In retrospect, it was the easiest decision I ever made.  Seldom does a day pass when I don’t feel grateful that when I was drowning, she was there to throw me a lifeline.  I used to be quite cynical about humanity and human beings, entrenched in the opinion that we are doomed to destroy ourselves through greed, selfishness and spite, the stuff of any one of a hundred dystopian YA novels.  Maybe a great majority of us are, but my wife reminds me through her actions and her attitude that there remain a lot of good people in the world, and our side has a better than average fighting chance.  We have the plans to the Death Star of banality, we’re aiming a proton torpedo of kindness at the exhaust port, and we don’t need no stinkin’ targeting computer.

There is a line of spiritual thought, I’m not sure which, postulating that human beings were originally androgynous beings that were split into separate genders by the gods and have spent eternity attempting to reconnect.  As a single person you can’t even articulate what’s missing, you just know that something is.  The equation is incomplete and every fiber of your being is dedicated to solving it, to seeing how the story ends.  This particular Y needed an X.  I’d like to believe that in sharing themselves with each other, X&Y became a whole greater than the sum of their parts.  (Though I’m sure I could list a hundred ways in which my wife has made me a better person before I could name one where I’ve helped her.)  I was asked on the morning of our wedding what her best qualities were, and my answer hasn’t changed in seven years:  the giving nature that inhabits her every thought and deed; of herself, of her time, of her love.  Even now, as she waits for me to finish this post so we can watch Game of Thrones together (a show she does not really care for), I’m reminded of that.  I’m reminded of the Coldplay concert, swaying together to “X&Y,” feeling like she fixed me, and continues to fix what’s broken each day we are together.  It is something to feel like you won’t ever be able to fully repay a debt of the soul, but I figure I can at least start by letting her get through her episode of Orange is the New Black first.

With a Song in My Heart: U is for…

“Unforgettable” – Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole, 1991.

Duet – from the Latin “duo,” meaning two, and the Italian “duetto,” a short composition for two voices.  Yet just because you can combine two voices doesn’t necessarily mean those voices are meant to go together.  Blending a pair of distinct tones can create either a transcendent melody, or an unendurable cacophony.  Some seem meant for each other, while others will remain as incompatible as oil and water, no matter how vigorously they are mixed.  So does the same seem to be said for human connections.  We are forever trying to combine our voice with that of another, to see if we can create music.  We’ve had the first dates that peal like delicate glass bells, and frustratingly, as they become relationships, evolve over weeks and months to a conclusion as sour and clunky as an out-of-tune piano.  We rewind to the start and sing the first bars again with a new partner, and hope that this time we can sustain the harmony.  Often we go through a lot of bad songs before we create the right one.

“Unforgettable” was first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1951, and again in 1961.  The latter version was edited and remixed (and supplemented with a saxophone solo) to create a duet with his grown daughter 26 years after his death.  What could be accomplished today relatively easily with home audio software was revolutionary in 1991, and remains haunting still.  Determined to carve out her own way in the business, Natalie Cole had long refused to cover her father’s hits, but finally relented, and “Unforgettable” was the crown on Unforgettable… with Love, which featured twenty-two of the elder Cole’s standards and won the Grammy for Album of the Year.  The idea of duets crafted in the editing room spread to Frank Sinatra’s people, who famously released an entire album full of them the following year (to massive sales, but just as much criticism that Frank hadn’t actually met anyone he was singing with).  What the Sinatra album lacked, and what any great duet needs, is chemistry.  That concept remains resistant to definition; like a paraphrasing of the Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s famous remark, you just know it when you see it, or feel it.  Though he had died when she was only fifteen, Nat King Cole’s voice had a chemistry with his adult daughter’s that sounded as though this electronically-forged duet was always intended to be.

“Unforgettable” has come to call to mind two distinct periods in my life.  When it first came out it was one of those favorite songs of my grandmother’s, played up at the cottage as twilight stole the sun behind the island across the lake.  I recall one evening my sister and I crouching behind a couch, pressing play and having a couple of stuffed animal puppets lip-synch it for the amusement of the rest of the family.  Occasionally, we’d sing it for real, with squeaky young voices matching the notes but none of the emotion; reciting syllables with mechanical intonations.  At that age, all you can do is imitate.  You haven’t lived enough or felt enough to understand what songs like this are meant to evoke.  Years, a few girlfriends and episodes of heartbreak later, “Unforgettable” came to mean something else.

Even on our worst days, my wife’s voice never fails to enchant me.  Her heart beats with the refrains of the Great American Songbook, and deep, pure feelings bubble over her lips as she breathes life into old songs that emerge refreshed and soulful.  When we were first dating, on one of our trips to our favorite karaoke bar (the place we’d met, in point of fact), she invited me to sing “Unforgettable” with her.  While no one is ever going to mistake me for an Idol prospect, the chance to add my voice to hers – literally – was impossible to turn down.  And like the song says, it remains incredible that someone so unforgettable thinks that I am too.  The chemistry was there from the beginning; we knew it when we saw it.  Best times and abysmal, our harmony continues to sound as harmony was intended.  Because we’ve discovered that the composition of this life was written for the two of us to sing together.  That doesn’t mean that on occasion one of us (usually me) doesn’t go off key, or muck up the lyrics.  Regardless of that, we keep singing.  And the song becomes a movement, the movement a symphony, with different themes and motifs that we discover together and add to the ever-growing pile of pages of sheet music.

