Laura Marquez Christian and Woody the cat

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In September, former ABC News reporter Laura Marquez Christian; her husband, Dan; and daughter Tessa adopted a 1 1/2-year-old orange tabby from the Marin Humane Society. Woody Guthrie was 4-year-old Tessa’s first pet. She would pick up the hefty 16-pounder from under his arms and drag him around their Novato home, making the sweet and tolerant cat almost as tall as she was. Whenever she expressed her affection by squeezing Woody Guthrie like a tube of toothpaste, her parents would remind her to “be gentle.” They also told her that Woody Guthrie would be a part of their family for a long time. And he should have been. But sometimes life doesn’t go as planned.


It happened one morning on what began as a typical day at our house. My husband, Dan, and I were busy getting Tessa ready for school. Woody Guthrie had just jumped up on the chair so I could scratch his chin. Then he weaved in between my husband’s legs as Dan made coffee, and then rolled around on the floor with Tessa. It was our usual dose of morning love from Woody Guthrie.


Then he let out a loud howl and collapsed on the floor. I scooped him up, and he went limp in my arms. On the 15-minute drive to our vet, I kept my hand on his body, desperately trying to feel his breath, but there was none. By the time we arrived, Woody Guthrie’s mouth was slack and his eyes were glassy. I knew we had lost him, and the vet confirmed there was no heartbeat.


I was stunned. How does a healthy, normal cat who was playing one minute die the next? Dr. Nate told me it’s rare, and he hardly ever sees it, but it was likely a stroke or an arrhythmia of his heart. In disbelief, I drove home in a daze. My eyes blurred with tears as I thought about how to tell our sensitive 4-year-old that her first pet had died.


Dan and I spent the day crying, looking at pictures of Woody, and crying some more. We picked up Tessa from school, sat her down on a bench in front of our home and told her it wasn’t supposed to be like this, but sometimes things happen in life that you can’t explain. Woody died, we told her, but he was in cat heaven.


Tessa asked, “How did he get there?” We answered, “His soul left his body and he flew up to heaven on the stars. So whenever you look at the stars, you can see the soul of Woody.” Tessa knew that her nana’s 16-year-old cat, Callie, had recently died and she asked if Woody Guthrie was in heaven with Callie. Yes, we replied.


Later that night, when it was dark and the stars were twinkling above us, Tessa looked up and said, “Woody Guthrie and Callie must be having such a good time up there.” And just like that, all of the suffocating sadness I’d been feeling all day suddenly lifted. Seeing the passing of our sweet kitty through my innocent daughter’s eyes was such an unexpected gift.


Tessa still wistfully sings the song of praise she made up for Woody Guthrie, sung to the tune of “Frère Jacques.” But she also talks about how much fun he must be having in cat heaven and hopes that someday we might get another cat. But this time a kitten, she says.


Because there’s only one Woody Guthrie.


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