I am a writer. Jack was a cat. This is the story of how he we met and how he influenced my life and my work.
Jack was a seal point Siamese. At least that’s what I think he was based on Google searches. He was missing a front tooth and his right eye was damaged from an injury sustained while fending for himself during a territorial dispute with another cat (who shall remain nameless).
Through my kitchen window I’d occasionally see Jack sunning high up on the railing of a deck across from my home. This was technically where he lived, however, due to the arrival of a child with special needs, Jack was rarely permitted in the house. So he lived outdoors and began to venture farther away from his small outdoor deck, perhaps in search of a new home. I learned this, and his name, from the other neighbors in my apartment complex. I also quickly learned that Jack was not a well-liked cat, as I would hear many negative things about him: “He fights with my cat,” “He sprayed inside my apartment,” “He’s a troublemaker.”
Perhaps knowing how he was thought of, Jack would steer clear of most people, maybe you’d call him “skittish.” And perhaps his reputation was accurate, and he was trouble.
I would often say hi to him or call to him. On those rare occasions when he would acknowledge me at all, it would often be with a look that said, “He couldn’t be talking to me.”
It went on like this for a few months, whether I caught sight of him on the roof, under a bush eating food scraps, or dozing on the railing.
It was summer when I first met Jack. I was walking back from getting my mail, and he turned a corner and ended up right in front of me. He stopped. Uncertain. I slowly kneeled, set down my mail, and extended my hand. He tucked himself partially behind a nearby pole, assessing all possible escape routes, then inched toward my hand, all the while looking at me through his one good eye.
My hand touched his head, and he relaxed, then pulled slightly away, then he flopped down on the ground. He let me gently pet him – until a neighbor’s door opened, and he took off. I watched him dart away, then I picked up my mail, noticing that my hand made a black smudge on one of the white envelopes. As I looked up at Jack, now perched safely on the roof, one thing was certain: Jack was a dirty cat, but he was not a bad cat.
Some weeks later, near the complex’s laundry room, I met Jack again. It was night. I emerged holding my bag of warm, freshly dried clothes, and there he was. I sat near the stairwell and let him know it was okay for him to come over. He did. He pressed himself against the warm bag that separated us – then looked at me. I petted him gently atop his head, now getting a real good look at him. Maybe he was 9 or 10 years old, but looked a bit older. He was tired, worn. He liked the warm bag. I let him lean on it. But then a noise set him off, and once again, he was gone – and my hand was dirty.
Curiosity and the bench.
From this day on, I would see Jack looking at me, watching me. He would often sneak drinks from a fountain my next door neighbor had in his garden.
I started to read and eat some of my meals out on a bench in front of my apartment, close to the fountain.
Jack gradually made his way over and would sit or lie under the bench … then as days went on, beside the bench … then one day he jumped up on the bench and sat next to me. (He resembled an adorable stuffed animal). I just let him be, allowing him to know that he was in control, and he was safe.
He often showed up with new bumps, scratches, or bruises. I would hear cat fights or confrontations at night. Jack was a small cat, I felt he was at a disadvantage – I also knew that the other cats had proper homes to return to to lick their wounds, receive love, and have a meal.
Whether he liked it or not, I became his protector whenever I heard something about to erupt in the cat world. I also made sure he wasn’t the one instigating it.
I will say here that Jack’s human family did indeed love him, and they are caring people, but it appears life became too complicated to fully engage with him.
Back to the bench. On the day he climbed up onto my lap, I had a meeting to go to. I postponed the meeting (it wasn’t very important) and allowed him to settle into my lap. I very gently petted him, realizing quickly that there were some spots where he welcomed it, head, neck, under chin, and other spots that were off limits – belly, hind legs.
This became our ritual: I go to the bench. He arrives. I pet him gently. He naps on my lap.
The clucking sound.
One day, I bought some grooming wipes and gently wiped Jack down. I don’t think “Mango Tango” was his favorite scent, nor was it mine (and I’m not sure why they even make a mango scented wipe for cats), but he seemed to appreciate, or at least tolerate, the gesture.
When I would look for Jack, he would never respond to his name, or my whistling (maybe whistling only works for dogs?), but one day I started to make a clucking sound by pressing my tongue to the roof of my mouth, then quickly lowering my jaw. For some reason, he responded to this, and in the weeks and months to come, no matter where he was, he would hear this sound and come running.
