Unlike many of my stories, this particular one deals with a sad chapter of my life. I hope it may help someone. Lessons from a stranger. I did not know anything about the stranger, he had just showed up at the old home place shortly after my Dad’s funeral. The stranger kept to himself, much as a hobo did while riding the rails; being ever watchful for the railroad bulls. If one were not paying attention, one would not have noticed the wary eyes that were watching. My Dad had fought another battle against cancer, this latest being the final round of which he couldn’t hold on until the bell rang. Instead, another bell tolled for him that November day of 2007. He was eighty-eight years old. Being the youngest son of his family, I was honored in my having been his primary caregiver and confidant during his last years, and also to conduct the final services for a man who had humbly preached the true gospel for the past sixty-eight years. Though his being an old preacher of the Word, called into service by the voice of God, Dad wasn’t without faults while living in the world of mortals. One of his faults, if you wish to consider it as such, was he simply had no earthly use for cats: in any form or fashion. Perhaps due to some unspoken childhood fear, I never knew, but my Dad had no use for cats. Period. Any feline persuasion silly enough to set foot on the farm either ended up as coyote food or was promptly dispatched to live out another of its proverbial nine lives resulting from the impact of a .22 caliber slug from Dad’s rifle. Either way, cats did not stay on the farm for any given length of time. That being said, we can now come back to the part of this story regarding the aforementioned stranger, for he was a cat. Not just any cat mind you, as one recently dumped along our country road no longer wanted by its previously well intended owner, but a feral grey tom cat apparently living on its own since its youth. Wild would aptly describe the nature of the stranger. I first noticed the stranger while checking on Dad’s home one afternoon. Since our homes, his and mine, were next door to one another, it was a natural part of my daily routine. Having had the distinct feeling I was being watched, I carefully scanned my surroundings without being obvious while doing so. The prior feeling led to the discovery of the cat staring at me while trying to totally concealed itself in a thicket some sixty-odd yards from where I stood. The cat sat there watching me, as if he himself were invisible. My first thoughts were memories of Dad, and for what would happen next if Dad were in my shoes. One thought led to another, and the ever present sorrow of the time grew larger once more. Concealed within the mist of memories, the cat slipped away without my notice. The feral cat continued to stay around the farm. I would often spy it hunting for his next meal, and find tracks along its many routes of travel. In time, the cat took up residency on the open back porch of Dad’s empty house as if to defy anyone’s contempt for it being there. To further the defiant tone, the cat would spend the cold nights and bitter days in the confine of the old in-ground storm cellar my Granddad Sam had built during the Depression. A small hole in the cellar’s door provided the cat a point of egress, and safety from the coyotes as well. Before continuing, I would like to point out the fact neither my Dad nor I ever believed in reincarnation. That being said, I had kidded my Dad many times by stating if he ever died God would surely send him back to Earth as a cat…perhaps to atone for all the innocent feline victims he had been instrumental in their having met an early demise. Dad would always give a chuckle, and then say, “Maybe so”. My time of grief continued, seemingly as cold as the weather about. I missed my Dad, and would catch myself dialing his phone number or walking next door to check on his well being. I came to look forward to catching a glimpse of the stranger who lived next door and stayed to himself. As the weeks slowly went by, the cat and I would exchange glances and mutual tolerances toward one another. We acknowledged each other, but always from a distance. I came to realize the old tomcat was missing one ear, thereby explaining the odd silhouette he had made against the thicket the first day I saw him. Whether from its birth, or a close encounter, the loss of one ear seemed to be just as natural as the fact a feral cat was living on the grounds of my Dad. My older brother would stop by to visit me every couple days. He had been told about my new neighbor. On one visit he happened to see the feral. When I asked if my brother knew who the tomcat was, he quickly answered with a grin on his face, “Sure I do, it is Pop Tom”. Pop Tom was a name our family had nicknamed my Dad during his last few years, and as such the feral tomcat had its very own Christian name from that time forward. With no apparent reasoning at the time, I was becoming somewhat attached to the one eared cat even though we had not been any closer than a hundred feet or so. I was content with the facts as they were, but a part of me wanted to reach out to the one eared stranger all the same. Freezing temperatures soon set in, with single digit thermometer readings not being unusual. The bird and small wildlife population was having its toll extracted upon it from the cold temperatures and frigid winds. With his food source dwindling, Pop Tom began to have a difficult time. Each hunt lasted longer than the one before, and very few hunts ended in a successful meal. His hope for continued survival dwindled, as did his body heat. It has been said one can hear a still, small voice from within if only one will listen. I heard that voice, and began to set out various food items along the game trails for Pop Tom to find. It was a blessing to me each time I would secretly observe the feral find my meager offerings. I was always careful to keep my scent from being attached to whatever food I would place. One bitterly cold morning as I was placing my token gift of nourishment alongside one of the game trails, I was discovered by Pop Tom. He was huddled some fifty feet or so from where I stood, apparently in an attempt to keep himself concealed from me. I made no attempt at letting on I had seen him, and went hurriedly