Writing Companions

1993 was a big year in my life. A Grave Talent was published, and didn’t disappear entirely. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice was prepared for publication, and I went to New York to meet that mysterious and all-powerful individual, an editor. The publishers made it clear that they wanted more books, and would give me money for them: this writing hobby had a future. And in the autumn of that year, I bought a cat.

My first advances, many of which were foreign, I spent in three ways: first I’d take my family out to dinner. Then I would buy things we’d been putting off for the house (It seemed appropriate to use a check from Denmark to replace the Jotul wood stove with central heating—and God, it was nice not to have to cut, haul, stack, and fetch wood, then fuss with burning it, and then have to clear the ashes, just to keep the kids from turning blue.) After that, the money would go into the family account, my first financial contribution in fifteen years of marriage.

Except for one sum. When I got back from New York that fall, I decided to splurge on myself, to get myself something truly frivolous: unnecessary, expensive, and beautiful.

I spent $300 on a young Abyssinian cat, and bought myself a friend.

Haile has been my buddy for fifteen years. All cats, but especially the desert breeds (Abyssinnia is the old name for Ethiopia and Haile Selassie was the king of said country—originality is not a requirement for naming cats.) are seekers of warmth, and Haile took early on to settling on my feet as I slept or while I was writing. This habit of finding him on my lower extremities during the night eased a trying hospital visit, when my drugged mind interpreted the pressure cuffs on my legs as the reassuring familiarity of a shifting cat.

When he was young—once he had adjusted to the trauma of moving from a one-room artists’ flat into a farmhouse, which caused him to skulk under the furniture for days—he became an inveterate explorer, and the officer in charge of the estate. Workmen would arrive and within two minutes, Haile would show up to investigate, which meant we’d have to make sure they checked their tool boxes before they drove away, left the crawl space of the house open, and were aware that he would be sitting at their feet as they sprayed sawdust all over with the Skil saw.

As he grew older, he grew less likely to face down the local bobcat or find a way onto the roof, which was something of a relief. Still, he never went grey, never lost his boyish good looks or charm.

Haile died last weekend, of a rare neurological auto-immune disease called myasthenia gravis, which interfered with the use of his muscles and turned him into a liquid cat, needing to have his head held to eat, his body lifted to use the cat box. And which eventually locked up the muscles in his throat and chest. The veterinarian returned him to us in a neat cardboard coffin with—a touch both funny and unbearably poignant—a white daisy taped to the top.

I buried him in the garden last night, my friend of fifteen years. I will buy a red-twigged Japanese maple and plant it over him, a reminder of his supple exoticism and beauty.

The simple nature of the relationship—warmth, tactile comfort, food, companionship—makes for a simple reaction to his death. I am so very sad.

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  1. elisa on January 5, 2009 at 11:00 am

    I am so very sorry for your loss. Cats find a special place in one’s heart and loosing one leaves a surprisingly large hole. His love will remain with you forever.

  2. Younger Son on January 5, 2009 at 11:33 am

    Oh gosh, I’m so sorry. My own Andrew died the day after this last Christmas, and I know how painful it is. May I remember one thing? He was an unusually courteous cat; among other things he always shared my lap with my computer, and even when it was on the floor, he took care not to step on it. He, too, was fifteen years old.

  3. LaideeMarjorie on January 5, 2009 at 11:45 am


    My sympathies go out to you on the loss of your faithful companion.

    I used to be a cat owner, but I developed an allergy to them after many years and it is hard to be close to them now for any length of time. First there was Pixie and Jinxie. Then there was Moz (short for Mozambique, but he was adopted from friends and so came to me pre-named). I miss the nudging noses and the comforting purrs and the little circular dance as they would make themselves the perfect spot to hunker down in, whether the ground or my lap.

    My best friend’s cat, Samantha, is now 20 years old and quite elderly and frail, but not in any apparent pain. As she tiptoes slowly around her home, she is treated like the queen that she is, her every need attended to. I dread that her time to go to a cardboard box (with or without a daisy) is probably close at hand.

    If there is a kitty heaven, may Haile be bathing in catnip and mousing to his heart’s content.

  4. Roxanne on January 5, 2009 at 11:50 am

    Oh, Laurie, I am so sorry for your loss.

    My cats are my family, my friends, my comfort. I don’t know what I would do without them. I feel blessed to be their steward and friend. It is wonderful that you were blessed with Haile’s companionship for fifteen years.

    When Martha, my twenty-two-year-old tortie calico, died suddenly, I was absolutely grief-stricken. I had been managing Martha’s kidney disease for some years and–at the age of twenty-two–her passing should have come as no surprise. Yet her swift departure devastated me.

