Of Friends and Tails
by Father Paul A. Keena
Some of my best friends have tails. I’ve had animals in my life forever, but it has only been in the last decade and a half that animals have really become part of the passion of my life.
It began in the strangest way. The year was 1988, and I was finishing a month of lying flat on my back at Our Lady of Mercy Medical Center in the Bronx. Lying there at the end of the month was a major achievement. Earlier that month, the doctors had told me that I might not have long to live. A hypothyroid problem left me with fluid around the heart, hepatitis, jaundice and lots of other lovely symptoms that, by the end of the month in the hospital, had all but dissipated. My being alive was something of a medical and spiritual miracle. Thirty days before, I had plopped my head on the pillow on my hospital bed, and told God, “It’s up to you. Take me if you want. It’s your decision.”Shortly before I was about to leave the hospital, a kind of intuitive knowing jumped out at me. Later, I would learn to describe it as coming from the depths of my soul. Then, I didn’t know where it came from, and it was the strangest thing. It said, “I want a cat.”
In some ways, that was the beginning of the rest of my life.
What’s so strange about that? Well, I had never had a cat in my life. I had never even been around cats. I probably could count on the fingers of one hand the number of cats I had been around in my entire life (I was 42 way back then). Yet there it was – I wanted a cat.
My prior history with animals was less than sterling. When I was very young, my parents had a canary, Peter, in our three room third-floor apartment. I remember seeing Peter hop around his cage, and hearing him sing. But then there was that tragic morning when I awoke to find poor Peter lying feet up on the bottom of his cage. That was the beginning and the end of birds in my life. Except for my grandmother’s parakeet, whose name I think was Timmy. My grandmother – Nana, I called her – loved the bird and managed to teach him to talk. My father never believed Nana’s story, but she stuck by it nonetheless – Nana claimed that after having been away from her apartment for a few days, she returned home only to have the bird greet her with, “Where the heck have you been?” Or words to that effect.
That was it for birds, but there were two dogs in my childhood. One was Bounce, a nervous fox terrier puppy, a gift from my uncle. Recently, I watched a documentary on fox terriers, which helped me to understand why our relationship with Bounce didn’t work out. The program said they tend to be nervous, independent and difficult to train. That gave me a more comfortable frame of reference for poor Bounce – my clearest remembrance is that my parents thought he was, well, intellectually challenged. It seemed he could never get the knack of housebreaking, and I remember my father regularly picking up Bounce’s leavings from the kitchen floor. Bounce was pretty nervous, and was not particularly fond of me. If I were anywhere near his bowl when he was eating, he would snap at me and try to bite me.
The Bounce phenomenon was a perfect example of why it’s not a good idea to give pets as gifts. Though my uncle was well-intentioned in giving Bounce to us, the puppy was just not right for a child – or for my parents, who were good parents but terrible communicators. One morning, I woke up to find that Bounce was gone. No one would tell me what happened.
The other dog was Spike, an adorable Boston Terrier puppy, who was a great delight. He would play and wag his little screw-tail and would wait at the window every day for me to come home from school. I was twelve when we got Spike; and while I loved him, there were times when, as an only child, I resented his place in the house. I’m not happy about that, but that’s how it was. Someday, I’m going to get another Boston Terrier and smother him with the affection I wasn’t able to give Spike back then. Nonetheless, it was a much better experience than poor Bounce.
That is, until I went to college. Since I was staying home for college, my folks moved to a part of Kansas City that was more readily accessible to school and to Dad’s work. The place my parents chose to rent would not allow pets; and it was decided, without consulting me, that Spike would have to go. My father found him a nice home with a friend from work, and Spike left us and that was that. I was positively heartbroken. For the second time, my parents had removed a dog from my life without my permission.
That’s why the “I want a cat” epiphany was so amazing. I really had had little to do with pets from the day Spike left us in 1963 until my hospital stay in 1988. I had met other dogs and cats along the way, but there was just nothing there for them in my heart. Looking back, it seemed my heart had just closed to animals. Two losses, I guess, seemed like enough.
After I left the hospital, I decided to move to a different parish assignment. The priest there had a cat himself; and when I said I wanted a cat, he offered to let me care for her. But Bigelita – her mother, Bigelow, was a feral cat who bore her in the Bigelow carpeting that had been ripped up in the renovation of the church – was a wily, one-man cat who simply never took to me. It looked like my cat dream would have to be put on hold.
It all changed with a phone call – one that would alter the course of the rest of my life. A friend called to say that the couple across the hall from her had four cats and were giving away two, Teddy and Flicka. “You’ve got to come and meet Teddy,” she told me. “He’s cute and cuddly, just like my Jazzpurr.” So off I went to meet Teddy.