I would often leave my front door open during the day to let in fresh air. The various cats of the complex would wander in to take a nap or seek out some midday, human attention. Jack never did. He would look at the open door, but never came in. In my mind it was as if he was being respectful, which was different from what others told me about him being aggressive, sneaky etc.
The first meal and the gift.
One morning as I sat on the bench eating yogurt, Jack stealthily licked a bit off my finger. I could tell he loved it. In general, I had been reluctant to feed him, feeling that once I did, it would then be expected, and I was not certain I would always be there for him in this way.
It was my father who convinced me to feed Jack. My father always felt compassion for the underdog and those less fortunate. One day after sitting together on the bench, I invited Jack in. He entered slowly, more curious than cautious, looking at everything, and me.
I set a bowl on the floor and put a tablespoon of fresh yogurt in it. He lapped at it, loving it, devouring it. No trace of yogurt was left in the bowl – although one gray whisker held onto some of the evidence. He looked up at me. I set a bowl of water down. He drank.
He then walked out the still open door. I closed it behind him, but less than thirty minutes later, while on a phone call, I heard a faint, somewhat muffled, meow outside my door. I glanced out the window and saw Jack’s tail … and then all of Jack.
I ended my call and opened the door. He quickly entered, and dropped something at my feet: A dead bird. He looked up at me. I want to say he was proud, although I don’t know if cats feel pride – but yes, he was proud. One thing was certain: it was a gift. He wanted me to receive it. And I did. I picked up the small, still warm bird, wondering how this aging cat with one front tooth and less than perfect vision managed to kill it. Jack kept his focus on me as I now placed the bird on a paper towel. I enthusiastically thanked him for the gift, assuring him that it was such a perfect gift that one will do – and he never has to bring me another bird. And he never did. But that moment was a huge moment in our human-cat relationship.
From that day on, Jack would never miss another meal. My father was pleased. As was I. Jack the cat would also now have a warm place to sleep whenever he wanted – one of his favorite spots, the highest point in the house: atop my refrigerator.
As he spent more and more time indoors with me, he never needed a litter box. When need be, he would go to the door and wait or meow. He still very much liked being outside, and I enjoyed knowing that he could have the best of both worlds.
He never once sprayed, but he did have a bit of a spatial challenge – perhaps because of his one injured eye – and would at times knock things over. And, in typical cat fashion, he didn’t give much thought to clearing off an area of my desk or countertop so he could nap for a while.
I’d come home and find him waiting at my front door. It was so heartwarming.
As layers of survival instincts melted from him, he became more and more trusting, eventually letting me pet and massage him in any position, including with his belly fully exposed.
We came a long way, and I would have to say that Jack was the sweetest cat I have ever encountered. And when he was naughty (or “overly curious”), perhaps wanting to jump up on the stove while I was cooking, I would pick him up and put him over my shoulder: which became our version of a “time-out.”
Wanting Jack to feel like this was a space where he would not be threatened, I implemented a closed-door policy for all other cats.
As winter arrived in Northern California, I would always search for or signal to him on cold or rainy nights, wanting him to be indoors. Oftentimes, I would find him asleep, curled up under one of the bushes. He would see me, come out from under, and I would carry him inside.
I would often tell Jack how good he was, how kind he was, and of course, how loved he was. This is a cat that would hold your gaze. There was never a feeling of being disconnected. I felt he was fully present, hearing me. I would blink. He would blink.
One of my favorite images of Jack is of him eating an entire bowl of food and then, with a full belly, running and jumping – managing to knock at least three items over – and landing on me, then falling asleep on me with not a worry in the world.
The book idea arrives.
As a writer, I never choose what I am going to write, at least not consciously. I write what shows up and feels like it wants to be written – whether it be a screenplay, a book, a blog post, or a story. What showed up while sitting in my car at a red light in Mill Valley, California one February afternoon was a book titled, Walking with Glenn Berkenkamp.
Ever since my youth, I’d been a walker, and I’ve had the honor and privilege of sharing all types of walks with a myriad of people. However, up until this point, I had never once thought about writing a book on walking. But it seemed now, as I waited at the intersection, so clearly seeing this next book, that this was indeed what I was about to do.
Later that night, with Jack on my lap, I sat down at my computer, opened a fresh Word document – and the book began to flow through me. It clearly wanted to be written.
After that first writing session, I committed myself fully to seeing the book through, never knowing where these creative endeavors end up, but trusting they need to be brought to life.
