It’s 2 a.m. and a rat is scampering around in my attic. Last week without really thinking it through I put birdseed in my window box which attracted a cardinal, a hummingbird, and a fat rat. When I spotted him, the enormous rat leaped onto the side of the building and rocketed his way vertically to the roof with his bare claws like a comic book arch-villain.
Hopefully, Leviticus, my cat, can scare him away. I live on the top floor in a house divided into apartments. I inherited Leviticus when mom died 5 years ago.
When I was first told Mom had a brain tumor the size of a tennis ball, I sat down on mom’s porch chair, Leviticus next to me. All the times I absent-mindedly petted her seemed like mere practice for this moment. I wanted so much to experience this petting. It felt so good to touch Leviticus, to experience the flow of my fingers through her silky, slippery multicolored fur coat, her body of flesh so slight, her beating heart so tiny. Such vulnerability, such frailty, such a thin line between life and death, yet Leviticus purred with delight, savoring my touch, aware only of the sensation of life as she rolled over on her side in sheer surrender to receive a massage.
My life as I’d known it was crumbling. Mom was a life-long smoker. She coughed throughout the night my whole life. Dad once said, “Those cigarettes are going to kill ya.” She exhaled, twisted out the cigarette, and said, “Well, not that one. Ha!”
Over the next three years Leviticus comforted me as mom painfully withered away. But I also watched an amazing transformation. At first mom was filled with constant irritation at the continuing assault of her non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and two strokes. However, as time went by she started to accept it all.
Paralyzed on her right side, I would ask mom if she wanted me to wheel her outside. She’d raise her only moveable limb, her left arm, point her finger, and say, “Let’s go.” There was so little she could do. But after a few minutes, she’d smile and say, “Hear the birds?” I often thought, is she really able to enjoy all this, or is she doing it for me? And figured, either way it’s an incredibly deep love that’s motivating her.
I saw Mom focusing less on what she couldn’t do and more and more on what she could do. Depleted and exhausted she accepted her death, letting go of everything that was not essential let her live. Even at 10% She lived fully. She cared less and less about the indignity of having someone bathe her, about her inability to control her body. Instead she was grateful for every little thing anyone did. she’d softly say, “Thank you”
Leviticus has been with me five years and I’ve taken her for granted. In fact recently I had lost her trust because my apartment is not safe. I enjoy perpetually redesigning, coming up with a theme and running with it. In these past few years, my studio apartment has been a Mexican cabana, a diner, a tiki hut, a tree fort, and a nautical nook. It changes so often my friend refers to it as “the set”. The horrible part is that I never bother to fortify my new designs, which means shelves, paintings, and curtain rods are constantly crashing down. It’s so precarious that Leviticus stopped coming back inside the apartment. I had to feed her on the porch. Luckily I’ve gotten back her trust.
To get to the attic I stand on my kitchen counter lifting myself up through an air vent barely large enough for me to squeeze through. Everything in my attic is useless, a detention center for all things broken and reeking, lots of wood crates and books. A fire hazard? No worries there–thanks to a leaky roof everything’s soggy. And what could be more fitting than a wet edition of Moby Dick? My landlord doesn’t see the porous roof as a problem; he calls it ventilation. The attic holds twenty years of bad decisions: a magic bullet, parachute pants, a Flowbee, etc… (as long as I still have it, I didn’t waste money buying it).
It’s now 2:30 a.m. and I’ve got to do something about this rat. I gingerly lift Leviticus up through the air vent. She walks a few feet into the attic then back to the opening, crying to get down immediately. I reach for her and she goes ballistic, scratching my arms and fleeing. She’s terrified! I got back her trust and now this. She’s meowing loudly enough for the neighbors to hear! I place a bar stool on top of the kitchen counter so that it’s a very short jump, but she begs to differ. She continues meowing as if crying out for a better owner. I go back to bed thinking she’ll give in and jump. A half hour later she’s still meowing in a high-pitched whine, as if she’s bringing up every single debacle in our 5 year relationship. I shriek, “Leviticus! Leviticus!” I sound like a holy roller. What was I thinking? How do I know this huge rat wouldn’t harm Leviticus?
I google “how to get a cat down from a high place.” What appears is “how to get your cat high.” So instead I lift myself into the attic and wait. Leviticus soon mellows and comes over. I Grab a mildewed wicker hamper (thank God I saved it) and she crawls into it. I’m surrounded by boxes of 8 tracks, Mardi Gras beads, and books on MS-DOS. It’s now 3:45 a.m. I’m huddled in a crawl space on a George Foreman grill next to a hamper containing my scared cat. And wonder why I’m single. And I realize my life has been weighed down by all this stuff I impulsively acquire and refuse to get ride of. And it might help to not rush into relationships, instead building a good foundation.
I go back to bed. Leviticus cradles up next to me. And think about the profound gift mom gave me — how to die. It’s all about letting go. And I recall what Maya Angelou wrote, “Letting go isn’t painful, holding on is.”
Tomorrow I’ll seal up the air vent and while I’m at it nail down everything in the apartment. I graciously pet Leviticus and let out a soft, “Thank you.”