I called him the Old Warrior.
He was this ragged tomcat that panhandled the neighborhood. He was an ugly gray and white patchwork that reminded me of black powder smoke drifting across a battlefield.
Sometime in his past he’d lost a fight with a car. His hips were a twisted mess of wreckage that left him arthritically slow and with a sideways gait that belonged to a dog and not an incredibly fast, inhumanly agile feline predator.
The rest of his body held scars and weals of past conflicts. His left ear was ragged and torn. And his eyes were pale gray, almost the color of your breath on a crisp autumn day. When he looked at you there was no softness in his gaze. He regarded you instantly as a threat, as an opponent he might have to overcome if you came close enough, and he weighed and measured you at a glance.
But there was no fear in those eyes either. Somewhere in there he’d made his peace with the world. You could see that. He expected no quarter, no gentleness, no kind word. All that had been taken from him.
I don’t know if anyone ever fed him.
Except my family.
This pale wreck of a cat started challenging our tom over his food dish one night. I went out to see what the problem was, intending on chasing off the offending cat. Instead, in the shadows and standing his ground defiantly, I saw the Old Warrior. I thought of calling him that instantly.
He looked at me, half the size of our cat but every inch of him steel-hard determination to eat. He backed away grudgingly because he acknowledged I was the superior predator in the vicinity. But he quit the battlefield with dignity. He didn’t run and he didn’t turn tail. He moved just quickly enough to stay out of my reach. And I saw how he’d been damaged.
I didn’t go after him, though. You see, I made the mistake of feeling sorry for him. After a few days of watching him, of trying to make friends with him – which he would have none of, I understood that he wasn’t looking for a friend. I don’t think he wanted a friend. Or maybe he just didn’t believe in them.
I also think that he knew what pity was and he wasn’t having any of that either.
For a while, he came over and fought our cat for his food. Our cat just hopped up on the window ledge out of harm’s way and yowled sadly. My wife started feeding our tom early, but we also left extra food out for the Old Warrior.
You see, I’m a romantic at heart. I can’t help myself. It’s what I am despite my attempts not to be. I’m as stuck in my ways as the Old Warrior was in his. I saw in him the things I wanted out of myself, and I respected his efforts.
As a romantic, I look for people, animals, events, and situations where I can excuse my desire to aspire for more from myself and life in general. I love heroes. I love people that beat the odds. I love the underdogs who lose that never fade an inch on what they believe in or what they stand for.
Being a writer, maybe I read too much into things. If so, I don’t care. I believe that nobility, grace, honor, and selflessness exist. Perhaps they don’t exist on a large scale, but even these wisps and occasions of those ideals sustain me and fill my heart.
I’m going to remember the Old Warrior forever. I saw him most days, slowly going through the neighborhood, crossing the street painfully, trying to get both ends of him headed in the same direction at the same time. There wasn’t an ounce of extra flesh on him. He was stripped bone and muscle, and his chest and shoulders were huge from all the extra work.
I’m a writer and I get attached to things. I find symbols and omens and quiet meanings in life, actions, and things that I think most other people don’t.
As a father I struggle to keep my family on an even keel. I’m their chief source of advice, counsel, support, financial means, and protection – sometimes physical and sometimes emotional – from the harsher aspects and jagged edges of the world. I’ve given up large chunks of my own life providing these things and knowing my kids don’t know what it costs me.
But I saw in the Old Warrior that same quiet drive to get things done. Every day he got up and completed his mission. That mission was simple, keep himself fed and alive, but that was the extent of his abilities. Asking anything more of him would have been impossible.
Over the last few weeks I’ve had several challenges arrive in my life. My nine-year-old has broken/torn an ankle up to the point that he may have to have surgery to correct it – we’re still waiting to find out. He fell on his crutches six days later and broke a front permanent tooth that we were able to have repaired.
My eighteen-year-old had another car wreck Thursday that will probably get him canceled off our insurance and we’ll have to find him another provider and pay more money.
For the last week I’ve been nearly wiped out by allergies and asthma. The medicines I’ve had to take to combat those things have robbed me of my sleep and energy.
And I’m late on a book. I hate being behind on books.
I took heart in the nobility of the Old Warrior’s quest. He was unflinching in his pursuit of survival. No matter what life had handed him, he’d meet it head-on.
I think we helped him over these past few weeks. He got to where he showed up at the same time every night at our house. Our cat became trained to hanging out on the window ledge. I watched him, but I never got to pet him. He didn’t want that.
Last night I finally got to touch him. I was taking my wife and son to dinner because it was almost nine o’clock and they’d just gotten in from football practice and a grocery run. I’d been grading papers at home all night.
I found the Old Warrior in the middle of the street. Someone had hit him and left him dead. He was still warm when I picked him up, still slack in death. He couldn’t have been dead over a few minutes.
As I’d thought, his body was lean and hard. I felt the musculature and the sheer heft of him that I wouldn’t have believed from looking at those skinny, arthritic hips.
And I felt that he was gone. That indomitable spirit that drove him had unlatched itself from that frail shell and went to meet whatever came next for him. I know in my heart that he went fearlessly, still expecting nothing good.
I feel that there is something good awaiting him, though. I want to believe that.
But I’ve lost one of those touchstones that tell me no matter what adversity I face in life, all I have to do is persevere. That isn’t enough, and it never will be enough. Sadly, it’s all we have in the long run. I look for those touchstones, and I find them in people, in an act of kindness I see, an exchange between a father and son that I want to emulate, a champion reaching her goals, an underdog getting to seize the brass ring every once in a while, and I treasure them for the priceless things they are.
Those things are what keep us human. And those things that we pack away inside ourselves – those role models we choose to aspire to – are what keep us from giving up.
And they’re usually simple things. Like a wreck of a cat that refuses to lie down and die because life’s too hard.
I didn’t get to know the Old Warrior on a more personal level. Maybe we wouldn’t have liked each other if we had. But I revere and respect the idea of him. His actions had given me strength over the last few weeks when it seemed the world had turned against me.
Now he’s gone and I’m going to miss him. But I’ll quietly look to find something else that will give me that quiet kind of strength we get through this life with. God always provides something.
Out of all the houses in the neighborhood, the Old Warrior chose mine to ransack and take what he needed. For the price of a few cans of cat food, he helped me believe again during difficult times and sustained my flagging spirit over these past few weeks.
My nine-year-old saw me pick up the Old Warrior’s body and move it out of the street. I put the body in the trash. I didn’t want it to lie out there and be totally destroyed. I couldn’t bear that.
When my son asked what I’d done, I told him. He was upset. He said I couldn’t just throw the Old Warrior in the trash, that we had to bury him. And he was right.
This morning, when my son gets up, when it’s bright and warm and the beginning of the day again makes everything seem possible, we’re going to bury the Old Warrior.
Because that’s what we Old Warriors do. We don’t congregate in life because we’ve got too many things to do, but – when we recognize an equal, someone who’s seen as much hardship as we have – we attend them when they fall in battle.
Then we go back to take up the battles in our own lives and look for others quietly toiling against the odds that we also face so that we can borrow their strength and courage just long enough to get through one more day.