One of my boys went walkabout for a bit this morning. I had held the door open for just a few seconds too long and out he went, tail straight up with enthusiasm and racing away as if celebrating a release from jail. He hadn't done this for a couple of years and I thought I had made his life pleasant enough that he wouldn't do it again but I was wrong. He exemplified carpe diem to the max.
Ok, I'm talking about one of my three boy cats (my little girl doesn't mind being lumped with them as long as she gets her share of attention and treats), the four of whom constitute my main reason for getting up in the morning. To them I am staff -- not mistress, not always mom, but always staff to wait on them, clean up after them, provide their meals and facilities, and give out frequent pats, scritches and occasional treats.
Back to Sama, the walkabout cat. He was out of sight before I could say "Boo" or even, "Here, Sama!" I got him within sight but he bounded off behind the neighbor's trailer. I went to the far side of her lot but no Sama. Calling gently so as not to upset the neighbors I walked around but still no Sama. I went back in the house for a few minutes and went out again. He was over by the rosebush by one of the sheds, eating grass. I called him again and was roundly ignored. I went back in the house. I came back out a few more minutes later to find no Sama so I walked back to the back and then over to the other side of my neighbor's house. No Sama -- until I looked at the rosemary bush next to the step up to the patio. There I saw big yellow eyes, a black face and a red collar. Unfortunately, he wasn't ready to be reasonable and come back in the house but instead he disappeared again. I went back in the house. A few more minutes and when I looked outside, there he was near the front stoop. Here's my chance, I thought. This time I wasn't going barehanded. I had a plan.
Treats for the boys are truly that -- very occasional special stuff that they have to take turns getting. I think of it as a feline form of communion. If a cat sits there and waits his/her turn, s/he gets a treat from the package. And they know the sound of that package being removed from the drawer next to my desk. Oh, yes. One little rustle of the package and I usually have four furry friends in the immediate vicinity. This morning I only had three when I opened the package but I still had a plan. Sama was out on the patio, near the door and so I opened it and rustled the package while saying softly, "Sama, treat!" There was a flicker of interest but not much. I put a couple in my hand so he could see they would be there and opened the door a bit wider. FAIL. Off he went back to the rosebush again.
Back in the house for a few more minutes. Look outside, no Sama. Wait a few more -- and there he was by the stoop again. This time I went out with the package and rustled it. Hmmm. A flicker of interest, it appeared. He seemed to be in the mood for petting so I stroked the end of his tail, the only part of him I could reach. Ok, we were back on more familiar ground. He presented his ears and then his back and then his ears again. This time I managed to get off the stoop, scoop him up and, with him purring mightily, back into the house. Needless to say, everybody got another round of treats, but this time in small piles here and there so that everybody got some, including Sama. Within a couple of minutes he was stretched out on my desk, no doubt contemplating the greater world outside vs. the comfort (and treats) inside. Now he's on the top cradle of the cat-tree, looking out the front window and no doubt planning his next foray which, I"m afraid, will be the next time I open the door to go in or out.
During this whole thing I thought about the story of the prodigal son and thought that perhaps it would do to pay a little attention to the story of the anxious father. We get most of the story from the POV of the prodigal, what he did while he was gone, his thought processes and his reflective journey back to what would probably be a sort of jail without bars. If he were lucky, he would be able to count on at least a job tending animals but he knew too that his father wouldn't let any of his workers go hungry or homeless. Meanwhile, though, what of the father? The story tells of the older brother who has been working hard, doing what he was supposed to do and not being very happy about having his inheritance diminished and one less hand around the place to help with the work. But the father? What of him?
I thought about my Sama outside in a world he really doesn't know anything about except that it is big and it has a lot of alluring things in it: grass to chew, other cats to chase, lots of different smells to sniff, places to rub, and things to investigate that never show up inside the house. The prodigal had a great time on his walkabout but I was a wreck. What if he got hit by a car? Even with a posted speed of 5 mph, cars zip by this house like it was a speedway or something sometimes. What if another cat attacked him for being an interloper? What if he got lost and couldn't find his way home? What if, what if, what if? I imagine the prodigal's father had those same kinds of thoughts and, I imagine, he probably went to the door a dozen times a day, hoping to see a familiar figure coming down the road. I know the frustration and fear he would have felt, hoping against hope but not seeing the one thing he most wanted to see.
Luckily, both stories have happy endings with the prodigals returning home and a celebration following. What I am left with is a contemplation of what it means to love and lose, even if briefly and even if the prodigal is only out of sight for a few minutes. While I realize the story of the prodigal son was a parable Jesus told to illustrate how much God loves me (and all the other prodigals in the world), it took Sama to make me look at it through a different set of lenses, that of the father who gave his son the freedom he desired and who never stopped looking for him to return home safely.
It makes me also realize that all the characters in the story are me at some time or other in my life. Today, though, I'm the rejoicing parent. My prodigal is once again home, a celebration has been held and things are (more or less) back to normal.
Thanks be to God.
Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Friday, November 8, 2013, under the title "Prodigal cat."