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Voices / Column

On cats, baseball, and loneliness


Everyone has his or her own way to cope with loneliness. During my last visit to Florida, I relied on baseball and my cat.

Some background may be needed here: I am the sole caretaker of my 94-year-old mother, who lives in Florida.

Because Mom had a rough year with her health, she couldn’t spend part of the summer in Vermont this year. So when her doctors gave her the go-ahead, we happily decided to take a little three-day South Florida vacation together at the end of September.

The vacation lasted for 4½ hours. (You can read what happened on my website. The piece is called “The Facial of Doom,” if that gives you any idea.)

At the end of the 4½ hours, Mom was in an emergency room screaming in pain because her veins are so fragile that they popped like balloons every time the doctors tried to put in an IV.

I stood by her bedside, wincing at her cries and trying to mop the little stream of blood that came from her broken nose before it pooled in her clavicle.

Frail, quivering, confused, in pain, broken from the fall, and furious at this setback to her health, Mom was in no position to fend for herself.

It was clear that I had to stay in Florida and help Mom as she moved through a health-care system that appears to be equally divided between intelligent, caring people and whatever is the absolute opposite of that.

* * *

Mom lives independently in a lovely apartment in a building designed for seniors.They eat breakfast and dinner in an elegant dining room, a maid cleans the apartments once a week, and there is a nurse, a home-health-care agency, and a beauty parlor on the premises.

So I moved in with the old folks, who dress for dinner and are brave about facing the ravages of time. But it was like having my mortality slapped in my face every time I left the apartment.

Because I live in Vermont, I had no one to back me as I fought with the health-care system. I felt vulnerable, scared, and alone.

So every evening, when I called my husband to say goodnight, he did something very strange and thoughtful.

He put the cat on the phone.

Agatha Kitty, who is small and black and glossy, likes to crawl up onto Randy’s chest, rub her nose against his beard, then curl up under his chin and purr loudly.

“That cat is extraordinary,” Mom told a friend who was visiting us at the rehab center where Mom was learning to walk again. “If Randy or Joyce sits down, she climbs right up onto their chests. She has an insatiable need to be loved.”

Don’t we all?

So Randy would put the phone to her little black face and let her purr to me for a few minutes every night. It calmed me down so I could sleep.

* * *

Baseball also became a big part of my antidote to loneliness.

I came to baseball the way I came to cross-country skiing: Randy insisted on sharing his passions with me, whether I wanted to share them or not.

In the end, after years of my idiotic protesting (“Go outside when there’s snow on the ground? Are you nuts?” “Where are the women in baseball?” “Watch sports on television? Why not play them yourself?”) I came to deeply love both things.

So deeply, in fact, that one afternoon, while Mom was in physical therapy, I chose to turn my mind off at an afternoon showing of Moneyball.

I loved the film for its slow, baseball-like pacing and its search for life wisdom and intelligence, but I also loved it because baseball, thanks to Randy, has enriched my life.

At the end of the film, Oakland general manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, goes to Fenway Park. The inside views of Fenway took my breath away and made my heart swell, because it has become an icon, a monument, something sacred to me — even though this year the Red Sox caved just before the playoffs.

I am a proud member of Red Sox Nation, even though Randy often threatens to take away my green card because I’m from New York and used to root for the Yankees. (My old New York thinking: Why not root for the team that wins all the time? My new New England thinking: They’re our team, whether they win or not.)

When the Sox began to use the new baseball metrics highlighted in Moneyball, they won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. I sat in the movie theater bursting with pride.

In real life, Randy and I watched those games play by play, ball by ball, hit by hit, player by player. It taught me something about nerves and team loyalty, and I understood why, after the series, all those New Englanders visited the cemeteries to tell their departed relatives the amazing news that the Sox had won it all.

* * *

Mom was in rehab most of October, which is the baseball post season. So every night, I watched the games because, if I were at home, I would be watching them with Randy. It made me feel closer to where I needed to be.

Meanwhile, my dancer mother, indomitable in her hospital bed, watched Dancing With the Stars.

It took two weeks for Mom to get tired of rehab and demand to come home.

So I sprung her, set her up in her apartment, hired the right aides, and came back to Vermont. She’s getting healthier every day, thank you for asking. When she saw her own doctor this week — a man who has been taking care of her for 35 years and loves her — he called her “indestructible.”

And, dare I say it, the vacation that wasn’t a vacation actually brought Mom and me closer together.

But having a cat purr you to sleep on the telephone? How lonely is that?

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Originally published in The Commons issue #124 (Wednesday, October 26, 2011).

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