Strolling through our local animal shelter’s narrow aisles, my husband Russ, daughter Honor, and I walked past cat after homeless cat. I was thrilled to finally be there, since I had spent many months trying to convince Russ to agree to adopt a cat into our home. Adopting a rescue cat, I hoped, might inject some more fun into our quiet family life. Russ worked long hours, and whenever he was home, we rarely seemed to our enjoy time together. Something was missing, and I’d prayed that God would help us find it.
Then we saw a cat whose sky-blue eyes stopped us in our tracks. We simply couldn’t ignore that penetrating gaze of his. Russ sat with his arms crossed defiantly over his chest, but this chocolate point Siamese cat would have none of that. He rubbed his silky fur over Russ’ shoes until Russ finally relented and petted him. Soon afterward, Milkshake came home with us.
Milkshake (so named because of the swirls of cream and brown colors in his fur) was a hearty 16-pounder who was so long that we had to replace the cat bed we’d bought for him with a dog bed. He quickly became the star of our household. Honor bonded so much with the new arrival that she dubbed him “my kitty brother.” I looked forward to hearing Milkshake’s loud, melodic voice echoing through our air vents whenever he serenaded us with late-night meows that sounded like opera songs. But Russ didn’t let this cat charm him — at least, not until one night after dinner.
After a satisfying meal of lasagna, Russ leaned back in his soft dining room chair to relax for a moment. But Milkshake was determined to get Russ to pet him. He licked Russ’ right hand as it dangled over the chair’s armrest. Russ popped his eyes open and pulled his hand away. Then Milkshake locked eyes with Russ and gave his hand a nip that was playful, yet strong enough to make teeth marks in his skin. This time Russ raised his hand farther upward. Milkshake countered by raising his long body up on his hind legs and batting Russ’ hand with his front paws. Widening his eyes in surprise, Russ gave his paws a few gentle jabs. “Look, daddy! He’s boxing!” Honor exclaimed. And that’s exactly what Milkshake and Russ did for a full two-minute “match.”
Soon we all looked forward to that nightly boxing ritual after dinner — and more time together later in the evenings, too. Russ and I had frequently spent our evenings after Honor was in bed sitting across the living room from each other with our noses in separate books. But now we no longer sat apart when we read — or talked, as we did more often now. Both of us wanted to be on the sofa with Milkshake.
Milkshake’s behavior was far from perfect, however. He attacked Honor’s Barbie dolls — those painted-on-smile symbols of girly fashion in overdrive — every chance he got. Sometimes we’d find a mutilated Barbie lying near her chewed-off feet. Other times, we’d catch Milkshake in the act and have to rescue Barbie as he drooled over her in a frenzy of wild abandon. I’d scold him, and he’d scurry out of the room with his tail twitching like a nervous snake. Then he’d repent by hiding for a while and reappearing to make amends with Honor by licking her hands. She was always quick to forgive him.
We couldn’t help but forgive him, too, no matter what his offense — from rooting through our trash overnight, to lurking on our staircase, ready to reach out his paws and muss the hair of whoever happened to be walking through the hallway underneath. After all, Milkshake was just trying to have fun, in his own impulsive way. And Russ and I had to admit that there was nothing wrong with that. In fact, we began having fun more ourselves. Whenever we thought of corny jokes, we told them without embarrassment and smiled even if others sometimes groaned. And we didn’t hesitate anymore to make time for getting down on the floor to play silly games with Honor. There was nothing like the freedom of running and jumping across our basement with her. I thought Milkshake probably felt that same thrill when he gnawed on Barbie’s feet.
One cold November night, however, Milkshake was engaged in one of his favorite activities — boxing with Russ after dinner — when he suddenly fell over and passed away in front of us. There was no warning, no indication until those few tragic moments that anything was wrong with his health. We rushed him to a vet, but she couldn’t revive him. And just like that, our wonderful Milkshake was gone.
But when we prayed through our tears and the fog of our grief began to clear, we found something that did help: the legacy our beloved cat had left us. During his brief lifetime, Milkshake had loved others fully, and fully enjoyed being loved. He had showed us that making time for well-being — to rest, to play, to live fully present in each moment — was important.
After Milkshake’s funeral in our backyard, Russ, Honor, and I hopped in the car and drove over to a nearby diner. Then we did something we knew he’d approve of — we relaxed and had fun together. Each of us drank a tall, frosty chocolate milkshake, and I savored every drop of mine.
Whitney Hopler works as Communications Director at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being (CWB) and has written for many media organizations, from About.com to the Washington Post. Connect with Whitney on Twitter and connect with CWB on Twitter and Facebook.