Dress rehearsal

IT'S said that fatherhood is hard work, but I'll tell you: Just being a prospective father nowadays can be a full-time job. From what I can see, this wasn't always the case. A mere couple of generations ago, being a father-to-be meant wading through a private collection of hopes and uncertainties, along with a few meaningful talks with older and wiser fathers. Now, though, the key is training. Like a good bicycle racer or runner, the prospective father is gearing up for the ultimate marathon -- such is one current metaphor -- and, baby, does he need help! So he gets help, in the form of classes and magazines and rows upon rows of books in all the better bookstores. As a father-to-be who's also heading toward a PhD in English, I was shocked recently to find I could compile a library of prospective-parent books that would be significantly larger than my American literature collection. The message seemed clear: The closer I could get to a PhD in prospective fatherhood, the better.

Fortunately, though, life hasn't failed me, even in the face of all these daunting classes and books. If the key to parenting is still some kind of hands-on experience -- especially something of the unexpected variety -- then life obliged me about a year ago by depositing a stray black cat on our doorstep.

We live in an apartment building that frowns a mighty frown on pet-owning tenants, so we knew at once there was no place for this cat in our lives. Cute and mildly inquisitive, he seemed to take a shine to us. After a few days he started waiting by the carport for my return from work, and rubbed my legs as I headed for the door. Shooing him away, I looked mournfully at my wife; she looked mournfully at me. We got a lot of practice looking mournful for a week or so. Then our will began to break.

We left a bowl of water on the doorstep. Dry cat food -- but only dry cat food, we assured each other -- followed soon after. A few days later, when I opened the front door, the cat nosed his way into the house, and, after suddenly leaping across the carpet, took up residence under the rocking chair. Flushing him from his new hideout, I felt like Snidely Whiplash, the villain in the old Dudley Do-Right TV cartoons. That was very nearly the last skirmish. From then on the cat knew he had us figured, and we had to admit he knew us better than we knew ourselves.

Just because the cat had won the war, however, didn't mean there weren't other battles to fight. For the first few weeks I found myself resenting this new creature, this intrusion into my well-regulated life. What right had this cat to adopt me, I wanted to know?

On the few occasions when I actually broached this question -- my head cocked at an attentive angle, my lips uttering the Jobian ``Why me, O Lord?'' -- the cat sat at my feet smiling sweetly, having just made a mess on the carpet or jumped up onto the record turntable while Zino Francescatti was attempting to get through the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

It didn't used to be like this, I told myself. Time was I could come home from work late and no one would mind; my wife herself might not be home for awhile. We weren't tied down. We could even take a quick vacation whenever we wanted to. Now, unbelievably, I was a kind of parent, and somehow or other the cat needed feeding every day. ``What have I done?'' I moaned quietly. The cat rubbed my ankles.

On one particular evening of such goings-on, my wife came in flushed and especially pretty. ``I have some news,'' she said. ``We're going to have a baby! Looks like the due date will be around the first of August.''

A parent again? Well, why not? In fact, I was beginning to get used to the cat, used to its habit of sleeping on my forehead at night or waking me up at 4 in the morning to go outside.

Now, as the nine months come to a close, I've been pretty glad to have the cat around the house. Having a dress rehearsal with a tenacious feline has taught me how to interrupt my work at a moment's notice, how to get up in the middle of the night without tripping over anything that makes a loud noise, and how to make the borders of my life and love a little more flexible, a little more accommodating. Not great achievements, perhaps -- but they're a start.

Looking at myself in the mirror, I find myself saying with some surprise, ``We may have father material here.'' And that's progress -- at least for a guy who chose a cat over a PhD in prospective fatherhood.

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