The cat has got to be seventeen or eighteen years old, which is probably something like a hundred and eight in people-years. She was my mother’s cat but my mother is long dead. Now it’s just the two of them, my father and the cat, living out their days in an Assisted Care Facility in Boynton Beach, Florida. Once a month I send my father a gift basket from Katz’s deli: a salami, a pound of pastrami, a loaf of rye bread, sometimes brisket. Food of his yesteryears, and not especially good for his arteries; but at his age, where’s the reason for a healthy diet? With your days numbered, you might as well throw caution to the wind: eat fried food, smoke cigarettes, cross against the light, because, what are you waiting for?
My father has suffered several strokes, but has been fortunate insofar as he’s only partially paralysed – in his right leg – and his right hand is gimpy. Mentally, he’s all there. He did not lose the faculty of speech; his words do not come out garbled. My father can speak just fine. Nonetheless, he does not speak to me; nor I to him.
I picture my father sitting at the kitchen table, tearing off small pieces of pastrami from the edge of the sandwich to feed to the cat who sits on the adjacent chair. I worry about what will happen to the cat should my father die before she does. What if the management at the Assisted Care Facility puts her out on the street? The thought of an aged cat who was hand-fed bits of pastrami tossed out like trash is too sad.
Shortly after his first stroke, my father told me that I was lousy daughter. Among a number of other decidedly unpleasant things, he said, ‘You were always a headache. No wonder no one likes you.’
‘I’m sorry you feel that way,’ I said, but I wasn’t sorry. I was hurt. And angry.
Along with the gift basket, I send a card. Always, I write the same note: Enjoy! and I sign my husband’s name, as if this food were a gift from my husband alone, and I played no part in sending it. My husband says, ‘You should put your name on the card.’
‘Why? Why should I put my name on the card?’
‘Why do you send the food?’ he asks.
Each month, when the gift basket arrives, my father calls my husband to thank him. They talk for few minutes about nothing that matters: a ball game, the weather, what each of them had for breakfast. After they hang up, my husband – who happens to be freakishly well-adjusted – says to me, ‘You really should call him. He misses you. He wants to hear from you.’
‘Did he say that?’ I am fully sceptical. ‘Did he even ask about me?’
My husband doesn’t lie. ‘No. Your father is as stubborn as you are.’
Even if my father had asked about me, I wouldn’t speak to him. I send him gift baskets of food because it is all I can do.
Sometimes I think: What if the cat dies before he does? There he would be: a lonely old man wearing some old man’s bathrobe, sitting at the kitchen table crying over his dead cat. I picture him like that and sorrow rushes in, as if feelings were a gust of wind coming through an open window. I have compassion for my father. What I am not sure I have is forgiveness. Or love.