When you consider the randomness of our encounters – the glance across the crowded room, the brush past on the street, the friend of a friend of a friend’s cousin’s roommate’s former colleague, the matching by computer algorithm – it’s something of a miracle that we find ourselves connecting at all.  I guess you could look at it as throwing enough darts at a board and hoping that inevitably one will find the target.  How do you account for chemistry then?  How is it then that people do often end up finding their soulmate, that individual who is uniquely, for them, unforgettable?  That’s not a question I’ll be able to answer here, after all, thousands of years of literature that both precede and follow me are, like this, mere speculation on a common theme.  Perhaps it’s enough to be grateful that we are able to find that perfect duet partner, and take solace in the idea that perhaps the music was pointing us that way all along.

With a Song in My Heart: S is for…

“Somebody Like You” – Keith Urban, 2002.

If you’ve been with me since April 1st (or longer) you’ve probably gotten the sense that I take music just a leeetle bit seriously.  Maybe that’s not the right word; it implies a certain lack of humor about things, and some of the songs I’ve selected for this blogging odyssey reflect a lighter sensibility.  What surprises me is meeting people who are far more cavalier about it – not, I should add, that there’s anything wrong with that – to the point where music, to them, is a bit meaningless.  This is crystallized for me in the songs that couples select for their first dance at their wedding.  Granted, you can’t speak to why a particular song means one thing to one person and something else to another, but often, you’re left scratching your head and wondering, did you even listen to the lyrics?

Three of the most popular choices are “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge, “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston and Celine Dion’s infamous Titanic anthem “My Heart Will Go On.”  If you pay attention to the lyrics, the first is about a woman treating a man like garbage, the second is a farewell to a relationship that has ended, and the third is about a lover who’s died.  Hardly the greatest sentiments with which to start a new life together.

When my then-fiancee and I were planning our ceremony and reception, we wanted to avoid the typical hug-and-shuffle-to-a-cheesy-ballad that besides being tired didn’t express who we were.  The initial selection was Barbra Streisand and Bryan Adams’ duet “I Finally Found Someone” from The Mirror Has Two Faces.  We were taking ballroom classes at the time and thought a choreographed routine might be a fun twist.  Our dance studio was amenable (for a modest fee, naturally) and we began a series of hours learning the sways and steps of a rumba.  A few weeks in, though, despite the best efforts of our patient teacher, the sense was that it wasn’t working; too slow, not enough energy.  I’d never paid much notice of country music, but my better half put forth this Keith Urban number as a suggested alternative.  Hardly rumba material – this meant cha cha.

It might be worth pointing out at this juncture that my dancing has always been average at best, veering between extremes of “hopeless white guy” and “spastic goofball.”

Not wanting to disappoint, I accepted the challenge, and we moved immediately from gentle sashays to bold struts and turns and twists.  One of my less endearing traits is my lack of patience with myself when I can’t nail something, and the complicated series of steps and movements we’d assigned ourselves were a recipe for frayed nerves and easily blown fuses.  Outside the weekly classes we’d find any chance we could to move the living room furniture out of the way and run through the routine, and my attitude during more than one of these chances was substantially less than game; to my regret, it was often downright curmudgeonly.  Some sessions ended in curses and angry exits from the room, followed by apologies and pleas to try one more time.  At one point I may have mused that I was more concerned about this dance than any other aspect of the wedding, which did not go over very well to say the very least.  The days ticked down, the practices continued.  Finally we got it to a state where we were as confident as we were going to be.  All that remained was performing it for someone other than our cat – just sixty-four family and friends.  No pressure.

Married now, wine and dinner and dessert in our bellies, an emotional set of speeches given, and now the DJ is set to go and it’s time.  Keith Urban’s guitar starts up, my new wife and I bow to each other, and we are off.  As soon as we move into hold and start shaking our hips, our guests go crazy.  They are completely surprised, mainly by the fact that I haven’t tripped over myself, and every new step brings cheers and applause.  Sure, I mess up a couple of times, but by the time I spin my bride into my embrace, dip her and plant a kiss on her like the most seasoned swinger, the joy of the moment has long surpassed any remaining performance anxiety.  I get more than a few astonished congratulations afterwards, but more than any external accolade I’m proudest that I’ve done well for my lady.

