Transcript

316:

The Cat Came Back
Transcript

Originally aired 08.18.2006

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. And to explain what we're doing on today's show, let's just begin with a little story.

Alex Blumberg

My parents said that we should have a dog. But didn't want to have a dog that was going to be all doggy.

Ira Glass

This is Alex Blumberg, one of the producers of our show.

Alex Blumberg

This is the irony. They did a lot of research to find the dog that would be the least hassle.

Ira Glass

And wait, what were the specific hassles that they were trying to avoid?

Alex Blumberg

The were trying to avoid loud, slobbery, sheddy.

Ira Glass

OK.

Alex Blumberg

And they did avoid those sorts of hassles. But what they didn't know is that they were trading it in for a whole other set of hassles that were much larger and much worse than they ever could have imagined. What they got is they settled on a Basenji.

Ira Glass

Basenji?

Alex Blumberg

Yeah.

Ira Glass

I've never even heard of that breed.

Alex Blumberg

Yeah. They're sort of a rare breed of African hound. They're barkless. Our dog would howl occasionally.

Ira Glass

They can't bark, but they can howl?

Alex Blumberg

Yeah, they can't bark, but they can howl.

Ira Glass

That's like saying somebody, they can't talk, but they can scream. They're a mute, except for the ability to yell at you.

Alex Blumberg

Exactly.

Ira Glass

Trumpkin-- they named him Trumpkin-- howled all the time. And the howling was a lot louder and weirder than barking. And Basenjis, Alex says, they're just a strange breed.

Alex Blumberg

It's a weird line, and it hasn't been domesticated as much as other dogs. And so they're really, really wild-looking and feeling. Most dogs, they interact with you, and they wag their tails. And they come up and the pant. He wasn't like that at all.

Ira Glass

He was wily and disobedient. When they left him inside the house, he would rip apart the sofa cushions and the pillows, and destroy the furniture. When they put him out in the backyard, he would tunnel out in hours. He'd pick fights with cars. He was fast enough to catch squirrels, so there were always squirrel carcasses all over the block.

He'd overturn trash cans. He'd disappear for days. The day Alex's family moved to Cincinnati, Trumpkin ran across the street and ate the bunnies, real bunnies, that the little girl across the street had just been given for Easter.

Alex Blumberg

And it was impossible to get him back in once he was out. Eventually, he would just come back in. You'd just let him roam his path of destruction through the neighborhood until he finally--

Ira Glass

His killing spree.

Alex Blumberg

--until he finally tired himself out. And then he would eventually come back at night, exhausted.

Ira Glass

Covered in blood.

Alex Blumberg

Covered in blood, or beat up, or bitten through. That was the other thing. He didn't just pick on smaller animals. There was all these other neighborhood dogs, and he was constantly-- I think especially the Irish setter, I don't remember his name. But he was constantly pushing that Irish setter's buttons.

The Irish setter was much bigger than him. And they were constantly getting in fights. He was constantly getting in fights that he lost.

Ira Glass

But on the bright side, to get back to the family's original desires for a dog, he didn't shed. He didn't slobber.

Alex Blumberg

It had been six months or a year of him destroying all our furniture and tipping over garbage cans and enraging our neighbors and running away and getting in fights. And so my parents decided that they'd had enough. So they gave him away. And they explained it to us that he just was not a city dog. And they gave him to this couple who owned a farm in Indiana. And he was going to be much happier than he would be cooped up in our house.

Ira Glass

So Indiana from Cincinnati, how far is that?

Alex Blumberg

Just over the border in Indiana. So he was maybe 40 miles away, 35, something like that. But of course, I was heartbroken. And I would come home from school every day. And I'd be just so depressed that he wasn't there. And I remember crying myself to sleep.

Alex Blumberg's Mother

It was horrible. We were all very sad.

Ira Glass

Alex's mom and dad say that shortly after the couple from Indiana took the dog, something started to happen.

Alex Blumberg's Mother

I don't know how long it was, but we began getting some phone calls, I would say they were two or three, from people saying that they thought they had our dog, but he got away.

Alex Blumberg's Father

Or we had your dog in our backyard, and he escaped. Or we had your dog tied to a rope, and he chewed through it. He had a tag, of course, with our name on it, and our number. And every time the call came, it would be a little bit closer to us.

Alex Blumberg

And then my mother was driving home from work on her usual route. She was going down this highway called Columbia Parkway, which is four lanes.

Alex Blumberg's Mother

And I see, trotting along the road, Trumpkin.

Alex Blumberg

And he was trotting along in the direction of our house from the direction of Indiana. And it was rush hour. Cars are whizzing by. And before she even gets to him, he recognizes the sound of our Datsun station wagon.

Ira Glass

Come on.

Alex Blumberg

And, my mother told me this story, spun his head around and then started chasing the car. And she was like, the jig is up. He's coming back. So I might as well make it easy for him.

Alex Blumberg's Mother

I pulled over quickly and opened the door, and he jumped in and sat on my lap and yodeled. That's what Basenji's do when they're extremely happy.

Ira Glass

Oh, the word that Alex uses for that is "howl."

Alex Blumberg's Mother

Yeah, howl or yodeled.

Ira Glass

So he shows up back, and you take a breath and you say, OK, I guess I've got to deal with this. Were you happy, or were you resigned, or were you a little of each?

