No one believes him. That he’s got a cat who comes and goes in his unit, no one sees him except you, he comes out at night—late—when the nursing staff is gone and he’s left to his own devices. And that there’s not much he can do to feed the poor thing when he does come out…he’s confined to his damned wheelchair, or his easychair, or some other chair….and worrying about how the cat will starve to death sooner or later. He can’t walk anymore. Can’t stand up without great difficulty and a lot of help from the nursing staff. And god damn they won’t believe you, he doesn’t have a cat in his unit they say, of course you don’t have a cat in your unit, where could a stray cat have come from anyway….how did he get in, they say. These are the questions they ask him. How is it no one else ever sees the lil’ guy but you, they say. But he sees him. And so, it must be real.
Les begins the precarious mission from his craftmatic easychair that lifts up when you push the button, so it sets you on your feet, in front of your walker, ideally so you can get up with the help of the chair and right to the walker…it doesn’t always shake out so easy though. But the cat needs to be fed…and watered. No one’s had the decency to put out a bowl of water for the cat. Or some kibble. He takes it on himself. He’s got to do this himself. No one else will. So allowing the craftmatic easychair to lift him up, wobbling twisting grabbing the rubber grips of the walker in front of the easychair, with all his might, and DOWN he goes. It’s over in a matter of seconds it seems….more like minutes in reality…the whole mission from easychair to walker has taken about fifteen minutes. The fall takes a split second. And an unforgiving thud. Les, you idiot, he thinks. He grasps the emergency alert button hanging from his neck but the dexterity of his hands is an issue here. The big red button doesn’t give easy. A bony index finger struggles to press down with the necessary pressure. In time, it gets it right….
“What happened here, Les,” the 30 something girl with arm tattoos asks…in an almost sneering tone. Like a mother admonishing her infant for spilt milk. A man who killed Japs in Okinawa now lying prone on the shag carpeting of an old folks home….. and a girl with arm tattoos beginning to pull him up, setting him into a wheelchair. The whole place stinks like cat piss. ……..’and they tell you there’s no cat here’…..
“Trying to feed the cat.” Les pointing blankly at a seemingly random corner of the living room. Bony finger pointing. Quaking.
“Where is your darn cat, Les?” the girl with the arm tattoos says. “Maybe he’s under the bed. I’ll go check.”
She is gone for a few minutes and eventually comes back out of the bedroom with some soiled bedsheets. “I saw him, Les. I put a bowl of water down for him.” Another girl, a younger girl, enters the unit that smells of cat piss, and they begin to chatter amongst themselves as they stuff a bunch of soiled sheets and clothes and towels into a hamper on wheels. The younger girl is no older than 19. Nose-ring. Purple hair.
“Les! How are you darling??” She projects from the kitchenette. Les, slumped over in his chair on wheels towards the sliding glass door on the opposite side of the room. “Your kitty giving you trouble, sweetie?”
….crust in the corners of his mouth…..mouth so dry….hands quaking….”He’s hiding.” Under the bed. Doesn’t come out for the girls with the purple hair and the arm tattoos. ‘Well, to hell with them’. You have ties older than these girls, he thinks. Stupid girls. No….they’re nice girls, really. But it’s cruel. The naked cruelty of this whole damned thing. Where a man ends up. This is where you end up. And it gets to a point…where a cat is all you have. The fake plastic smiles. Patronizing hellos and goodbyes. You have a cat. They can’t see it. Even if they can’t see it or can’t find it, you have a cat, he thinks. There’s a cat in here. The girl with the arm tattoos lays down a fake bowl of water….he has to lay down a real bowl of water. Cats need water. Cats need to drink. One time when he was a boy he took care of a cat in a barn, out in the country; he was called away for a couple days; no one else knew about the cat; when he got back he was appalled. What have I done, he asked himself. This cat needs water. Badly. And he put down a big dish of fresh water for her and she immediately ran to it and started lapping it up and she lapped it up and lapped it up and lapped it up for no less than five minutes straight; that cat lapped up that whole bowl of water. It was that thirsty. Thinking back to the country, and that cat….that thirsty cat. Thinking back, he gradually transitions from awake to asleep.
Poking, prodding, blue pills, red pills, pink pills…….an assist getting onto the toilet and cleaning up thereafter. Once these silly girls leave, the cat comes out. And there’s some decent company. The purple hair girl actually puts a real bowl of water down in the kitchenette, and a bowl of cat food too. After pill time, they both make for the door and snicker on the way out. Les waits for the cat. A man who mowed down Japs in Okinawa waits for an invisible cat to appear in his assisted living community unit.
“They say the dementia is to be expected. It’s all part of it,” the daughter says to a visitor. They chat about dementia and morphine and living wills. Preparing to split the assets and the belongings and the property in an egalitarian fashion amongst each other; heated discussions and talk of who gets what, all before the body is cold…in fact, while it’s still quite warm. Broken down, shriveled, crippled, but warm nonetheless. “He’s been seeing things lately,” the daughter says to the man Les can’t quite identify. “Claims there’s a cat running around in here only he can see.” The man makes a dry remark concerning that and they both smirk. And this is what happens to a man. Authenticity of the cat aside, one thing they all seem to forget is that he does indeed remain acutely aware of the slow breakdown taking place—the descent—and that he feels every painful step down the slow, winding slope…the wait…feels it as real as real gets; he feels it and him only…while they stand around and chat and joke and argue about estates and valuables and nursing issues.
It seems indignity is all a part of life, as much as anything else; and this is something too the rest seem to forget he can feel all too well. They’ll see, when it comes to be their time to see invisible cats. He sits, still waiting for the thing to come out from wherever it’s hiding, and the wait for that is every bit as real as the wait for one’s own end. As real as the slow breakdown that is taking place. Waiting is as real a human experience as anything, and among the most excruciating. He waits for something they tell him does not exist. Or otherwise mock him for as they turn away. For that, he bears insult, and waits anyway. And regardless of dementia or no dementia, for this he is no different than anyone.
Later, in the night, the thing does come out of its hiding place and he observes it alone, in the din of 2am and infomercials on the TV. Not a fool, not stupid, he knows he doesn’t have long; you know when you’re looking at it dead in the face…everyone does; no matter how far gone, this is a thing you know when you see it. No matter who you are. With that in mind, he also knows a cat when he sees it, and he sees a cat. The two of them sit silently in the soft glow of the television and the moon outside, shining in from between the slats of the blinds.
This is what happens to a man. Where he ends up. Waiting for a thing to come is maybe the most universal thing, and the saddest. They sit, both waiting in their own ways for the same thing. A man who’s lived a life, and a thing that may or may not exist, depending on the man you ask.
And regardless, the morning comes.