In a way, nobody sees a flower, really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time—like to have a friend takes time. ~ Georgia O’Keefe
It was the last bell, of the last day, of my last year of classroom teaching, and the last thing I expected was Finnegan.
Amidst the cheers, and hugs, and goodbyes, and promises to keep in touch, and the bustle of children hurrying into summer, in walked a parent with a basket full of kittens, fresh off the farm.
Her daughter excitedly took hold of the basket and carried it over to me. “Ms. O.! Look! Would you like one?”
I had two one-year-old puppies at home, Riley and Clancy, and two aged cats, Sally and Tess. I didn’t need a kitten, really, just then, but there he was, the tiniest, with the biggest paws. A great farm cat, built to hunt mice. Would he be happy confined in a home with two puppies and two old cats, the odd man out? It was already too late; I held him and he was mine. Finnegan. He was so small, but I saw him; he saw me; we became friends.
He was such a mellow kitten, content to play alone, or to snuggle with his much older sisters, or to profess his love for Riley. He adjusted to all of us happily.
When he was quite young, he traveled with us to Atlanta to see my family; I can’t remember why, but I have a picture of him in my mother’s family room. He looks quite content, so it must have been a happy adventure for him.
Finny and I created daily rituals: He developed an affinity for playing in sinks, so I would leave a trickle of water running in the bathroom sink every morning, where he could play, drink, and relax. He liked to grab me and comb my hair with his paw. He waited (in the sink) until I’d get out of the shower, stand on the counter, and grab at my head, wanting me to shake my wet hair over him. After more than 20 years together, Phillip no longer waits, excitedly or otherwise, for me to emerge from the shower (nor I for him, to be fair), so Finny’s daily, faithful, and eager anticipation of my 60-year-old self stepping blindly out of the shower was a kind of special comfort: I’m still here; still beloved!
He loved to smooch, and he enjoyed sitting on my lap and bouncing while I sang “our song” to him:
Oh, Finnegan, again, again,
I’ll tell you that I love you;
Oh, Finnegan, again, again,
Please say you love me, too!
For a time, after Sally and Tessy died, he was our only cat, and a little lonely, but he adjusted yet again, and I think he began to think of himself as our third dog. He loved to escape out any open door—or window—and then run under the decks to roll in the sandy earth, ignoring my pleas for his return. I’d simply have to spend the next hour in vigil, waiting for him to be satiated with freedom, all his senses filled, before he’d grandly emerge, and always with a look that said, “What are you so excited about? You knew I’d come out.”
Eight years ago, we went to the Humane Shelter to find a sister for him, and came home with two brothers as well. Once more, Finnegan adjusted well to being the big brother, showing them the way to behave and belong. We started our Morning Party tradition, gathering in a circle, singing a song (of course), and celebrating the new day. Finny always sat on my left, my loyal helpmate.
He grew into a beautiful cat. His leonine look made him appear fierce, even threatening. Guests sometimes mistook his affect, and cuddled instead with the always-adorable Murphy, but I knew Finny’s deep affection, playfulness, and gentleness, as he knew mine.
When Fergus followed me home one day a few years ago, Finny wasn’t certain this was such a great idea. He conferred with me quite often, initially, making sure I had enough love to go around. But he adjusted. By now he was The Boss, and once Fergus understood this, life sailed on, usually smoothly.
Last year, both Clancy and Riley died, and Finny’s grief was real and touching. His love for Riley had only deepened over the years. He sat at her place on the window seat, and took a long time adjusting to this loss. But he accepted the change, helping me accept it, too.
In October, I brought Malarky home. Finnegan retreated to my lap even more than usual, or to a quiet cat bed in the back bedroom. I worried about his energy level and mood, and tried to give him extra attention when I could. He tried to please me with his acceptance of Malarky, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it. I thought, with time, Finnegan would adjust as he always had.
We noticed a more pronounced change in Finnegan’s energy and joy last month, and took him in for a check-up. The veterinarian found an abscess and thought some teeth would likely have to be removed. On March 15th, I took him in to the surgery early, then came home to clean, walk the pup, and continue the usual daily round.
I’d just started to make a little nest for Finny’s healing in the guest room, figuring I’d sleep with him for a couple nights, till he felt able to be up and around again. My phone rang, and I knew, as fast as I’d fallen in love with him, that something was wrong with my Finny. It was way too early for his surgery and recovery to be over.
Our doctor said an x-ray had revealed the abscess was, in fact, a tumor, and the cancer “very aggressive.” A few minutes later, I sat beside my Finnegan and whispered my goodbyes to him. And a half-hour after that, I was home again, without him. Forever.
Our partners and very close friends, but especially, our 4-legged companions see us when we are as we really are, when the phone is off, the internet unplugged, the doors closed, the curtains drawn. Our private face, our instinctive behaviors, our nakedness—they hear our prayers and laughter and tears; they know us better than the world ever could, our better natures and our demons. And they love us. That is true intimacy.
What a relief it is to be as you are and (still) be loved. When they die, our beloveds take with them that relief we came to know in their presence. All those secrets shared, all those holy moments. Finnegan’s special gift to me had always been his sensitivity to my sadness; he knew when I was grieving and remained faithfully present. Without words, we had some of the deeper conversations of my life.
I am grateful for memories, though they come with a fierce sting, initially. They begin to weave the stories of our loves back together and, in their way, allow them to continue.
I fell in love with Finnegan the moment I saw him, but, as O’Keefe says, a friend takes time. Finny and I created a 14-year relationship that was authentic and mutual. We gave each other our time and it gifted us in return, infusing both of our lives with light and love.
John Leonard wrote, “It takes a long time to grow an old friend.” I miss my old friend, Finny. He blessed my life and enriched it profoundly. He taught me so many things, and I tried to be a good student but I’ve not yet mastered his ability to go with the flow.
His brothers and sister are making peace with Finnegan’s absence. At times, Mulligan keens through the house, searching for Finny, but the energy is settling and who we are now as a family seems to be knitting back together.
I’m still adjusting.
Happy Birthday, Finny!
April 3, 2002 ~ March 15, 2016