    Martha is still with me. (Nothing weird or gorey about it.) When Martha came to live with me, she was eleven years old, unloved, and not very healthy, a truly unattractive cat with lightening-quick paws and really scary hisses. She progressed from a ball of fear and rage that stared wildly at everything from the safety of the bedroom closet to a beautful, loving friend who slept in my arms every night. I had promised Martha that I would never give her away, that I would always be back to pick her up and bring her home from the vet’s office. I do not own my own home or yard and did not want to leave Martha interred at some rental property. So now Martha’s ashes reside in a beautiful wooden box with a shiny plate engraved with her name. She waits on the mantel in my bedroom for the day of my passing, at which time her box will be placed in my arms. Until then, I look at her Martha’s box everyday. I smile with fondness and sweet memories; sometimes I still cry over her absence. But I always feel blessed to have known her. She was a good friend.

    My condolences on the loss of your friend.


  5. Strawberry Curls on January 5, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    Laurie, I’m so sorry for your loss. A good friend of mine calls all pets (but especially cats) our furry babies and it is so true. They crawl into our hearts, wrap around our lives, and give so much pleasure, solace and companionship. Each time one passes it is a devastating loss, but they do live on warming our hearts and minds with the memory of their love and devotion. My condolences to you and your family on the passing of your furry baby, Haile.

  6. Jessara on January 5, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    Laurie, you have my sympathy. My beloved Sara kitty died on 9 Dec and I am grieving as you are. I had her for six years, she was an SPCA adult adoption, and I don’t have the words to describe our bond. Grief counseling and medical help got me through the holidays, and about the best I can say is that time does help. Some. I have thrown myself into a frenzy of cleaning and clearing out closets, and houseguests are arriving in a few weeks; busy is good. I have used escape to fictional worlds as much as I could, too. Blessings on your name for the Russell universe creation; I went to live there for a few days, because this one was too hard. Thank you again for your work.

  7. Laraine on January 5, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    Grief is grief, and simple sadness, although a blessing in its simplicity, is still very sad. I’m sorry for your loss, Laurie. Sounds like Haile had a wonderful span of days. The red-twig Japanese maple seems just right to this reader. Blessings to you and your family in adjusting to not having Haile’s routines interwoven with yours.

  8. RJ_Anderson on January 5, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    I am so very sorry. Haile looks like a beautiful cat, and I have heard lots about how affectionate, clever and engaging Abyssinians are. I remember how devastated I was after the loss of our 17-year-old Siamese, with whom I had grown up, and I can only send you my heartfelt sympathies.

  9. Merrily45 on January 5, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    I am so sorry about Haile, I am “Mom” to two kitties, brother and sister, Julius and Cleo. Not long after moving to my present location, I lost my 17-year-old kitty Horatio, who had been diagnosed with diabetes and then had a stroke, poor baby. As with yours, my kitties have been my constant companions, an endless source of fun and entertainment, and, as the Bible says, “a very present help in trouble.”
    Some years ago I slipped on the ice on my front walk and broke my right arm. As I was sitting on the sofa waiting for help to arrive, having dragged myself back into the house, Julius jumped up beside me and just sat there, gazing up plaintively into my face. I knew he was trying to say “I’m sorry, can I help?”
    Your kitty will always live in your heart, but I know this is a very sad time. If I may say so, your books have also been a very great comfort at times of stress and sadness! Thinking of you, Merrily

  10. KarenB on January 5, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    I am so deeply sorry, Laurie. We lost our lovely labrador retriever, Barley, this summer and I still grieve his passing. A beloved pet’s passing is deeply felt and echoes the grief felt over other losses as well.

  11. nkk1969 on January 5, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    Dear Laurie,

    My mother has myasthenia gravis, has lived with it for years. The doctors tell her she will die the same way–the muscles in her chest will go and she simply won’t be able to drawn in air for another breath. I’m sorry for your loss and have some idea of what you must have gone through watching it happen.


  12. dancing crow on January 5, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    The Abyssinians are such lovely creatures. My mother had several Aby/Siamese crosses with such character and style they are still remembered by my younger cousins. I am sorry for your loss.

  13. mspeed44 on January 5, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    So truly sorry to hear of your loss. Cats are such independent little beings. We had one for 21 years, solid black. He is buried underneath a bird bath exactly where he wanted to be every hour of the day. By accident we now have a pretty, gentle grey named Smoke, totally opposite in temperment.
    Get you another kitten and begin anew! Soon. Like next week. In a year, you will be happy you did.

  14. vicki on January 6, 2009 at 12:48 am

    I’m so sorry for the loss of your buddy and writing companion. A beautiful Japanese maple will be a fitting reminder of a lovely and faithful friend. I hope you will share photos of the tree from time to time as it grows.

  15. caroline on January 6, 2009 at 12:58 am

    Ah, Laurie, I’m so, so sorry. My knitting friend, Rachael shared this quote and so I offer it to you and Haile. “My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today,” Richard Adams, Watership Down

  16. Mazarin on January 6, 2009 at 9:46 am

    I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. It’s a hard thing to lose one’s furry companion; I lost my dear Bogey-cat (named after Humphrey Bogart, natch.) over 5 years ago, and it still smarts sometimes. Peace be with you.