Teddy never materialized. I had heard that he was a blonde, fluffy Persian kitty with a beautiful tail – but I never got to see him. Painfully shy, Teddy managed to lodge himself in some remote corner of the apartment, out of everyone’s sight.
Flicka, however, was a different story. A hefty but beautiful Maine Coon, she instantly turned herself into Miss Adorable. She let me pick her up and cuddle her, all the while crying what sounded for all the world like, “Take me. Take me.”
I had come for Teddy, but it was Flicka who captured my attention. Someone upstairs was guiding me, because, in retrospect, it would have been a terrible mistake to have separated the two of them. As I came to know them better, they were truly a couple. Flicka was the boss, the disciplinarian. Teddy was the meek, mischievous kid who was always finding ways to annoy her. She had no problem hunting him down and smacking him once or twice with her huge paws to get him to settle down. They were a team. Had I not taken them both, I would have made a terrible mistake.
They both came home with me; and when they did, I realized why poor Flicka had been such a saleswoman. To my amazement, she was deeply depressed; and at least in the first few weeks of her stay with me trembled so badly that at times she couldn’t eat. Later, I discovered that she had been profoundly unhappy in her previous home; and later still, one of the former owners apologized to me for things they had done to bring that about. That was the first time I experienced the power of praying over animals. I didn’t know much about it at the time, but I simply did what I had seen done in charismatic prayer groups I had visited – I lay my hands upon her and asked Jesus to help her. Before I knew it, there was no more trembling. The depression was another story. Flicka had the blackest, most penetrating stare of anybody I had ever met. That’s pretty much what I got for six solid months. As a new and inexperienced cat owner, I was pretty much at a loss as to what to do. Teddy was fine – fun-loving and incurably adorable. Flicka was another story. I almost gave her back.
I’m so glad I didn’t. I’m going to write a book about Teddy and Flicka and my other animal friends, and I’ll wait until then to tell you the full story. Suffice it to say, Flicka became what I affectionately termed “my Bunny Rabbit.” She lived to be twenty-five years old, and lived and died pretty much on her own terms. She loved vacation and loved nature. She loved Teddy – they slept together and played and fought just like a couple. And she loved me. The last few months of her life, she followed me everywhere I went, directly underfoot. Two nights before she died, she did something that she had never done before in her life – she hopped up and single-handedly stole an entire piece of steak from my plate. At the time, I thought it was hysterical. Two days later, as her little body lay in a shoebox waiting to be buried in the garden, it was a bittersweet memory. In the last week of her life, that rigid disciplinarian had managed to fulfill a lifelong dream of mischief. No surprise that it involved food. Flicka loved to eat.
In the twelve years that Flicka lived with me, she and Teddy became my family. Teddy grieved terribly the loss of his life-partner; and since he had always been a delicate fellow, I was worried that he would get sick. It wasn’t the best of times for me either. The day after Flicka died, one of my closest friends dropped dead without any warning. My instincts told me that with two huge losses back to back, I had better do something to bring some new life into the picture.
That new life came in the form of a tiny jet-black short-haired kitten who was languishing in a cage at the Humane Society. I opened the cage, picked her up and held her in my arms…and it was love. At the same time she snuggled in to me, her bright mischievous green eyes darted upward to see if she could leap up onto a beam in the ceiling. That was portentous. The kitty whom I called Midnight (but who answers only to Sweetheart, Dear and Precious), is the funniest combination of an adorable ball of love and an inexhaustible ball of mischief. One of the most athletic animals I have seen, she can leap directly from the floor to the top of an open door. I have learned to watch her face to discern when she’s getting ready to do that. One of her other pastimes is field hockey – she can play for hours with a plastic ball, batting it all over, retrieving it, and batting it some more. Much to Teddy’s chagrin, she cannot resist chasing him. Though he complains when she does it, there’s no question – this little kitty has kept Teddy alive. He’s twenty now, and very much alert and alive, thanks in large measure to her lively pursuit of him.
One Saturday morning, about a year and a half ago, a friend and I were driving by the Humane Society. Without any warning, that same intuition I had had back in 1988 hit me. I said, “There’s a cat in there that needs me.” Less than an hour later, Lionel came home with me. Whatever his story, Lionel had been badly abused. A tattered ear and bowed rear legs told enough of the story for me. This big boy came home, and after the usual hissing and pawing from the resident felines, amazingly stepped in to the role of senior cat. Lionel was the perfect name for him; he was a little lion, a perfect example of courage, the king of the beasts. He loved to sit in the chair next to mine while I read. I would put my arm around him and listen to him purr. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and hear him from across the room, purring his little heart out. It was music to my ears.
