Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sake's Bones

I dug up my cat’s bones yesterday. His name was Socrates. I called him Sake. I’d buried him a couple of years ago, a few feet from the place where he died. He’d gotten too old to defend himself against the pack of dogs that had hounded him for years. Sake was not afraid of them, but they were always afraid of him. Sake slept in the sun with one eye open, while they never quite mustered the courage to get too close. But finally, in his weakened condition from age and arthritis, the dogs ended their long and frustrating struggle wrestling with the bravado of their own nature. They moved in like a carload of gang bangers. They killed my cat, and left him laying there, their compulsive mission finally accomplished.

Sake wanted to be napping in the sun, and he knew the risks. I knew the risks as well, but it was clear, Sake would rather die on his own terms than live in confinement under someone else’s. It’s a choice we both made. The dogs were not going to go away, they were a permanent part of the rural environment. We knew that very well. All things considered, the outcome was inevitable. We had sixteen good years together though, Sake and me.

I’d buried him in my T-shirt, the one I was wearing when I found him. Digging him up a few days ago was actually a joyous moment in time for me. I brought him to our new home, his new home, and final resting place. I brought the rock I’d found that was the exact shape of his body when I found him lying on the ground. I placed it over his resting place. And I brought the 150 lb. rock I used for his headstone. They will remain with him. It is both the completion, and a continuation, of his unusual life.

Our lives together began when I was working as the Senior Counselor at a substance abuse rehabilitation clinic in San Francisco. One of my clients brought a little three-week old kitten into my office and said she found him in the street. His whiskers were burned; he was disheveled, cold, and abandoned, much too young to be without his mother, in desperate need of a surrogate. I told my client I’d keep him. Because he could not be left alone, I brought him to work with my every day. I fed him milk from a bottle. He lay quietly in my desk drawer during counseling sessions, snuggling my unlaundered T-shirts to bond with my scent, and he lazed on my desktop between sessions. Ultimately, he proved to have a tremendous humanizing affect on my clients. I named him Sake, and it seemed as if almost everyone on my caseload was anxious to keep up on his progress and development. Sake served as a mirror image for many of them in many ways, and he gave them something outside of themselves to care about and make an emotional investment in. As they participated in his gradual recovery, they experienced their own as well. Those days were filled with small miracles, prompted by an innocent, abused, and abandoned little kitty.

As Sake grew older I began to leave him alone at home during the day. He acclimated to my apartment, and enjoyed his afternoon naps on the sunny deck. I fixed him up with a litter box made out of a large skylight. It was more like a sandbox than a litter box, with sand I’d collect from Ocean Beach. It took up most of my bathroom, but I didn’t care, he was deserving of a royal sandbox. He had a pretty rough beginning. I later taught Sake to use the toilet, but that lasted for only a couple of months because, with my increased need to be away from the apartment, I became lax in the supervision. Anyway, he was a pretty damn smart cat.

Since back in 1973 I’d always worn a small gold hoop earring. Sake and I were partners, of sorts, and he wore a small gold hoop earring to match my own. I did the piercing myself, the old fashioned way with a needle and a potato. No squirming, whimpering, or complaining from Sake. Not a shiver, and not a sound. He trusted me implicitly. The earring immediately became just part of who he was. I can’t really explain it. Those who knew him understood that. It was just Sake. It was just him.
Sake was also a retriever. I can’t explain that either. I built a ramp for him from the floor to the ceiling, against a wall in my small apartment, with a series of switchbacks and landings. Something for him to play on, to get some exercise, and help him to keep from being bored indoors. Sake would run up and down that ramp. I’d throw something up to one of the landings, or all the way to the top, and he’d run up to retrieve it, bring it back down, and drop it in my hands, or at my feet. He always preferred retrieving bent up pipe cleaners to anything else. It was a pretty remarkable thing for a cat to do, but again, it was Sake. It was just Sake.

Later, when I lived in Glen Ellen, in the Sonoma Valley, a rural area north of San Francisco, I built another ramp for him from the window to the ground so he could go in and out of the house on his own. Sake was an independent cat. “Independent Cat” sounds like a redundancy, but he really was his own creature. He rode on my motorcycle with me, enjoyed canoeing with my wife and I, camping, following me on walks, the whole gamut of life that you would not necessarily associate with a cat.

I have a fond memory of one morning when my wife and I were beginning a trip down the coast for a stay at Pismo Beach, before going on to San Clemente for a family visit. We were in the car, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, about an hour from home, when we heard a faint sound coming from the rear of the car. It sounded like a whimper, or a cry, just barely audible. In fact, it was so faint that we each questioned whether or not we’d actually heard anything at all. But as we listened more intently we heard it again. My wife reached around to the back seat, and pulled open the little seat divider that allows access to the inside of the trunk. I was watching in the rearview mirror as Sake, looking both relieved, and embarrassed, shyly poked his familiar face through the opening to announce that he was going to Pismo Beach with us. Watching us pack, and knowing we were leaving, he’d jumped in the trunk just before we closed it up for the trip.

He wanted to be with us.
That was Sake. It was just him.

I can see the rock outside my window.
The one under which he now rests.
A comforting reminder, a strong sentinel,
guarding Sake’s bones.