Every Day Is Our Judgment Day
Tuesday was a lovely day in New York City, which is why I took myself for a lunchtime walk through Central Park to try to lift my spirits from news of a dear friend’s sudden death back home.
The tourists and tulips were out in force — the tulips at peak in the sunlight, the tourists aiming cameras and mobile phones at everything around them and queuing up for carriage rides on Central Park South, a polyglot of foreign tongues and wide-eyed faces mingling with the office workers in their sensible shoes. As the light changed and I stepped off the curb at Fifth Avenue, making for a public art display that just opened at Pulitzer Fountain by the Plaza Hotel, a bus nearly knocked me over. A complete stranger — like that nice angel in the Liberty Mutual commercial — grabbed my arm and kept me from a most ironic ending.
We smiled at each other as the bus rumbled past, festooned with the message: “Judgment Day, May 21, 2011! Get Ready! The Rapture Is Coming!”
My first thought was, “How funny — to get flattened by a bus rushing to reach heaven or at least Times Square.”
My second thought was, “Somebody ought to give that jerk a ticket for running a red light.” Then again, if The End is mere days away as advertised, I suppose one needn’t fret about such trivial matters. Finally, I thought, “Gee, I hope this doesn’t mess up graduation.”
My daughter is scheduled to graduate from college in Vermont the day after the aforementioned “Judgment Day, May 21,” and I’d love her to have at least one full day as an actual college graduate.
Safely across — admittedly a little shaken by this brush with this rampaging Bus of the Rapture, still trying to shake news of my young friend’s death — I couldn’t help but remember something a wise old minister friend, and New Testament scholar, once told me.
I’d asked him about the biblical end times, and he smiled and remarked that every day is Judgment Day for us all, adding that someone every instant is facing an ending of some kind or another — their own death, the end of a marriage, the loss of hope and change of life. His belief was that God purposely mingles the beautiful with the damned, the lost with the found, and the joyful with the sad, to remind us that heaven is here right now, simply requiring our notice and compassion — not in some far-away New Jerusalem whose express bus is leaving on a prophesied date.
I think of this every time I visit New York City, with all its grinding commerce and wealth, its visible ambition and failed hopes, beauty and filth, luxury and loss, and indifference and unexpected epiphany.
My happiness came from being there on Monday evening at a small 80th birthday party for a dear friend named David Picker, the legendary studio head who held an audience of movie nuts enthralled with his stories of a life in films a few weeks ago at the Sunrise. In his illustrious career, David guided United Artists to its biggest years, made the first James Bond movies and such blockbusters as “Last Tango in Paris” and helped create the careers of Steve Martin, Woody Allen and Norman Lear.
At the cozy party at a restaurant near Lincoln Center, several young studio heads, screenwriters and famed producers gave warm and funny toasts — “The good news, David,” Lear said, “is that sex after 80 is great, especially the one in the spring,” going on to mention that “All in the Family” would never have happened without the support of this gentle, unassuming man. The afterglow of the wonderful evening was a balm of sorts to the news my wife and I had received just minutes before we arrived at the party.
Someone from the neighborhood — I never learned who — called to say she thought our young black cat, Jeepers, had been run over and was lying in a ditch near the end of our road. A flurry of phone calls confirmed it was indeed Jeepers, and our lovely friend Mary Schwab went and collected his body and brought him home, where my father-in-law, Bill, put him in the garage freezer.
My Best Pal
I know what you’re probably thinking. He was just a cat. That’s nothing compared with all the upheavals of late — record tsunamis and earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns and 1,000-year floods, and the world’s No. 1 terrorist finally getting it in his eye for an eye — all the stuff that fuels visions of the Almighty finally giving up on his deeply flawed and beautiful planet.
But as my old friend liked to say, every death touches our souls, and my pal Jeeper’s was no exception. His birth and survival were, in a word, remarkable. A pair of ladies out for a walk through Weymouth two Augusts ago found this tiny black newborn critter in the pine straw, with its mother’s umbilical cord still around him, so small they were unsure what he was. They took him to the Moore County Animal Shelter, and the staff there placed him with a female cat who’d just had a litter of kittens. She accepted him, and he grew into a spunky black kitten — which is where I entered the picture.