Alex Blumberg's Father

I think I was more resigned than anything else.

Ira Glass

Yeah. You weren't happy.

Alex Blumberg's Father

No.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

Trumpkin had always been so aloof, Alex says, and then he came all that way to be back with them.

Alex Blumberg

It was quite an amazing gesture. It was sort of touching. And I think that's sort of like, it did made us think differently, it made me think differently about him, a little bit, I think even then. That I was like, wow, he really-- we felt very loved by him and very special in his eyes. And it was hard not to feel the same way after that.

Ira Glass

You know that song, "The Cat Came Back," that old camp song?

Alex Blumberg's Father

That's it.

Ira Glass

That's your dog, man.

Alex Blumberg's Father

That's the dog, right. Trumpkin had a million lives.

Alex Blumberg

He definitely felt indestructible. I saw him. I saw his head get run over by a car.

Ira Glass

Come on.

Alex Blumberg

I did. It ran over his nose and front foot. And he popped up, and he came back, and he was all dazed. I saw it happen. And that happened over and over and over. Literally, I think he got hit five time by a car.

Ira Glass

After a while of all of this, did it seem like he had a supernatural power?

Alex Blumberg

Oh, yeah, definitely. It definitely did. Towards the end of his life, they took him to the vet for something or another, and they did an x-ray. And on the x-ray, there was all these glowing points all over his body where angry neighbors had shot him with a BB pellet. He was glowing with BB pellets.

Ira Glass

It's a supernatural quality, the whole thing that's like that song, "The Cat Came Back." You know the song I'm talking about? In each verse, the cat is drowned, or he's shot, or he's electrocuted or given away. And then in the chorus, the cat comes back the very next day, no matter how impossible that would be.

Nedelle Torrisi

They took him down to Cape Canaveral, put him into place. They shot him in a satellite up into outer space. They thought that the cat was beyond human reach, but then they got a phone call from Miami Beach.

Ira Glass

Then the cat came back, the very next day, blah blah blah, you know. OK, the song actually dates to 1893, written by a man named Harry Miller. And people have probably added hundreds of grisly verses of the song over the years. It is possibly, and I know that it's hard to generalize with this kind of thing, but it is possibly the most gruesome kids' song ever.

Nedelle Torrisi

They sneaked him in a shop with the butcher not around. They dropped him in the hopper where all the meat is ground. The cat screamed and screamed with a blood-curdling shriek. The burgers from that store tasted furry for a week.

Ira Glass

Sweet dreams, kids. The original lyrics include a train that's going west and an old-time riverboat. One of the great things about this song is that every generation adds new, contemporary ways for that cat to perish.

Nedelle Torrisi

The atom bomb fell just the other day. The H-bomb fell in the very same way. Russia went, England went, then the USA. The human race was finished, without a chance to pray. The cat came back the very next day. The cat came back. We thought he was a goner, but the cat came back. It just couldn't stay away.

Ira Glass

I've got to say, it's easy to understand why this song has lasted over a century-- catchy melody, and a story that anybody can understand, even a little kid. It is actually the simplest plot in the world, when you think about it. You want to get rid of something and it returns, mysteriously, and against all odds.

And for this week's radio show, we thought, there have got to be other stories like this, true stories, real life stories, not about cats. And so, today, proudly, we bring you an hour of stories just like that, real life cat came back stories, of things in our lives that just won't go away. As I said, it's This American Life. Our show today in four acts. Act One, Promise Keeper Cat. Act Two, Political Cat. Act Three, Baby Cat. Act Four, Refugee Cat. Stay with us.

Act One. Promise Keeper Cat.

Ira Glass

Act One, Promise Keeper Cat. It's actually the story of a pledge that somebody made that he wondered if it had gone away. He wanted it to go away. And, well, you'll hear what happens. Dan Savage tells the story.

Dan Savage

In 1996, 16 years into the AIDS crisis, I made a promise to my boyfriend, or my ex-boyfriend, late at night, while he ate a pint of ice cream, lying on his deathbed. I broke that promise. And with each passing year, I feel worse about what I did, or didn't do.

It happened like this. We got serious, fast-- too fast-- moving in with each other a few weeks after we met. Five months later, we decided we should go get tested for HIV, or I decided we should go get tested for HIV. It was the fall of 1995. My test came back negative. Joseph's did not.

I was holding his hand when the counselor at the testing center told him he had HIV, something he had long suspected but was never sure he wanted to know. 29 and beautiful, he was tall, with broad shoulders, long, blond hair, and huge, blue eyes. He shared his fears with me. He didn't want people to think of him as ill. He didn't want to be pitied. He didn't want to lose his looks. He didn't want to die alone. Four months later, I dumped him.

It wasn't the disease. There were other issues. Sometimes, when another guy talked to me on the street, in a restaurant, he would fly into a rage. I couldn't deal with his jealousy, and so I left him. Or maybe that's too convenient. Maybe it was his HIV, or his smoking, which always drove me crazy, or the jealousy, or all of it.

The night we broke up, he wasn't sick. He had HIV, but not AIDS. But a week after we moved out of the apartment we shared, one of Joseph's lymph nodes became so swollen and painful, he couldn't avoid going to the doctor.

