Life is nothing without friendship. — Cicero
Every odyssey must come to an end…or perhaps to a new beginning.
Friendships are like that. Whether people or pets, no matter how long the acquaintance, the time comes when you have to let go. You remind yourself that this is so. It’s an unwritten law of the universe, which you know to be true in your heart of hearts.
In February we lost two close friends: one, a cat; one, a man who walked with us. I’d written about the man before, but never the cat. I’ve been reflecting, with wonder, about the impact of these two friends in the arc of my life over the past 20 years.
On the January full moon, my husband and I were camping at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park in Florida, our 21-year-old kitty in tow. The February Full Snow Moon found us mourning her passing.
My mind swirled with the blowing snow that day. What had we just been through? What adventure of the heart? How did we wind up in Kissimmee with a cat? Traveling with Kiki, or any cat, was new territory. Because she was ailing, taking her with us meant essentially becoming a mobile kitty hospice.
I was still trying to put that experience into words three weeks later, when we learned that our walking friend was gone. Perhaps it’s meant to be…that these two losses must somehow be processed together.
Oftentimes in life, it seems that two story lines juxtapose. It’s as if you have double lessons, amping up the overwhelm. In this case, I’m working through the final days of a wonderful animal companion, while at the same time our close friend, I know most probably, is facing his.
“Come along kitty” became a mantra for January. On the way to Florida, while holding Kiki in my lap (wondering how well we’d navigate this trip with a cat), I received a phone call from my friend, Ole Clate. He was wondering how we were doing, having just returned to the frozen north from a month-long stay in Florida with his daughter.
My nonagenarian friend had been ailing for several months. He sounded good; the warm December Florida sun had given him days of walking time, so central to his spirit. We looked forward to more walking days ahead this spring.
I told him we had kitty with us, and that, amazingly, she seemed to enjoy riding in the truck. He knew we were going to visit my husband’s father (whom he’d gotten to know in recent years) and that we’d planned a state park stay at Kissimmee Prairie, as well. Having been there before, we knew it would be a good place for quiet reflection, walking and biking. We were wishing he could be there with us, recalling the time we’d met him to walk at Myakka River State Park several winters ago. He talked about the park he had visited in December that he thought we’d enjoy. We said we’d try to check it out.
On this trip we were into a different kind of walking. We took Kiki everywhere. She looked kitty chic in her pink harness, resting lightly over the warm sweater my husband had picked out for her. Passers by would smile. They couldn’t know, of course, from the outside, the frail condition on the inside.
Although her body was deteriorating, nothing was wrong with her spirit, as she amazingly took to traveling with the trailer and truck. It didn’t take long for her to recognize them as home. I was thankful for the helpful encouragement of her vet, who was confident we could manage.
It seemed surreal to be traveling with Kiki in the last weeks of her life, just as it seemed surreal to think that Clayton might be experiencing his. With this winter being one of the most brutal on record, we were glad to learn that he’d enjoyed his weeks of respite and warm walking time. We definitely were appreciating our own outdoor respite with kitty.
On our Kissimmee trip with Kiki, I thought of the cold, rainy Thanksgiving Day two decades ago, when she showed up on our doorstep. I thought about our pets through the years. I thought about taking our longtime relationships for granted, whether animal or human; and I couldn’t believe this odyssey with our sweet furry companion was ending.
On our Kissimmee trip with Kiki, I thought about our personal odyssey with Clayton Klein, Michigan’s own Walking Man. I realized I’d known him since the mid-1990s when I I began writing for our local paper, the Fowlerville News & Views… making wonderful little jaunts to Klein’s Booklien (Clayton and Marjorie Klein’s wholesale bookstore downtown). Back then, I’d never have imagined the friendship that would develop.
Yes, on my Kissimmee trip with Kiki, I kept thinking about Clayton back home and these two companions: wearing out with age…systems breaking down, life force leaving. I didn’t want to accept the inevitable.
I wished to tell my walking friend all about our adventure. I wished for more walking and talking times together. It wasn’t to be; Clayton died just two days short of his 96th birthday. Our kitty was at least that age in cat years, according the vet. In failing health, she needed continuing care, just as he did. So by December we began preparing for her to come along on the journey.
Back home in February, the realization of what had transpired with Kiki began to set in daily. Little things would remind me. For example, while sitting in church the Sunday after, I glanced down at my navy wool sweater and discovered a short white hair. How I’d often bemoan the silky fur strands that stuck like Velcro to my clothing when picking her up. Now, I knew how much I’d miss that simple thing.
Kiki remained fairly spry until the very end. Even as a ‘centenarian’ cat she could jump and climb. (I smilingly attribute that to her appetite for fresh green beans, acquired as a kitten). She kept on moving, just like my friend Clayton. Both were of indomitable spirit; both kept on walking. Both have been an inspiration for my outlook on life and mortality.
Interestingly, in recent months kitty seemed to want to sit on my lap or cuddle next to me. It was as if she wanted to be a kitten again, when she’d love to sleep under the covers. She wasn’t always this engaging. In her middle years, my recollection is of her being more aloof. She was always the regal feline, and generally ignored by our two toms. I honestly feel that I took her for granted, because she rarely made any fuss.
