Monday, July 15, 2013

Parable of Tom

The story that follows is something I experienced when I was living in Romania as a Peace Corps volunteer in October 2005.  I was very heavy-hearted by the “give-me” mentality that existed among the poor there. The translation of the American “Mister, can you spare a dime?” or some other request for money among our homeless is “da-mi,” which literally means “give me.” The way it comes across was very abrasive to my American sensibilities, and I was so tired of being seen as a “bancomat,” the Romanian word for an ATM machine. Even strapping, young men, who were able-bodied, would recognize I was a foreigner and say, “da-mi.” I wanted to give to true needs, and without manipulation, but it was often not presented to me in that way. I believe God was teaching me something through that experience, and that is something I’m still processing today. That is the background for this “tale” you are about to read.


There was this kind of alley cat I saw perched on the trash bin outside my apartment, while I was walking home the other night. I recognized him right away. I had seen him before, and in my mind, I remarked about him in much the same way as I had when I first saw him—boy, he looks like he’s been through a lot. As I was walking past his perfect profile on the bin, I thought that he would have made a great photograph, even a classic portrait of sorts. I stopped and looked at him more closely. I saw he had a very soft outline surrounding his body by the sun’s last rays. I saw that he had an ear that probably was deformed by a dog bite years ago. I just thought he looked cool.

So, I walked upstairs to my apartment.  Once in my apartment, I decided to take my camera to go outside and take his picture. I figured if it was God’s will that I am to take the photograph, he will still be in that same pose … or at least out there.

He wasn’t in his same pose on that garbage bin, unfortunately, but he was at least still out there. I saw him digging through the garbage looking for food, in much the same way a gypsy or a homeless drunk scavenges for hidden treasure through everyone’s refuse. I began whispering the pee-see, pee-see, Romanians do when they call for cats. It is their term of endearment rooted in the Romanian word for cat, pisica. It’s like our “here kitty, kitty.” He popped his head up out of the garbage and I started shooting off some pictures.

Onesti, Romania (October 2005)

They were not what I really wanted because the pose I really wanted was the one I had observed some five minutes before. But I kept shooting photos anyway. I walked closer to him to get a better shot. After a few more pictures, he came completely out of the garbage and walked toward me on the ledge. I thought, I better be careful or I’m going to scare him off. I took some more pictures, and finally, he jumped down. I thought to myself that he’s going to be one of those skittish cats, and run away, as if he was startled by me, or something else he had heard. Instead, he came near me, as if he wanted a pet.

Now, let me explain to you how he looked beyond the photographs. He didn’t look like an old cat. He was probably in his twenties in cat years. He was of the orange-striped variety and was very skinny. His fur was matted in many locations across his body, and his tail, although perfectly intact, was also unusually thin. He looked like he had some bumps on him from being hit or run over or who knew what else, under his fur, and when you touched them, those bumps were very hard. His eyes were a beautiful green, and he really had a perfectly-shaped face. A beautiful nose. And that very strange half-eaten left ear. Some mud-caked hair stuck out from the inside of his other ear. His toes, while wonderfully formed, were dirty with the city of Onesti. He looked like he could have been a gorgeous house cat, had anyone cared to adopt him before he began looking the way he did then.

 I thought twice before petting him, knowing there was probably a colony of fleas on him, one of those fleas more than willing to jump on me and start another colony in my house. However, my heart softened as he kept trying to come to me for affection. It’s almost like he had forgotten the routine of getting a pet. I melted, and I began to pet him.  I wondered if he would bite me or scratch me because he was not used to being touched. He didn’t do either of those things. Instead, in his soundless meow, he asked for more of my touches. He even lifted his front paws off of the ground as if to reach up to my hand. I was softened by his desire for love.

I began to think that he was probably hungry and wished that I hadn’t eaten my leftover tuna fish for breakfast that morning. However, I thought about the milk I had bought and decided to bring that out to him to drink. I go back into my house, thinking how it was so much easier to give to an animal than another human being. At least I could know beyond a shadow of a doubt this cat’s hunger was real, and he was not begging me for it. I felt this sense of freedom to be able to show kindness to another living thing that was just between me and him. No guilt or pity of mine being manipulated … just this moment in which I could give just because I wanted to. I’m not doing a great job of explaining this, but for the sake of time, I will go on.

In my house, I found something I could leave outside that could hold milk. I poured some milk into it and filled another small container in case he wanted more. I walked back outside and saw he was right where I had left him the second time—where I was petting him.

I put the milk down, and he came almost immediately to it and began drinking. I was crouched down on the ground, and I felt that there was this circle around us. I became absorbed in his drinking. A thought occurred to me that some of my students, as well as some of my neighbors, might see me and that they would all think I was a little crazy to put this much effort into a cat that wasn’t even cute. But I didn’t care. I felt this circle around us, and I trusted that it would keep others away from my moment. He drank non-stop until a big wind blew a couple of bags down onto the ground from the garbage bin. He was startled and moved away from the milk. I picked the bags up and began talking to him in English, as if he could understand me, and told him it was okay. I began to feel like I wanted to stand there as long as it took for him to finish drinking. I wanted to protect him. I wanted to be his circle.

Then, I looked at him and thought he could probably defend himself. He had already been through so much. And that’s when something began to happen in my mind. I began to look at him and transfer his life onto a human being in this world who had also been through a lot. Someone who had sin’s scars all over their body. Someone who had been damaged over time, abandoned by friends and loved ones, and was tough because they’ve had to be. Someone who you’d look at and say, this person can handle themselves. Someone who you’d think wouldn’t be very affectionate, but as you got to know them, you began to see who God had intended them to be. Someone who craved love and pleasant things to happen to them … Someone who never thought they’d be an outcast in this world, with mud caked inside their ears, with battle scars and bruises all over their body … someone with a perfectly shaped face and eyes that reveal so much more than their words were willing to say.

I began to feel sorrow for those people who end up drug addicts, who wind up in the sex industry, most of them sold into it when they were too immature to choose that life for themselves and who are so caught up in it now, that they feel it’s too late to change. I began to feel sorrow for those individuals the world leaves behind, the true children of need.

I was grateful for these thoughts God spoke to my heart about in this very strange moment with a cat, of all creatures.

Then, he was done. He lifted up his head, and I noticed his whiskers were heavy with milk. Not even finishing the seconds I had given him, he began to walk to an open spot in between some grass. He stopped for a moment, and without even looking back to the garbage bin, to the milk, or to me, he rushed off as if he had another appointment, and he did so in an even-paced stride, not stopping for anything or anyone. I wondered where he was going.

I thought to myself, that this was such an interesting moment in my life. A gift given and a gift received. I named him Tom in my mind as I walked back to my apartment.

I think, yes, Tom. Because he really is a tomcat.

Beaten up, dirty, damaged, hungry, and perfect.

Onesti, Romania (October 2005)

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...