One of the biggest adjustments you make in moving from bachelorhood to marriage is recognizing that you’re not living only for yourself anymore.  The transition to selfless living is not an easy one to make and the habit of clinging to vestiges of the single life can linger for years afterwards.  Wanting to love somebody can sometimes too be seen as a selfish need, looking outward to fill a void, without necessarily thinking whether or not that person particularly wants to fill your void at all.  What helps us move beyond the fear of losing oneself is the euphoria that can result from putting another’s needs before our own – the filling of a void we didn’t even know we had.  Though we are not always (or even often) successful in living this way, we need to stop and remember the moments when we did and work tirelessly to recreate them.  Keith Urban sings that “sometimes it’s hard for me to understand that you’re teaching me to be a better man.”  Truthfully, we don’t often get it.  But each time we do something for our partner without thought of what it means to us, we’re getting better.  Sharpening our steps.  Perfecting our soul.  And that is what wanting to love somebody can mean – wanting to make ourselves better by doing better by another.

With a Song in My Heart: L is for…

“The Lady in Red” – Chris de Burgh, 1986.

I’d be curious as to how many people out there reading this who were born in the 80’s or later know who Chris de Burgh is.  He’s an Irish performer, with more than a passing resemblance to the Monkees’ Davy Jones (it’s probably the bowl cut and the thick eyebrows) who had a string of inoffensive soft rock hits mid-decade, with this one considered to be his signature.  His fanbase tended to be older women, and certainly my mom swooned every time she heard his trembling, faintly-accented tones emerge from the car radio speakers, but I don’t get the sense that anyone below 40 in that era would dare to be caught buying one of his albums.  That did not stop him from making the playlists of the DJs hired to run primary school dances.  Just as well, too, for on a warm spring evening in 1987, “The Lady in Red” began playing at one of them, and a beautiful young girl named Karin asked a shy boy clinging to the wall if he’d like to dance with her.  Surprised, enthralled, bewitched, and somewhat disbelieving, I nonetheless said yes.

I followed Karin to an empty place on the floor amidst the other couples.  She leaned in, slid confident hands up my back and lay her head against my chest.  My shaking fingers found the small of her back and I held her, unsure of how much pressure was too much, or not enough.  Mindful of chaperoning teachers pacing the perimeter ensuring that nothing inappropriate was transpiring, terrified I’d do something stupid to make her bolt.  We shifted in an awkward circle in hug-and-shuffle style, I stared off into the distance while catching breaths of her scent; this intoxicating blend of shampoo and perfume that must have been, to my eleven-year-old mind, how angels smelled.  I don’t remember what she was wearing, or what I was wearing, but I remember the feel of her next to me.  Warm, soft, assertive yet fragile at the same time.  The lyrics were suitable:  “And I hardly know this beauty by my side.”  I’d never had a conversation with Karin before.  Had she spoken to me in another setting I probably would have been too tongue-tied to form anything as significant as words.  She had seemed, at least to my way of thinking, one of those unapproachable goddesses who was forever the domain of someone smarter, cooler and better-looking.  But here, the goddess had taken pity on the mortal wallflower and blessed him with a few moments of her time.  Apparently, thanks to the power of Chris de Burgh.  Maybe my mom was on to something.

It likely surprises no one to learn that my romantic history leading up to my first meeting with the woman who would become my wife was a tragicomic folly of false starts, chances missed, errant choices and just plain cowardice.  The main problem for me was always that I would build up things in my head to be more dramatic and serious than they needed to be, while my heart labored away on crushes that were either never acted upon or would flame out into awkward embers.  I never had much of a problem interacting with girls and women; to this day I tend to get along better with them than with my own gender.  I could be charming in one moment and leave them doubled over with laughter in the next.  Closing the deal, that is, moving from friendship to relationship, was where I’d flounder.  I’m sure of at least five instances (and I could provide names, but I don’t want to freak them out if they Google me) where my failure to act – out of a worry that a misguided step forward would destroy the existing friendship – led to an evaporation of interest from the girl.  My admiration of women coupled with a guttered self-esteem made me place the girls I liked on pedestals I couldn’t possibly hope to reach.  It didn’t matter that some of them seemed to like me too; who was I to dare to presume I had any business asking them out.  Again, that was for the guys who always knew what to say and what to wear, the guys with the sculpted abs they pretended to be bashful about showing off, the guys who were born with a clue.  Not this pimpled dork who had to try three times as hard just to be noticed, and always settled for the lonely practice of idolizing from afar.

It was not until much later in life that I managed to connect those elusive dots, and my heart’s voice grew loud and strong enough to be able to tell my doubting brain to shut the eff up and kiss her already.  It might not have been the best time to try to kiss Karin as those four minutes of bliss in 1987 spiraled to their end, but would the world have ended had I, at a later moment, found her in the hallways and said, “hey, I was wondering if you’d like to see a movie with me some time”?  Even if she had said no thank you, at least it would have been a shot taken.  And there were a lot of Karins in the years that followed.  Many ladies in red sauntering into my life and dancing just as gracefully out of my grasp.  Some I am even still friends with, the crushes of long ago long since abated.  It isn’t about wishing that I’d had the chance to have more sex, and it certainly isn’t to suggest that I’m not ultimately with the greatest partner I could ever have hoped to find.  “The Lady in Red” is a reminder of my first dance, and the beginning of a time in my life that could have been richer had I had the cojones to seize what was often right in front of me, doubts be damned.  I don’t believe in the idea that some people never get a break – breaks are always there, and it’s our stupid, self-pitying little fears that obstruct our view and leave us forlorn and regretful.  It’s not the best use of one’s precious time here in this continuum.  (Maybe it makes us better writers; that decision is your prerogative, not mine.  I know at times I would prefer a sumptuous life to a sumptuous vocabulary.)

