Near 500 words: TW and the Egyptian Cats

Episode 18 of The Writer.

It isn’t enough to say that TW (aka The Writer) was crying as he headed his car home. In the passenger seat was Cat, lying in a box. He was weeping.

Overcome by grief, he pulled his car over to the side of the road and cut off the engine. Sitting there, looking down into the darkness at the box, he could still feel Cat’s presence. “What am I going to do?” he asked the dead cat.

He heard Cat whisper back, “It’s okay. You’ll do fine. I may be gone but I will still be with your.”

A flashlight shone into his face. “Sir?”

TW looked up at the police officer.

“Are you okay?

TW shook his head. “Yes, I’m okay.”

“Are you sure?” The policeman’s voice was soft with caring.

TW managed to hold back his crying but his voice broke. “I just lost my cat.”

“I see.” Then the flashlight went off, and the cop was gone.

TW started the engine and pulled out onto the road. He drove slowly to make sure he didn’t have an accident.

When he pulled up into his driveway, it seemed like days since he had gotten into his car to take Cat to the vet. He eased himself out of the car. He went to the shed beside the house and took out a shovel.Then he went inside for a flashlight.

Standing on the back porch, he studied the yard and found the perfect place. One of Cat’s favorite spots in the yard. It was beside the azalea bush.

In the dark, he began digging. He pushed the shovel into the ground. The dirt gave way easily. Then again he did the same motion until he had a hole several feet deep. The sweat poured down his face.

He returned to the car and gently lifted Cat out. The weight was lighter than he remembered. He took the box into the living room. He sat Cat onto his coffee table.

For the next half hour, he showered, then put on a suit and tie. He couldn’t imagine giving Cat a sendoff without being properly dressed. It was only right. Cat deserved the respect. Then it came to him that this was why the Egyptians took so much care burying their cats. They weren’t just pets. They were friends, companions, soul mates.

Yes, Cat must have been his soul mate. That’s how close they were.

He finished the knot in his tie, buttoned his suit jacket, and checked his shoes to see if they were properly shined.

In the living room, he looked down on Cat. She looked peaceful on her tummy, her head resting on her paws. He took a Bible off his bookshelf and he opened it up to the Twenty-third Psalm and he read it to Cat. It was more for him than Cat, and it helped.

He laid the Bible down on the coffee table and picked Cat’s box up.

Standing beside the grave, he lowered the box into the ground. Under a full moon, he had one final look at his companion and heard himself say, “Soon.”

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Mr. Ives’ Christmas

Mr. Ives’ Christmas By Oscar Hijuelos Harper/Collins, 1995.

Oscar Hijuelos’ Mr. Ives’ Christmas is not just a good novel. It is a meditation on grief. It is also a meditation on faith and weathering the worst of storms a human being can weather. The loss of a beloved child.

And the book is also about commitment, love, family and friends with a little Charles Dickens thrown in. And everywhere there is Hijuelos’ love affair with New York City, its sights and sounds and smells, and its neighborhoods.

A good man, Edward Ives, loses his son, Robert, to a cold blooded murder. Robert is standing in front of a church, talking to some friends. He’s there for choir practice.

A thirteen-year-old kid walks by Robert. He doesn’t like the look on Robert’s face. In an instant, he turns, pulls a gun, and fires bullets into Robert’s body. Robert drops onto the sidewalk. He is dead.

Robert wasn’t just any kid. He was special. He was one of those kids who did everything right. Likeable to everybody he met. Never an unkind word for anybody. Never gave his parents trouble. Close to both of his parents and his sister. But especially close to his father. The next year he was going to go off to seminary to become a priest. That was Robert. And it doesn’t help that his death came close to Christmas.

Annie, his mother, and Caroline, his sister, are devastated. But his father is the most devastated of all. At one point, Ives reflects: “You know what it was like? It was like drowning.” Ive’s grief is a river of sadness, so sad it fills his entire life. As his wife, Annie, puts it, “Robert’s death had become the defining event of his middle-aged life.”

Ives never stops grieving. Annie and Caroline find a way to go on with their lives and live with the grief without it destroying them. But not Ives. He cannot find any joy in life anymore. It’s almost like he quit breathing at the moment he heard the horrible news.

On the outside, his acts are of a saintly man, a compassionate man, showing care for those around him. Even for the murderer of his son. On the inside, he is wounded deeply, walking around in a purgatory that is as much hell as it is life. A purgatory he cannot escape no matter how good he is. His only thought day after day, night after night, is the loss of his son. His grief is immense.

This is not a novel written from the head. This is a novel written from the heart. With detail upon detail, Oscar Hijuelos has mustered all his tremendous talent to breathe life into the Mr. Ives of the title. In so doing, it’s possible to believe that Hijuelos suffers with Mr. Ives.

Ives with his memories of his beloved son finds himself in a lifetime of solitary confinement which he cannot escape. He cannot bring himself to love again, even his wife and his daughter.

Not once does he ask, “What would Robert want?”

So Mr. Ives grows into a bitter man despite everything he tries.

On that day the kid murdered Robert, he had a second victim. Mr. Ives. Robert’s death was instant. Edward Ives’ is long and slow and torturous. Mr. Ives is a good man, but  goodness is not enough to heal all the grief that he carries.

In the end, Mr. Ives emerges from a long dark night. For Mr. Ives, the sunrise comes from a place he least expected.

At the end, I realized that this is Osar Hijuelos homage to the great Charles Dickens. It seems like Dickens is hovering above every page of this novel, encouraging Hijuelos to write on and smiling when the writer had completed the journey of his story. As I finished the novel, I began to think that Edward Ives had a lot of Bob Cratchit in him.

