We may not all affix antlers to our SUVs.
We may not all wear neon butterflies in our middle-aged hair.
But every living creature wants to be seen.
When the cats of Suite B had an office holiday party, Cleo was a no-show.
“Where’s Cleo?” Kozmo asked, vibrating wildly.
“At the back of the cat tree behind a catnip snowman, willing us all to melt,” Clementine answered.
“WHY?” Kozmo proceeded to orbit Clementine like the entire cosmos, if the cosmos was a wind-up Santa wound five times too many.
“Because you threw six hundred invisible snowballs at her when she was trapped in the tunnel.” Clementine curled into a largish coconut snowball with ribbons of ganache.
“I LIKE THE WORD GANACHE.” And with that, Kozmo forgot about Cleopatra, and Cleopatra, behind the snowman, was relieved.
But we didn’t forget about Cleo, and Cleo was not relieved of her longing.
We all do our best longing in December, but Cleopatra was uniquely born to yearn. A smoldering Yule log of a cat, she has flickered at the edges of Suite B since the sleigh dropped her at our door.
You remember the story: Cleo had a home, once. She was somebody’s jewel. She was cashmere and cookies. She was the Lamborghini with the giant bow in the driveway. She was noon and midnight and joy and the whole world.
But the future is always galloping towards today, and before you could say “ghost of Christmas past,” Cleo’s present was shipped to a nursing home.
We were about to be gifted one Cleopatra.
Cleo has never been quite sure how to untie the ribbons.
We, the great minds behind antlered SUVs and light-up SpongeBob Claus cardigans, have tried to unwrap her new reality. We have flapped our arms and our words and our love, wildly. We have cooed and comforted and crooned peculiar renditions of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”
We have, in a thousand ways, attempted to be Cleopatra’s Santa Clauses.
We have written many generous clauses into her contract: “Whereas: Cleopatra Rosenberg may commandeer the cat tower. Whereas: Cleopatra Rosenberg may define ‘good cheer’ as she sees fit. Whereas: Cleopatra Rosenberg may rewrite ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ to address the particular ‘merry gentlemen’ of Suite B.”
We have tried to gift her with the grace and glitter of being loved, decorated with turkey shreds.
We have repeatedly rescued her from snowball-fighting slipperheads who pummel her in the tunnel.
We have sung Cleo’s carols and lit Cleo’s candles and commanded armies of volunteer elves to conquer her fears.
And all along, all Cleo wanted was to be seen.
Elves, dunderheads, and persons festooned with neon butterflies may see a cat at the back of a cubby and furrow their brows. We take off our mittens and attempt math on our stubby fingers. “Cat + hiding = scared. Scared = sad. Sad = bad. Bad = no Santa.”
(At this juncture, Kozmo charges down the ramp. “SANTA! I KNOW HIM! I LIKE THE WORD GANACHE!”)
But cats are better at math than we are.
And ginger cats in the 99th percentile of intelligence, with fiery fur and crackling intuition, are much, much, much better at math than we are.
So Cleo took us by the stubby hands, looked us in the beady eyes, and sang the carol that lives under all the carols: “See me.”
(Kozmo: “I SEE YOU! YOU ORANGE!”)
The elves slowed down.
“See me. Ask me.”
Slowly, then all at once, the hopes and fears of all the years converged on one head of flame.
We’d never really asked Cleo to tell the story of Cleo. We’d assumed she was too shy to share. We’d assumed she hid because she didn’t want to be seen. We’d assumed we knew her story.
But there’s always more story. Especially at Christmas.
We’re just too scared to tell it.
This may be because, as T.S. Eliot put it, “human beings cannot face very much reality.”
The reality is, Cleo was hopeful and heartbroken, all at once.
The reality is, Cleo was glittering and glum, all at once.
The reality is, we can be exactly where we belong and have no idea where the heck we are, all at once.
The reality is, December does “all at once” better than Kozmo does chaos.
The reality is, life is winter and spring, spooning each other on the back of a sled in the sleet. The reality is, people go to nursing homes, and reindeer don’t always fly, and glitter gets all over everything. The reality is, grace gets all over everything, but sometimes we can’t see it because Sad and Grateful are having a scary snowball fight on our lawn.
And so we flail. We flap. We festoon. We send each other elaborate glittered cardstock, and cram velvet socks with chocolate, and hang glass balls, because we fear the breakable things we see in the mirror.
Cleopatra fears nothing.
“See me. Ask me.”
So at last, we asked. And she let out a sigh that she’d been holding a very long time.
“I am scared and hopeful and flame and snow and candy and chaos and home and lost. I am wondering and settled and holy and earthy and grieving and growing and yearning and yearning and yearning and yearning.”
And before we knew it, the words were falling from our own mouths. “Me, too.”
“I worry that I’ll never meet someone who feels like home.”
“You, too? Sometimes my hopes are so big, I get lost in them and can’t find my way out.”
“You, too? I have a recurring nightmare that I’m locked in a Panera, and when I get out, I stink with Panera-stench for the rest of my life.”
“You, too? I worry that the money, myrrh, and mercy will run out.”
“You, too? Sometimes I want someone to hold me like a kitten and pet my head.”
“I LIKE THE WORD GANACHE!”
And this is the part of the party — the party that Cleo did attend, without ever stepping out of her cubby — where Suite B’s most serious orange cat smiled.
Because the minute we asked, and the minute she answered, the egg nog began to flow.
“NOG! NOG! NOG! NOG!” (Kozmo is incapable of not flowing.)
This is how it’s meant to go.
If you go first, the others will follow.
If you answer with your smelliest, noggiest, gaudiest, ganachiest honesty, confession and compassion will flow. All at once, reality will feel strangely like home. All at once, even the hard-core homebodies will be seen.
Which is what they always wanted.
Since we finally asked what she wanted, one homebody is Christmasing in a gingerbread house fit for a ginger queen: the Community Room.
(Be assured that Kozmo has the Suite B situation under control. Which is to say, aerodynamically out of control.)
All at once, she’s where she belongs.
All at once, she’s reminding us that we belong.
All at once, Cleo is teaching us that glorious song of old: that we can be seen in all our all-at-onces, and loved anyway.
That’s Tabby’s Place. That’s reality.
So let’s ask and tell and listen and look. Let’s be brave and baffled.
Let’s see each other and see what happens.