For Bhakti

On Christmas day I went to Erin’s house to give her cat, Bhakti, a pill. I was glad for the errand. I’d forgotten how melancholy the first Christmas after a divorce can feel.

This was my second round, my second post-divorce Christmas. You’d think after the first divorce, I would have memorized the shape of it. My grown-up daughter was with her father for the morning. I’d given up primary custody of Ellie, our small white dog, to my second ex because they love each other dearly and I couldn't bear to be the cause of their separation. I know she’s happy with him, but after seven years of canine companionship, I still feel the way she isn’t at my heels.

My small and sturdy pioneer-built house was too quiet. I felt absence as a palpable presence, like an unexpected guest had just barreled through my front door in dripping wet boots and left it ajar. I wanted to shout “Remove your sloppy boots!” into the empty, but I questioned my authority.

Cold inside, I went outside to warm up in the snow. I was glad for a task. I shoveled my own walk then my older neighbor’s walk. Alive in body if somewhat numb of heart, I kept shoveling— my absent neighbor’s walk, my across-the-street neighbor’s and eventually most of the snow-hushed block. I cleared path after path until too much of me ached, then felt lost again until I remembered Bhakti.

I took my own allergy pill before I went to down the street to give him his. Erin and her family were away for the day. I let myself in through their back door, expecting Bhakti to greet me with a leg rub and friendly meow as had become customary when I fed him in the summer. During that blistering July week, Bhakti and I had established our friendship. I had just separated from my husband and Bhakti was a good listener. Despite my allergy, I was gradually won over by his charm and started returning his attention with physical affection. I washed my hands after petting him which helped, but even when I itched I felt no regret.

On Christmas, instead of his habitual greeting, there was silence. I called his name. No answer. Then I worried.

Bhakti had been Erin’s companion for the last 18 and half years. ( That’s how she answers the question of how long, like a child telling you their age who believes every day matters. Erin counts the half.) Until the last six months, he had been a robust feline presence. Since our friendly week in the summer, he’d been shrinking. Even then he was shying away from cat food, so I would bring him tins of sardines I had smuggled from Portugal. Smelly as they are, we agreed they were worth the trouble.

By winter his once splendid grey fur with faint stripes had grown matted against his frame— his bones were increasingly evident. He hadn’t been eating, but the pill I had come to give him was supposed to help. Searching the house, I found him lying down upstairs on a sun-streaked carpet. He rose in a rickety way to greet me. I met him on the floor. Sitting cross-legged, I took his narrow face into my hands and just loved him up—scratching behind his ears and under his chin, then I tenderly stroked his back. Everywhere I caressed I could feel the elegant edges of skeleton. Purring feebly, he seemed pleased. I felt the weight of his impending absence as I looked into his eyes to praise his presence.

“You’re a good man, Bhakti” I told him. “Thank you for your devotion to my friend, for being her faithful companion for so many years.” Bhakti had been Erin’s friend a decade before she had been mine, also before she had her son, or even her husband. Maybe we all owed him something.

I said thank you in many languages before I left. I even tried to say it in cat, even though I knew I was just guessing. While there, I gave Bhakti my undivided attention. During that hour, I was entirely free from my Christmas funk. I was neither in Christmas future or Christmas past. I was there alone with Bhakti, in appreciative conversation, feeling warm and connected. A few weeks later, when I learned of Bhakti’s passing, I felt gratitude alongside grief. I'm still thinking of our quiet Christmas morning. I'm glad I held his bony head so tenderly in my hands, glad he let me know he was listening when I said thanks. I'm glad we paid attention.

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