When You Were A Lion

You were a lion once.

Your luminous golden eyes could pierce the darkness, and you could leap impossibly far and high. Your body would extend gracefully in the air, supple and sure, and you’d land with hardly a sound. When you were at rest, you lounged with casual, leonine confidence. And when you decided to act, you were nimble and swift, stealthy when the occasion called for it, an athlete and hunter through and through. You walked with grace, and it seemed you could balance on a razor’s edge. You, my dear, could prowl.

When you rubbed your face against us, we called it a “cuddle.” Same with when we would put our heads down at your level, and you would head-butt us with a soft “clunk.” I know that you were claiming us as your own, as part of your domain. But you enjoyed it, too. You even admitted as much with your purr: sonorous, rumbling, guttural, a sound of pure pleasure.

Ah, you could be fierce. The occasional mouse that would venture in was dispatched quickly and quietly, though the mess was admittedly unpleasant. And the meerkat stuffed animal we gave to you and your mother traveled from room to room, clamped in your jaws, you yowling and roaring around it, the sound muffled by its stuffing. It was nearly as big as you, but no matter. Up the stairs and down you went with it, your pride in the “kill” evident in your swaggering walk and flashing eyes.

You were not all ferocity. Indeed, you chirped sweetly as you trotted up to us, and we stroked you, plunging our hands into your plush fur, marveling at your softness as our fingers sank in. You’d sometimes roll over, offering up your belly to be rubbed, but not for too long. You couldn’t stay that vulnerable, and when you’d had enough, you’d grab our hands with your paws, claws out just a bit, just to warn. As loving as you were with us, you doled out your affections selectively. You hissed at many who dared approach, but even your hiss was nonchalant, like you didn’t need to put much effort into warning outsiders to stay away. They’d get the message. You even managed to hiss softly at the vet in your final moments, and although it was appropriate, I was sad that it was the last sound I’d hear you make.

Your life was long, little lion, much longer than such ferocity and energy can last. As the years went by, the meerkat fell by the wayside, mocking you from a spot near your food bowl. You slept more. Any mice that may have come into the house had little to fear from you. You had earned a good retirement.

For over eighteen years you lived and loved. Even the last year had plenty of good times. You weren’t ready to go yet, and we understood that. You were still too full of life and pleasure; your discomforts seemed minor and fleeting, and your golden eyes continued to shine. But then your decline accelerated, life slipping away bit by uneven bit. In your final couple of weeks, as if you knew what was soon to come, you were even more social than usual, seeking us out even as your eyes dulled and your fur became disheveled and you lost weight you could not afford to lose. And when you stopped visiting us as much, and you spent your time resting and waiting, we came to find you in your warm retreats, offering our caresses. Though you leaned into our hands, your purr had fallen silent. There was nothing left to do, the vet said. But that was no surprise to us, because we had known you when you were a lion.

In the end, you held your head high and we put our hands on you one last time, feeling your warm, magnificent pelt. Each of us said goodbye and cradled you as you left us.

There are moments that remind one of the inescapability of adulthood. Deciding that it is time to help a pet go from this life is one of them. The decision was hard, yet it was right, and we made it at the right time. Now we are left with memory.

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Closing 2012 in the Georgia mountains

My in-laws’ roof is pounded tin, painted rust-colored, rippled and folded where the panels connect. The rain of the north Georgia mountains swooshes and swats on it, tapping a rhythm that backs the wind’s high drone around the peaks and eaves of the roof. A storm sounds like popping corn – first pops tentative and irregular, then the squall of pops so rapid that it gets hard to distinguish among them, then slowing again, rap… rap rap… rap… rap… into silence.

Over the triple-peaked mountain visible across their property – stand on the wrap-around porch and look down the slope of the lawn, past the split rail fence and gravel drive, across the pond, then beyond the neighbor’s orchards and the expanse of land after the town road to the mountain, whose very base is just about visible in the winter – the changing clouds tell the story of the verdure of this slice of the country as they bring wetness in all its forms. Giant black thunder-heads in the summer, the high, light gray of a steady spring rain, the dark enveloping gray of a winter storm, the humps of the peaks disappearing one by one in the lowering mist, the world obscured.

Cocks crow nearby. Cattle bellow over at another farm. A coyote once peeked in slyly through the low windows of the former back porch converted into an art studio where my mother-in-law paints. The dog can’t be let out alone at night. Life is everywhere.

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Just after Christmas, an old friend of my wife came up from Atlanta to see us, and we took a walk on a path that my father-in-law cut. He has created shrines along that path, little places of memory and reflection placed every so often to remind him of people and moments past and present. His children and grandchildren are in those places. Friends abound. Rocks and plants are placed just so, and there are several bird houses. My in-laws are great lovers of bird houses. Everywhere there is life. Small birds flit from branch to branch, twittering. A hawk or falcon – the glare of the sun and my eyesight conspire to rob me of any chance of identification – banks over the orchard. Farther away, several turkey vultures circle, keen observers of impending death. I turn away from them, back to the explosion of life nearer at hand. Soft, furry moss spreads over hummocks of reddish earth. Some sort of clubmoss with little trident-shaped sprouts bobs and nods in Seussian style, with contrasting dark vinca nestled underneath and all around. Grasses sprout in tufts. Trees are everywhere, and rhododendrons provide pockets of shade.

Where there is so much life, there must be water, and indeed a creek winds through, flowing and trickling down the hillside and underneath wooden bridges greened slick by moss. Scaly, grey-green nets of lichen give texture to tree trunks and stones. The air smells wet and like old plants leaving life behind and new ones gaining strength. Wet stone throws off mineral scents and I wonder if that’s what wine lovers are referring to when they use the term “mineral” in their tasting notes. If you looked at the creek water under a microscope, you would see a whole living, respiring world that is no less busy and alive and simultaneously symbiotic and competitive than the visible one all along the path. Everywhere are birth and death and the in-between thing that we hang on to as long as we can.

I walk the path along the creek, the water burbling softly. Here and there, the water disappears for a few meters below ground, then springs back into the open to sing and shimmer again. It has carved a small canyon for itself, and the path follows the ridge above. Past the wooden bridge that connects the path on this side with the portion on the other, and past one more shrine – this one has the look of a small labyrinth in stones, and the way some are sinking into the soft earth makes it look ancient and mysterious – the path terminates at an ordinary wire fence. The property line, abrupt and angular. The creek bed winds beyond, but the wild woods quickly peter out. There is a house with a regular lawn, then a few buildings and the old highway leading into town. I stand at the fence and follow the small gash of the creek bed with my eyes. I can’t see where it runs past the buildings. The land rises on the other side of the highway, and I guess that somewhere up there is the origin of the creek. I want to see it, the spot where water perhaps flows right out of the earth itself and starts something that goes on to nourish so much life down below.

ImageI go back to the bridge and cross it to the path on the other side. More moss and trees, more memorials, more birdhouses. Some copper and tin figurines, variously tarnished bright green and rust red. I come out of the woods, and the vultures are gone from the sky. I think that if I were to walk into the orchard or a bit beyond, I would find them at their meal.