Mostly the years drifted by, like when a child grows up and leaves home. How much they’ve drifted came to my attention with the Katie Couric/Bryant Gumbel Super Bowl 2015 ad for BMW. The ad played endlessly that first week of February. Its timeliness caught me in my tracks, jolting my reflection of the past two decades.
Mesmerized, I watched them reach back to 1994 in a clip, wondering about an Internet email address. When Couric queries — “Alison, can you explain what Internet is?” — right away I’m thinking, “Wow, that’s what was going on then? We were just getting comfortable with the Internet?” and “Wow, my cat’s been around since then?”
Fast forward to the BMW segment 21 years later, and Couric asks: “Alison, can you explain….” and I always want to throw in, “Alison, can you explain where the last 21 years went?”
Camping at Kissimmee allowed time for reflection, that is, in between the sounds of crows chattering. A band of them insisted on monitoring the campsite. I was wishing I could translate their raucous conversation, as they’d hover, zoom, and perch curiously in the trees, watching our every move. ‘Pay attention to the messages around you,” they seemed to say; and I wondered if I’d been listening these past 21 years.
At the church memorial service for Clayton, his daughter, Deb, listed amazing things about her dad. One stood out that made me smile. I knew he loved birds, but I didn’t know he talked to them…. as I find myself doing more these days.
“Of course,” I thought. “That would be our walking friend. How could you not talk to the birds, when you are out in nature walking by yourself for mile upon mile upon mile?”
Everything natural — every flower, tree, and animal — has important lessons to teach us if we would only stop, look, and listen.
These words by Eckhart Tolle appear in the book Guardians of Being: Spiritual Teachings from Our Dogs and Cats. It was a gift from a friend, after our kitty died. A wonderful little book, with art of Patrick McDonnell who created MUTTS comic strip.
We have forgotten what rocks, plants, and animals still know. We have forgotten how to be — to be still, to be ourselves, to be where life is: Here and Now.
At the memorial service the pastor spoke of Clayton’s calm center of peace. That seems the consensus of those who knew him. Well acquainted with the Source, he was driven by his deep faith, affirming to me many times: With God all good things are possible. ‘The Walking Man’ inspired us to embrace that calm peaceful center, which he found in walking. Every day he appreciated the here and now.
For me, Kiki and my friend Ole Clate were alike in many ways. With a tiger-tough spirit, to the end of their days, they were constantly active, walking, moving, exploring….never quitting…persistent on their quest… determined to engage with the moment, and up to the challenges that life would hand them.
Walking with kitty in the outdoors was a new experience — one I’ll keep going back to, pondering the meaning. What at first seemed to be a huge obstacle, became an opportunity to spend time with and observe this creature who’d shared our lives for two decades. On this trip, she staggered my imagination and my heart. It felt like we were traveling with a little hobbit who’d left the shire for an amazing adventure. That impression stayed with me.
While homeward bound on an uncommonly soft spring-like day in January in Georgia, we camped by water’s edge. Kitty wanted to head straight for the river. She’d never seen a river before, yet she knew the water was there. She insisted on standing in the flowing water, as if the river was an old friend. Watching her drink in the water, I realized that this journey with kitty had taken much out of me over the past several months. Yet, the experience had also put much within.
And whenever you feel that essence in another, you also feel it in yourself.
By the morning of the March full moon, the bitter cold winter still kept us in its grip. I was feeling lost in life transitions as we drove down our country road on the way to another 20-year marker event — for me, anyway. My hairdresser was retiring; it would be the last time she’d color my hair. It’s not such an epic event. It’s just that sometimes you wonder why things happen when they do. This would be a transition, to be sure, but our friendship would be simply moving into a new phase. I can handle that. But, what of this shift of losing two soul friends to the heavens.
When a beautiful ring-neck pheasant flew across the road in front of us, landing into a snow-covered field, my thoughts flew to Clayton. What would Ole Clate, the farmer and explorer, have to say about this bird? To me, he’d probably advise: “Show your true colors; get up and get going; walk on.”
Thinking of Clayton, a pheasant brings images of loving wide-open spaces… flying free, being out in nature walking in absolute confidence and curiosity…engaging with the outer world, while being content within…finding the joy in every day, and always moving and expressing the beauty of its purpose. Perhaps the pheasant flew in to remind me of all these things.
Clayton left the shire many times. He’d set off on new adventures, and return home to tell the tales. It’s astounding the number of people who’ve noted his inspiration in their lives. He inspired folks across the generations. His story resonates with all ages and life stages.
Life comes in stages, writes author Joan Chittister, each one incomplete without the coming of the next one. It’s how we leave one and start another that makes the difference.
But, I ask: How do we recognize where we are on the journey? And, at what moment do we transition from being inspired, to being the inspiration? When does it become, our turn? Maybe it’s only when we discover that essence — that grace — that peaceful, calm center.
Things are different for us in the shire, now, as springtime returns. Kiki and Ole Clate are memories. They leave their footprints and paw prints on my heart. Again, I have to remember that each friendship and adventure must come to an end…or perhaps to a new beginning.To our Walking Man, I’ll say, “‘Happy Trails’: Here’s to pheasants abundant along heaven’s side of the road.” To the spirit of Kiki, I’ll be saying, “Come along kitty,” while murmuring the words of author Ram Dass: We are all just walking each other home.