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The Trouble With Harry

The Trouble With Harry

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Published by Laura Novak
The trouble with Harry's life is that it taught me an unexpected, yet poignant, lesson about my own.
The trouble with Harry's life is that it taught me an unexpected, yet poignant, lesson about my own.

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Published by: Laura Novak on Oct 06, 2010
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07/26/2012

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THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY

BY LAURA NOVAK

Harry…
was a leg guy. That way he had of sinking into the down comforter on those foggy San Francisco nights and burrowing deeply between my legs, searching for warmth on three sides. No matter which way I turned, Harry was there, lying on top of me, beside me, possessing me. I sported a primo pair of gams in those days and the fact that this roguish red head would attack my husband’s feet if he got between us always gave me a perverse chuckle. Harry, the leg lover. That is the way I would like to remember him. If it were only that simple.

Those were the waning days of the go-go 80’s in randy San Francisco. The earthquake brought my apartment building in the Marina down around my head. Mark, my then fiancé, rescued me, moving what little I could salvage into his bachelor bungalow above Ghirardelli Square.

It was all about love in those days; aerobics and dinner à deux after work, weekend hikes in Marin, food shopping in North Beach. Like most young couples, our lives were charged with sex and second run films, with nary a thought to a complicated future.

Fast forward twelve years when our six-year-old son, Max, poked me awake one morning before dawn, unable to defeat jet lag from the previous night’s flight from Boston where we had been visiting family. Groggily, Max crawled under a blanket in the TV room while I rummaged through a box of videos in search of one to occupy him. I came upon an ancient relic marked “Mama, Harry and Sally.” This was the family of cats we rescued after the earthquake. It was a curious choice for a tape to watch now because Harry had shockingly deteriorated during our weeks back east. It would take the veterinarian another day to make a house call and terminal diagnosis. I must have sensed impending doom as I pulled the video from its sleeve.

“You look like a girl!” Max remarked as the video began. I leaned in closer, stunned at the sight of myself: nubile and thin, manicured with tousled curls wearing Mark’s nightshirt. In breathy tones I directed Mark to pan the room, zoom in on Harry Cat and his sister, Sally, pull back to show Mama Kitty nursing them.

“Why is dad’s beard so dark?” Max asked, sitting upright as if to better understand this encoded version of his parents.

How was I to explain to this child who had ransomed our hearts and enriched our souls that dad’s beard was so dark because we had countless mornings to loll about and videotape three cats for 90 uninterrupted minutes. Because we didn’t yet know what it was to have an intensely sick child undergo multiple surgeries, to not sleep for four consecutive years and feel our marriage worn to a nub. Because back then, the world was our oyster, like the barbecued ones we’d slurp up in Tomales Bay on weekends while playing footsie and drinking champagne.

“We were so young then,” was all I said, kissing the back of Max’s head.

Harry died peacefully three days later. Mark and I wrapped him in his favorite blanket and shared the only quiet time with him we had known in years. Before the vet gave the final shot, we kissed our first boy while he purred and we promised him a vast garden of lavender in Heaven. Harry’s heart ceased beating beneath my hand, his fur inert for the first time since Max engulfed our lives.

For days thereafter, I would sit in the garden just before dinner, the time Harry would habitually slink home from his daily bender, and I would provoke myself into inconsolable paroxysms of grief. One night, while packing for a business trip, Mark said, “I think Harry’s death is calling up something deeper for you. Maybe it represents the end of something else?” I knew he was right, yet didn’t have the heart to remind Mark of the videotape, of just the two of us at the height of the rut, idle and carefree, not yet contemplating a child and not fearing the death of a child.

Shopping holds no allure for me, but in the days following Harry’s death, I began searching desperately for a garden talisman, a ceramic way to grasp and hold time. I packed Max in the car and drove to every nursery imaginable. Over hills, through the tunnel, weaving through traffic, sniffling and dabbing my eyes until Max finally stated: “This grief thing is driving me nuts.”

“Please, just help me find one nice thing for Harry?” I asked meekly, suspecting Mark was right, that I was really in pursuit of innocence forever gone. At each stop we pondered rust silhouettes of kittens prancing after butterflies and garish stone cats set in unattractive positions.

“There’s another great nursery down San Pablo,” I pitched to Max, promising a new Hardy Boy’s book and his favorite taqueria if he’d just hang in there with me.

“What about this green gazing ball?” Max said at our final stop. “It’s the color of Harry’s eyes.” I tentatively circled the reflective garden sphere. Whose hips were those anyway? I wondered, taken aback at my spheroid image. The dancer’s legs Harry loved so innocently where disguised in widelegged Capri’s and my belly bulged no matter which way I turned. The truth was now evident through a new lens and I could finally mourn the parts of ourselves we had sacrificed in order to keep Max – and our marriage – alive. The miraculous journey we embarked upon from those love-swept years had taken its toll. No regrets, just a poignancy I barely recognized.

We purchased a wind chime of Indian bells and turquoise beads, strung with a metallic cat holding a fish and mouse and hung it by a bench in the front yard. We brought Mama and Sally out to the

garden and stood together as a family – worn, but intact - in Harry’s late afternoon sunshine. Max sprinkled catnip underneath the chimes, while the pet sitter read an Indian prayer and lit sage leaves to lift the words to Heaven. We then untied a cluster of three balloons – an orange tiger striped, a yellow smile face and, my choice, a red heart – and kissed them. On the count of three, we let go.

The hot colors dotted the flawless, azure sky, floating toward infinity. As we turned to go inside, I gazed upward a final time and noticed the heart lagged far behind, the last to disappear.

Laura Novak has worked every which way in the news business, from being awarded The David Jayne Fellowship at ABC News London, to reporting for The New York Times from San Francisco. Her first novel is set in Berkeley and she is at work on a mystery series. You can also find her on Twitter @LaNovakAuthor.

(Harry & Sally Novak circa 1990) Copyright: Laura A. Novak 2010

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