We needed a photo of a black cat for the October 2009 issue of PineStraw, and photographer Hannah Sharpe came back with a terrific shot of a baby black kitten that graced our pages.
Days later, almost on a whim, I went out and adopted the kitten and gave him to my wife for a Halloween present. We named him Jeepers, short for Jeepers Creepers.
He quickly lived up to his name — a little devil that attacked the dogs, swiped their food and had an uncanny ability to open kitchen cabinets and toss glasses out just for laughs. He got into everything and rough-housed with the kids as if he were a golden retriever, yet always redeemed himself by snuggling up at bedtime. Before he went outdoors, we put a red collar and bell on him to warn the birds. Several times we found him sitting on top of the large Savannah holly trees that shelter our back terrace, pretending to blend in with the foliage.
A year ago last April, I began writing my latest book, beginning about 4:30 every morning. Jeepers began getting himself up and following me into my office, where he made himself a nuisance around my computer keyboard for a few minutes before settling down under the lamp to snooze, inches from my typing fingers.
When I finished the book two months ago — some 600 pages — Jeepers was there, as he had been from the first sentence and every day since. My wife began referring to this book being co-written by a man and his cat.
Though I’ve never been much of a cat person, he became my best pal. He followed me everywhere. He attacked me on the steps and danced away in wild delight. He camped in my neighbors’ yards and loved to sit and drink from the bird bath, but always came home when I called. He also shamelessly helped himself to my cereal and sandwiches, and somehow never missed a day in the office. As far as I know, owing to his bell, he never caught a bird. But he was one happy little panther.
Last Monday morning, he was sitting on the piano by the front door as I headed out to New York. We’d just finished half the final edits on my new book.
“Go ahead and keep editing, if you don’t mind,” I told him. “We have a deadline to make. And when Bill let’s you out at noon, dude, be careful. It’s a jungle out there.”
And with that, I kissed his nose and scratched his ear.
A Simple Act
As I stood admiring dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s astonishing Circle of Heads exhibition by the Pulitzer Fountain, featuring the 12 bronzed heads of the Chinese zodiac, I found myself nearly overcome with grief, thinking how powerfully I’ll miss my funny black writing pal and marveling at how such a small and unlikely creature can bring such joy and amusement to a world where so much is missing and needed.
The bronzed heads, rendered in remarkable detail, were inspired by the ones that once graced the astrological clock of the summer palace in Bejiing, which kept time by spouting water on the hour. Because of his human rights work, the artist has been in custody and unseen for months, under house arrest by Chinese authorities, prompting urgent inquires from the likes of Hillary Clinton and writer Salman Rushdie.
After a little while, I moseyed on down Fifth Avenue through the large crowds of shoppers and tourists and wound up slipping into a pew in the Church of St. Thomas to sit in the vaulted silence of that great sanctuary. To paraphrase Emerson, I do some of my best thinking in empty churches. I said a prayer of thanks for Jeepers — and neighbors who shared our sadness over his passing.
One thing I realized, not for the first time, is that I don’t need to know when The End — even my own — grows near. That’s because I happen to believe that even prophesied ends are only an illusion, that what we do and say and create by our simple daily acts of kindness draws the better world Jesus and every other sage spoke of a little closer.
“Death is the true and best friend of humanity,” young Amadeus Mozart wrote to his father, “the key that unlocks the door to our true happiness.” The poet Rilke had a friend who told him her young daughter’s last words were, “Now I shall dance.”
After a little while, feeling better, I went back out to the street to continue my walk through the beautiful and damned, the lost and found.
Not a half block away sat a homeless man playing a battered old guitar. Beside him, kneeling calmly as a statue, sat a solid black cat with a collar and blue bell. He looked old yet perfectly at peace in a world that’s a real jungle.
I couldn’t believe my watering eyes, thinking how I’d hoped that’s how Jeepers and I would grow together, old and peaceful. So I stopped, then squatted.
“May I touch him?” I asked the unshaven man, after putting $5 in his “Feeding Can.”
“Sure,” he said. “He likes that.”
So I did, though I couldn’t bring myself to ask the cat’s name. Still, he looked up at me and seemed to enjoy the scratch behind the ears.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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