Early on in the process, I could tell this was meant to be a very gentle book – I would think about how I would first pet Jack, putting him at ease, and told myself, “that’s the energy I want to maintain throughout this book.” It became easy to remember, since much of the early writing took place with Jack either on my lap or close by.
If at any time I found myself trying to force or rush the writing, or put too much pressure on myself, I would just think of petting Jack – sometimes actually doing so and sometimes pausing to make the motion above the keyboard. Later in the book development process, I would do the same thing when responding to emails from my publisher. So, you can see, Jack infused himself into the very fiber and energy of the book, which ultimately became a book about one’s walk through life and provided 35 Wellness Walks – from balance-building/balance-revealing walks to gratitude and forgiveness walks, to seeing and listening walks, to meditation and centering walks and many others — to help us to better connect to our body, our environment, and our spirit.
Jack is a good boy.
My friend and one time agent, came to visit me from Los Angeles. Before we entered the house, he made it clear to me that he was “not really into cats.” Ten minutes later, after meeting and observing Jack, he said to me, “This may sound really weird, but this is like the kindest cat I have ever met.”
My response, “Tell that to Jack.” And he did. And it’s true, Jack had a kindness and gentleness about him, and he was starting to know it, and that he was a good boy who was deeply loved and greatly appreciated.
Jack started to make other friends as well. He won over the hearts of all those who visited. He adored my friend Cassie and she adored him.
He was loved beyond measure and had reached a place of complete contentment.
The night he asked to go out.
It was a March night here in Northern California. It wasn’t very cold, but it was drizzling. Jack asked to go out. I opened the door a few minutes later to let him back in, but he was now sitting on the bench, underneath the overhang, staring out at the soft rain. I invited him in but he chose to stay outside. An hour later, just before heading to bed, I opened the door again to let him in for the night, but he had no interest in coming in. He was still sitting on the bench – but now in a way that I’d never seen him sit before. It was like he was waiting for something … like a human waiting for a bus. I asked him a few more times if he was certain he wanted to stay outside, then I told him I’d see him in the morning.
It was still raining when I opened the door in the a.m., the bench was empty and Jack was nowhere in sight. I called to him how I usually would, by making the sound he always responded to. He didn’t come running. I felt he may have found some nice dry place to curl up.
I opened the door every hour or so to check for him. By midday I started to walk around the courtyard, checking his safe spaces and all the spots I’ve seen him in in the past. But he was nowhere. I scanned the rooftop. No Jack.
As night fell, I wondered if his old family may have invited him inside since it was raining. I knocked on the door, but they were not home. I placed a note on their door asking if he’s with them or if they have seen him – in the note I also told them that he had been living with me throughout the winter.
It turns out he wasn’t with them. The man told me the following day that it was not uncommon for Jack to disappear for weeks at a time – little did he realize he’d been living with me for more than two months.
I decided to put some food outside my door, thinking the smell may help draw him back.
As the rain continued to come down, I thought of a moment that had occurred a week or two prior. Jack was sleeping in the sun on my deck while I was writing beside him. I heard a soft rustling noise near the creek below. I looked down and saw a coyote walking past the underside of my deck, ten or so feet away. Jack had no idea he was there. And for all I know, the coyote had no idea Jack was there. But there was something about the moment, it was almost like the coyote was passing in slow-motion, like he was drawn into an energy field or vortex of some sorts – seconds later, he was off on his way, and Jack was still sleeping. I’d seen coyotes late at night in the street outside our complex, and I’ve heard them howl nearby, but that was the first time I saw one right near my deck.
The search, the psychic, and the vision.
After the second day, I felt something was wrong – you often hear of cats wandering into spaces and getting stuck or locked in etc. – so I printed flyers with his picture and also posted his info on a few websites dedicated to putting the word out about missing cats and dogs. I also did something a little less conventional, I reached out to a clairvoyant friend. After just a few moments on the phone, she gently said, “Sorry, I feel your little friend has passed on.” Perhaps sensing I wanted more info (or a different outcome) she then recommended me to another clairvoyant, a woman who specializes in animals and animal communication. The woman informed me via text that I could call her prior to her going to work the following morning. So I woke up at 4 a.m. to call her on the east coast where it was 7 a.m.
This woman was very interesting and sincere. She asked if there was water nearby – a river or creek. I said yes. She said that he is down near the creek and has lost his sense of direction. She felt he chased or followed another cat down there. Interestingly, I remember seeing one of the newer cats in the complex looking for ways down to the creek. I felt Jack may have indeed followed this cat down there.
