Walking the Cats

For a couple of years during my childhood we lived in Trinidad in the West Indies. My father was employed there as an engineer and we lived in a company owned residential compound. Every night after dinner my parents took a walk together down the middle of the quiet road that meandered through our small community. The post dusk air was delicious with the smells of ocean and tropical flora. There were no sidewalks; the narrow road was lined instead with oleander and hibiscus and palms. My sister and I would get on our bicycles and accompany our parents. We rode our bicycles everywhere within the compound during the day but we were not allowed to go out on our bicycles after dark except for this evening ritual. We kids knew these few roads thoroughly, every angle and bump, but at night, they took on a different character. There were tall yellow-hued street lights here and there, but not many, so there were regular stretches of near darkness. The long cast shadows created by the lights gave strange tone and shape to otherwise familiar surroundings.

The residential compound was surrounded by sugar cane fields which were home to feral dogs and cats we often saw slinking in and out of the edges. The fields were also home to the never seen but much speculated about cane-man. The cane-man was a wild, child-hating, machete-swinging concoction served up to us regularly by the other kids who had lived there longer than we had. It was assumed that the cane man lurked near the dark stretches of road at night, so it was with fearful squeals and false bravado that my sister and I would race our bicycles ahead of our parents and into the treacherously dark zones. We never went too far, just far enough to taste the thrill of near fear, always looping back to circle the two walkers for the reassurance of parental presence before speeding off again.

Until we moved to Trinidad, I had never known my parents to take a walk after dinner. That in itself was exotic. They walked purposefully, their stride more athletic than a stroll. They talked, but didn’t hold hands. They walked for the exercise. And maybe to wear us out on our bicycles before bedtime. Regardless, it was an evening ritual which I loved. What I remember most is riding my bicycle like a happy drunk in the intoxicating night air, and the simple joy of seeing my parents taking a walk together. Looking back, it has become a memory of two people together as a couple; people who, to my child’s mind, had previously been nothing more than parents. At age twelve, I endowed that walk of theirs with a mysterious intimacy. The heightened excitement of it taking place after dark was a potent factor I was just beginning to appreciate as a preadolescent. Those tropical years were a good time for my parents, and a giddy time for us kids; a bright treasury of security and happiness we shared for a few more years before being swallowed up by the darkness of my mother’s death.

I live on the east coast of south Florida now, in the subtropics. My elderly father, who has dementia, lives alone, right around the corner. I look after him, including bringing him all his meals. My husband and I have dinner with him almost every evening. One night after dinner as I was feeding my father’s two outdoor cats, the smell and temperature of the ocean breeze suddenly evoked the memory of those after-dinner walks in Trinidad. I hadn’t thought about that period of our lives in quite a while. When I went back inside I asked my father if he remembered those walks, and he said yes. Often when I ask him if he remembers something from our mutual past, he says yes, although his face says no. By his claiming to remember some things, I am not sure if he is accepting my gift of returning a long lost memory, or if he is giving me the gift of not disappointing my desire to relive and share. Whichever it was in that case, I suggested we go for an after-dinner walk. My father looked surprised, then intrigued, and so we went. The sun had officially set behind a bank of towering clouds, and the ambient light it cast was glowing pink. It was beautiful. After a slow start, my father found his stride. Like forty years before, he did not stroll, but set out with as vigorous a pace as he could manage. Walking in that air was like swimming in a therapeutic lotion, and I loved it, remembering a happy childhood time. Suddenly I heard the tiny bells of cat’s collars. My father’s two cats had followed us from the house, slinking along the curb in fits and starts, We went two blocks, and then my father said we had to go back. When we turned around, the cats, just behind us, stopped and sat down with tails twitching nervously as we reversed course. As we neared the driveway I heard their bells ringing and the cats shot past us, obviously relieved to be back on familiar ground. They immediately sat down and began to clean themselves thoroughly, as though in the course of the adventure they had become soiled, or at the very least, had worked up an un-cat like sweat.