The biopsy confirmed that Joseph had lymphoma, an AIDS-related cancer. He also had thrush and Kaposi's sarcoma. The doctors call these things opportunistic infections. We gay men called them the beginning of the end.

I cried with him in the living room of his new apartment the night he told me. Joseph had to start chemo immediately. His doctor put his chances for survival at 30%. And even if he survived the cancer, the Kaposi's sarcoma would likely kill him, or some other opportunistic infection. Joseph joked, sort of, that it was too bad his lymph nodes didn't swell up a week earlier. "You couldn't have dumped me if I was dying," he said. "You got out just in time."

After leaving Joseph's apartment that night, I thought to myself, "Here we go." At that point, in 1996, the AIDS caregiver role was well established. I'd read Paul Monette's On Borrowed Time and Last Watch of the Night. I'd seen Longtime Companion and Parting Glances. I knew my part. As Joseph slowly came undone, I would divide caretaking chores with Joseph's best friend and fellow ex-boyfriend, Marcus. I would accompany Joseph to the hospital, yell at doctors and nurses, pick up his meds, bring him groceries. At the end, I would lift him off his bed, help him dress, wipe [BLEEP] off his legs, carry him to the shower and the toilet and the couch. And when the time to die came, I would hold his hand and tell him to let go. Which brings me to the promise.

Late at night, I was sitting with Joseph in his room at Swedish Hospital in Seattle. He was undergoing another round of chemo for the cancer, feeling nauseous. He had lost a dangerous amount of weight, so I brought him some ice cream. His long, thick hair had begun to fall out, so he shaved it all off, because he couldn't bear to watch it come out in clumps. He was very skinny. I told him he looked good bald, which wasn't a lie. Joseph was one of those guys who looked good in anything, even his deathbed.

I sat for a long time in the chair next to his hospital bed. "I will always be here for you," I said. "You can count on me. I'm not going anywhere."

But then everything about AIDS changed in the United States. The year Joseph got sick, a new class of AIDS drugs suddenly became available, protease inhibitors. Taken in certain combinations, dubbed cocktails by gay men, naturally, these drugs returned many very sick men to seemingly full health. Basically, the 16-year-old script that Joseph and I were reading from the night I made my promise had just been ripped up, only we didn't know it.

When I told Joseph that I would always be there for him, neither of us expected him to be here much longer. By promising to be there always, I was committing to six months, a year, tops. Then came the drugs.

And the cocktails worked a miracle on Joseph. The swelling in his lymph nodes went down. His hair began to grow back. He put on weight. He got out of the hospital. What we thought was a six-month death sentence stretched into a year, then two.

I would drop by Joseph's work, which was near my office. He seemed to be doing fine. My visits started to come further and further apart, and further.

Then one day, I realized I hadn't seen Joseph, the only guy I had ever promised to be there for always, in more than a year. I was gone, new boyfriend, an adopted child, other commitments. And over the years, I found myself wondering about that promise, wondering about the kind of person I was to turn my back on a promise like that, but wondering mostly if Joseph was angry with me.

I had released myself from the solemn commitment I made without even having the decency to discuss it with him. To this day, I wonder, really, what you owe someone who is about to die, someone who has, in a sense, promised you that they're going to die, and then comes back. So I called Joseph up so we could speak, finally, about all of this.

Dan Savage

OK, so when you got sick, when you got lymphoma, when you were in the hospital, when you were getting chemo, I promised you that I would be there for you always, and that you could count on me. And then you lived.

Joseph

Was that disappointing?

Dan Savage

No, it wasn't disappointing. It was what we all wanted. It was what I wanted.

Joseph

It's what I wanted, too.

Dan Savage

Despite the fact that I haven't seen Joseph much, at all, really, over the last 10 years, we've maintained a sort of tenuous connection. Joseph cuts my boyfriend's hair, and our son's. After an appointment, my boyfriend always lets me know that Joseph looks fine, which is code for "Joseph's not dying." And a half a dozen times in the last decade, I've run into Joseph on the street. These meetings have always felt a little awkward. I know Joseph is doing fine. He's been with the same guy for seven years. But still, seeing him, I always felt somehow incriminated, guilty, caught out.

Dan Savage

What's always felt awkward for me about the promise, and we've never discussed the promise since it was made, and it sort of faded away, was that it was really premised on this idea that I will be there for you always, asterisk. Always means six months to a year. And here we are 12 years later, 11 years later. Was there ever any sense that I had failed you by drifting away, that I had broken my promise?

Joseph

As far as your promise to me, even though we lost contact for quite a long time, and didn't really maintain, except for "Hi," on the street, I never personally let that promise go.

Dan Savage

I have to say, that shocked me. I guess I expected him to say that he was angry, or used to be angry. But I never expected this.

Joseph

Well, you said that you would be there forever. So hell yeah, yes, absolutely. You're still on hold, baby.

[LAUGHTER]

Dan Savage

Hear my nervous laugh? I was so freaked out by this that I didn't know how to respond. I couldn't respond. In fact, I was so disoriented, that we spent the rest of the hour on tape gabbing about old times, old boyfriends. And when we left, things felt somehow messier and less resolved than even before we talked. I'd spent a decade feeling bad about a promise I broke, and now the promise was back? So a week later, I called Joseph up again.

