Let’s put it this way: Recently, they co-signed a five-page contract—painstakingly composed by my 12-year-old, Josie—pledging not to fight for an entire year in exchange for the pet of their choice. As of this writing, Josie has gone 23 days without a fight, eclipsing her previous record by 22-and-a-half days.
I should confess here that my wife, Erin, would be happy to get a pet. She often indulges the kids by looking online at stray cats and dogs and (God help us) baby pigs. I’m the one holding up the acquisition. And the reasons I cite are all eminently reasonable: Our house is too small, we travel too much, we’re completely stressed out already.
But the real reason I can’t pull the trigger is because I know, deep down, that no pet will ever live up to Greg Almond, the cat I had in childhood.
And by childhood, I mean that Greg lived with us from the time I was 5 until well after I’d left home for college. Greg came to us with a brother, Tiger, though just a few years later Tiger was hit by a car in front of our house. Strange as it may seem, we were young enough that we somehow thought it necessary to bring Tiger inside the house and show him to Greg. This is part of why Greg Almond meant so much to us, I think: We had shared an early, intense experience of death.
I realize that Greg Almond is an absurd name for a feline, by the way. It did not derive from the rock musician Gregg Allman, though the origin of the name is—like virtually every aspect of our childhood—a matter of some dispute. I’d always heard that we chose Greg because he had a gray coat with an egg-shaped white patch on his chest (gray plus egg equals Greg). My older brother Dave claims he bestowed the name in honor of the oldest brother on The Brady Bunch.
I also realize that every pet owner on earth believes his or her animal is special. I’m not here to argue that point.
I can only tell you that Greg was, in a very real sense, the emotional glue of our family. He was the most empathic creature of any species I’ve ever encountered.
What else can you say about a cat that worried about us so much he actually followed us to school? He did this over and over, each day, lingering until my two brothers and I reluctantly carried him home.
Mind you, he wasn’t any sort of fancy breed, a Russian blue or a Chartreux. He was just a shelter cat with kind green eyes and a preternatural ability to read our moods and provide us comfort.
You see, I grew up in a family that was far more fractious than the one Erin and I preside over. My parents were loving but distracted professionals who gave us the run of the house.
My brothers and I turned it into a battlefield, fighting constantly, often physically and at times viciously. I can still remember the feeling of those clashes, the fear and rage that flushed through us, the hammering of our fists and hearts.
But what I remember even more vividly is how, after each of these altercations, Greg Almond would quietly pad into my room and leap onto my bed to console me. He did this in small physical ways: licking at my bruised knuckles, nuzzling my chin.
“I see Greg’s making his rounds,” my dad said to me, after one particularly nasty brawl. Because, of course, Greg did the same thing for my brothers, too.
He sensed our pain. And not just the physical kind. Whenever I felt sad—spurned by my brothers or humiliated by the world at large—Greg would appear to offer succor. He behaved like what would now be called a service animal.
And our parents understood how important Greg was to us, so much so that he was essentially treated like another sibling. My twin brother, Mike, reminded me of the time that we were pulled from our class and ordered to report to the front office, so that our dad could tell us that Greg had survived his kidney surgery.
“Is Greg your brother?” asked the woman at the front desk, sympathetically.
“Nope, he’s our cat,” Mike replied. “Dad wouldn’t have called us out of class if it was just a brother.” He was only half-kidding.
Greg’s instinctual empathy was all the more remarkable because our home was not an easy place for cats to live. As should be clear, my brothers and I had anger issues, and we sometimes took this out on our pets, treating them roughly.
The effect this treatment had on the cat we got a few years later to keep Greg company (a black bruiser we dubbed Butch) was immediate and striking. Butch became the neighborhood bully, and he clawed at us (rather sensibly) if we came too close. Looking back, it seems to me that Butch channeled the free-floating aggression in our home, while Greg tried, heroically, to comfort the hurt boys beneath our hurting. It was like they were dark twins: one, the angel of mercy, the other, the agent of vengeance.
Like any true angel, Greg seemed capable of the miraculous. One time, he curled up for a nap in the back of my mom’s station wagon. She didn’t realize he was there until she arrived at my grandparents’ house. She ran inside to return a serving dish and when she came back to the car, Greg had escaped out a window.