Last August, Lionel began to have difficulty walking on those two hind legs. I thought it was arthritis, but the vet said no, it was diabetes and cancer. He didn’t give my buddy long to live. But I had learned more than a thing or two about those sorts of diagnoses and about healing through prayer – besides Flicka, I had healed Teddy of a kind of chronic fatigue syndrome — and over the next few weeks I saw a remarkable change in Lionel. He didn’t hop up in the chair so much, and he limped on the rear legs, but the depression, the listlessness, the uncharacteristic lack of interest in food and water all disappeared, and he was in no pain. Bright and alert, he went back to purring with a volume you could hear all over the room. One unexpected side effect of his early trips to the vet – it became clear that Lionel loved the car. His eyes would brighten; he would sit up in his carrier and watch birds, people, trees going by. So, whenever possible, Lionel got trips to the beach and the park. It was a joy to hold him and talk to him and see his sheer delight in being out and about. Not bad for a boy of, say, nineteen or twenty.
On Friday night, September 27, I came home to find Lionel lying on the floor unable to move. He had been fine in the morning; in fact, he had pushed Teddy away from his bowl! He had been fine in the afternoon when a friend looked in on him. Apparently, he had had a stroke sometime in the late afternoon. When I found him, it was 6:25. I picked him up, grabbed my Bible and my cell phone and sat him on my lap in our favorite chair. I called a friend who is a healer, and she agreed to pray for him. I took my Bible and began to read favorite scripture passages aloud and to recite others I remembered. Around 8:00, I noticed he was filling up, and periodically began wheezing. Around 9:00, I said to him, “I would like you to stay here; but if you really need to go, it’s fine.” At 9:25, he laid his head in my lap and died. The wind began to blow outside, and I knew that my friend had gone to God.
Lionel’s death was the most peaceful passing I have ever witnessed, so peaceful that neither Teddy nor Kitty had any trauma or upset from it. Throughout his illness, Lionel taught me the meaning of moral courage. Like a little lion, he continued to walk, to eat and to jump whenever he could. He never gave in to his illness.
People sometimes wonder if I felt disappointed that I was not able to heal Lionel. Lionel taught me that death could be a healing. Apparently, he no longer needed his body in order to do the work his spirit had come to do; and now that spirit needed to go elsewhere. Death healed him from the limitations of illness and freed his spirit to triumph and move on. Lionel taught me that about death; I had never experienced it so vividly before.
Yes, some of my best friends have tails. Knowing nothing about cats years ago when I first brought Teddy and Flicka home, I remember spending a nervous night before they arrived. I made a promise that I would never treat them as my cats, but always as my friends. It was the best promise I ever made.
For these animals have taught me so much. They insisted that I get past those early sad experiences of animals, and open my heart to a depth of love that I never thought I could know. They’ve given me hours of fun. They’ve shared their sadness and illnesses with me, and have allowed me to heal them. Teddy and Flicka were part of my healing from my nearly fatal illness, and today I notice that whenever I am down or sad, my kitty friends make every effort to cheer me up or at least to let me know that they care.
I’ve also come to know God through them. Sometimes, when God seems very far away, all I have to do is reach over and pet a tail or massage a furry head, and there he is. I have learned that each animal in his or her own way represents an aspect of God’s goodness. Flicka was his tough, durable love. Teddy is his precious heart, childlike and adoring. Dear is his life-loving, daring, and oh, so deep, zest for life. Lionel was God’s courage – confident and unflinching in fighting evil.
I think it was Khalil Gibran who said that work was love made visible. I believe that pets are God made visible.
© Copyright 2002 Father Paul A. Keenan. All Rights Reserved.
Father Paul A. Keenan: Popular speaker, author and radio co-host of WABC Radio’s “Religion on the Line,” Father Paul Keenan likes to talk and write about the issues that matter to people. Widely experienced as a national and local television and radio news commentator, he is the author of Good News for Bad Days, Stages of the Soul and Heartstorming. As Director of Radio Ministry of the Archdiocese of New York, he supervises, produces and writes for various radio and television programs. In addition, he serves as a parish priest in New York City.
Father Paul Keenan, came to his now-ten-year-old career in New York broadcasting after having been a college teacher and administrator and a parish priest for many years. He hails from Kansas City, where he graduated from Rockhurst University and completed an M.A. in Moral and Pastoral Theology at Saint Louis University. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1977, and went on to complete an M.A. in Philosophy at Fordham University.
Father Paul is also known for his work on the Web. He hosts his own website (www.fatherpaul.com) and contributes regular articles to various other sites. He is a regular columnist for the monthly newspaper, “Catholic New York.” His other talents and interests include reading, cooking and being humble servant to his three cats, Teddy, Lionel and Midnight.