If nothing else, this is my chance to thank Karin, wherever she is now, and let her know how special that dance was, and that I’ll always be grateful.  It is true; you never forget your first lady in red.

Slán, mo chara beag


When I was single, friends and family would often suggest that I should get a cat.  My answer was always no.  Not enough room in my one-bedroom apartment, I was in and out too often, there was no place to put the litter box and I had no interest in cleaning up furry messes every day.  The truth beneath those pat excuses was rather more revealing:  I didn’t want the responsibility.  I fancied myself a free-wheeler (even if most nights were spent at home on the couch or on the computer) and couldn’t abide the idea of having a feline anchor demanding constant attention and care.  The other, more appealing half of the equation never entered into my mind.  Truly, until you’ve had a pet, it doesn’t compute, and I grew up in a house without animals.  I’m not exactly sure why we never had a pet – I can’t even recall discussing the idea of one.  It seemed to be tacitly understood that animals weren’t an option, and that was that.

We flash forward then, to the time I met the woman who would become my wife.  And her cat, Muffins.

Muffins was a gray tortoiseshell born in 1992 who had belonged to another family for the first ten years of her life.  For whatever reason those people gave her up to the local humane society – abandoned her, as it were, to fifteen months hard time in a cage before her fateful encounter with my lady-to-be.  As the story goes, my wife was merely accompanying my sister-in-law who was interested in volunteering there, and while waiting for her to fill in the forms, wandered into the cat room.  It was replete with amiable felines in need of families, some of whom hopped about eagerly for attention while others curled up in resigned croissants and paid no heed to the human visitor.  Muffins, however, made her way to the front of her cage, sat back on her haunches and reached her little paws out through the bars to grasp my wife’s cheek – like an old soul recognizing its long-absent mate from a life lived in another time and place.  Their bond was sealed.  My wife adopted her on the spot.  A few hours later, Muffins took only a few moments to examine her new surroundings for the first time before curling up and going to sleep in my wife’s lap, purring, content, at ease.  She had come home, to her true forever home, at long last.

My own bond with Muffins wasn’t the touching moment related above, it was more of a gradual acceptance on her part that this tall, loud thing that spent an awful lot of time in her territory wasn’t going anywhere.  I was house-sitting for my wife shortly after we were first dating, dropping in for a few hours every night to ensure Muffins was fed and had some company.  So I was lying on the couch, channel-surfing, when I noticed this furry, adorable face on the floor looking up at me.  We stared at each other for a few moments, sizing each other up.  I patted my thigh in what seems to be the universal signal for hey cat, come up here and make yourself comfortable.  And up she leaped, to my shock and awe.  She stood there, pawing at the unfamiliar terrain, trying to figure out how best to position herself for maximum relaxation potential.  Of course I wasn’t used to how to deal with cats, so I was petting her relentlessly, probably a bit too hard, and she responded with an angry hiss and a swift departure, flicking her tail in my face as she went.  It would be a couple of months before she’d dare try again, this time when my wife was on a girls’ weekend away.  That time, I knew enough to keep my hands to myself – and she settled in for a cozy nap.

Game on.

It would take an entirely separate blog, I would think, to chronicle all of Muffins’ most endearing traits and quirks, but a few stand out more than most.  When we were first living together, Muffins used to tuck my wife and I in for bed at the end of the night.  She’d stay while we sat up and talked, read or did a crossword puzzle, but when she knew we were getting close to turning out the light, she’d leave – as if she was a nanny sending her charges off to sleep and retiring for the evening, her job done, until the morning when she heard us talking and would hop up on the bed to say hello again, it’s a new day, get your rears in gear.  As the years wore on and we relocated dwellings a few times, she began staying through the night, particularly in some bitter winters, where my legs became the bed of choice, and I’d have to find ever more contorting ways to slide myself down so I could go to sleep without waking her up.  We would joke, too, that whenever you put something soft like a blanket or a cushion down for more than a few minutes, it would become a cat bed – Muffins’ predatory instinct when it came to sleeping spots was unparalleled.  Even the little pink igloo we purchased for her went rarely used, her preference wherever a sunbeam fell through the windows.  It was not uncommon either to find a stuffed animal knocked over if it was in the way of a designated snooze spot; her usual targets were an Eeyore we kept on our spare bed or the snowmen in our annual “stuffy Christmas” display.  Of course, a few summers ago she abandoned her old habit of letting us sleep through the night and began announcing her arrival loudly at one or two a.m., repeating that inimitable wail until we awoke and attended to her whims.  For a short time I kept a plastic water gun on my bedside table to shoo her away.

