My friend Alan ended his fight with cancer today. He had been in a coma since before Christmas. He had a stroke and never fully recovered, though our friend Alycat was with him in Nashville, and is sure that he heard and understood when she told him how much we loved and were praying for him. It's a happy day for him, a sad one for us. But as much as I want to be sad, I can't help smiling every time I think of him.
He was the doctor on duty when our first cat, "Uh-Huh" collapsed on the examination table. He held her in his hands and gave her CPR for several minutes until it became clear that he would not be able to restore her breath, even with his own. He was there again when little "Mo," the eternal kitten, arrived at the back door of the hospital. Our little man was gasping for breath and his mouth was turning blue. This time, Alan was able to bring our cat back from death. In the years to come, he would do that many times, for many people's animals. One cold afternoon, we took turns with the shovel in our backyard digging a grave for a cat who had to be euthanized, but whose family could not bear the thought of strangers disposing of her little body. We stood around the grave and prayed for the spirit of our fellow creature. One winter morning, he heard a terrible scream from under the hood of his car when he tried to start it. A cat had crawled up underneath for warmth and was horribly wounded by the turning machinery. He took her to work with him, performed reconstructive surgery, nursed her back to health, and shared his home with her for the rest of her life. Another night, standing in his bathroom, he heard a forlorn meeowling coming from the tree outside his window. He opened the sash, stuck a litter pan out into the rain, and in jumped little Maggie the crazy Southern Gothic cat who lives in our attic and howls out the window to frighten passers-by on sultry summer evenings. How can you be sad when you remember a life like Alan's?
After his painful divorce, he lived with us for a while. Though he eventually moved out, he would come and go in our home like one of the family. He would show up with a six-pack of beer and a goofy grin and we would all get drunk and play scrabble. Once, he accused Mrs P of being a witch because of her uncanny ability to quiet and communicate with even the most furious animals. Also her ability to consistently whip our tails at that infernal crossword game. Another time, after a bottle of wine or two, we laughed ourselves silly as Alan lifted Mo up in his bony hands and gently tap tap tapped his little kitty head to the ceiling of our living room, over and over again. Trust me, had you been there, you would have found it funny, too. Mo has forgiven, but never forgotten this event. He still refers to our friend as "Bloody Alan." Then there was the night in our living room when he taught Mrs P's boss' nine year old son to roll up his pants, raise his knees, tuck his hands under them, and make farting noises by kicking his feet up and down. I have never been able to duplicate this. If I had not seen it, I would not believe it possible. Maybe it's something you learn at camp like whistling through your fingers or spitting through your teeth. I never saw Alan do either, though he could thwack a watermelon seed across the yard with uncanny accuracy.
Alan asked me to read at his second wedding. I used to do this all the time, whenever anyone asked, but since nearly every wedding I have graced by intoning "The Greatest of these is LOVE," has resulted in an unhappy divorce, I've given up the practice. His may have been the last. He never had any kids of his own, but he loved his step children and he loved being a dad to them. It brought something holy out of him that just didn't show when he was sitting our our back porch flicking beer caps at the back of Mrs P's head.
James Herriot that he said inspired him to become a vet. Though he was one of the silliest men I ever met, he treated his work as a holy vocation to serve God's most helpless children. Alan could be exasperating, but he was a very difficult man not to love.
I hate that he died fighting cancer. God forgive me, but there are a lot of other people I would rather see dead. That's not my call, I understand. Cancer doesn't choose us any more than we choose cancer. We just sort of bump into one another and our crazy story plays itself out. I don't try to make sense of his death. I grieve for the laughter I will never be able to share with him again. Not in this life, anyway. I grieve for the families who will not know his tender touch when it is time for them to decide when their beloved pet has suffered enough. I want to be sad about all this.
But then I look into Mo's kittenish eyes, now 15 years old and usually tired, but still afire with the life he once came so close to losing. I stroke Maggie's back as she sleeps on my lap in her chair by the attic window. I glance at the spot on the ceiling where a pair of pointy ears once tap tap tapped until we were all weeping with laughter, (all of us except the cat, of course.) I know I should be sad. But whenever I think of my friend, the beautiful lunatic, I can't help smiling.
God bless you, Alan. You loved all creatures, great and small. Some of them you delivered from death's door, others you helped tenderly along to heaven. I know they're all glad to see you tonight. I can only imagine the scene when you arrive at the gate and all those cats start rubbing your legs at the same time. I can't wait to see you again myself. I'll bring the Rolling Rock in green long-necks. We can lean against the wall and flick caps at the back of St Peter's head while you teach me that leg-farting thing.
Till then, my brother...
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