Dan Savage

So when we talked before, and you said that the promise was still in force, and I was still on the hook, I was really shocked. And I couldn't really say anything. And I wanted to ask you if you were serious.

[LAUGHTER]

Joseph

Of course it's still in effect, Dan. Because, well, I look at it this way. I just know that you're around if I ever needed you. But it's an abstract sort of hook, Dan. It's not something that I'd probably ever hold you to. You want to be off the hook?

[LAUGHTER] You do. It's OK.

Dan Savage

He was right. I wanted to be off the hook.

Dan Savage

Can you release me from the promise?

Joseph

Absolutely. I do release you from the promise. You're let out, Dan.

Dan Savage

And then, suddenly, it was like the air cleared between us, as if finally putting this promise to rest allowed a sweetness that had been missing back into our relationship. And Joseph actually ended up telling me how much the promise, such as it was, meant to him at the time.

Joseph

I didn't have anybody else make me any promises with that conviction.

Dan Savage

I meant it.

Joseph

I know that. And I appreciate it. And I know it for what it was-- what it is, and what it was.

Dan Savage

Sometimes, I wonder how many guys like me there are out there. Joseph wasn't the only gay man who got up off his deathbed in 1996. So I expect I'm not the only ex-boyfriend who made a solemn promise to be there always, but who ended up embarrassed, unsure of what to do or how to behave once the drugs transformed a six-month commitment into decades.

In the days since Joseph and I talked, I kept wondering why I couldn't leave him believing that the promise, the one I made with such conviction, was still in force. Why not let him think that I'll be there? But I wanted us, after all this time, to return to normal, to be normal ex-boyfriends in the normal, sloppy way that people relate to their exes.

We might be there for each other. We might not. We'll see. I guess what I really wanted was to start treating him like a man with his whole life ahead of him, a man who doesn't need me anymore, or deathbeds, or promises like the one I made him so many years ago.

Ira Glass

Dan Savage writes the syndicated column, "Savage Love," and has written several books, most recently, The. Commitment.

[MUSIC - "THE CAT CAME BACK" BY HEADACHE CITY]

Act Two. Political Cat.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Political Cat. OK, speaking of creatures who you thought were gone who eerily return from oblivion to walk among us, the living, why won't John Kerry just go away? Why is he still out there, giving speeches and TV interviews, and acting like somebody who thinks that someday, he might still be President? Why do I keep seeing his gray, zombie-like face, intoning in that intonation he has, you know, that intoning where it's like he is almost human, but not quite human, sounding defensive, even when he's on the attack?

John Kerry

Tim, that's not what I've suggested. And it's really important to look at what I've proposed. The first step is, you've got to have a government.

Ira Glass

On Meet the Press a few months ago, he was as impenetrable as ever. He was arguing for the US to withdraw from Iraq. And at some point, Tim Russert points out that this might lead to total chaos, an all-out civil war, an invasion by Iran.

And Kerry, and maybe this is unfair, but Kerry gave the kind of response that pretty much, I would say, lost him the Presidential race. He said, and this is kind of a counter-intuitive thing to say when you first hear it, so I'm going to say this slowly. He said, "A US withdrawal plus diplomatic pressure might just finally force everybody in Iraq to figure out how to live together." But listen to how he says it, OK? This is classic Kerry, which means, and all due respect here, perhaps a tad long-winded.

John Kerry

But that's not the way to do it, Tim. What you need, and what I've suggested, is that you have a Dayton Accords-like summit where you bring all the parties together. And I mean all the parties-- you need to bring Iraq's neighbors together. Khalilzad has now been authorized to talk to the Iranians. Bring the Iranians. Bring the Syrians. Bring the Jordanians, the Saudis, the Egyptians, and others. Now it may be that ultimately you can't find a resolution on the constitutional issues, and you have to embrace something like Les Gelb's original proposal, the former head of the Council on Foreign Relations, who said, you may have to divide it up into three parts. I don't know the answer to that today.

Ira Glass

Like I say, classic Kerry. He throws around a lot of names and a lot of references in a sort of shorthand that just doesn't shed a lot of light for most of us. So as a result, he's both stunningly boring and completely unconvincing at the same time. So even though he may well be right, you know, he may be right. A combination of withdrawal from Iraq and diplomacy at the same time, that might be our only hope right now in Iraq. When you hear him say it, you just don't believe it.

There are a lot of different ways to understand why President Bush won the election in 2004: money, and organizing, and demographics, and the way they draw the lines in those congressional districts, and all that stuff, right, values, the religious right. I want to make the case here for a simple explanation. It's Kerry's fault.

I want to emphasize, this is my personal view, not the view of NPR News, Public Radio International, this radio station. This is my view. My view of Kerry was set forever the night of the first 2004 presidential debate, which you may remember was a pretty big night for him. It's the first time he squared off against President Bush one on one. I watched this thing from the home of Dr. Gig Hackett in Cincinnati, in the swing state of Ohio.

Gig Hackett

Hi, welcome. Hey. Come on in.

Ira Glass

There were seven people there, and all of their votes were up for grabs. Three leaned towards President Bush. Two leaned towards Kerry. Two were completely undecided the night of this first debate.

And what was fascinating and kind of notable is that all seven were upset with President Bush. Even the supporters of President Bush were upset with them. All seven thought that he was doing a lousy job in Iraq, and with the economy in Ohio.

