Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Coltrane meets Spike. May 28, 2007.
Dear Spike:

There's a sprawling tree on the corner of 9th South and Lincoln Street, right outside the University Veterinary Center. Coltrane and I stopped on the sidewalk, under its branches, for a moment before turning up the clinic's concrete steps this morning.

I leaned into the blanket in which our beloved cat was swaddled and whispered into his ear. "Remember when you climbed a tree?" I asked him. "And I climbed up to get you down?"

It was 20 minutes, at the most, from the moment we walked through the clinic doors to the moment your dear friend — a cat you've always called "brother" — had passed. He'd suffered a stroke in the middle of the night. His brain was no longer working as it should. I'll spare you the details except to say that after finding him thrashing outside your bedroom door at 4 a.m., your mother and I were confident he wouldn't even make it to the hospital's opening at 7.

He did. Which meant we needed to do what companions must do. We needed to help him go the rest of the way to the end of his life. To give him a death free of any more suffering. And so it was that I held him, and I cried for him and for me and for you and for your mother as the doctor gave him the drugs that put him to sleep, then stopped his heart.

His ashes, I'm told, will be spread in an apple orchard — underneath, I'd like to think, a great big sprawling tree like the one that stands outside the clinic. Or maybe like the one that stood in the center of my backyard in the home I lived in for a short time after your mother and I fell in love, but before we lived together.

That was early in 2001, I think. Cole was maybe seven or eight months old. He'd escaped out a window and found his way up, but not down, the tree. When I got home, that evening, I changed into my combat boots, threw my old sea bag over my shoulder, and shimmied up the trunk. I put him inside the bag and lowered it down to the woman who would become his mother, and who would much later become your mother. She lifted him out of the bag and cradled him in her arms.

"You're such a good boy," she said.

Those were the same words she used this morning as she stroked the fur between his ears. And I told him, too.

Such a good boy.

Such a good boy.

Boy? Really? Why do we do that? He's just a cat, right? A Maine Coon breed of the species Felis catus, of the genus Felis, of the family Feliae, of the order Carnivora.

On the great big taxonomic tree of life we've got to crawl all the way over to Class Mammalia to get to a place where our branches meet.

But you called him "brother" and we all thought of him as a member of our family.

When I peeked in your desk at a parent-teacher meeting at your school a few weeks ago I found a worksheet you'd done a few days earlier. And notwithstanding the fact that the stick drawing that was pre-printed on the sheet was a textbook example of homo-normative socialization (with a mommy stick figure and a daddy stick figure and two children stick figures — the boys standing gauntly in all their naked stick figurativeness and the girls covering up their stickishness with triangle dresses) you'd turned it into an ever better example of inclusivity by penciling in two little ears and a sweet little tail on the stick boy.

Why? Because he was a member of our family. Because he was our boy. Because he was your brother. Because we loved him and he made our lives better.

And, you know, there's a strong case to be made that he made your life possible.

He was about six months old when I took him to get neutered. Your mother and I weren't dating at that time, but we were friends. I had to work at the newspaper that afternoon and so your mother agreed to pick him up for me. When I came to get him, that night, your mom had him wrapped in a blanket and he was purring like a Ferrari. And I can't say that this was the moment I fell in love with your mother, but I can't say it wasn't a contributing factor, either.

A few nights later later we shared our first kiss.

As I held him in the examination room and waited for the doctor to come in, I thanked Cole for what he did to bring our family together. Then there was a soft knock at the door, and it was time for him to go.

As he went, there in my arms, I closed my eyes and remembered the time he climbed that tree and I climbed up to get him down.

And maybe I rescued him. Or maybe he rescued me.