Twelve years ago my husband and I sat in a Chili’s restaurant in Reno, Nevada, and shared a molten chocolate cake. Such was our custom, in those days, whenever we had something to celebrate.

The tradition had begun in college. Following a final exam, a graduation, or a job interview you could find us slipping into a booth long after the dinner crowd had left. (We were too poor for dinner and dessert.) A server would bring us our menus, but we would apologetically tell her that we just wanted dessert. One dessert, two spoons.

Minutes later we would be chipping into the chocolate shell and savoring whatever event had warranted this indulgence. This particular night — 12 years ago — it was a celebration, but also something more. We had a task: picking out a name.

A month earlier we had moved 2,300 miles from our childhood homes to take a missionary post in Reno. The only familiar face each of us had was the other’s. The desert landscape — though we grew to love it — was foreign to our Tennessee eyes. It felt too big and open, like the walls of the world we knew had been laid flat. Maybe those are the reasons I asked my husband for an early birthday present: a new family member and our first pet together. I wanted a cat.

On March 20 we adopted a two-year-old buff-colored tabby named Spyder. Right away we were struck by how much he did not resemble a 1980s spandex-wearing hair metal lead guitarist. So we made a list of names we liked, went to Chili’s, and over our shared dessert narrowed the list down one by one. I don’t remember what any of the other contenders were, but by the time our plate was cleared we had made our choice. His name was Chester.

When we had first visited Chester-formerly-known-as-Spyder at the Humane Society, he had seemed friendlier than the average feline. Having had cats all my life, I had learned that most of them will only consent to physical contact if it is their idea. And they cannot be forced to occupy a human lap — the lap must be summoned. Nevertheless, I was hoping for a “lap cat,”so I was delighted when Chester had hopped right up, made himself comfortable, and laid on a nice, thick purr.

Still, I figured he might have just forgotten himself briefly, being loosed from his cage and drunk on the free air in the visitation room.
We took him home and waited to see his true
personality emerge. We quickly saw that this was indeed a kitty who defied our stereotypes.Charlotte Trip 002

Since we lived in an apartment, protecting the door frames was a big concern. Grant built an extra tall scratching post in the hopes that it would be more tempting for kitty claws. And contrary to cat nature as we knew it, Chester actually went along with it. He never scratched a single unauthorized thing.

We tried playing with him. Fully expecting to receive the “bored look” and a self-important flop of the tail, we were amazed that he chased the toy when we wanted him to.

He sprawled on his back and let us rub his belly.Chester 5

He consented to the trimming of his claws.

He came to our laps when invited.

We joked that he was a cat who thought he was a dog.

Two years later, when we moved back east, Chester made the road trip with us. His kitty breath made little foggy circles on the back window as he watched the sights along Route 66 pass by. He waited patiently while we took in the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert. He behaved his furry self in the pet-friendly hotels where we stopped overnight.

Grand Canyon 041

Packing up to move east

DSCN3666Not long after we settled in Southern Indiana, Chester learned that he would soon have a new human in his midst. Our daughter arrived in 2007, complete with strange sounds and smells. Chester decided he needed to expand his domain into the backyard.

For the next eight years, Chester was an indoor/outdoor cat: indoor when the winter turned bitterly cold, outdoor when the children DSCN3528were intolerably loud. The kids slowly learned to handle him more gently, and he learned to accept their boisterous affections.

Even after Chester got sick last fall, he kept his pleasant disposition. We kept him inside more and more. He spent lots of time in laps. He purred as the kids scratched his ears, even when he was struggling to breathe. He would still grab at a string dragged across his path, to the kids’ great delight.

Chester endured many trips to the vet in the last months, where he received fluids without a hiss or growl. At one point we were giving him four pills a day, and though he clearly didn’t like it, he took it better than the average feline and didn’t hold it against us.

Finally, on Feb. 26, it became clear that Chester’s discomfort was beyond our ability to manage. Grant did the hard job of driving him to the vet for the last time. When he left, I washed Chester’s blanket and scrubbed the floor where his litter box had sat. In a weird way, it felt like an act of service for him. At any rate it was the only one left to be done, and my default when my heart is troubled is to put my hands to work.

That night our church hosted a parents’ night out. It had been a heavy day, and Grant and I were glad for a few quiet hours together. We dropped the kids off and went out for dinner at a restaurant we hadn’t visited for years.

As we slid into the booth at Chili’s, we realized what we had unwittingly done. Our molten chocolate cake habit had ended when we moved to Indiana ten years ago simply because there was no Chili’s nearby. By the time one opened a few years ago, the old custom was all but forgotten.

But that night — without meaning to — we found ourselves bookending a chapter of our lives with a sad chiasm. A booth in Reno at the beginning. A booth in Indiana at the end. This time cost more; we splurged and had dinner too.

But there was no question about how to finish it: One dessert, two spoons, and a rush of sweet memory.

Squaw Valley & Pyramid Lake 067

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