Some of them found him outright alarming on abortion and social issues. Even his supporters in the group were not happy with the idea they were going to have to vote for him again. And so they all sat down in front of the TV with the feeling that all Kerry had to do was just give them a reason, give them a reason to vote for him.

Yeah, they'd seen the ads. They'd seen the news. But they actually still did not get what it was that Kerry stood for. What was he going to do for the country?

Man

I do have an indistinct feeling about Kerry. I'd like to know more about his views on the national security issues.

Woman

Well first, I need to get to know him as a politician.

Ira Glass

To make a long story short, they began the night unsure of what he stood for, and they ended the night the same way. Nationally, this debate helped Kerry's poll numbers. But here in this Ohio basement, they were unmoved. They were deeply skeptical.

Kerry would lay out a four-point plan for what he was going to do in Iraq. And I would turn to the group and I would say, OK, what do you think? And they would all be like, but what's he going to do? How is that so different from what the President's going to do?

And I would say, well, he just said his four points. And they'd say, yes, yes, yes, but what's the big picture? What's he stand for?

To be fair, I think part of Kerry's problem was that months of Republican political ads had convinced all of these people that he was a waffler, a prevaricator, that he didn't stand for anything in particular. But Kerry's problem as a candidate was that he seemed incapable of doing or saying anything to overcome or counteract any of that, any of what his opponents were saying about him, which, these days, for better or worse, is an important political skill. Here's Dr. Hackett.

Gig Hackett

No, that's the whole point. That's the whole point I'm making. I think Kerry says things. That's why I don't like Kerry, because I don't trust him. I don't trust what he says. When he says something, I don't know if he really believes that or not.

Ira Glass

So even when John Kerry pointed out, truthfully, correctly, policy blunders and missteps his opponent had made, nobody in this room believed him. Even when he's in the right, he doesn't convince people. In the last few months, John Kerry's had a little wave of media attention, after he proposed setting a deadline to withdraw American forces from Iraq. He hasn't actually announced that he's running for president again, but he sure seems like he is keeping that possibility open.

And I'm not proud of this, and I'm just saying this now as one voter to another. And is anybody else feeling this too? When I'm flipping channels, and I see him making a speech, or giving an interview, I feel this moment of rage, actually.

Like why do you still walk the earth? Why do I still have to keep seeing your face? Don't you understand? We took a vote. We all took a vote in the most literal way possible. We took a vote. We don't like you.

I see him, and it's like seeing some ex-girlfriend that you don't want to run into on the street. Why do I still have to think about you now, after everything? Stop running for president, John Kerry. You had your chance, John Kerry. If you couldn't win that election, when the deficit was ballooning, and job creation wasn't so great, and we were losing ground in a tough war, and almost half the country hated your opponent before you even opened your mouth-- it's not going to get any easier than that one.

Do something else, John Kerry. Do something else with your many skills. You're a civic-minded man. Go run a charity. Go run Harvard. Go run Yale. They're smart enough to actually understand what you're trying to say when you open your mouth and talk.

Coming up, a family that keeps losing one of its children, who keeps returning. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program comes back.

Act Three. Baby Cat.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today 's show, The Cat Came Back, stories of animals, people, things that will not go away, that return to haunt you, even if you want them to go away. We've arrived at Act Three of our show, Baby Cat. This is a story of a person who goes away and comes back, from Michael Beaumier.

Michael Beaumier

My parents have been married for something like 750 years. And in all that time, they've only had one argument, one long, constant argument that never ends, an argument that they're each dead-set on winning: an unresolved disagreement over the number of children they actually have. To be fair, my parents did have a lot of children. And after the first four or five, it probably got hard to keep track. No one disputes that there are two girls, Anne and Katie. The trouble was, as it always is with the boys.

My mother counts six. My dad says seven. We are, in order, Jack, Pat, Mike, Matt, Casey, Colin, and Paul. Mom is Irish. When the new baby arrived, we all knew the drill. Bets placed on gender and the date of birth would have to be paid, sleeping arrangements rearranged, a crib set up. Our grandmother would stay a night or two, 'til mom and baby came home. By the time mom was pregnant with her ninth child, this had become routine, no big deal. We were a well-oiled machine, until baby number nine.

Dad didn't come home that night, nor the next day, nor for many days after. It was a shock when Dad reappeared, exhausted and unshaven. And when he spoke, it was with a tone we'd only ever heard him address to grownups. Mom was very sick, he told us. The baby was sick, too. Things looked bad. He was going to be at the hospital a lot. And grandma was going to take care of us. We needed to be extra well-behaved. No fighting, no complaining, no fires. Let the dog's fur grow back for once. Be good. There was no "or else," no threat of punishment, no offer of reward. He wasn't asking.

Grandma morosely insisted that we comb our hair and keep our voices down. She declared that matches, scissors, knives, glue, duct tape, and the mallet used to tenderize meat were not toys, and that from here on out, we had to make our beds. But the worst part was no fighting. No fighting, was she serious? Not even sucker punches?