Though meant to be an indoor cat, she loved roaming our various backyards, rolling around on and eating the grass, investigating nooks and crannies for potential mouse habitats and avenues of escape, defending with stubborn honor against the intrusion of other wayward cats, sleeping under this hideous tree in the back corner for hours at a time – yet never failing to return and wait patiently at the door for us to let her back inside.  On a particularly memorable occasion we had chosen to leave the back door open a crack to let her come and go as she pleased – that policy lasted a whole two days as on the second afternoon I looked up to see her trotting in merrily with a dead mouse in her mouth.  By the book you’re supposed to thank the cat and dispose of the corpse quietly (it’s their way of thanking you for feeding them by “getting the groceries” themselves) but my behavior was a little more along the lines of bellowing some unprintable oaths and smacking her on the nose to make her let go of the vile thing.  Then of course was this last summer when we forgot she was out back until well after the sun went down and we suddenly noticed a pungent smell wafting in through the windows.  We raced to the door and Muffins stumbled in, sneezing, drooling and dripping snot, having just been sprayed by a passing skunk.  One emergency run to the 24-hour grocery store for hydrogen peroxide and a few baths later, this shriveled, wet, ratty-looking thing wandered shaken through our contaminated house, trying to regain her composure.  We wanted to laugh but felt so bad for her.  She looked so embarrassed.

I’ve met a lot of other people’s cats who have fit the stereotype of the aloof, uncaring feline who treats you as staff instead of family.  Muffins, by contrast, never failed to be friendly even with complete strangers walking through the door for the first time.  She was a well-mannered hostess, dropping by to greet newcomers and offering little kitty kisses to let them know they were welcome, instead of fleeing from caresses, hiding in the closet and waiting for the interlopers to leave.  Of course she was getting something out of the deal, namely, the affection she vacuumed up like an overclocked Hoover, but she seemed to understand the importance of treating guests like family, letting them know that our home was a warm and safe and happy place.  In her own way, Muffins was a reminder even in the darkest moments of how truly wondrous this world can be.  The melancholy of the worst of days at the office, or the inevitable clashes between stressed spouses, was soothed instantly by an unjudging look from her enormous eyes, a touch of her gentle paws, the incomparable purr, the sight of her fast asleep on your lap or tucked behind a stuffed animal knocked askew.  Even the meow from some distant room elsewhere in the house, assuring you she was around.  It’s okay, mommy & daddy, I’m here.  What she asked in return was merely a scratch behind her ears and the occasional (okay, daily, truth be told) slice of deli honey maple turkey.

She infused herself into our vernacular as well – my wife’s original nickname for her was “boo boo,” hence shorthand references to Muffins became “the boo,” and boo became a prefix for anything related to her.  Dry food was boo bits, wet food was boo-goo, the litter pan was the boo box, the occasional coughed-up hairball was boo barf, even the aforementioned ignored cat bed became the boo-gloo.  Additional nicknames for Miss Boo herself became too numerous to count, as did silly songs we’d make up for her.  To the tune of Mary Poppins’ “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”:

Let’s take Boo to bed,

She is a sleepyhead,

Let’s take Boo to bed and hear her purring

Up to the second floor

Then through the bedroom door

Oh, let’s take Boo to bed!

One might think such devotion the exclusive bailiwick of the crazy cat lady, but she was our only baby for years, through failed attempts to conceive a child of our own, when it seemed parenthood was a path we would never walk.  Interestingly enough, when we met the boy who would become our adopted son, the first question he asked us was about Muffins (as I recall, he was disappointed that she was fixed and couldn’t have kittens.)  Of course, she came to accept him, though he was even louder than the last male to intrude upon her pleasant solitude.  We were in the kitchen, I think, and my wife whispered for me to look over into the family room where she was nestled on top of him for the first time.  Giving us her blessing, I suppose, that this kid was a keeper, regardless of his inability to sit still for longer than a minute at a time.

There is no interest, I suspect, nor any desire on my part to chronicle her decline in great detail, suffice it to say that age excepts none.  Over the past year her weight had begun to dwindle and visits to the vet became more frequent and more expensive.  To our credit, I suppose, we never questioned the need to give her the best care regardless of cost.  If it had been one of us who’d been suffering, we would not hesitate to pay whatever was required; so too would it be with our boo.  It was the responsibility part.  Oddly enough, maintaining her dignity was foremost on Muffins’ mind these last few months – much like a golden-aged human being fighting to hold onto what slips ever further from their grasp with each passing year, what it seemed would always be there.  The vet had suggested moving her litter from our basement to the main floor to ease the strain on her legs.  Well, didn’t the impossibly stubborn little lady simply refuse to go for two days until we put it back where she was used to having it.  I’ll just say there’s a reason why female cats are called queens.  Her Majesty Muffins was determined to remain so.  Yet despite her brave, ever-purring face, sober realization crept into our minds that her remaining days were dwindling – and at some point, a decision would have to be made.  A terrible, horrible, no good, awful and goddamned necessary decision.