on my way back to the warmth of my home. Once inside, I peered through the window blinds in order to see what Pop Tom would do. Slowly, he investigated the area I had been, found the food, and looked across the way up to the place I had gone into. He quickly finished off the morsel, and disappeared into the taller grass. Rather than continuing my routine offerings of scrap food items, I began to set out high protein canned cat food. It was easy for me to see Pop Tom had lost quite a bit of weight in spite of the previous supplements I had provided. The new offerings were a evidently a big hit, since no portion ever remained behind. An old discarded blanket was the next item put to use. The blanket “carelessly” left behind by me on my Dad’s back porch was soon appreciated by the feral cat who, up until that time, had been forced to sleep in either the open air of the porch, or the damp confines of the cellar. A couple weeks later, while sitting on my back step enjoying a rare day of sunshine, I noticed a visitor sitting near the corner of my home. Pop Tom had been watching me for an unknown time. He silently left, without any adieu. Later that same day, he came back to discover his supper, placed where he had been earlier. The new ritual continued for several days, Pop Tom sitting a comfortably safe distance of twenty-five or thirty feet from me as he had his meal. I suppose we made an odd couple together, one old duffer and a one eared cat, but we seemed to tolerate one another. I would make attempts at conversation, but those attempts were proven to be always one sided. One late afternoon, after his supper, Pop Tom slowly walked over to where I was sitting on the back step. He momentarily stopped, as if to give to me his thanks for the meal, and then walked away. I will add, by that point in time Pop Tom had regained the majority of the weight he had previously lost. As he ambled away, I did not know if he were to return again or if this had been his parting gesture. He and I had our own individual problems and concerns. Still wrestling with my Dad’s passing, it was hard for me not to feel alone and discouraged after all I had been through, while still trying to tie up loose ends left behind and maintaining some sense of relationship with my family. I suppose the one eared cat had provided some sort of diversion or outlet for me from the many burdens I carried. A couple days later, while I was basking in thought as I sat upon my thinking step, Pop Tom walked up, unannounced and unexpected. He brushed against my legs and in turn made himself comfortably seated upon my lap. We sat there, like two old friends, shivering in the cold of dusk for several minutes before saying our goodbyes for the day. Those next several weeks were a time of loneliness, deep thought, and mixed emotions for me. I had earlier made the decision to sell the old home place on the real estate market. That decision was not made rashly, but rather after great thought and consideration that mere printed words can not properly express. My next few months of time and low energy were expended in preparing the homes and properties for sale. Throughout each new day came the rising of memories and their accompanying emotional tides. At times, I felt truly alone and forgotten. It was during many times such; that I would be both visited and assisted by Pop Tom. He seemed to know as to just when to show up, and to provide not only a pleasant distraction, but at least one good ear with which to listen with. He was easy to talk to, Pop Tom. Interruptions were unheard of, as were well intended thoughts and ideas as to exactly what my course should be. He would patiently let me ramble on, thereby giving me ample time in order to complete whatever thought process took priority on any given day. Many would think it strange, the two of us during our one sided conversations. True friends that could help out, well, they never were present. During the past couple years, I seemed to have put my past friendships on hold. Lately, my God, and Pop Tom pretty much rounded out my friendship quota. They were both there for me, each day. It has been said we all have our own unique way in order to handle many of life’s situations. That very well may be. All I know, however, is the still, small voice was always there for me as I stopped to listen. Through my time of grief, I was given a series of object lessons through my friend, Pop Tom, who had been sent into my life for such a time as that. In the beginning, it was not good for Pop Tom to have been alone, taking the worldly blows each day just trying to survive while uncontrollable events gathered on the horizon. He needed someone to look past the present situation and to provide the needed help for not only that moment, but the next moments as well. He needed not to hear just well meaning advice or comforting words, but rather, he needed physical help with which to weather the storm from someone who neither asked for, nor expected any thanks or appreciation in return. True, Pop Tom was independent. Circumstances surrounding his life had seen to it. Even for the independent, a time usually arrives where one has to rely upon another for finding the way. Independence does not always mean one has to go it alone. One might conclude it was Pop Tom whom benefited through our brief encounter that hard winter. I beg to differ, for Pop Tom had been sent to me for reasons better left to the still, small voice to explain. My mere written words could never justify the means, or the method of teachings I received. I will say, however, a true friend with only one good ear is often more effective than many well meaning friends with two. Not too long afterwards, we parted our way. He was still feral, by his own choosing, and I was moving into a new chapter of my mortal story. Life is hard, but it is also so very precious when we have someone to care for, and grows increasingly better when we listen for that still, small voice. postscript: My old home place came down a few days ago, making way for the next round of man's progress. Along with it, came the demolition of all the outbuildings, barns, and cellar from which many of my memories came from. Some would think I should have felt saddened, and perhaps I did a little. I felt more a sense of peace and closure.