Days turned to weeks, and weeks into months. No one knew exactly what had happened, and no one was brave enough to ask. But we figured out the basics. The baby had come. Something went wrong. And mom had nearly died. When we were finally allowed to visit her in the hospital, we could only go in small groups, two or three of us at most. We didn't need to be told to behave ourselves. Mom found this unnerving. "Why aren't you fighting?" she'd ask from her bed. "They aren't like this at home, I swear," she would assure the nurses. "Who are you people? Somebody hit someone already." But Dad would shake his head, no. And we'd cower by the door, afraid to do anything that might upset her.

The baby was barely mentioned. None of us younger kids saw Paul, as they'd named him, until finally, very late that summer, he and mom were well enough to come home and got a decidedly low-key reception, especially compared to the raucous introductions new babies usually received. No one tried feeding Paul candy or introducing him to the dog by putting them both in the playpen. We weren't very clear on what Dad meant by "Paul is special needs." And when we gathered around the crib to finally get a look at him, he hardly seemed like the cause of so much trouble. He looked like any baby, except for the terrible shakes that would suddenly overwhelm him, and how his eyes would roll back in his head. The seizures were constant and brutal, overtaking his tiny body several times a minute. Had I been old enough to understand what was happening, I would not have been able to bear it.

Being children, and being us, we immediately nicknamed him Shakes. We weren't allowed to hold him, but we tried to outdo one another impersonating him, convulsing on the floor, falling over each other, fluttering and rolling our eyes, as Paul did. But eventually, even we could see that this baby required a great deal of care. There was no set routine with Paul, as there is with most newborns. He didn't eat normally, didn't sleep according to any set schedule, couldn't be left to himself. The task of caring for him soon proved overwhelming.

In hindsight, it was probably crazy to think that Mom could take care of eight children and a very sick newborn after nearly dying herself. He was with us for only a matter of weeks, really, before the decision was made. I don't remember the day they took him away, or saying goodbye, but we didn't see Paul again for almost two years.

A gloom settled over us after Paul was gone-- not anxiety, not tragedy, either, but this odd, nagging feeling of incompleteness. Someone was supposed to be there, and he wasn't. Paul's absence was acute, a presence in itself. And it was especially hard on Mom. Occasionally, she and Dad would disappear without a word, telling us only later that they'd gone to the place where Paul was, an institution of some kind in a town nearby. Mom would just suddenly want to see him, sometimes on the spur of the moment, and Dad never said no. Afterwards, when we asked, Dad would tell us that Paul was fine, but there were never really any details. Mom would usually go upstairs after these journeys, shut her bedroom door, close the curtains, and crawl into bed.

When Paul finally died, two days before his second birthday, it was like a bad spell had been broken. There would be a funeral, and sadness, and a terrible sense of loss, but there would also be an ending, finally, instead of the in-between place where he and all the rest of us had lived for so long. Because we hadn't seen him since he was an infant, Paul had become to us kids less a person than a situation.

All that changed at his wake. The casket was a tiny thing. You could put your arm around it. I don't know why I expected to see a baby, but that wasn't what he was. His hair had grown in, dark and full. And his features had become more pronounced and solid, the nose, the shape of his mouth, his thick, bushy eyebrows-- a face so familiar, because it was mine, the face I shared with the boys gathered around me peering into the tiny coffin.

My brother Collin, now the youngest brother again, only six years old, couldn't keep his hands off Paul, holding his tiny fingers and touching his face. I understood exactly what he was feeling, the shock and surprise of it. Suddenly, he seemed like our brother. Suddenly, he seemed like one of us.

Personally, I thought he looked like Pat, though from certain angles, he seemed more like Casey. Matt said he was a dead ringer for Jack, and immediately regretted his choice of words. Pat said he looked like a combination of Colin crossed with me, except without braces, which I took to be an affront, and said so. Pat told me to stop being a jerk in church. And Matt pointed out that we were in a funeral home, not a church, and added the word "butthead" for good measure.

Then Anne shoved Matt, and Matt shoved Anne back. And Katie, four years old and now armed with a brand new word, screamed "Stop it, you buttheads," at the top of her little lungs. Mom either laughed until she cried, or vice versa. Dad made us all go sit down.

We buried Paul. And we cried. And Colin dug a little hole over the grave and put some of his tiny plastic dinosaurs in for Paul to have. And then we went home and fought our way into adulthood, breaking into food fights and putting firecrackers down each other's pants, pushing one another out of windows, and filling each other's socks with jelly.

It was hard not to notice that these epic battles were, more often than not, instigated by our mother, who never seemed happier than when she was surveying the devastation, a gin and tonic in one hand, a cigarette in the other, a smirk of utter satisfaction on her lips. Mom would arm us with spray paint and fake IDs. She expected us to sneak out for midnight keggers and illicit cigarettes.

She was actually quite adamant about such adventures, because she knew what the alternative was. She'd been raised in a house engulfed in grief. Her mother had been made an Irish widow at a very young age, and never stopped mourning. Mom refused to give herself or us up to it.

Nobody talked about Paul. His birthday went uncelebrated. And his life and death, while never explicitly denied, was a forbidden topic. We'd visit his grave, of course. But we all knew not to bring up that time, or mention his name, because none of us could bear the look of pain that would appear in our parents' eyes. We knew that sometimes they would go to the cemetery by themselves to see him. And even years later, after all of us kids had grown up and moved out, and begun families of our own, after they'd sold the house and left town themselves, they would drive for hours, sometimes on the spur of the moment, still, just to be there.