Two Thursdays ago, Muffins wasn’t eating or drinking.  She was lying listless on her side, struggling to be comfortable.  We’d received the results of a recent blood test letting us know her kidneys were failing.  There were treatment options available, but no cure – it would be putting her through frightening medical procedures to extend her life only for a couple of weeks.  That Thursday night we said good night to her in the family room, afraid she wouldn’t make it through the night.  Friday morning we found that she had struggled her way up the stairs to crawl into a box in our bedroom – she didn’t want to be alone.  I went off to work allowing myself to hope that “Lady Bounce-Back” – our diminutive for her habit of recovering nicely from seemingly mortal ailments – would rule the day once more.  When my wife contacted me in tears later that morning, I realized that wouldn’t be the case this time.

The vet gave us a few moments alone to consider our options.  I made myself verbalize what we were both feeling.  If we put her through the ordeal of hospitalization, who were we doing it for – her, or ourselves?  So I said it.  We needed to put selfish concerns aside.  We needed to let her go.  My wife said she thought I was right.  Clenching at a rising lump in my throat I said I didn’t want to be right.

We both took a turn holding Muffins one last time.  She was angry – she didn’t like the vet’s office, never had.  Defiant to the last, the queen holding court and meowing and hissing her displeasure.  But we both knew that she was tired, and she was ready to go.  She was almost 22 years old – in human terms, nearing 140 – and she’d made the most of her time here.  The vet told us that it was a testament to how well she was looked after that she lived as long as she did.

I thought back to what my wife had told me about when she and Muffins found each other.  She went to sleep now just as she first had, in my wife’s lap – comfortable and content, surrounded by love and leaving now for that place without pain, to run and chase mice in an endless meadow beneath eternal sunshine.

We all want to deny the responsibility that goes with love.  We want no part of it.  We want the ice cream and not the brussel sprouts.  When we’re admiring the curve of a young woman’s perfect breasts or the sinew of her tanned legs, or losing ourselves in the depth of her soulful eyes, we don’t want to consider the idea that someday we’ll be changing her adult diaper or cringing at her inability to remember our name, or worse, watching her waste away in a hospital bed, hooked up to fluids and monitors and catheters as some microscopic, malevolent clump of cells eats her from the inside out.  Commitment terrifies us because like all sumptuous meals, eventually we know we’ll be handed the bill and asked to leave the restaurant.  Better to just walk on by that four-star place and purchase the Happy Meal instead, right?  Easier.  Quicker.  More seductive.

Hardly the most nutritious option.  To extend the food metaphor past its limit, it’s a recipe for loneliness.  To shy from that responsibility is to deny the greatest thing you can ever ask for.  If you can open your heart, you may find a gentle little being curling up inside it and starting to purr.

George Carlin once said that adopting a pet is essentially purchasing a small tragedy, unless you’re 80 and you get a turtle.  What he didn’t say was how despite that, adopting a pet is accepting unconditional love.  Muffins ended the question for me of whether or not animals have souls.  They are proof of the essential goodness of life, of its capacity to embrace and give and forgive, of life’s evolution towards a utopia dancing just ever so slightly out of reach.  Cruelty and malevolence are artificial constructs forced upon us by our unwillingness to share and to accept the responsibility of love, to treat living things as more valuable than things.  Muffins did not earn a salary or spend money:  her only currency was love, in which she was a billionaire many times over, and she lavished it upon us at every opportunity, without thought of reward.  She understood her responsibility.  She had it figured out, better than any of us.  The impatient meows were like tiny admonishments that we didn’t grasp the obvious.  Silly humans.

I thank whatever guides this universe for winding our paths towards one another, and even an atheist can dream about a far future day when he gets to cradle his beloved pet in his arms again, in some unfathomable form.

Until then, I miss her very much, and I thank her, and I say goodbye, my little friend.  I love you always.

Valentine’s Day, massacred

It’s probably not a good thing to read “Happy VD” in a friend’s status update and think, based on their general tone, that they’re referring to venereal disease (which can be many things, the least of which I suspect is happy).  Valentine’s Day is one of those concepts that provokes divides akin to red state/blue state – yer either fer it or agin it.  People in love use it to shower their special somebody with gifts and affection.  Single people decry it as a Hallmark holiday and bemoan the cringe-inducing cheese of cutesy heart-clutching teddy bears and diabetic chocolate overdoses.  No matter your take on February 14th, we can probably all agree that in a world whose history has been defined largely by how much we hate each other’s guts – and finding new and inventive ways to take out that frustration via ever more powerful killing tools – it’s nice that we can still devote one day out of the 365 (or in this year’s case, 366) to celebrating the idea of love.  On February 15th we can go back to pissing all over the douchebags – just give it a rest for twenty-four hours, please.  And yet it still seems that the majority of what you’ll read about Valentine’s Day is penned by misanthropes who feel especially entitled on this day of all days to vent their contempt about ex-partners, abysmal dates or the fact that they have no partner at all.  They’ll portray it as a vast conspiracy of impatient family members, bachelors/bachelorettes, the greeting card industry, chocolate makers, Kenyan Islamofascisocialists, Republicans and the military/industrial complex (because those guys are always behind everything) directed specifically at making their lives miserable.  In the ultimate of ironies, snark flows more freely today than love.  Not exactly what the secret cabal of Illuminati, Bilderbergers and Commie-Nazis who came up with Valentine’s Day in the first place had in mind when they forced this nonsense upon us.

