06/02/2014 05:45 pm ET Updated Aug 02, 2014

A Letter to My Cat, Who Died This Morning

LindaRaymondPhotography via Getty Images


When you took your final labored breaths this morning, I'm sorry I mistook them for typical heaves.

You were laying on the hardwood floor, looking under the bed; I thought you were staring at another cat or a toy. Maybe you were looking for the safe spot you go during thunderstorms.

By the time Anne and I realized something was terribly wrong, we were too late to help. Your eyes were open, but you were gone.

Seven years earlier, when we met, you weren't like the other shelter cats. Curiously calm, you roamed the place freely as if you worked there. You didn't meow -- only chirped.

Your ivory fur was soft and clean, pink skin peeking out around your eyes, nose, and at the edges of your ears. A coffee-brown cloud lay like a saddle across your back. Another capped your small head like a toupee.

As I rubbed your strong back, the volunteers told me how they'd rescued you from a vicious dog attack. But instead of avoiding the shelter's dogs, you obsessively stood by the door to the Big Dog room, desperate to enter. Were you looking to make peace with your attackers -- or perhaps hoping to settle the score, a crude shank hidden in your thick winter coat?

When Anne and I decided to adopt you, we'd just moved in together. Our plain one-bedroom apartment was the only thing she and I shared. Anne had her Accord; I had my Sentra. She had her canvas and paint; I had my laptop and jokes. I inherited her four cats, and she accepted the weekly anarchic comings and goings of my kids. Legacies of our independent lives were all around us, but I wanted something -- a living thing -- that would begin knowing us as we were in that moment.

Within minutes of bringing you home, you found a safe hiding spot under a pile of Anne's laundry and stayed there for hours. At first, you were very docile. But within days, you staged a dedicated campaign of terror against Daniel, Anne's oldest and sickest cat.

You also attacked any human foot that dared invade your sovereign circle. Every night, I'd flick off the light switch on the bedroom wall -- engulfing the room in darkness -- and then pause, as if a castle's moat separated the bed from where I stood. Like a crocodile, you were hiding somewhere in the dark middle, waiting to snap. More than a few times, you got me.

Anne assured me all you needed was time.

When Daniel died peacefully -- or so we'd like to believe -- you finally settled down. Then, for reasons locked away in your feline brain, you devoted yourself completely to me. The other cats cling to Anne like she's made of minced meat, but you were determined to be my cat.

When I came home, you ran to greet me. You sat behind my head when I was on the couch, and pressed your warm stomach against my neck. Often you licked my face with your sandpapery tongue like you were trying to scrape away stress. You loved the company of men -- the bigger, the better -- whether it was my dad snoozing on the couch after Thanksgiving dinner or two guys coming over to install a new dishwasher.

I could easily imagine you as you might have been in a former, human life: a fearless boy. An athlete. A daredevil. Someone very different from me. This made our close attachment all the more peculiar. But cats are peculiar, often unpredictable animals -- perhaps the only creatures in the animal kingdom that can hold a grudge, and throw up with intention. When they look at you like you've done something wrong, chances are you have.

I'll miss the night time without you, Sam. I'll miss your body curled behind my knees, and weighing heavily on my chest. I'll miss waking up to you at the foot of my bed, knowing you were there all night, purposefully.

You had a duty in life to love. Somehow, Sam, you knew that.

I knew it too. It was always in your eyes, Sam. Even in your final look for that distant, safe spot.

A version of this essay appears in Joel Schwartzberg's new collection "Small Things Considered"