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  • Writer's pictureJoy Murphy

Max, the Writer's Cat

I haven’t had a pet since I was a kid, and that was some decades ago. Kate, the archivist who processed my papers, knowing I lived a monastic life, and that I suffered from the typical mental issues that afflict a professional writer, thought it would be a good idea if I had a cat. One day she introduced me to a three-month-old tabby from a rescue shelter. He was cute, and affectionate, but he had some issues with his back legs. Kate, who has had cats all her life, said she would oversee his well-being. I agreed to foster him.

I named him Max. He was short of stature, and would never, we soon learned, grow to a normal height and weight, but for me he would always be “maximum.” Within a few days, he started showing alarming physiological problems. His back legs would inexplicably give out on him and he could only move by crawling with his forepaws. We knew Max couldn’t jump up onto a couch, or a table, but we didn’t know he had a problem where his hind legs collapsed on him.

After a few days, Max would return to semi-normal. But then it would happen again. It could start for the strangest reasons: a jackhammer tearing up the street outside; his nails getting caught in a blanket. Watching him crawl with his forepaws to his litter box and hoist himself in and relieve himself didn’t disgust me at all; it was like a scene out of Chariots of Fire. I felt so sorry for him. These episodes were heartbreaking, heroic.

I have a friend who is a veterinarian. I sent her videos. She thought it might be neurological. Which means it might be best to put him down. But how could I do that to “Little Max,” as I called him, when he was lying on my chest and purring away as if nothing was amiss. Kate wasn’t convinced it was neurological. She summoned the rescue group who worked closely with a local veterinarian. After numerous X-rays and blood panels they determined Max had a rare metabolic bone disorder where he couldn’t synthesize Vitamin D, which is essential for the absorption of calcium, and that his bones had not developed normally. The several weeks he spent alone in a ravine before he was rescued possibly contributed to his rare disorder.

Max was prescribed an oral supplement. Every third time he would vomit it back up. Dismay filled my days with Max. When his back legs gave out I felt more helpless than him. When he returned to “normal” I would be suffused with elation. He slept in his little bed in the room next to me. Every night I used to wake around four in the morning. I would carry Max like a baby into bed with me and engage in a meditation session with him: he purring on my chest; me cogitating on an upcoming trip to New Zealand to research and eventually write the next installment in the Sideways series, the novel I wrote that became the Oscar-winning Alexander Payne movie. Once I fell asleep with Max next to me. I heard him retching. Why was he vomiting? I theorized it was because when I fell asleep he sensed he had no way to get down off the bed.

One day, using his forepaws, Little Max mounted a pillow I had set out for him and clambered up onto the couch where I wrote. I almost wept. We had many moments of little triumphs and setbacks, producing an emotional rollercoaster the likes of which I’d never experienced, with an animal or a human (!).

When Covid was winding down and New Zealand was opening its borders I readied for my trip. Kate, who always administered Max’s oral supplement, was set to take him. The dilemma for her is that she has three cats, but there was no way she was going to give Max up. He was ours now.

On the ride up to LAX from San Diego I already missed Max. I spent six months in New Zealand. My new novel was set to feature Miles (my alter-ego; Paul Giamatti in the movie) and Jack (Thomas Haden-Church in the movie) on a book tour from hell. In a camper van. I took that trip for research. In winter. It was barbarous. Diagnosed with panic anxiety in the nineties, several times I had to check into ERs believing I was suffering a heart attack. Those who know me and know my work know I write from a deeply autobiographical place. I strip-mine my soul, I feast on my personal life, there is nothing I won’t exploit, no matter how self-effacing, how self-deprecating, how humiliating.

Risking the maudlin, I decided to make Max a character in Sideways New Zealand: The Road Back. He would become Miles’s (my) emotional support animal, even though I don’t like that term because it implies the animal is an adjunct to the human, when in fact, in my case, he is his own special needs case. We both need each other to assuage the fears and debilitating anxieties that we both daily confront. In missing Max more than I can convey in mere words, I was able to keep him alive in my imagination in the writing of the book.

Though he of course doesn’t speak he has his own narrative arc, his own beginning, middle, and end. If I had not been given the gift of this special needs cat I would never had had the idea to make him a character in a novel. Through his relationship to me, where a current of feeling streamed daily between us, I found one of the most affecting characters in my novel. In risking the maudlin I found something deeper. I found a subterranean level of true feeling. I found love. In a cat.

I’m sad to report Max is no longer with me. I’m happy to report he is with Kate and her three other cats. He hasn’t had a relapse of collapsing back legs in well over a year. He doesn’t vomit up his medicine anymore; in fact, he looks forward to it. He gets along with the other cats fine. He’s well taken care of. I miss him terribly. He’s immortalized in my novel. As much as Miles (me) and Jack (my friend Roy) gave me my iconic characters, Max gave me a character who lent a whole new dimension to the novel. Max didn’t write the novel, but he was its indisputable muse. Sideways New Zealand is dedicated to him.

My mental health issues are in abeyance. I’m able to fly without fear. I haven’t been hospitalized for a panic attack in a number of years. I’ve stayed sober. I like to believe Max wordlessly taught me that no matter how bleak things get, use whatever you have and crawl your way to the next station in life like Max if you have to. Stop complaining. Life is short. Live every moment to the fullest, even if you’re paralyzed with anxiety, bedridden with depression, or, God forbid, are afflicted with writer's


Kate sends me videos of Max. He’s never given up. He’s figured out ways to get up and down cat trees, onto the backrests of couches where he loves to watch the birds. His favorite movie is Kedi. His favorite treat is salmon. I would love to get another rescue cat, but I feel like I would be cheating on Max, content and healthy as he now is. But, in my novel, he will forever reside in my heart. Without him, I don’t think I would have had a novel. He brought a whole new dimension to it. I anthropomorphized him and transfigured him to the human.

Postscript: Kate brought Max for a visit. I hadn’t seen him in person for over a year. She let him out of his travel enclosure on the couch. He stepped out gingerly, eyed me circumspectly, sniffed the air all around, turned away, then turned back to me. I exchanged glances with Kate, and shrugged. She put a forefinger to her lips cautioning me to wait. A moment later, a still wary Max ventured on tiptoes to my side. He continued to sniff the air. Then, as if a flare had gone off in his head, he climbed onto my lap, crawled up onto my chest, laid his head down on my shoulder, and started purring. Was he whispering to me the idea for my next novel? I whispered back: “I love you little Max Man. I love you.”

Sideways New Zealand is now available for Pre-Order at I will sign and inscribe each novel. See Max with Miles and Jack on the cover below. Shipping late January 2024. Don't order from Amazon: they are evil.

In Pinot We Trust,

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