Look, I’ve been there.  I was Forever Alone Guy.  And yes, it sucks being the only single person at the table.  You can argue that it’s is an artificial holiday, the date picked to ameliorate a slow retail season between Christmas and Easter; well, it’s not like nature notices the difference and remembers to create an especially beautiful day, she was planning on doing that (or not) anyway.  You can carp about the in-your-face syrupy public demonstrations of affection, the dreadful Sarah Jessica Parker “comedies” Hollywood rolls out during this season and the abundance of red and pink heart-shaped paper cutouts stuck all over your supermarket cashier’s kiosk that are not, truly, shaped like actual human hearts.  What puzzles me is how the purveyors of such cynicism think they’re unique, that they’re the very first to vent such incisive wit for the world’s bemusement.  How soon we forget that we heard all of this last year, and the year before.  I very well might have been the one making those points in the late 1990’s.  But I can admit that I was wrong, and that I shouldn’t have let my gloom about a lack of successful romantic escapades rain over the proverbial parade of those souls lucky enough to manage to connect amidst the random permutations of the universe.

For many of us, Valentine’s Day is actually special.  Not because society told us it should be.  Because like Captain Picard, we made it so.  VD wasn’t anything remarkable for me either, until I decided to make it the day I proposed to the wonderful lady who became my wife.  Had she said no, I might have had a new reason to hate it – as it turns out, I was one of the lucky ones.  And that is sort of the point – what else is a holiday, at its core, other than a celebration of one’s fortune?  Even the single are fortunate – they are alive, healthy and free, and many are clearly very gifted with words.

My suggestion is this:  let’s have an anti-Valentine’s Day too.  We could stick it in the middle of August, say on the 23rd, when it’s hot and sticky, the Back to School sales are in full vigor, the political conventions are happening and love is the furthest from anyone’s mind.  Hallmark can stock “To My Scumbag Ex” and “Never Liked Your Rihanna-Loving Ass Anyway” cards, frowny-faced teddy bears and Cupids with their heart arrows shoved where the sun don’t shine.  It can be a day when we let our dogs befoul our loud neighbour’s lawns and cut each other off on the highway with no road rage reprisals – an occasion to let the finest examples of man’s contempt for his fellow man shine forth like so much radioactive waste.  And all the eternally single bloggers and columnists can use it to spew forth their laments for their failed attempts at romance to their heart’s discontent.  But please, for the love of love, leave Valentine’s Day alone.

Twenty Five

Nothing can prepare you for the news that your father is gone.  It doesn’t matter if it’s expected, the inevitable conclusion of a long terminal illness, or sudden, like the turn of a page.  You are spending the afternoon in the snow with your friends when someone comes to you and tells you to be brave.  And then they lead you to a room where your mother is sitting, her face the picture of devastation.  There is no easy way to tell you, but she tries to ease into it as smoothly as she can – mindful of the fragile heart of an eleven-year-old boy.  The fateful words come.  “I’m afraid he died.”  The rest of the moment is lost in a torrent of sudden tears wailed into her arms.  It can’t be, you think in the spaces between the sobs.  Not him.  Not my dad.

That boy was me, twenty-five years ago this afternoon.  More than any other day, February 12th, 1987 has shaped who I have become, because it was the day I lost my best friend in the world, the man I admired above all others.  He was everything I ever wanted to be, a legacy to which I still aspire, and if I live another sixty years and achieve half of what he did I can leave this life content with how I’ve used my precious time on this little rock.  Was he a famous man, an influential man, a man of letters or worldwide renown?  Google his name if you want; you won’t get any hits.  But that doesn’t matter to me.  My father remains the ideal of what it means to be a man.  Without his guidance this past quarter-century I have looked to other mentors from time to time and each has come up a distant second (and occasionally further back even than that) through no fault of their own.  They’re just not and will never be my father.  Growing up without your dad is a bit like trying to canoe on your own against a heavy wind.  Without him in the stern guiding you with his steady paddle, you’re often blown far off course and will struggle to find your way back – perhaps never.

