He came into my life just when I needed a friend.
I didn’t know that at the time, of course. At the time I thought that I was performing a rescue; I had no idea I was the one being rescued.
My friend Julie and I had gone to the animal shelter so I could adopt a cat. “Look at this one,” she said, pulling me toward a cage I hadn’t considered. An adult orange marmalade cat stared back at me, impassive.
Julie tried again. “Look,” she said. “He’s sitting in his litter. That means he’s given up. He’s going to just let himself die.”
I scowled, but her point was well taken, and so I filled out the papers, named him Spike on a whim, and took him home. He promptly disappeared into the cellar.
I didn’t see him again for two weeks.
I sat in the middle of the room, and I talked to Spike for hours. Once in a while there was a flash of movement, of color; the litter was used and the food and water I left consumed; but it wasn’t until I put up my Christmas tree that curiosity won out and he finally emerged; and, once out, decided to stay out.
So Spike and I started to get to know each other. Slowly, tentatively, for he was not one to commit immediately. He discovered that I didn’t appreciate vocalizations first thing in the morning; I figured out where — and when — he liked to be scratched. He learned that the kitchen table was off-limits; I learned which canned cat food was acceptable for dinner. At night, he curled onto the pillow next to mine and watched me with that same calm, impassive gaze.
And then, after opening my heart to a healing being, I opened my heart to a destructive one. I entered into a relationship that had all the signs of being promising and none of its reality. I gave my heart over to someone who hit every note on the abuse scale: belittling me, making fun of the dependence he had worked hard and deliberately to achieve, finally escalating to hitting me, to slamming me into walls, to breaking into windows when I found the courage to lock the door.
Through it all, when I hated myself for what I had become, when I hated everything about my life, there were those calm unquestioning yellow eyes. Still gazing impassively. Still very much his own person. But approaching me when I cried, putting a paw on my arm, snuggling up with me, his purr filling my world with calm. Offering me his unquestioning, unconditional love.
I had never known unconditional love. I grew up in a family where love had to be earned, where it could be turned on and off depending on one’s current behavior. To be loved just because I was me? It was an amazing feeling.
And it was very much Spike who gave me the courage to end the abuse: it was the need to care for Spike, to be responsible for him that helped me move away, start over. We were a team: a cat and his writer. I worked on my laptop, Spike leaning against my hand, stretching to block off my view of the monitor if he thought it was treat-time, sending emails prematurely as he took a stroll across the keyboard.
Most of the time, life consisted of just Spike and me. Working from a home office as I do, I often spent twenty-four hours a day with that cat. He kept a sleepy watch over my work from his sprawled position on my desk; at night he curled himself around my head on my pillow. He annoyed me by occasionally trying to go outdoors (he was an indoor cat); I annoyed him by insisting that my stepchildren appear and live with us every other weekend. We both liked the same cereals and the same ice cream–and, yes, we shared them, licking from the same spoon.
In the twelve years we shared, he wasn’t ever sick. Not until the tumors inside him squeezed his lungs and threatened his breathing did I even notice that anything was wrong, and by that time it was too late: there was the visit to the animal hospital, the x-rays, the verdict. His last night was one of discomfort, and he disappeared unhappily behind a bookcase.
Once again I found myself sitting in the center of a room and talking to a cat I couldn’t see, trying to reach out with words. But this time, I didn’t know what to say: how do you say good-bye to someone who is part of yourself? How do you thank someone who everyone dismisses as “just a cat” but to whom you owe your life?
The next day, coming home from his grave, I threw myself sobbing on my bed. All I could see was that small body, that dirt, those stones. And as I cried, I felt a cat jump up at the foot of the bed, as Spike had always done.
I gasped and sat up … and of course no cat was there. But I know what I felt. And I know that he chose to say good-bye to me in the room we’d shared, not in the cold sterility of the veterinarian’s office, not in the loneliness I’d felt at his grave.
And that’s the memory that I am keeping tucked into my heart. As long as it’s there, Spike will be, too.