My old cat, Dinah, wakes me up every morning at 3 a.m., howling in an ungodly voice, begging to be fed -- or maybe just for me to wake up. She no longer glides ghostly through the house at night, pouncing at moths, dancing with dust bunnies, romping with my younger cat, but props herself on an uncomfortable chair beneath the birdcage where she dozes and wakes, dozes and wakes, staring into the dark night.
She has reached the age where nights are too long to pass sleeping.
Years ago, my grandfather lived in my house waiting out the months prior to his death at 89. Always an early riser, the older he became, the earlier he awoke, until the end of his life when sleep became less and less welcome. At the end he slept barely three or four hours a night.
Perhaps refusing sleep is the body's feeble way of warding off death. Or maybe it is that magic, dark velvet time, quiet, shielded from light, time left only to thoughts and waking dreams that attracts those close to dying.
During Grandaddy's last days, I slept across the hall with my bedroom door open, afraid he might get up and fall in the tangle of the bedclothes, or trip on his pant legs as he struggled to pull them on. Often I would hear shuffling, then see the light come on beneath his bedroom door. Some early mornings I would wake up to his call: "Eleanor! Eleanor!" Still dreaming, he called out for his sister who had died more than 50 years earlier at the age of 32.
One morning I answered his call, stumbling across the hall in the darkness. He looked at me as if he'd seen an angel. "Eleanor," he said. "I've been waiting for you." The sheets were scrunched around him. He was sweating and out of breath as if he had been running. He said he was ready to feed the chickens.
We talked a while, then I helped him dress in the same clothes he had worn for the 30 years I'd known him -- undershirt and boxers, button-down shirt, sweater vest, loose-fitting trousers and suspenders. His wallet, smoothed to a flat curve, lay on the bedside table and was tucked into his back pocket though he had not used it in months.
"Grandaddy," I said, combing his hair, "how did Eleanor die?"
A long silence followed. He cleared his throat. "She died of a broken heart."
I returned to bed while he sat in his wheelchair next to the window, waiting for the sun to come up.
Now my elderly cat awakens and stumbles off her chair at 3 a.m., making enough noise to wake me most every night. I fill her bowl with food and go back to bed. I cannot turn back over and fall asleep, so I read until sunrise most mornings.
The other morning, at about 5 a.m., I walked to the back window, attracted there by a shaft of light flashing across the yard below. I peeked out through the tree limbs, eyes sharpened for a prowler. A flashlight beam shone from the next-door neighbor's back yard, and as I looked closer, I recognized the couple who live in the downstairs apartment, walking across the backyard toward his car. They are in their mid-60s, and in the past year an ambulance has come twice to tend to her failing health.
From my perch above, I watched them walk hand in hand down the walkway that bisects their yard. She wore slippers and a long bathrobe. He wore work clothes, his lunch box tucked under his arm. They walked slowly, and she leaned her head onto his shoulder.
At the car, she turned to him and put her arms around his neck. They kissed. The headlights of his car came on. She stood and waved as he pulled out of the driveway, then she turned and walked inside. The next day, I watched the same ritual at the same time.
Mornings come early these days, awakening me to silence. I turn beneath the warm covers and read about lives lived in broad daylight with bold strokes. My old cat purrs beneath the bed, a muffled rattling against the pillow. It is the blessed hour of velvety silence, when the sun still hesitates to shine.