Mushroom Carvings & Old Cats
I drove to Providence, R.I., last weekend with my 18-year-old cat Matias. I needed to pick up some tools and wood that were left behind – a router table, mortiser, an assortment of hand tools and some unique wood that had some sentimental value. I could make an argument that the tools and wood were all worth the 30-hour round-trip drive, but in my mind, the real reason for the trip was to bring Matias home. I’ve had three cats die in recent years, so I recognized the signs. His sister and step-siblings are buried in my backyard in Providence, so it felt right that he should be buried with them. Although he was a native Buckeye, Rhode Island was where he lived most of his life.
In the small Portuguese village where my wife was born, “matias” means “the crazy one.” You guessed it – Matias was a little nut when he came into our lives. His mother was feral when and I found her and six kittens playing in my backyard. She was gorgeous; silky short black fur and piercing yellow eyes. I quickly called my friend Jan and asked her if I could borrow her cat carrier. Even though she was already at work, she told me she would retrieve the carrier and come right over. In no time at all, we lured the mother into the carrier with some food. Catching her kittens was easy as they refused to leave her side.
I was about to move in to a new apartment, so I put them all in the carrier and brought them over to the empty space. Besides, I already had two cats, a mother and son combo, and they wouldn’t be too happy with this new brood moving in. My plan was to take care of them in one of the bedrooms until they warmed up to me, then surprise my girlfriend when she returned from a summer vacation in Portugal. I knew that she wanted a kitten (I later convinced her you should always get pets in pairs so that they can keep each other company when you are out of the house) so I figured this was perfect timing.
Each day I visited the new apartment and spent time with the little family. Unfortunately, Matias’ mother was as strong-willed as she was beautiful. Her kittens would scramble behind her and huddle around her while she hissed at me. I was just refilling the food and water and cleaning the litter, but she didn’t want any part of it. I would sit down and lean against the wall and watch them. It only took three days of this routine until Matias, the biggest one of the bunch, moseyed on over to me to say hello. His mom and siblings looked on in disbelief as he let me pet him.
Needless to say, my wife chose this brave guy and his little sister, the runt of the litter who was a little anxious. I was happy with her choices. They were a little wild for quite a while as they got used to being away from their mother, but they were good cats.
Fast forward 15 years. My cat Angel, who was three years older than Matias, was dying of kidney disease. While they were never very close, Matias all of a sudden decided to camp out at Angel’s bed with him for his last three days. That really impressed me. After Angel passed away, I thanked Matias and promised him that I would do the same for him some day.
So here I was , three years later, trying to keep my promise. I picked up some pain medicine for him from my vet because the trip was long and my truck doesn’t have the most comfortable ride. We got into Providence in the early morning hours. I gave him a tour of the place as it looked quite a bit different without furniture, but then we settled down and tried to get some sleep.
Usually the only time I get any carving done is in the summer. I’ll grab a piece of basswood and sit out on the porch in the evenings with a beer. I know it seems a little country for a city boy, but it’s a good way to relax. Cleanup is a breeze as I just sweep the shavings out into the garden. I have an old cigar box in which I keep my carving knives. I mainly use a 1-3/4″ hook knife for freehand carving. I have both left- and right-hand knives and I switch off as needed for a particular type of cut. I mainly carve basswood. It’s easy on the knives and looks nice when I apply a little tung oil to it as a finish.
The weather in Providence is ideal this time of year with a seemly constant breeze blowing off the ocean. I had the windows open, so Matias and I were quite comfortable. Unfortunately, I wake up at the same time every day, so we got an early start. He tried to get up a few times, but his body wasn’t having it. He’d take a few steps and stumble. I picked him up and brought him back to bed. He purred and lay back down. The next few hours he was in and out of sleep. He would wake up and I would help him get comfortable.
I knew the day was going to be long, so I took out the carving tools and a small 2” x 2” x 4” block of basswood and began carving a mushroom. No particular reason other than I like mushrooms. I like their shape and I like to eat them, especially Portobello mushrooms with a special recipe that I have perfected over the years. Every now and then, I reached over to pet Matias and checked his breathing, as it was sometimes difficult to see the rise and fall of his lungs.
I didn’t want to disturb the old guy, so I was extra careful where my shavings fell and that my cuts didn’t rock the bed. This was difficult as I usually like to plow through the early roughing-out cuts. Matias watched me work but he didn’t have his usual curiosity. I continued to talk to him and explain what I was doing. I’m sure he thought I was a little crazy, talking to him about carving and all of our great times together.
I could hear my neighbor Peter outside playing with his grandson as I carved away. Normally, I would listen to the ball game on the radio on a lazy Saturday like this, but I didn’t want to disturb the tranquil feeling in the house. So I stayed by his side and carved away. Soon the day passed and it was night again. I called my wife and kids. I had them say goodbye to Matias again because I wasn’t sure if he was going to make it through the night. I gave him some more of his pain medication and I put out the light.
Needless to say, I didn’t have a restful sleep. I passed in and out of sleep and would awake when Matias made a noise. I covered him up with my down comforter as it got chilly and I fell back asleep. When we woke the next morning, Matias was still breathing, though it was more labored. I finished up the carving and cleaned up my shavings.
Aside from his first year, Matias had been a large cat; he gained a lot a weight the year my wife and I lived in Portugal. My in-laws were kind enough to take care of our cats in their basement. My mother-in-law is an award-winning bakery chef, so our cats benefited from her largesse. She would plant a muffin or two on a plate in the middle of the floor as a dessert for their usual cat food dinner. When we got home after a year away, my wife cried when she saw her little boy Matias because she hardly recognized him. He looked grotesque as he had a little head with a huge body.
Consequently, he lived the rest of his days as a big lumbering ball of love. He would try to attack his little sister in a play fight, but because of her lightness and nimble footwork, he didn’t have a chance. She ended up humiliating him so many times that he finally gave up trying to wrestle her. The benefit of his size, on the other hand, was that he was a joy to hold in my arms. He would either spread his paws out Superman-like over my shoulder, or lean back and look upside down when I held him like a baby. He never struggled to get down and seemed to enjoy the different perspective that he gained from being up high.
When Matias’ breathing became more labored, I knew he wasn’t long for this world. I picked him up and leaned back on my bed. He rested his head on my chest and didn’t resist being held. I petted his head and cried and told him how much I loved him for the millionth time. After an hour or so, he died on my chest. I was glad that he died in my arms and that he could feel the warmth of my body and hear my beating heart when he passed away.
Later that day, after preparing his body into a comfortable position and wrapping him in a beautiful cloth, I buried Matias next to his sister and step-siblings under an old maple in our garden. I transplanted some lily of the valley plants as a marker and covered the dirt with some mulch. I thought about leaving the carved mushroom as a marker, but I wanted to be able to take it with me. Although it looks like a simple mushroom carving, it will always represent to me the precious time I got to spend with my little boy Matias.