Tuesday, August 12, 2014

RIP Ben-Ben

To me, a house wasn't a home without a cat. Dave, he was more of a dog person. Didn't really see the value in a feline companion but, after we'd been living together for a few months, because he loved me, he announced that we would go to a local animal shelter and pick out a kitty cat.

There were a lot of cats that autumn day at the All Heart animal shelter near Powassan, Ontario. All kinds of cute kittens. Even more full grown cats, some of them handsome, some of them pretty, all of them sad behind the walls of their kennels. I had my eye on a grey tabby but Dave was interested in a skinny white short-haired male with the most unusual blue eyes. The nice lady at the shelter scooped him out of his cage and carried him over to Dave. Ben, as she called him, had all four legs stuck straight out in front of him, stiff as a board. It was the weirdest thing I'd ever seen. She plopped him in Dave's arms and Ben instantaneously shed what amounted to another whole cat of wiry white hair on Dave's shirt.

Then he meowed. The most awkward meow I'd ever heard. Like he just got his tail stuck in a car door.

The shelter lady laughed. "Ben's a talker," she said.

A talker. I'd never heard that expression before. "Oh yeah," she said, "he talks all the time. Sings, too. Cutest thing ever."

Dave and I, never having had a "talker" cat before, thought that was cute as well. It wasn't so cute a couple nights later, when Ben was howling mournfully at the top of his cat lungs at four o'clock in the morning. He did this every night. Night after cursed night. Dave and I walked around with raccoon eyes. I thought we were going to die from lack of sleep. It was worse than having a newborn baby because at least the baby didn't shed. Dave resorted to filling a squirt bottle with water and chasing the cat around the house in his underwear (Dave, not the cat), squirting him until he stopped yowling. He did this for weeks before Ben got the message. Dave running around in his gotchies in the middle of the night chasing a howling cat became my norm. It got to the point where I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.

One night, during the underwear-squirt festivities, Ben jumped on our bed and scrambled across it at lightning speed, Dave in hot pursuit. Before I could even close my mouth, mid-snore, Ben's leg was down my throat, right up to his giblets. He was gone again before I could even choke, but the feel of that kitty litter encrusted back leg thrust deep past my tonsils scarred me for life.

If someone ever tells me a cat is a "talker," I will avoid that cat like the proverbial plague. I know now it is code for "you will never sleep again."

Eventually Ben figured out that he could sing his opera at bedtime without being chased. We'd go to bed, the house would quiet, and our prima donna would start the first strains of his aria, first a quiet few meows in a simple tenor, then growing in volume, a mezzo-soprano at his peak, then dipping low, low into the baritone of his soul, growling out his feelings in an emotional crescendo, then, finally, finishing with a breathless credenza, and then one long held note, then quiet. Sometimes we would applaud. Sometimes we'd just giggle. I always wanted to paint a picture of Ben with an opera stage as the background. I never got around to it, but I will, some day, when I'm not so sad.

Back at the shelter, I wasn't impressed with Ben. Dave was positively covered in white hair and Ben was staring at me with the most bizarre expression. He looked kind of like a cross-eyed barn owl. I kept thinking about the grey tabby, or maybe the orange kitten.

The lady told us Ben had terrible teeth. "The worst our vet has ever seen. Some are broken right off. We figure he was given bones to chew on."

Ben, she told us, was raised in an ice hut with three large dogs and an alcoholic. When the hut burned down, the man – now truly homeless – brought his animals to the shelter. Which was a good thing, of course. I don't have any idea what happened to the man, but Ben was well fed and well looked after at the shelter. He was neutered and referred to a veterinary dental surgeon to have his teeth fixed.

Dave handed him over to me as the shelter lady told us his story. Ben looked up at me with his weird blue eyes and something loosened in my heart. "We'll take this one," I said. Ben seemingly understood what I said because he dropped a load of white hair in my lap, enough for people to confuse me with the abominable snowman.

We brought him home and immediately regretted it.

Ben was the biggest asshole we had ever met.

He scratched EVERYTHING. Our furniture. Our drywall. Dave's workboots. We bought every scratching post known to man, and still he scratched shit. Between him keeping us up all night and him wrecking our furniture, me and Dave almost got a divorce – and we weren't even married yet!

Worse, even though eight-year-old Ben was fixed, he still carried on like a stud. Every time we turned around he was humping our afghans, especially the ones Dave's Aunt Edna had made. Oh, he loved Aunt Edna's blanket, humping it every chance he got. "It's his girlfriend," our son Sam said. I began hiding Ben's girlfriends in the closet.