  17. Lizanne on January 6, 2009 at 10:48 am

    Oh, Laurie, I am so sorry for your loss. Haile looks so beautiful in that picture and it sounnds like he had a beautiful personality as well. I lost my white shepard mix (named Sherlock) a few years ago. We got her (yes, a female named Sherlock-this was before Mary Russell entered my life!) before our kids were born and she was truly my first baby. I still tear up at times when I pass the dog food aisle. We recently rescued a husky mix (named Doc, short for Dr. Watson) and although he is not meant to be a replacement, it is comforting to know we can let another animal into our hearts.

    Be gentle with yourself and be sad. It’s okay. I’ll be thinking of you.

  18. janwinning on January 6, 2009 at 11:20 am

    So sorry…..she was a beautiful cat.

    I think it was Mark Twain who said something like “the only trouble with pets is that they don’t live long enough”

    You have the wonderful advantage of being able to incorporate her “felineness” into a future writing.

    I can admit it here, but have never told another soul…I spent some hours with a pet grievance counselor when my beloved Norfolk ,Richard, died at the age of 14. She told me that one does not get over it, but one gets through it….


  19. Gail on January 6, 2009 at 11:55 am

    I too am very sad for your loss. The week of Sept 11, 2001 when my husband just missed being on one of the planes and was stuck in California and we were adjusting to my other son being at college for his freshman year, my younger son and I decided we needed to do something life affirming. We adopted a small black cat that my husband via email named Shadow. Shadow suffered from a variety of things but was the most loving cat we ever had. He died too soon but in some ways is still with us. Blessings and peace to you as you mourn your friend and companion.

  20. vikki on January 6, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    I am very sorry for your loss,I know exactly how you are feeling,my beloved cat Irvine was diagonsed with incurable cancer on the 20th dec 2008,it was kinder to have him put to sleep.I only work part time and coming home to an empty house,whilst my husband is at work is horrible, so I am in the process of re-homing two cats.Here in the uk we have a brilliant charity called the Cats Protection,and I have seen two female cats who are from the same litter and are 2 years old who I have reserved and am hoping to collect them this sunday.I have found that focusing on the thought of getting my new cats has really helped with missing my Irvine,who i know will be happy at the thought of me being mummy to two new cats. I hope that you will in the future be able to get another cat to help with your mourning.

  21. ecoviello on January 6, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    I was so sad and sorry to hear about your Haile. It reminded me of losing our favourite cat Lillie, who died unexpectedly while we were on holiday 18 months ago. She is now with us always by our pool. As a family we now have happy memories and scars to share about her.

  22. annburns on January 6, 2009 at 11:32 pm

    I am so very sorry to hear about Haile – a sad time for you and your family. I agree with janwinning – you don’t get over it but you do get through it. All the best – Ann

  23. Meredith T on January 7, 2009 at 2:04 am

    Dear Laurie, I am so sorry for your loss. The little dog that lived in our family for 14 years still shows up in my dreams. The brain tells us that we can only keep them for a finite number of days, but the loss is still sharp. I hope you find some comfort in our messages and those of your other friends. I never had a clue how much help condolence messages could be until I received some. best to you and the family//Meredith

  24. Chris on January 7, 2009 at 4:18 am

    Dear Laurie, many condolences on the loss of a faithful friend and companion. I can but echo so many of the sentiments above.

  25. kitty on January 7, 2009 at 6:22 am

    Dear Laurie,
    My sympathies to you. We lost our cat 6 years ago to Kidney failure at the age of 16. Tempie was a great companion and terror. It took us nearly 6 years to get another furry companion. My husband was allergic ALL those years but couldn’t give her up. NOw we have a dog, a great little fur ball, a Havanese who is I swear the reincarnation of our cat.
    my thoughts are with you.

  26. Carlina on January 8, 2009 at 1:19 am

    Dear Laurie,
    I am sorry and saddened to hear about the loss of your beautiful cat and good friend. I had a cat I was attached to as a child. I got her when I was five and she lived to be 20. We literally grew up together and she was my best friend. She was always there when I was sad and when I needed to be cheered up. She kept the monsters away at night and was my shadow during the day. Looking back, she was one of the best gifts and friends I ever could have had. I’ve taken those memories and the few pictures I have of her and remember her, my dear Alex, as best as I can. I hope that the memories of your cat and the happier times will bring you comfort in the years to come. Sometimes. some things come along that can’t be replaced. For me, Alex was one of those.

    My thoughts are with you and I hope time brings healing.

  27. Bachi on January 11, 2009 at 4:14 am

    What can I say, been there and truly understand!
    With affection,

  28. Meg Gardiner on January 14, 2009 at 3:58 am

    Aw, damn. So sorry to hear this. My condolences.

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