Parini: On cosmic ambiguity

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(HOST) Recently, commentator Jay Parini went out to water the garden, only to find himself confronting life, death and a little cosmic ambiguity.  

(PARINI) Maybe you remember the film "Four Weddings and a Funeral." Well, for me lately it’s been more like "Four Funerals and a Wedding."  I’m at that age, I suppose, when people tend to go the way of all flesh.  There are a lot of funerals, and only a handful of weddings.

I called my 92-year-old mother in Pennsylvania last week. She told me that an old neighbor of ours was unwell.   I didn’t like the sound of her voice.  "How unwell?" I wondered.  "Extremely unwell," she said. "In fact, he’s dead."

I was still thinking about this when I went out to water the garden, as my wife had asked me to do.  Our oldest son was getting married, and we wanted the garden to look good for the occasion.  As I was hooking up the hose, I saw our cat "Blackie" stretched out in the dirt, looking – as my mother would say – very unwell.

I was shocked.  Blackie has been a faithful friend and member of our family for over nineteen years.  That’s a long time for a barn cat, who has lived under the porch and, in the depths of winter, in the garage, disdaining indoor life. Her parents and relatives were also barn cats – members of our extended family once, and we have a grave where Tigre, Blackie’s mother, is buried in a nearby field with other cat-relatives.

I looked closely at Blackie. Flies buzzed around her, landing and biting.  It was pitiful to see her, splayed out in the dirt like that.  I shook her tail, then touched her nose:  nothing, not even a twitch.

My sons and wife were not home at the time, so I decided to dispose of the corpse, as it would soon attract worse than flies.  I dug a fairly deep grave for Blackie next to her mother, then got a snow shovel to pick her up.  It’s not that I’m squeamish, but the idea of holding a dead cat didn’t appeal to me. I gently eased her onto the shovel  – the body was surprisingly heavy – then carried her around the house and into the field.  I was very sad, thinking about all the good times with her, and how upset my wife and sons would be.  But as I lowered Blackie into the grave, she lifted her little nose over the edge of the shovel and glared at me.  Then she shrieked loudly and leaped into mid-air.

All the cliches about seeing a ghost apply here.  I dropped the shovel and shrieked myself – even louder than Blackie.  She ran one way and I ran the other, howling around the back of the house, howling as if  I’d cut my leg with a chainsaw.  I was later glad nobody else was home.

I called my mother in Pennsylvania to tell her this story.  She loves good stories, even strange ones  like this.  After I finished, she paused for a moment, and then said, "Well, Jay, if I see you coming at me with a shovel, believe me: I’m gonna get up and run."

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