A summer night in paradise, supper in the back yard, and the neighbors' elderly cat, who is on his last legs, wanders over, smelling the salmon on our grill, walking as if his feet hurt. He's got the old cat blues. He wakes up in the morning and everything tastes like turpentine; he feels like going down to the railroad line and letting the 4:19 pacify his troubled mind. My wife serves him a piece of salmon and he eats slowly, savoring the fish oil. He is 15 years old, and this likely will be his last summer, and a fine one it is.
In Minnesota, we look forward to these warm summer nights. That's what keeps us marching forward from February to June: the thought of eating supper outdoors in our shorts and bare feet. If this were Maui, where paradise is written into the contract, we would dread the thought of bliss interrupted, but here on the frozen tundra, we accept July and August as our allotted ration of bliss. It's fabulous. We can't get over how wonderful it is. And then it's over.
It gives you a twinge to see an old cat on a paradise night who is about to croak.
But I used up most of my anguish over mortality by the time I was 25. I was a poet, like everybody else, and wrote extensively about death and despair back then and pretty much wore out the subject.
We poets went to parties where people chain-smoked and got bombed and listened to Janis Joplin screeching from the hi-fi speakers loud enough to cause cardiac arrest.
Nobody imagined that Janis might someday come to Jesus and take up a life of regular exercise and good nutrition. She was determined to crash and burn. We, as it turned out, were not, but we were full of morbid gloom, a luxury of youth, trying to imagine death, the cessation of being, the emptiness of the world without us, the sliver of moon in the sky, the cry of the hoot owl, the railroad tracks stretching away to the west, etc.
Now my thoughts about death are mundane ones. I hope that when the cat croaks, he does it out in the open, or at least in the bushes, and doesn't try to crawl up under a porch where someone will have to reach in and extract him. People die in crevices in New York, brilliant loners who go to the city to find their niche, only to get hooked on happy dust and wind up in a tiny apartment crammed with junk, and one dark day the neighbors detect an evil smell and call the cops, and it's him, the tall, gloomy man with the glasses, dead as a doornail. Keep in touch, tall, gloomy men. Don't go in the cave. Leave that cocaine alone. Get outdoors more. Take long walks.
I've arrived at that delicate point in life where it gives me a twinge when the lady inside my computer says, "You are now disconnected." Or when the flight attendant refers to our "final destination" and says, "We will be on the ground shortly." Is that a nice way to talk? It suggests lying prostrate as uniformed personnel tear open your shirt and put the paddles on your chest. I don't want to be on the ground; I want to walk up the jetway and climb into a taxi and go to the hotel. Saunter into the bar, order a glass of gin neat with a twist of barbed wire, light up a stogie, look for the biggest guys in the room, walk over, blow smoke in their faces, and say, "Which one of you fairies thinks he can take a 63-year-old newspaper columnist?"
"Oh," you say, "is that what you meant when you talked about living life boldly and lighting a candle in the darkness and daring to make a difference in your commencement speech at St. Raymond's lo these many years ago, when the president finally had to stand up and tap you on the shoulder and suggest that you wind it up?"
Yes, of course, and just for that, you little twerp, I'm going to stop right now and not say what I was going to say about daring to be selfish and to enjoy your life without feeling obligated to share your hard-earned wisdom with your needy friends. Not another word from me. You figure it out for yourself.
Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country. His e-mail is email@example.com.