Sunday, April 23, 2006


Good-bye to an old nemesis friend

When Beloved and I moved in together, way back in 1995, he came with baggage in the form of two slightly neurotic cats. The skittish tabby was Tiny (in name only) and the fierce, ill-tempered black one was Ben.

Ben and Tiny had been with Beloved for a couple of years before I came along and bumped them down the totem pole of Beloved's affections. I still remember one of the first times I visited, having Ben stand on my lap and butt his head against me as I sat next to Beloved on the couch. "Awww, he likes me!" I said, having been forewarned of his tendency to hate everyone except Beloved. It was only after a few minutes that I realized he was not so much being affectionate as trying to shove me out of the way and away from Beloved. It was a moment that would come to define our relationship.

When we lived in a little two bedroom apartment perched in the attic of an old house in the Glebe, Ben would wake us up every single day between three and four in the morning, yowling for breakfast. You didn't walk past Ben too quickly, or he would try to sink his teeth into your achilles heel on the way by. My friends took great joy in baiting him, because it didn't take much to turn him into a hissing, spitting ball of angry black fur.

That's why when Beloved and I got married and moved into a town house and I could finally get the dog I had been dreaming of for years, I didn't have a lot of problem relegating the cats to the finished basement family room / office when the dog and the cats proved incompatible. We tried over the years to integrate them, but Ben's fierceness coupled with the fact that we were enjoying not being yowled awake hours before the first sparrow's chirp eased our guilt about how this integration never seemed to work out. And so the cats dropped another notch down the totem pole.

And within a couple of years after Katie the golden-retriever/shepherd mix arrived, the boys followed... dropping the hapless cats another couple of notches down the family totem pole. I bet you didn't know totem poles even had basements.

The cats have always been well-cared for, and had each other for company in the 'cat cave', as we came to call the basement. One Christmas we returned from a brief visit with my folks in London to find Ben lethargic and obviously sick, with mucus around his anus. It was New Years Eve, and the emergency appointment to the vet ended up costing us more than $700... to have the vet shave Ben's ass, do a few tests, and tell us that his illness was likely gastrointestinal upset as a result of a new food we were trying.

Both cats were fat, Ben especially. At his largest, he was 18 lbs. That's why when he started dropping weight in the last year, we knew something was up. Then a few months ago, he started licking bare patches into his fur. But he was still feisty and spry, and although we suspected his days were numbered, as long as he seemed content (by Ben's standards, anyway), so were we.

That changed yesterday. It was obvious he was suddenly in pain. His feet slid out from under him and he just lay on the floor before getting up. Beloved brought him to the vet, who could without invasive testing diagnose more than one ailment, which probably still did not account for his pain and obvious lethargy. We could do more tests, we could try a pill-a-day for the rest of his life (those of you who own angry cats can imagine how much fun this would be for the cat, let alone the person trying to do it), but none of these things would be guaranteed to make an improvement. He was fifteen years old. It was time to let him go.

He wasn't my cat, despite the fact that we lived together for more than ten years. He was, to the end, Beloved's cat, and it's for Beloved that my heart aches.

As I said, the cats lived in the basement, and while Beloved or I were often downstairs (the computer was down there, and Beloved's office) the boys only came down occassionally, so much so that they often confused which cat was Ben and which was Tiny. When Beloved came home from the vet without Ben, we decided to leave the door open and let Tiny join us upstairs if he so chose. He can fit through the baby gate to the basement stairs while the dog cannot, and he spent much of yesterday on the stairs, not courageous enough to come all the way up.

Yesterday, Tristan was aware that Beloved had taken Ben to the vet, but we had been evasive on exactly what had happened. We said that Ben wasn't coming back, but Tristan didn't seem overly concerned. He was, however, tickled at the idea of Tiny coming upstairs and spent quite a while near the stairs, coaxing him up. You can imagine why Tiny was reluctant, with Tristan, Simon and Katie as a welcoming committee on the far side of the gate!

This morning, we had all just tumbled out of bed and into the living room when Tristan asked when Ben was coming home. The need for honesty caught up with me, and I told him, "Ben died, honey. He died." To my surprise and regret, Tristan began to cry. I hadn't expected him to grasp the concept so quickly, or with such empathy. He cried for a few minutes, gentle tears running down his cheeks, while Beloved and I tried with choked voices to combine platitudes with honesty to reassure him.

The short attention-span of the preschooler is sometimes a gift, and Tristan was soon more interested in coaxing Tiny upstairs than in mourning Ben. A few times, he asked a version of "when is Ben coming back", and one more time he cried when he grasped the finality of it. I found myself invoking God, and heaven, because they are comforting ideas and at least make the concept of death manageable and bearable, especially for a four-year-old.

Good-bye, Ben. I promise to take good care of our Beloved for you.