When I was a boy, we had a cat named Wilfred. I don’t know how he got the name. I suppose someone in his past must have looked at him – at his round, intelligent face; those gazing, Buddhist eyes; his ever-so-gentle cat’s paws; and decided he looked like a Wilfred. Wherever the name came from, it stuck, or rather I should say it grew on him, as much a part of his personality as his sleek grey and white fur, his mincing gait and his twitching tail.
Of course, when you say something has grown on someone, or that they’ve ‘grown into it’, you’re really saying it’s grown on you – that you’ve got used to it, come to like it so much, that you won’t let them be anything else. Whether or not Wilfred ever really liked his name, I can’t honestly say. I do know he responded well when it was accompanied by the sound of tinned chicken liver being pried open in the kitchen – a summons enticing enough to actually make him break out of his leisurely, sashaying stride into something approaching a trot.
We knew what Wilfred’s name was, because when he arrived at our doorstep that Christmas Eve, he had a medallion on his collar with WILFRED stamped into it, and an address below that: 28 Buller Street. We naturally went there, to see if we could reunite Wilfred with his owner. That was a sad trek, because Nonny fell in love with Willie (or Willy-nilly as we called him in his more boisterous moods) the moment she set eyes on him; and Willie returned the favour, purring on her blanket like a car left running in the drive, waiting for someone to take him somewhere.
Of course we all fell in love with Willie as quickly as cocoa added to hot milk dissolves – not only because he was lovable, but because he loved Nonny best of all. So we weren’t too disappointed when we bundled Willie and Nonny into the car and drove down the hill to 28 Buller, only to discover there was no such address – unless Willie had lived in a gravel parking lot past the last house on the block, which was numbered 26. Of course Willie might have lived on the Buller Street in Port Moody, or the one in Grandview Manitoba, or… We never checked. We knocked at the house next door, and the neighbour, who didn’t appreciate being disturbed at 9 a.m. Christmas Day, said he’d never seen ‘a cat like that’ in his life, and ‘who would name a stupid cat Wilfred anyway?’
And that seemed confirmation enough; Wilfred was ours… if nobody answered the ad in the newspaper, or the wanted posters tacked onto bulletin boards around town. When I say ours, of course, I mean Nonny’s. That was clear from the get-go. We heard Wilfred’s plaintive meowing at the door, watched in astonishment as he darted between our legs the moment it was opened, then caught up to him in Nonny’s room, already on the bed and snuggling up to my sister. “He’s the best present,” Nonny smiled, and I could see that look in Mom and Dad’s eyes, that anguished look of two hearts breaking at the same time. If it had been up to me, I wouldn’t even have looked for Wilfred’s owners. The finders-keepers rule would have been invoked without qualm. But hey, I was just a kid, and Nonny needed Wilfred like one phone needs another.
Not that he didn’t like our affection. He’d rub up against our legs, sit in our laps, play with the fabric mouse, at the end of a string, attached to a willowy plastic pole. But he loved Nonny most of all, and it seemed to me he wanted to absorb as much of her as he could while she was still with us. I think they had a secret pact, the two of them, that he would soak up her spirit like a sponge so she could stay with us a while longer – not her, really, but her memory. That’s what Wilfred became after Nonny passed away.
Funny phrase, that! “Passed away.” An excuse of a phrase, really.
So you can imagine how Wilfred fit into the scheme of things after that. This is going to sound awful, but sometimes the truth’s messy, confused, brutal – having Wilfred with us was like having Nonny die a second time, because our Christmas Cat was old when we got him, and I honestly think if he’d had the choice, he would have gone wherever Nonny went. But he still loved and was loved and carried on sashaying through our lives as best he could.
There are moments you can feel yourself growing in this life; moments you realize how small and immature you were the moment before. Not long after Nonny’s passing, I came home to find Mother sitting in the armchair in our living room, Wilfred in her lap. She was hunched over, hugging him awkwardly, and Wilfred didn’t protest or try to squirm free. He sat patiently absorbing my mother’s tears and her inconsolable, unfathomable sobs… as he was meant to do.
But hey! This is a Christmas story. Time to move on.
Wilfred’s ‘sixth sense’ can only be described as impeccable; his stage presence intuitive as a cruise missile. In my view the most memorable performances require good acting, of course, but they also hang on a good script – one that lets the protagonist exit stage left at the absolute peak of his dramatic trajectory. Precisely one Christmas after Wilfred’s entrance into our lives, he made his exit, wrapped in one of my mother’s most precious silk scarves and packed into a pine box Dad made for the occasion. We buried him in the back yard, under the apple tree Mom and Nonny had planted before my sister’s cancer really took hold. None of us can eat the fruit of that magical tree; one bite and we’d be crying for an eternity. So it lays on the ground, food for the deer, and the crows, and the raccoons, and whatever other wild critters happen to have an appetite in passing.
We knew Wilfred was teetering on the brink, so I’d insisted he sleep with me the night before he went. Weak and disoriented as he was, Wilfred lived up to his aristocrat’s name right to the end. He climbed up on my chest and settled in, watching me with those mystic eyes of his, those philosopher’s eyes. Watching me intently, as I fell into the trance of asleep.
Who knows what stuff dreams are made of, what hallucinatory juices spike the blood when the muscles are relaxed in the paralysis of sleep. Wilfred’s favorite place, when he wasn’t by Nonny’s side, was on the table next to her aquarium. You can think of this as a predatory urge if you wish; I honestly think he was such an enlightened cat that he loved sitting there, watching those languid fish shimmy and shimmer past, fully aware that he was resisting his primal urges. You wouldn’t be the first person to call me a idealist and a dreamer; you won’t be the last. Anyway, those fish were swept into the whirlpool of my dream, along with our Christmas tree, and the ornamental angels hung from the chintzy chandelier above our dining room table. It all got concocted into a magnificent tree with swirling, fish shaped ornaments, topped by Wilfred, with his angel’s wings flapping for glory, and his meows transformed somehow into the most magnificent hosannas, even though they were still just scratchy old meows.
I awoke from that dream just in time to stumble through the dark into our living room. The tree was lit up, its soft glow filling the room. And there underneath, lay Wilfred, watching me through his mystic eyes, a fallen globe cradled in his paws. I was with him when he departed; he left me with an emptiness so profound, I knew beyond knowing I would only be able to fill it if I could believe in something much, much greater than myself – something that encompassed Wilfred, and Nonny, and me, and Mum, and Dad, and more than words can say.