The living mean more than the dead. And the living go on and they forget. But sometimes the elements conspire to bring the past and the present together again, and the dead remind you of all they once were. There was a winter of extraordinary snow, followed by a spring of heavy, incessant rain. Rivers rose, the waters came, and a terrible flood engulfed our old, North Dakota hometown. Half the city was underwater, the bottom half. Unfortunately, the top half was still quite dry. No one knows how the fire started exactly, but it jumped from building to building, burning everything straight down until the fire met the water. When it was over, nearly everything was destroyed, except the cemetery.

Maybe it was because they didn't like driving so far for so long, or maybe they just didn't want him to be there all alone, in the middle of nowhere, with no one to mow the grass or put flowers on his headstone, or remember who he was. But at some point, my parents hatched their little plan for Paul. They'd have him disinterred and moved to where they were in upper Michigan, where they'd gone to live, to be buried next to my grandmother. The casket was flown as far as Wisconsin, where for reasons that still remain somewhat murky, my parents decided they'd finish Paul's journey on their own. My father had gotten very specific measurements of Paul's casket, the length and width and weight, and he'd borrowed a pickup truck that would accommodate the task.

But apparently, to the surprise of probably no one except my parents, the rules about moving a body tend to be rather strict. You can't just haul around a casket that's been stuck in the ground for more than 20 years. The casket itself has to go into a special container of its own, one that's clearly marked and labeled.

Dad didn't think it was as funny as the shipping dispatcher did when the box proved to be too long to fit in the truck. He didn't think it was funny when the box was strapped in using extension cords. And he certainly didn't think it was funny when he had to pull the truck over to the side of the highway every 10 miles, where he and my mother would have to get out and push the box marked "Caution: human remains" back into the truck as cars zipped past, the other drivers' mouths hanging open, their eyes agog, their necks snapping around at the sight of two old people and their box of bones.

But Mom loved every moment. Burying a son once is tragic, but twice, well, that's a habit. She took great pleasure in calling each of her children after arriving home, letting us know that she and Dad were back from a long journey, that our father was exhausted from the drive, and that a box containing our beloved baby brother was currently sitting in her garage.

There was an old, almost forgotten glee in her voice. We all noticed it. She seemed to revel in our shock, and laughed at our perplexed horror. She'd never joked about Paul, never. And sure, the jokes were utterly tasteless and wholly inappropriate, but it was nice to see her old, wicked personality kick in. Suddenly, Paul wasn't off-limits.

"They're getting creepy," my brother Matt said. "Well, that's what happens when you get old," Colin said. "You never throw anything away." "Remind me to be cremated," I told my brother Casey. "It won't matter," Casey responded. "That'll just make you easier to cart around wherever they go." "Paul's obviously their favorite," Pat said dryly. "Of course, it's easy to love a kid that you don't have to tell to shut up." And there he was. Paul was back among us, our brother at last.

We didn't even know we had missed him. We didn't know we could miss him. Years of silence and confusion were, overnight, replaced with deeply inappropriate dead baby jokes, and everyone's favorite, sibling rivalry.

Where, we wondered, would they be taking Paul next? Disneyland? We never got to go to Disneyland. "You never took us anywhere," we cried. "How could we?" Mom told us. "You kids were always fighting."

But mom was clearly the worst. She relished her gross-out humor and always managed to do one better. Not long after this, she called each of her sons, one by one, to ask in her most serious and earnest voice if we'd ever had a, you know, bad experience with a priest when we were kids. This was in the middle of the terrible molestation scandals, and she told us that she absolutely, positively wanted to know. One by one, we assured her that nothing of the kind had ever happened, that our priests were good guys, and that no one had ever tried anything, ever.

"Well crap," she said. "That's what your brothers said, too. I must have raised the six ugliest boys on the face of the earth." And then she laughed and laughed, delighted that she'd gotten another one on us. Dad's voice would pipe up somewhere behind her, mildly irritated at having to remind her, yet again, not six, seven.

Ira Glass

Michaeul Beaumier, reading an excerpt from his book, I Know You're Out There, which comes out next month. By the way, the town he talks about in that story is Grand Forks, North Dakota.

[MUSIC - "THE CAT CAME BACK" BY MIKE TREESE AND DJ RUDE ONE]

Act Four. Refugee Cat.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Refugee Cat. Well, our program today is about people who keep coming back, no matter what. In this act, we look at people in the opposite situation. They're trying to come back, but finding it very, very hard.

There are many people right now from New Orleans who are trying to get back to New Orleans, but fear they will not have homes to go to, because they were renters in the public housing projects there. Before Hurricane Katrina, there were over 12,000 people like that, thousands more were getting section eight vouchers to help them rent apartments around the city. Since the flood, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has announced that instead of fixing up some of the big housing developments, it's going to tear them down.

Four of them are scheduled to go, which means that the 7,500 people who lived in those apartments are going to have to find other places to live. Cheryl Wagner, who lives in New Orleans, has been following all of this. And she has noticed that the guiding principle in this debate seems to be for everybody on all sides, those who want to tear down the projects, and those who want to save them, to make each other, and everybody else, feel as terrible as possible.