In 248 pages, Hijuelos has packed the life of one man and his family, his faith and his love affair with life, and then the great tragedy. When the novel is over, I was left with a love for Ives and Annie, Robert and Caroline, Ramirez and Carmen and their son Pablo. I will miss them. But Hijuelos has left me the opportunity to dig into their lives again. All I have to do is open the pages of Mr. Ives’ Christmas.

Uncle Bardie’s Spotlight Movie: Second Chances

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. Next week’s Valentine’s Day, so this week’s Spotlight Movie is for all the romantics out there. It’s Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School (2005):

Remember Robert Carlyle. Back in ’97, he appeared in a little gem of a movie, “The Full Monty”. He played an unemployed working class guy who became a male stripper.

In “Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School”, he plays Frank Keane, a baker who lost his wife to suicide. He’s engulfed by grief and can’t move on with his life. He meets weekly with a support group of widowers but that doesn’t seem to help him or any of the others.

When he least expects it, magic happens, and it happens out of the worst of circumstances. He is driving his bakery truck when he’s passed by Steve Mills (John Goodman). A few seconds later, he comes upon Steve in a car accident. The accident is serious.

As they are waiting for an ambulance, Steve tells Frank he was on his way to meet a childhood sweetheart at a ballroom dancing school. He is supposed to meet her on the fifth day of the fifth month of the fifth year of the new millenium. He promised. Then he tells the story of their childhood romance and how it came to be.

Because of the accident, Steve can’t make it. So he gives Frank his ticket to Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School. Explain to Lisa, his childhood sweetheart, why he can’t make.

Since he promised, he goes to School. Lisa isn’t there but there are others. Marilyn Hotchkiss isn’t there either. But her daughter, Marienne, is conducting the class with several men and women. Because he doesn’t know what else to do, Frank joins the class. Then something magically happens. From that moment on, his life, and the lives of the others in the support group, are changed. Sometimes all it takes is a little dancing to heal a whole lot of grief.

In addition to Robert Carlyle and John Goodman, this movie has Marissa Tormei, Sonia Braga, Mary Steenburgen, Sean Astin, Adam Arkin and Danny Devito. And I enjoyed it immensely. So it’s two thumbs up from this end of the cosmos.

Near 500 words: Life goes on

Cora was much too young to be a widow. Married only six months and already a widow. Gani, her husband, wasn’t a soldier who went off to war. He didn’t have a dangerous job. He simply ran into a truck. Or should I say, the truck ran into him.

So here she was, wearing black and trying to hold back the tears. But they just wouldn’t stay behind the the dam. Nineteen years old, and a widow. That was all she could think of.

At the funeral, folks came up to her and offered her their condolences. They offered them to Gani’s family as well.

After the funeral, she went to bed and stayed in bed for several days, getting up only for food. The house she and Gani had bought was now empty. And she wasn’t even pregnant. That, at least, would have been something.

Her mother-in-law came to see her. “Get out of bed,” she said. “I will make you a nice breakfast, and you’ll feel better.”

“How can I feel better?”

“But you will,” her mother-in-law said.

As Cora ate her breakfast, her mother-in-law sat across from her. “You know, I lost my first husband.”

Cora put some eggs into her mouth and chewed, then she said, “You did?”

“I did. And I cried for weeks. Then I realized I was still young and life needed to go on.  Whether with me or without me. My son is dead. You are still alive. Put a smile on and go out into the world and enjoy yourself. The house is paid off. From the insurance.”

“But what about Gani?”

“What about Gani. He is in someplace wonderful and he doesn’t want you quitting life. He loved you. Do you think he wants you dead too? He doesn’t.”

“But I can’t.”

“You can. And you have too. Remember the wonderful days you had with Gani. They were a gift. Now you have permission to go on and live your life. You’ve had some great times. And you are going to have some great times in the future. Life is too short to waste it on the dead.”

“What will everybody think?”

“Who cares what everybody thinks? The important thing is that you get on with your life.”

That night Cora put on the new dress Gani had bought for  her. She put on the new shoes she had bought herself and went dancing. Dancing made her feel alive. At the dance, she met someone. Someone who became her second husband. Little did she know that he would die from an accident with a truck too.

Uncle Bardie’s Weekly Music Pick: Simple Song

It’s Thursday again. You know what that means. Uncle Bardie’s Weekly Music Pick. Uncle Bardiie gives a double thumbs up to this week’s selection. “Simple Song” by John Paul White and Southern Family:

I know this one’s a sad song. But it’s an honest sad song. No fake emotion like some of the songs you hear on the radio.

I first realized there was a new country music coming round the bend when I heard Jason Isbell, doing “Traveling Along”. For way too long, there was this country music trying to out-pop pop or out-rock rock. It even tried to out-rap rap. It was enough to make a feller want to kick that can as far as Mars. Then Ashley Munroe’s “Dixie” landed on my ears. Finally I was going to get some good old country music that knew how to country music. Something that most would call Old School Country, and what I call Just Country.

The kind of music Hank and Ferlin and George and Patsy and Merle played. The kind that could easily be called White Man’s Blues. The kind that can be located on the very country album, “Southern Family”. The first song on the album lays down something you don’t normally hear from recording artists these days.  John Paul White, formerly of Civil Wars, gives the listener this “Simple Song”. It’s more than a sad song. It’s a man losing someone to the Angel of Death. As far as I know, Andrew Bird’s “My Sister’s Tiny Hands” is one of the few others giving grieving its due.

Few artists have the courage to do what John Paul White and Andrew Bird do with these songs. Mourn. This is something we all do and yet it is not very often recognized by those who give us our music. For grieving is something our society often says we should avoid. “Get over it.” Yet most of us have lost someone and we can’t get over it. Their passing left us devastated.

So my song post for this week is “Simple Song” by John Paul White and Southern Family. It honors our grief.