We walked after dinner for the next few nights, my father, my husband and I, with the cats, Liz and Rani, following us. The teeny jingle of their collar bells always accompanied us. My father and I did not hold hands as we walked together, but I stayed close enough to be able to support his arm if he should wobble. The weather was the same every night; perfect. Then the superficial clock shift of daylight savings time ended. The next night it was just as beautiful, but dark, when we went out for our walk, and my father’s stride was a little more tentative. There are long stretches between our streetlights, and when we hit the first of the more dimly lit areas, he said we should turn around. The next night our walk was also ended when we hit the shadows. The next night my father just said it was too dark to walk at all. I picked up an ever present mega-battery hurricane lantern, which casts an enormous light, and cajoled him to try it again. That worked for a few more nights, but it was obvious that the extra light and our proximity were not enough to make him feel comfortable outside at night. The next night he simply declined to walk after dinner and went up to bed. When my husband and I left to go home that evening, Liz and Rani were sitting right outside the front door, waiting. They had become used to our nightly walks. As we walked out to our car, they raced down to the street, then stopped to wait for us. Not wanting to disappoint them, we took the cats for a walk.

My father never wanted to walk after dinner anymore, but every night the two cats waited immediately outside his door for their turn, their faces practically pressed up against the glass. If I opened the door too quickly, it would bat them off the mat. Once we were outside, they would race down the driveway ahead of us, their collar bells jingly raucously. Every night we walked a little farther until we finally reached the small park in our neighborhood. Walking through the park the cats were giddy, racing up tree trunks, leaping down to chase each other up the next tree. The scrabbling of their claws on bark sounded like soft chuckling. Unlike my father, they relished the dark and it’s potential mysteries.

The cats played with bold abandon in the park, but they were more cautious along the road. When the occasional car approached, they slipped into the closest available plant cover until it had passed. Conversely, they were immediately drawn towards other walkers like magnets, stepping right in front of them to be petted, and thus often tripped over in the dark. People walking dogs, however, got a very wide berth, accompanied by arched backs and twitching tails. The one thing that stoped the cats in their tracks and completely immobilized them was another cat. Whether the other cat sat in its own yard just staring at us, or approached cautiously, Liz and Rani froze. No amount of cajoling or reassurance could get them to move; We had to pick them up and remove them from the cat stare zone before we could continue. It makes one wonder if this is where the word catatonia originated.

One night my sister called me on my cell phone as we were walking back from the park. Being focused on giving her the daily Daddy report, I didn’t notice until we got back to the house that Liz wasn’t with us. I called and clapped, but no Liz. We had to retrace our steps for two blocks before my calls produced a streak of rocketing cat. Liz came running up to us, crying her abandonment the whole way. Something had detained her, most likely the eyes of another cat, and she had lost sight of us, finding herself alone and immobilized in foreign terrain. I picked her up and cuddled her as she purred loudly in relief and Rani rubbed up against my leg. Reunited and reassured, we went home.

Now my husband and I walk the cats after dinner every night. At first, I simply couldn’t disappoint the cats, but I too, have become addicted to the ritual. It is my meditative transition time between Daddy duty and the rest of the evening. We don’t walk for the exercise, though, we stroll. The night air is a soothing tonic, the soft respiration of the earth laying itself to rest. The night sounds of crickets, and birds settling into their roosts, are muted and gentle on the ear, like whispered reassurances. Often we hear the soulful wails of distant trains. The huge Florida sky offers stars and slightly glowing clouds for decorative lighting, and the condo and car lights from across the lake twinkle prettily. The night blooming plants release their perfumes, harmonizing to the warm bowel-y smells from the storm sewer drains. We see other people and their pets out for their own walks and we greet each other quietly so as to least disturb the spell we are all under. There are brief sightings of raccoons, possums, and the occasional fox, all intent on more serious evening business than we.

When we walk the cats, my husband and I walk as a couple, holding hands. We talk. We always comment on how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful place, which leads to an acknowledgment of all our many blessings and a grateful squeezing of hands. This is a happy time in our lives. As we stroll, the cats race ahead and back to play around us, not unlike two excited little girls on bicycles. The jingling of their collar bells are like squeals of childish laughter, a hopeful music to protect us against the dark stretches, now and those surely to come.

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