I SWORE LONG AGO that whatever other questionable career decisions I might make, I would never, ever stoop so low as to write one of those schmaltzy, sappy, sentimental, horrifyingly clichéd pieces about a dear, departed pet.
And now I find myself doing just that.
Humor me this once.
The kitten was originally from a farm in north Georgia. Pitch black from head to toe, unusually large.
His earliest passion in life was milk, which explained his prodigious size, thick muscles and strong bones as an adult. He was crazy for milk, a stone junkie.
As a kitten, he would bury his face in a bowl of it, coming up for air all glassy-eyed and wobbly, whiskers and mouth dripping white, only to demand more a few minutes later.
He came to be called Cassius, in part a nod to The Greatest himself, Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali. Like his namesake, Cassius was tall, dark, and handsome. And like his namesake, he could withstand an amazing amount of physical punishment.
Despite their effete reputation, the common domesticated cat is the toughest and most resilient of all God's creatures, pound-for-pound nature's ultimate predator. The average cat is nearly indestructible by design, but Cassius was in a league by himself.
There was the first hit by a car early on, shattering his right front leg. Dr. Richard Bink, formerly of Central Animal Hospital on Bull Street, tried an unusual surgery which involved grafting some tissue around a metal clip in Cassius' shoulder in order to re-attach the muscle.
It worked, but Cassius never let us forget it. From that point on, whenever he was ready to eat he'd look up at us with those piercing yellow eyes and lift his stiff right leg about an inch off the floor as a gentle reminder.
The stiff leg and limited range of motion in his right shoulder meant he could no longer employ the usual feline fighting style: One front paw planted, the other jabbing and hooking.
So he adapted. And that's how the cat named for a boxer became a wrestler.
His size and strength were big enough advantages, but Cassius brought a certain professionalism and a real artistry to close combat. I have seen him literally put another cat in a classic, textbook headlock. I have seen him lift a cat clear up off the ground and body-slam it down again, a la Andre the Giant.
Still, Cassius was a gentle giant. He never went out of his way looking for a fight; but if the fight came to him he never backed down. He had a lot to teach us in this way.
There were other physical issues: The strange and terrifying blood infection which nearly killed him, another blow from a car much later.
But saddest of all for a feline crazy about dairy products was the curse of the male cat: A propensity for urinary tract blockage caused by -- you guessed it -- drinking milk.
Of all things, it had to be that.
After the second urinary tract operation, Dr. Bink half-jokingly said, "If he comes in here a third time for this we'll have to turn him into a girl."
There was no third operation, and Cassius remained all boy. He didn't hold it against us that he couldn't drink milk anymore. He was never one to hold a grudge.
Besides, there were no doctor's orders against chicken and hamburger fresh off the grill....
I'm always cautious about anthropomorphism, about projecting a human template onto animals who are, after all, driven mainly by instinct and hunger. But there's something about cats....
See, I'm one of those weirdos who believes, as the ancient Egyptians did, that certain cats have a kind of karmic bond with humans, with particular humans.
I'm not saying other pets aren't equally as enriching. I'm just saying there's something about cats....
Cat owners will immediately know what I'm talking about, non-cat owners will scoff. That's OK, we all believe in irrational things sometimes.
I believe some cats are reborn humans, you believe a guy named Jonah hung out inside a whale's stomach 2000 years ago. So who's the crazy one? Join the club.
Anyway, we sensed early on that Cassius seemed to have some sort of karmic obligation to suffer on our family's behalf, to soak in punishment so we didn't have to.
He was a dreamcatcher of sorts, the interceptor of nameless bad things in the night. With him around we felt protected, blanketed against life's sharper edges.
For some of us, a black cat means good luck.
There are those who insist all cats should be kept inside, that it's irresponsible to make them live mostly outdoors. But we've always subscribed to the theory that animals should be in nature as much as possible.
Besides, Cassius was a farm boy at heart.
In any case it wasn't a car or dog or other outdoor hazard that took him from us. It was the same stupid evil thing that claims most everyone in the end: simple garden-variety cancer.
I'll spare you the details, but when we got the news about the cancer, we let him drink as much milk as he wanted.
When the day came when he no longer wanted milk, we knew it was time to say goodbye to our old friend of 16 years.
Forgive the commercial, but it must be said that Dr. Buck Drummond and the staff at Central Animal Hospital were most helpful and compassionate in Cassius' final days.
His last moments were peaceful ones, and true to form he didn't complain once.
Just a cat, you might say. No doubt, just a cat.
But a cat I've known longer than I've known my youngest daughter, a cat who came to me and my soon-to-be wife very nearly the same day we became a couple, a living symbol of our own partnership who was with us first on Bolton Street, then on Oglethorpe Avenue, then at Washington Avenue, and on to 50th Street, seeing and experiencing everything that happened along the way.
Absolutely, without question, part of the family.
But believe it or not, the sappiest part is still to come. Are you ready for this?
I have two beautiful, delightful daughters, but no sons. If I had a son, I'd want him to be like Cassius: Brave and friendly, strong and patient, confident and peace-loving, wise and gentle and simple in most things.
Doesn't get much sappier than that, does it? But that's how I feel about it.
Goodbye, my sweet boy, until we meet again.
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