Monday, April 20, 2009

Goodbye, Catman

In early August, 2004, my dad left the house for his last day of work before retirement. My mom had asked Ains and I over to see him off before he left for his last second-shift. Because they were going to be getting pictures of him and giving him a plaque, he dressed in khakis instead of his usual jeans. Other than that, he left the house as he always did and you never would have guessed it was such a big day. He carried a bologna sandwich and a can of Coke in his brown paper lunch sack and he wondered out loud why mom and I were making such a big fuss over him. Later that night, mom said he came home just as he usually did. No celebration. No fanfare. Just a tired warehouse worker who had filled his orders and come home.

Eight months later, he was gone. After we had begun to heal, we started sorting all his belongings. Among them were two laminated letter-sized cards his coworkers had passed around and signed and given him on his last day of work. I had never seen them before; Dad wasn't one to share things like that. Each one had a picture of him standing at his gray Tuffy utility cart which served as his "office" during the years he worked at the GM parts center filling orders for dealerships. All around the pictures were signatures. Some just signed their name, some left a little message. "Happy retirement!", "Best of luck!", and the ever-popular, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do!"

One message caught my eye because it was different from all the others. It said, simply,

Goodbye, "Catman"!

Dad isn't around to ask, so my mom and I are left to wonder why someone at work called him "Catman." Dad didn't talk about his day when he rolled in after midnight. We didn't even know the names of the guys he worked closely with until several of them showed up for his funeral. Was it because he was such a die-hard UK Wildcat fan working in UC and Xavier and IU territory? I guess that's most likely; one year for Christmas he asked for a small AM radio to keep on his work cart because second shifters were allowed to listen to sports while they worked and he wanted to be able to follow his 'Cats. But I sometimes like to imagine there was a story there, an inside joke among his co-workers. I like to think that he had some fun among the pulling and packing orders in those last years working in the warehouse instead of the assembly line, that he engaged in some of the shenanigans we all do with like-minded co-workers to keep ourselves sane.

What his nickname-giving co-worker probably didn't know is that my dad always had a soft spot in his heart for felines, even those that weren't college basketball mascots. I think we've probably all had parental epiphanies; you think you know your parents, you think you've got them all figured out, and then something happens that shows you that what you really know about those two adults who made you doesn't even fill one page of their life story.

When I was a kid, I was afraid of my dad. He was a pretty gruff guy with no noticeable sentimentality. I could turn on the waterworks and get my mom to cave, but Dad seemed unmoved by any human emotion. He was strict. He was a stickler for the rules. He tolerated no backtalk. He was not, until much later in life, very good at expressing affection. I figured he had a heart of stone.

But then I saw the pictures.

We had had various stray cats hang around our house ever since we moved there, and when I was very young Dad had seemed largely indifferent to their existence and not terrirbly sympathetic to our pleas to keep them. Until I was seven years old I thought my dad hated pets in general and cats in particular.

When I was seven, I finally met Howard, Dad's closest friend from childhood who brought some old black-and-white photographs from the day Dad gave over his paper route to him. There was my dad on his bike, rolled papers in the basket; there he was ceremoniously handing the papers to Howard. Then I saw a picture of him with a litter of kittens in his bike basket. And in the next snapshot, he had picked up one of the cats and was holding it next to his face, grinning happily at the camera.

"What's Dad doing with all those cats?" I asked Mom. "He doesn't even like cats."

Mom laughed. "Oh, your daddy is the biggest fool over cats that ever was. When he was little he and Granny Sugar always kept about a dozen of them on the farm and named them all and loved every single one of them. Don't let him fool you."

I saw him in a new light. My dad, a cat lover? Did the Tin Man have a heart after all? It wasn't too long after that that a gorgeous white-haired stray took up residence at the house, and since she didn't look like your standard alley cat with her unusual coat and haughty manners, Mom and Dad let my sister and I take her to the vet and bring her inside. I named her Snowflake, but that name didn't cut it for Dad.

"I'm calling her Katie," he said. "She looks like a Katie to me. She's no 'Snowflake.' "

So Katie she became.

Fast-forward 11 years later. My dad had quietly adored that pretty white cat (who turned out to be, despite her good looks, the meanest cat God ever blew breath into) and even talked to her when he thought no one was paying attention. On a cold snowy night, Katie became paralyzed and my parents had to make a midnight trip to the vet who agreed to put her to sleep despite the time and the weather. The next morning, Mom caught Dad sitting on the end of his bed, sniffing, eyes red.

"There's just something in my eyes this morning," he said, grumpy. But then he smiled a little crooked smile at my mom. He was too manly to admit it, but he missed that mean old cat.

I saw the "Catman" side of Dad several more times after that when his age caused him to mellow out a little. I saw it when he left food out for the neighbor's kitten when he felt its ribs and shortly after when he got angry after finding the kitten hit by a car in the street. I saw it when Jason and I got Scout and Dad picked up cat toys for her when he went grocery-shopping. I saw it when, even though I was an expectant woman in my late-20s who should have been past such things, he bought me a beanbag toy version of the white kitten in Disney's The Aristocats "because it looks like Katie."

This time of year when the weather goes from sunny and perfect to gray and cold in a heartbeat, I think of Dad. We lost him 4 years ago today, and it seems every year when I write one of these I remember something new, see something different. Our parents are complicated creatures; we only get to know them after they're all grown up, and we only see what they want us to see. Later, and sadly, after they're gone, we begin to peel away the layers and see who they really were.

So, goodbye, Catman. I hope that where you are, the Wildcats are always playing and a purring white-haired cat sits in your lap while you watch. We miss you.

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