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Coal was our first family cat. I came back from a visit to my daughters over spring break and Shonna and Shon met me at the airport with those smiles that tell you they have been up to some mischief, looks that would tip anyone off but somehow escaped the prescient eyes of Detective Mulligan. I got home to discover a poofy ball of black and white fur, a kitten that seemed to have two heads.

One of Shonna’s co-workers told her they allowed a momma cat to give birth in their house, and then a few sickly cats showed up to share the wealth. They shooed off one, but Coal was too malnourished to take a hint, so they plied my wife with this hard-luck story, certain that it would work, as it did, of course.

It turned out that he was not as young as he seemed, just too malnourished to grow. We fixed that problem and he turned into a big fluffy Norwegian Forest cat mix, with the added mutant factor of being a bobtail. That’s not exactly correct; he had a tail, but the bones were fused into a hook shape, which meant that the fur poofed out into a second head, confusing predators and eventually coming close to costing me a leg.

After he had grown to full adulthood (his early days of struggle did not seem to affect his eventual size—while not quite Maine Coons, Norwegian Forest cats are pretty big and well adapted to frigid conditions, not that this would be an issue in a home where the Mistress of the House kept it so warm it threatened to boil the goldfish.) he became a pretty amiable goof, as large cats thankfully are, but one day he got his hooked tail snagged onto a game controlled and ran around the apartment in a panic. No matter how fast he ran, the evil controlled followed his every move. It was time for a hero to stand up, and that’s when I, Shoeless Bill Mulligan, saved the day and unentangled him from the cord.

In gratitude, he sank his claws into the soft, fleshy part of my left foot.

Cat’s claws are the Komodo Dragon’s mouth of household threats, full of contaminated litter and cat spit, none of which 4 out of 5 pathologists would recommend getting into your bloodstream. I was unaware of the danger I was in, just hopping around on one foot while my family chuckled.

I woke the next morning to a very sore, red foot. The pain increased by the hour, so off we went to the urgent care facility. By then I had to sit on the floor. It was too painful to allow gravity to send blood to my foot. Once on the table I came as close as I have ever come to passing out. The doctor had a purple aura around him. “Hey, I think I’m passing out,” I said, with about as much urgency as remarking on the inferior quality of the magazines they provided in the waiting room (remember those?). The doctor adjusted the table so my head was below my body and it was amazing how the room just changed. Anyway, off to the emergency room at Duke hospital, grumbling about how this was really ruinng a perfectly good Saturday.

They took a magic marker and drew a line where the border was for the infection, where pink flesh turned red. Amusingly, it looked like a cat’s body. Less amusingly, after an hour, it had spread about an inch beyond the border.

One disadvantage of teaching science is that you learn enough science to know what bad things mean as they happen. An inch an hour sounds a lot like Necrotizing fasciitis, which, because they figured that didn’t sound terrifying enough, is also known as Flesh-Eating Bacteria. I shared this diagnosis with them and they laughed until the next hour and another inch of spread and then I spent a week in the hospital.

What a nightmare. They hooked me up to various IV bags of antibiotics and nothing did more than slow the spread until they got permission to use Vancomycin, which is a super-antibiotic they are trying to use sparingly, so as not to encourage bacterial resistance. That cleared it all up overnight, though it was some time before I could walk without crutches. The infection had caused cellulitis, which is one of those words that does not convey how awful it is—basically bacteria spreading between the layers of skin, giving one the feeling of being skinned alive.

Coal was appropriately affectionate upon my return, as if sensing that I dearly wanted to give him a swift kick in the ass with my remaining good leg.

Anyway, he was a very sweet cat, other than the whole almost killing me stuff. He passed away at 12 from renal failure, a relatively young age, so perhaps his early days of poverty left their mark. He reacted well when we introduced the next member of the household, Obi, following her around with a comical “What fresh hell is THIS?” expression. It’s never easy going from only child to sibling.