My father never judged me.  He never forced me in a direction I didn’t want to go.  When I was abjectly miserable following my first-ever hockey practice, humiliated by kids who were bigger and better at it, he told me I didn’t have to go back.  And yet he wasn’t a coddler or a helicopter father.  In the junior soccer league in which I played, it was something of a running joke that it was customary for the coach’s son to win the Most Valuable Player Award every year – predictable nepotism from showbiz dads convinced their kid was the next Beckham (or Pele, if we’re using a decade-appropriate reference).  But not the year my dad coached my team.  He wasn’t going to give me something I hadn’t earned.  I got Most Improved Player – because despite my total lack of athletic skill, I worked incredibly hard, suffering skinned knees and bruised shins, for him.  (Most Injured Player would have been more apt.)  Making him proud was more than enough for me.  An interesting aside to this story is, that year our team lost every single game except the three my father wasn’t able to attend.  My teammates begged him not to come to the championships.  He did regardless – and we won the whole blessed thing.  I still have the trophy.

Dad taught me baseball, he taught me to ski, he taught me to love the Beatles.  Where other kids recited “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” I sang “Norwegian Wood” to perplexed relatives and he beamed.  I laughed at his inability to decipher song lyrics and the comical nonsense words he came up with instead.  I watched my cousin tear up on her sixteenth birthday as she listened to the playlist of 50’s jukebox classics he had assembled for her big day.  I watched his delight at the smile on my face as I tore open the newest box of space Lego.  I watched him shrug off with a smile the time I embarrassed him in front of our entire church congregation.  He had a rare capability to spread joy, and he did so whenever the opportunity arose.  He could befriend complete strangers in minutes.  You could not walk down the main street of our home town with him without running into someone he knew.  And you always got the sense that everyone he did know, whether casually or intimately, cared deeply about him as well.  He had that effect on people.  When I was struggling with bullies or simply trying to figure out my place in the world, his arm around my shoulder assured me that everything was going to be okay, because he had my back.  No matter how dark the night, the voice of my father was the light.  One of his last gifts to me was in the early stages of my figuring out that I wanted to write.  On weekends, or in the summer, he’d take me to his office and park me in front of the old Xerox computer with its floppy discs the size of pizza boxes and encourage me to type and just dream.

The last time I saw him, he wasn’t feeling well.  He’d taken the morning off and was still in bed as I got ready to head off to an overnight stay with my weekly enrichment class at a nature park a few hours north of us.  I went into the bedroom to say goodbye, never imagining this would be our last moment together.  I gave him a kiss on the forehead and said I would see him in a few days.  When I saw him those few days later he was lying silent and cold on a table in the funeral home.  And I still expected him to open his eyes and look at me and smile, and tell me that it would be all right.  It felt like we had so much left to do together.  The Blue Jays were going to be starting a new season in a few months and there was a new Bond movie coming out in July that he’d promised me he’d take me to see.  Wake up, Dad.  I still need you.

For twenty-five years there has been a father-shaped hole in my life; I have lived far longer without him than I did with him.  I am only five years younger now than he was when he died, and not a day passes that I don’t think of him, and miss him.  I reflect on some of the disastrous decisions I’ve made in my life and think if he had been here, maybe he could have steered me away from those rocks and shoals.  Age has made me look more like him too; there are moments when I see pictures of myself now and shiver a little at the uncanny resemblance.  I have felt for much of my life like a mere echo of his voice, my path ever uncertain, every step of the way wondering what he would think of the choices I’ve made, if I have lived up to the example he laid down in his too-brief journey.  I am not really a spiritual person, but I feel the same longing to be able to ask the absent Father if I am all that I am meant to be.  If I am worthy of his name and of his love.  I feel it so acutely of late, like a needle twisting in my heart, and today most of all.  I want to hear him say he’s proud of me.  That’s all I’ve ever asked.  It is all the validation I’ll ever need.

After my mother passed away several years later, we had a small ceremony to place her ashes with his.  As we left the cemetery, a pair of geese from a nearby hill took off and soared away into the sky.  The timing was eerily serendipitous; it was almost as if they were together again now, reunited in a new life and heading off to adventures bold.  One could even imagine that they were bidding me a last goodbye, secure that they had done all they could and were letting me go now to face the challenges of the future with the strength and the values they had instilled in me.  Values of kindness, respect, compassion, empathy and love.  Everything I am I owe to them, and through the sadness, I feel gratitude.  I wish I could tell them that.  I wish I could toss the ball around in the backyard with Dad and complain about the lack of depth in the Jays’ pitching staff and ask him what he thinks of Daniel Craig as James Bond.  I wish I could introduce him to my beautiful wife and listen to them sing together – they’d sound terrific, I’m sure.  As amazing as my wedding was, Dad leading the guests in a round of “Yes, We Have No Bananas” with half the words wrong would have made it even more memorable.

There is an old saying that a candle that burns half as long burns twice as bright; I have to believe that in the eleven short years I had with my father we burned brightly indeed, and that we loved each other as much as a father and son could.  Perhaps I don’t have his counsel anymore, or his arm around my shoulder on those darkest days, but I have the life he gave me, and the road ahead that is his greatest possible bequest.  I don’t think I’ll ever stop missing my dad, but when I get up tomorrow and start my twenty-sixth year without him I will try to carry the best parts of who he was through all the rest of my days, and live the life he would have wanted for me.  And I hope that’s tribute enough.

I love you, Dad.

Blain William Milne