November: even the cat is thinking of death

It’s a dark month, as nature holds its dying breath and the light fails. But it’s a time I love, because the other world seems closer

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell


I was as eager as a cat for climbing when I was a child, and I fell off the top of a tree once, all the way down through the branches, and landed on my back.

I lay on the floor in pain until the doctor arrived, a dark-haired man with sallow skin, and some quietness in him that made me feel secure. His cold hands moved along my spine pressing the muscles here and there, to find where it hurt. Then he drew the blankets up around me and said, “You’re going to be okay. There’s nothing broken.”

I was astonished. I thought the fall would kill me, and so the doctor was like a guardian angel, come from heaven, giving me another chance at life. I thought my mother was going to kill me for climbing trees, but he said: “I’ll talk to her.”

Ever afterwards when I would see him on the street, closing his car door or going up the steps to his surgery with his little doctor’s bag in one hand. I trembled with awe.

One winter’s night I saw him on stage in Tops of the Town. He staggered around in the spotlight wearing a top hat, a white scarf and holding a cane as the audience laughed. “A skilled comedian,” the adjudicator declared in his summation of the night.

The doctor is just one of those ghosts from the past who surfaces in November; one of those long-gone angels. They float up to the surface of my mind, because in November I wait for them like a man in a boat waits for fish.

Point of no return
Sometimes I think of another man who went to say his prayers one Sunday morning in November, and never again returned to the big kitchen where his wife waited, near the lough shore. She watched the clock all morning wondering how he could be so late returning from the Remembrance Day service in Enniskillen, and she didn’t know why all the helicopters were in the sky until she turned on the radio and realised he was never coming home again.

I’ve been thinking about the dead in November ever since my mother left a jug of water on the table on All Soul’s Night long ago, as I sat in my grandmother’s rocking chair at the range in the scrubbed kitchen, like a cat softly dozing.

It’s a dark month, as nature holds its dying breath and the light fails. But it’s a time I love, because the other world seems closer.

A lot of my friends don’t appreciate the magic of November any more, because they live in urban areas with street lighting, whereas I still live inside the seasons, the fading daylight wrapped around me, and the dead leaves beneath my feet.

Even the cat is depressed
Half my Facebook friends live on streets or in high-rise flats or apartment blocks, or overlooking other streets and other houses, full of cars and bicycles. I languish in soggy fields, with so much rain pelting the gable wall that even the cat suffers from depression.

It’s the way she won’t sit still on the sofa any more that worries me. It’s the way she won’t curl up at the fire or roll on her back and look for a rub. The way she cries for food, so plaintive, and then stares at the nuggets like she was confused, and doesn’t purr, and heads out through the cat flap with her tail in the air. Five minutes later she’s at the window wanting to get in again, and terrified in her inarticulate dark as the November shadows gather on the window pane. But it’s the lack of purring that really worries me.

I think awareness of death entered her consciousness when the other cat died. Ronnie lay down outside the door on Good Friday, closed her eyes and began to rot, and now Roxie must enter the winter alone, with no significant other cat to hiss at or follow through the grass.

Because they often hissed, and fought and stared, and then purred together at the fire, caught in the loop of unconscious symbiotic love that the Dalai Lama might call attachment.

So she is more like me now, in November, looking out the window, as we hold our breath and wait. Wait for things to get darker. Wait for someone to light a candle. Wait for the faces of old friends, to surface on the glass, or to come in dreams like angels, and guide us through the dark.

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