There was Harry, the meanest man I knew.
I had walked far enough away from my car for it to begin cooling, those little metallic snaps chasing me into the yard.
Harry looked at me through his wiry gray eyebrows, with a face filled with lines that could have been a sketch of a mountain.
I knew the twisted hands in his lap as hands that only knew a lifetime of hard physical labor.
There were various dog and cats moving around the front yard, with cattle and chickens in the backyard.
Harry hated cats!
There was even one cat on his lap. It shifted clockwise, using paws to work the lap and pants areas to her comfort, her paws lifting and kneading the area.
“How are you today, Harry?” I asked, a bit afraid of the answer.
“Me? I don’t count and you really do not want to know. But, I bet you want to know about the cat?” he said with a bit of sarcasm in his voice.
“I bet you never thought you would see me with a damned cat!”
This is the same man that had described horrific childhood memories of cats to me. This included one memory of a dead person and the cats in her house, what they were doing to her after she died.
He had hated cats, with a passion I have never seen before or since!
He treated his dogs like his children, complete with “people” food and love showered on them. He petted his cattle and chickens as if they were dogs.
Yet, there was a pretty golden cat sitting there on his lap like an Egyptian queen, while a dozen or so smaller cats ran around Harry’s legs, a few even stretching their paws up to his pant legs.
He looked away from me to the barbed wire fence line, where shadows seemed to make everything look lonelier than even his house, to include the rows of corn opposite.
“So, a few weeks back, right near sundown, I was thinking of my mother and Pa and feeling pretty old. I had had a bad day, feeling a bad end coming on. Truly, I saw no reason to draw any breath for the next morning. Can’t climb a ladder no more, and cannot see the nail to hit it with a hammer. Got something wrong, down there….” Harry nodded in the general direction of his lap.
His head turned first down and then straight to me, eyes boring deep. (In his youth, Harry’s eyes could charm women and scare the hell out of men I have been told.)
“Roger, I was thinking it was time. Time to check out, you know? I would rather do it myself than to be hooked up to some damned hissing machine. My way, my time!“
He straightened his back, his hands now gripping the chair arm. His eyes turned towards me, glaring directly into mine, but different now.
“Don’t you go judging me boy! This here is my life, my decision! Not yours, nor anyone else’s!”
I have to admit, my next breath was ragged. My mind was caught between religious and medical concerns, and who I should call to put this old man away.
“So, there I was, the lowest a soul could be, hearing birds way over there in the tree line, and those damned flies buzzing round my head like politicians lying for your vote. Right then, I was just wishing for silence and peace. No more tomorrows.”
The Golden Lap Cat decided to stretch and reach a paw for his face just then. Only a pat, near his cheekbone, lovingly, like she knew he needed soothing.
“Well, this here cat caught me asleep and curled up on my lap. When I woke, there she was, like I was her best friend ever. The first thought I had was one of God! Yep, you go ahead and laugh, make fun! But, that is what I had in my head! God!”
Now, his frail body was twisted directly to me, like he was ready to attack or defend.
“Turns out, this was a momma cat, filled with babies. She gave birth to a litter just a couple of week’s later, right here, under this bench. I can’t say I took to the kittens, though they were cute. But Momma cat and me, we are fine! Every day I walk out here, she is around my feet, and as soon as I sit down, she is on my lap. If I get up for food, I bring her back some, and she eats it right here, at my feet, and then, back in my lap, she is. If I walk out back to check on the cattle, she is right near me. Hell, there have been a few times, I took a trip into town, and there she was below the steering wheel and on my lap!”
Knowing this man the way I did, I was spellbound and speechless. There was something so unsettling about his story, it confused me.
I found my hands wringing the life out of each other, fingertips white. I unclenched them and drew a slow calming breath.
To this day, I am enthralled with the thought of that day, the love he emoted, the care that flowed over him, with an animal he would have previously prefer to kill as to look at.
I knew for a fact he would shoot at the animals! How many he hit I do not know.
His past was complete with a history with others that could be incredibly heartless and mean. This meanness bled over to everyone he met. Harry was not pleasant to be around and surely had very few friends.
There were a few, like me, that felt a need to visit and listen to him, but it was hard for me as well.
Funeral day came later that year and the preacher asked me to tell him about old man Harry.
I searched my mind for everything good I could ever remember.
I tried! I really did.
But, in truth, all I could say, “He loved his animals!”
Preacher asked, “what about sons, daughters, siblings?”
I rolled that thought over, tried again to frame something nice.
“I think he found people and his family, too much trouble. People required midnight worries, confusion, heartache, his money. His animals seem to accept him, care for him, as he did for them. Animals followed his orders, his family could not. In the end, I think he loved his animals more because they were simpler, easier!”
No doubt, the preacher found me shallow or stupid.
The preacher had to pray for the soul of this man, and sell his passing as a bad thing to anyone present. To extoll them to turn to Godly things and away from sin.
He took from other funerals he had performed and created a damned fine eulogy, good preacher he was.
Harry sounded pretty decent by the end of the eulogy.
Anyone that heard the eulogy and knew Harry, would have called Bullshit!
For my part, I will care for my animals, love them to a degree, but I prefer the complexities of my family and friends.
I will not treat my animals above my children, regardless of how hard it is sometimes.
In the end, just maybe, old man Harry found some form of peace in the closest he could come to God, in the form of a Momma Cat.
I just cannot imagine how that works.
But, it is the best I can do to make sense of his life and final days.