She then said, there’s a specific sound you make when you call him. Make that sound near the creek. And then she let me know that he felt bad to have run off and didn’t want me to be mad. This was an odd thing to hear, I can’t see any scenario where he could possibly feel that I would be mad at him. But nonetheless, she had known about the water, and she described the sound I made when I would signal for him, so she was tuned into something.
As the sun came up, I put on rubber boots, grabbed gloves, opened a can of tuna to set near the creek, and made my way down the slippery embankment.
I signaled for Jack at the water’s edge and then started to wade into the two-foot deep water, combing both sides of the creek bed, looking everywhere, including beneath the exposed undersides of decks and the crevices and spaces between cement embankments.
I clucked so much that my mouth started to hurt. No sign of him.
I went further, looking through the bushes and brush that lined each side of the creek.
My concern was building. I went as far as I could go, then returned home, leaving the tuna beside the creek and another fresh can open outside my door.
I decided to sit in meditation. As I did, I saw a flash of something. It was not a flash that I wanted to hold onto. But it was an image that would prove true.
The next day, I searched the creek again, called the Humane Society, and walked the entire neighborhood in every direction. No sign of him. Many of the “missing cat” flyers I had hung of Jack were now wet from the off and on rain.
The following morning, I received a voicemail message from a woman in the neighboring apartment complex. She said that she received my flyer in her mailbox and wanted to say that she found something earlier in the week that may give me closure.
She sent me a picture. It was not a cat. But it could be viewed as a part of a cat (intestines). I met her at the spot where she took the photo – it turns out that it was the same spot that appeared to me in that flash moment during meditation. I was now looking down at clumps of hair on the still-damp asphalt. Jack’s hair. I thanked her for contacting me, knowing it was not an easy call to make; but it did confirm what I saw, Jack was taken quickly from behind by a coyote, and, to the best of my vision, died instantly without suffering.
I placed his hair into a baggy, sealed it and brought it home. I then went for a walk. As I walked, my phone rang. It was my father calling to see if there was any news on the cat. I suddenly found myself unable to speak, overcome with emotion. I finally managed to quietly get out, “I found him.” My father could tell by my voice that the outcome was not the one he or I was hoping for. He gave me a moment. “I found him. Coyote. Good cat.” I believe these are the words I put together.
Reflections going forward – and the timing of life.
Jack was a very special cat. That is for sure. He was kind, considerate, and, like all of us, appreciated being loved. In fact, he may have appreciated it even more than most.
Jack is now a legend. At least in my mind. He learned how to soften and receive, and he learned how to give. I thought of him scrounging for food in the dumpster and wherever else he could come across it, and I thought about the local coyotes doing the same thing – perhaps more and more as natural space is replaced by developed space.
As I type this, I glance over at a smiling photo of my father nearby on my desk. It’s a smile or look that says: everything is okay. Everything will always be okay.
My father passed on less than a year after Jack. I spent the last four months of his life alongside him and my family in New Jersey, three thousand miles away from my home – and from where Jack would have needed me.
Jack’s passing freed me to be with my father in a way that allowed me to focus on him one hundred percent, the same way I focused on Jack.
I often think about that coyote I saw walking past my deck almost in slow motion – with Jack sleeping just a few yards above him. I wonder if it was the same coyote. I tend to think so.
I also think about how Jack was sitting on the bench that rainy night, not wanting to come in, as if he was waiting for something.
I am not certain what force arranges things like this in life, but I will say that I feel Jack gave of himself in the most beautiful, selfless way, after he himself had struggled to find food – and love. I don’t feel his meeting with a coyote on that rainy night was in any way an accident, or even a tragedy.
As the weeks past, I would leave Jack’s bowl just where it always was on the floor, and I would picture him looking up at me, like that first time after he saw a bowl overflowing with food. His one good eye. His missing tooth. His gentle, appreciative spirit.
In many ways, Jack prepared me for the passing of my father – the man who first told me to feed him.
Nearly three years later, as I went through the final copy of the walking book prior to signing off on it going to print, another cat was sitting on my lap: Jack’s brother. But that’s a whole nother story.
Blessings on your path. May your days be imbued with gentleness.
Walking with Glenn Berkenkamp: 35 Wellness Walks to Expand Awareness, Increase Vitality, and Reduce Stress is currently available for pre-order.