I heard a frantic noise one recent morning that sounded like two animals chasing each other.
I turned to see one animal chasing itself.
Delilah, like many of my older friends, still chases her tail in the sunlight, spinning in a tight circle as the tip of her tail manages to stay half a step ahead of its pursuer. People and cats get old gradually, not all at once. And hardly anybody gets all the way old. So there is a kitten in all of us that escapes once in a while and frolics in the sun.
More in spring than at any other time. We are all a little younger in the spring. And so our old cat was chasing her tail. She was spotlighted by a spring sunbeam and behaving like a kitten. A person can understand that. We all feel the urge to play this time of year. I feel like chasing my own tail these mornings as the sun comes back inside the house after being away all winter.
So that was not unusual conduct for a cat. Nonetheless, you expect an old cat to be more dignified. She is 14, which is the equivalent of about 60 or so for a human and the equivalent of about 900 for a cat who crosses the street as often as she does.
But the truth is, her kittenish conduct is also the equal of the way older humans behave. They almost all retain some spark of youth throughout their lives. After all, life is a journey, not a series of doors firmly marking the line between one kind of conduct and another. People get dignified gradually, not all at once.
And like Delilah, they never quite get all the way dignified. They chase their tails less frequently as they get older but there are days when the kitten wells up in all of us if we're lucky.
When you are a kid, you expect to grow up. You expect a day will come when you are no longer a kid. You expect to become an adult by the time you are 19 or 20 or 21. And you do.
And you don't. When you say someone is 20 years old, that is merely an average. One moment he's 12 and the next he's 40. People can be awfully silly and awfully serious at that age.
And at 40.
And at 80.
The 80-year-old is old more often than he is young. The older you get, the more old moments you have the more involuntary dignity. The older you get, the fewer moments you have when the giddy kid jumps out. But few 80-year-olds are totally old. The kid is always there, just behind the eyes.
And few 2-year-olds are never old. Children behave like children most of the time, but there are moments when they become old and grumpy.
In fact, anyone who has been in the vicinity of a volatile 2-year-old knows that there is no crabby old man as hard to get along with as a toddler on a bad morning. Indeed, one could make a case for the premise that a 2-year-old is older than an 8-year-old and sometimes older than an 80-year-old.
And they are worse in winter. We are all a little older in winter.
So we don't begin our lives totally young and then finally grow up one day. You never finish growing up if you do it right. The unhappiest people on earth are those who grew all the way up.
We begin our lives mostly young with grumpy times now and then and end our lives mostly old with silly timeouts from that somber assignment of acting our age.
Best of all, when Delilah chases her tail like a kitten, she becomes a kitten again. It takes her to a time when she was small and quick and chased her tail all day long in the warm spring sun.
That's what you see in those pictures of old cats sitting in old laps in nursing homes. An otherwise bored and grim person will light up with a cat in her lap.
And the cat lights up, too. As the gnarled hand pets the graying fur, they both purr.
They are a child and a kitten again. And the old child laughs as the aged kitten chases her silly tail in the springtime sun.
Forward to the next column
Back to the Main Page