One day we found out that an autistic man was going to move in next door. At the time we lived in an RV park in a 38 foot motor coach. “Next door” meant that we shared a small yard with our neighbor.
I was concerned. How autistic is he? I wondered. Autism can be a vague diagnosis. It has stretched beyond its original meaning of a soul completely lost to human interaction. The park’s manager described the man as “a little autistic”. That could mean almost anything.
As Henry was helped to park in his site, he took a look at me and The Fox. He said one word, “Whew”, and then vanished into his RV.
“Whew.” Where did he live before he came here? His former neighbors, we later learned, were motorcycle people and meth freaks. Whew, indeed.
Henry divulged little about himself. He said he liked cats. That was fortunate, because we have two indoor cats and two outdoor cats, plus a wide variety of feral visitors and neighborhood pets. There’s something about this space that draws cats. It might be the plum trees and their abundant population of wrens and robins.
There are people who claim their pets have super powers. I regarded such people as harmless nuts. Lately my thinking has changed. Our cat Obsidian is a big brown tabby with green eyes. I’ve seen him tame people in that Little Prince way, literally capture their unruly spirits and put them back in a more harmonious order. That’s Obsidian’s super power, the power to restore tranquility.
He’s getting old, and so are we. He doesn’t jump the fence and climb around with the younger cats any more. He has more important work to do.
Our new neighbor Henry is middle-aged. He is a fearful, cranky and withdrawn man, but he’s an ideal neighbor. We barely know he’s here. He can be easily upset by minor disturbances. He is so averse to noise that he can be pushed into a ferocious sulk by the mere revving of a motorcycle.
He has been adopted by our two outdoor cats, wise old Obsidian and his sidekick, the comical black and white Cookie. These cats have given structure to Henry’s otherwise bleak world. By loving Henry they have tricked him into loving. I looked out the window one day to see the elusive and feral Cookie sitting calmly on Henry’s lap. I had never seen her behave this way. It was strangely impressive. Henry is a cat savant, he has some magical affinity that he didn’t know he possessed until he moved close to Obsidian and Cookie.
I hope that you, my readers, understand how easily a friendly animal can become a tyrant who turns your life upside down. Henry is such an innocent that he immediately began flirting with disaster. We had to set him straight without setting him off. If he let Obsidian into his home even once, he would become nothing but a door man, opening and closing all day, all night, at the cat’s demand. I caught him just on the verge of doing this very thing and rushed to halt the action.
“Don’t let him in, Henry! Close your door, quick!” He was frightened and cut Obsidian off just as he was about to slip between his feet.
I explained what had almost happened. I spoke towards Henry’s averted eyes and raised defensive shoulders. I spoke to him as I would speak to any intelligent adult. In Henry’s heart, the need to trust someone was rising like a powerful burst of magma from a volcano deep beneath the sea. His need to share the cats’ companionship was forcing him to emerge from his shell and talk to us. The cats pushed Henry past his fears.
In the next few weeks we learned more about Henry. It wasn’t easy but we supported his struggle to communicate. Then something unexpected happened. Henry and Obsidian fell in love. I’m not being flippant. It’s just that simple. When Henry left to visit his mother, Obisidian sat on his front step, waiting for his return. He would emit an occasional sob. There’s no mistaking Obsidian’s sob. He has an amazing gamut of vocalizations, including a perfectly robin-like cheep that must have been useful during his hunting years.
I can’t put it any other way. They were in love with a pure emotional connection. Perhaps Henry’s autism short-circuited his intellectual activity and left his feelings to flourish without interference from the busy mind. I watched this fountain of feeling take shape between Henry and the cats.
Henry leaves the campground for treatment four days a week. When he first went away, Obsidian was inconsolable. He went into a paroxysm of grief. He stared into space for long periods. He moped and cried. But Obsidian gradually learned that Henry ALWAYS comes home. Thus our cat friend’s tranquility was restored. He knows Henry will be back and that’s enough to comfort him. It took him a few weeks to get this; I watched him unwind and relax. I watched his attention return to his world: the falling leaves and the showoff Cookie with her bounding up and down fences and trees. Obsidian resumed his lordship of his domain. The lost baby possum was under his protection. The upstart kitten Stinker was not welcome and he meant business, even if he had to hire Cookie to teach Stinker a lesson.
Now Henry has left for two weeks. He has gone to Connecticut to visit his sister. “Three thousand miles!” cried Henry in terror before he was picked up by his ride. The enormity of this journey was paralyzing. I shared with Henry my own fears about travel: the feeling that I’ll never get home; I’ll be trapped in some alien environment without the solace of my place and my people. Henry and I aren’t so different. This bit of one on one engagement gave Henry something to take with him on this unprecedented trip. He had shared an emotional link with another human being. And he had given his heart to a big brown cat with green eyes.
How different is Henry’s world today? That’s not for me to say, but I suspect that it’s just different enough… enough to make a difference.