Terms of Endearment
“Oh, you’re so pretty, so pretty,” I cooed to Bootsie, our kitten. She chirped and purred in response. “You’re my beautiful kittenfish.” As I stroked our cat’s soft fur, I couldn’t help but smile. I’ve always wanted a cat, always wanted to say such overwrought things to a pet of my own. My husband watched us, and asked, curious, “What is with you and the ‘beautiful kittenfish?’ What’s that about?”
I wasn’t surprised at the question; I’ve wondered the same thing myself. The words came into my vocabulary spontaneously; I had no memory of where the phrase came from originally. “Well,” I said, digging through my mental archives, “All I know is that it’s something Willie says, so it probably comes from a video. Maybe ... Dr. Seuss? I think that’s right. And he always used to say it in a singsong voice, so I’m pretty sure it’s part of a longer song. We’ll have to ask him when he comes to visit next week.”
Fast-forward several days, and my family is gathered together around our dining table in Alabama. Their long-awaited visit is actually happening, and an air of festivity and gladness pervades the space. So far, Willie’s been cheerful and calm, with no evidence of agitation. He seems to be enjoying the visit in his own way. I’d been concerned that the travel and break in routine would be detrimental, but Willie seems just fine. I make efforts to draw him into our conversation now and then, but mostly, he’s content to keep to himself. He sits with us for meals, then takes off for some alone time. He plays his hand-held electronic word game or uses my computer to watch videos when he wants to take a break and retreat.
And when he sits on our couch, game in hand, Bootsie comes over to sniff his neck. She tiptoes tentatively behind his back on the cushions, unsure if it’s safe to come closer. Both parties are a bit fearful of the unknown other, yet intrigued as well. After a few more sniffs, the cat draws near. In turn, Willie takes the risk of reaching out to pet her, but his hand is too tentative for her taste; she spots it, and playfully bats him away. We can’t help but laugh as the cat skitters off, and Willie shakes out his hand.
Watching them together reminds me of my earlier question, and so, when my brother returns to the table, I say, “Willie, I’ve been wondering: What video does the ‘beautiful kittenfish’ come from?”
He responds immediately, as if it should be obvious to all: “Dr. Seuss’s ‘The Cat in the Hat!’”
“Oh, OK!” I say. “It’s a song, right? How does it go? Could you sing it?”
Without hesitating, he launches into his own rendition of, “Beautiful Kittenfish,” right there at the dinner table. I sit still, amazed by how sweet his voice sounds. He knows every word, and he sings them with gentleness and care. As it turns out, the song is a lullaby; I never knew. Later on, when I look up the original 1971 cartoon, I see that the Cat in the Hat sings the song in an attempt to lull his (very grumpy) pet kittenfish to sleep.
Perhaps it's simply an excellent imitation of the Cat in the Hat, but there is a tenderness in Willie’s voice I haven’t heard before. During the song, he isn't staring off into space; instead, he makes eye contact with me throughout the lullaby. And though everyone is listening, he focuses his attention on me. He is performing, to be sure, but what I experience is certainly not a rote memorization. The best way to describe it is to say that he puts his whole heart into every word.
This being the case, what keeps me from crying are the lyrics themselves, which are pretty silly: “Beautiful kittenfish / Sleep, baby, sleep / Your eyelids are droopy / Bloop, bloop, bloop, bleep, bleep...”
And so on. It’s a ridiculous song, but as Willie sings, it transcends its goofy lyrics and becomes something more. In fact, right here, in this moment, it's the best music I’ve ever heard.