Cheryl Wagner

This is a story that I like to call "Who Should Be Ashamed of Themselves?" There are few spectator sports quite like watching people in the public housing debate skirmish for the moral high ground. Every time some poor sop points out that bringing back the old buildings the way they were might not be such a good idea, that an awful lot of people have gotten shot in or near New Orleans housing projects, that many units are dilapidated, or that the Housing Authority of New Orleans was failing so miserably that HUD took over years ago, someone counters with, "Y'all should be ashamed of yourself for trying to put all those poor, flooded, old ladies and children out in the street."

On the other hand, some housing activists cried "For shame," when HUD upped the amount of section eight vouchers 35% to address the soaring rents in the post-Katrina rental market, marking perhaps the first time ever that housing activists protested a government agency giving more money to the poor.

And then all sorts of middle-class people started protesting, too, writing editorials to the local paper, complaining that HUD was inflating the price of rentals, and squeezing firemen and teachers out of New Orleans in favor of poor people. Legal secretaries are just as flooded, they point out, and no one upped their salaries 35%.

Some of the people throwing stones at HUD aren't even from New Orleans, much less from the projects. Since the storm, both local and what some here might call "carpetbagging" housing activists have rushed to the scene, clutching "Gentrification equals globalization equals racism equals imperialism equals war" flyers. When activists showed up at meetings of the City Housing Authority protesting the destruction of existing public housing stock, that's when the real shame-off began.

At one meeting, they brought a stressed-out African-American housing administrator close to tears. They accused her of trying to purge New Orleans of other African-Americans, of taking bribes, of not caring. This is a woman who lives in New Orleans and who was stranded for three days on the roof of her office in Gentilly before being rescued by boat. At that meeting, she shamed back. "I would respect more of you if you lived in our residences," she told the activists, her voice breaking. "I talk to my residents every day."

The public housing shame wars also lead to bizarre moments of dueling activism, some hippie-on-hippie. The latest was a few days ago, when a bunch of bicycling and public park groovers made the mistake of saying it would be kind of neat to have a rails-to-trails type public bike path on a devastated and forgotten swath that cuts through the city, some of it near some projects. This prompted a different group of activists to accuse the bikers of colluding with HUD and the permanent expulsion of the community, which amounted to ethnic cleansing. Really, bike paths equal ethnic cleansing.

And then along comes Home Depot, who wants a piece of the C. J. Peete Housing Development real estate to build a store. And then there was the displaced granny in her wheelchair, and the mothers and the children threatening to break into their own homes, just to get their belongings, and hopefully clean out their apartments. Because HUD had locked them out with barbed wire, and in some places, steel doors, the spectacle of which should make us all really, truly ashamed.

A number of public housing residents simply want their old neighborhoods back, the good, the bad, and the ugly. But HUD claims mold and contamination make these properties uninhabitable. Some residents are quick to point out that HUD has a lot of nerve, given the conditions before the flood. "We've been living in mold. We've been living with backed-up sewage," one displaced resident of the Saint Bernard project rebuked to the local paper. "We've been living with gunshots over our heads and broken everything. Now all of a sudden, it's a hazard? It's been a hazard. But we want to come home."

Last week, when I went to the Saint Bernard Housing Project the city has slated for demolition, tall chain link fences and barbed wire surrounded the blocks of deserted apartments. Earlier this month, I went to a meeting that the paper had billed as a place where people would discuss public housing issues. But no one from public housing was there.

The man in charge said the paper had it all wrong. They were just looking for volunteers. He pointed to a small boom box and some women sitting at a fold-out table stacked with hot dog buns. "Today we're gutting houses and having a little DJ barbecue after," he said. He told me how he had been gutting and coordinating gutting for elderly and low-income displaced families for nearly a year.

I attempted to commiserate, telling him about all the houses that hadn't been gutted in our neighborhood, and how I and others were taking care of many of our elderly and displaced neighbors' yards. "But that's to keep up your own property," he said. "That's people helping themselves when they do that." I had the distinct feeling that he wanted me to put down my pen and pick up a claw hammer and help them gut some houses. I probably should have, but I didn't. I left ashamed.

I predict that if things keep going the way they are, soon everyone in New Orleans with half a heart will be ashamed of themselves full time. I'm already ashamed of my boyfriend, who used his emergency disaster food stamps to buy tuna steaks and goat cheese. I'm ashamed of myself for sharing this meal.

I'm also ashamed of myself for writing this, instead of gutting an elderly person's house, and for having my 67-year-old mother help me carry rubble buckets from my own house gutting, even though she has both carpal tunnel and trigger finger. I feel bad for not going to Mass for the past 10 years, and for not washing my dogS this week. Does that help?

Ira Glass

Cheryl Wagner in New Orleans.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Diane Cook and myself with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, Lisa Pollak, Alix Spiegel, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Seth Lind and Steven January.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Covers of the song "The Cat Came Back" today were performed for us by Nedelle Torrisi, the band Headache City, and Mike Treese and DJ Rude One.

(SUBJECT) NEDELLE TORRISI [SINGING] So I gave him to a scientist destined for the moon. The cat was used for ballast in an outer space balloon.

You know, you can download today's program at our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program, Mr. Torey Malatia, who has heard what we say about him at the end of every single show. And he has talked to a special public relations consultant, who helped him put together, finally, after all these years, a response. Here it is.

Michael Baumier

Stop it, you buttheads.

Ira Glass

Back next week, with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.