I'd never, ever had a cat de-clawed before. Never had a need. Always thought it was cruel. But it was declaw him or take him back to the shelter. So we had him declawed. At the same time we had his teeth fixed. He came back from the vet with sore paws and this dopey, toothless grin. With his silly crossed eyes and his droopy lip, he looked like a stroke victim.

For years, absolute YEARS, we regretted inviting Ben into our lives. We told everyone he was the biggest asshat of a cat in the world. But somehow, somewhere along the line, we began to get accustomed to his crooked face.

He was fearless, for one. Before we had him declawed and turned him into an indoor cat, he used to fight the neighbourhood bully cats who grew feral in the barn next door. One day we watched out the window as Ben stalked a raven that was three times as big as he was. When we moved across the country, our other cat cried and shit himself and thought he was dying, every single day, but Ben rode on the console between me and Sam, looking out the window and enjoying the scenery. When we lived in a log cabin, he got up every morning with Dave and "helped" him light the woodstove. When we moved to Alberta, he visited us in bed every night, usually when Dave was reading. He'd start at his feet and walk right up Dave's body, sniffing his mouth and licking his nose – just one lick – and then curling up on his chest behind Dave's Kindle. I always enjoyed this because Dave never liked cats, and now him and Ben-Ben, his squirt bottle nemesis, were, unexpectedly, best friends.

About a month ago, Ben started throwing up. Once a day, every day. I changed his food to a formula for seniors, but he continued to be sick. Unlike our other cat, who throws up everywhere (usually on a couch or a rug, never on a bare floor), Ben had the good manners to throw up in his litter box. Such a tidy kitty he was, in spite of the cloud of white hair that has followed him like Pigpen for all of his 16 years. We have given up worrying about it and have proudly taken Ben hair to weddings, funerals, supermarkets and every place we've ever worked.

A week ago Ben got lethargic. He laid on our bed all day and I teased him about being a lazy cat. Then he stopped eating, and he started laying on the floor. Yesterday, before I took him to the vet, he lay in our closet behind a semi-closed door.

I should have known something was wrong. He hadn't sung opera for nearly a month.

The vet told us he had cancer. Dave and I talked about it. Cried about it. And decided to have him put down. The kids came to the clinic to say good-bye, then waited in the car while Dave and I kept Ben company. I cuddled his skinny, shedding body in my arms and petted him, then the doctor took him for a few minutes to put a catheter in his thin leg. Dave and I held hands in the next room, and he squeezed my hand when we heard Ben cry out when the IV was put in.

The vet brought Ben back to us. The first needle would tranquilize him, put him to sleep, literally. The second needle in the IV would stop his heart.

My face was right in front of his as we prepared to say good-bye. I stroked his funny, sad face and told him he was the best kitty ever, and I was so glad he found us and we found him, and it was true, I had fallen in love with this asshole of a cat and tears were streaming down my face as I told him I loved him, and Dave was patting his back and, then the first needle and within a second Ben relaxed and his pupils dilated black and his head rested on the tabletop. I cried harder and stroked his head and murmured words of love, and then the second needle and the light left his eyes, and in that split-second I wanted, irrationally to hit "undo" like my computer, UNDO, UNDO, bring him back, I'm sorry, I love you Ben-Ben, and my heart broke, it just broke, with guilt and sorrow.

I know it's for the best. I know, in my head, it was the right thing to do. But my heart doesn't know that. My heart hates me, for having the power to take another creature's life. Maybe it was too soon. Maybe he could have been here longer. I try to take solace that we saved him from suffering, but I've never had to take the responsibility of euthanasia before and being the adult sucked, it just sucked so bad.

Last night Dave dug a hole in the hard-packed clay of our backyard. It was a hot day. The soil was like concrete. It took forever. I sat beside him on the lawn, sharp blades of grass itchy on my hot legs, Angus watching solemnly from the back deck. When the hole was finally deep enough (three feet), he went to the garage and came back with Ben wrapped in a green bath towel. Dave was carrying that bundle like he was carrying a newborn baby, and I could see the tears streaming down his face as he came closer to the grave. He placed Ben tenderly in the bottom of the hole, then covered him up, tamping the dirt down occasionally to help prevent settling, then covering the grave with a patio stone so neighbourhood dogs wouldn't dig him up. We decided, in the spring, we would plant a wild rose there, in his honour. Because wild roses are the provincial flower here in Alberta, and because if Ben was a flower, he would be a wild one.

Last night there was no singing in our sad house. No opera. No whiskery kisses. No crossed eyes or droopy lips. I'm sure there will be white hair here for years to come and you know what? I'm in no hurry to get rid of it.

Already I miss the singing. Already I miss the Ben.

Thanks to the wonderfully caring people at Cold Lake Veterinary Clinic for helping us through this difficult time.