R.I.P. Ben – 1995 – 2012
January 11, 2012 in Cats
I miss him. Even as I type these words, the tears fill my eyes and slide down my face. These words blur, like the last 36 hours – a time where I've found myself staring at nothing, just remembering. Just wishing. Wishing I could see him wander up the hall in his aged, languid fashion, hugging the wall for no real reason – just for one last time. I'd tell him not to go. I'd beg him to stay. Just for a while. I'd tell him I now know his life was coming to an end, and I'd tell him not to disappear into the darkness, to not go into the forever all alone, because I loved him and if he wanted to go, well, I'd want to be with him when it ended.
My ex-girlfriend gave him to me. Her friend was part of the Cats Protection League, and he'd been found in a black garbage bag at the side of some road, somewhere, mewling for help. He was 10 weeks old and looked like a toy, especially in photographs. Tiny, vociferous, he came into my life in a basket on my doorstep one day back in 1995. My first real interaction with him was driving back to my girlfriend's house. He escaped the basket and was crawling around the car. I reached back and picked him up. He sat on my shoulder, watching the world speed by.
Sixteen years later, I could still see the kitten in him.
We stayed together for a while – the ex-girlfriend and I. She had two other cats and he enjoyed clambering on them, running around her apartment. He used to crawl up my jeans, then my sweater as I put his food out for him, too impatient to wait until it reached the floor. He wasn't called Ben back then. A temporary name was Eric, which sort of changed to Matt. These were my ex's choice, not mine. A couple of weeks later I brought him home to my mother and sister. My mother's first reaction was "But I wanted a black cat!" which faded away in about 30 seconds as he cavorted in the kitchen with my other cat, Katie.
Katie was a stray herself, came from a bad home, who one day had just entered our house and decided to sleep on the bed. Her first name was Goldilocks, for obvious reasons. But Katie suited her better, just like Ben suited Ben better.
The first night he moved in he was of course too young to be let outside, so I filled a tray with litter-substitute – a couple of handfuls of small stones from the garden. I remember his first pee inside, how we all stood around and watched him, oohing and awwing while invading his privacy. As he grew older, Katie used to beat him up. I mean "beat the shit out of him". Ben would be fast asleep on the sofa and for some reason she'd take it upon herself to leap on him, pin him to the fabric, and pound him. She'd get a couple of swipes in before my mother screamed at her, and she'd go scuttling off while Ben looked around, dazed. I remember clearly Katie swatting him so hard in the kitchen that he skidded across the floor, into the kitchen table, dazed again. He was small back then and she was built like a boxer, with a temper to match.
When Katie died – I held her in my arms, dying, after she'd been hit by a car – Ben wandered around the house for days, looking for her, missing her even though she had been such a torment for him when he was younger.
He was just that kind of cat.
As well as taking in strays we also looked after our friends cats when they went on holiday. Ben was rarely alone for company. He never moaned or hissed at any other cat coming into the house, sharing his food. Sometimes he actually brought friends in. It was like he attracted those in need of shelter or care into a quiet home, full of laughter and attention. One day he brought in a beautiful ginger cat, and they both sat for 30 minutes watching a cop show on television. After it finished, ginger cat left, never to be seen again. One of those moments that are a bit surreal that you wonder if they actually happened.
Over his lifetime, I guess he welcomed about 9 or 10 cats into his home.
There was Katie, of course, but there was also Shelley, Vienna, Holly, Django, Flaco, Felix, Socks, Henry and Jake. He never fought with any of them, indeed he seemed to relish meeting new cats and sharing the same space. I cannot for the life of me remember him even hissing at any of them, and when any of them did happen to hiss at him (usually a proximity thing) he'd just stare at them, confused. I've never met a more unselfish, caring animal in my life.
He was just that kind of cat.
One particularly bad but cat-filled Winter the snow was so thick that no-one wanted to go out, and the bladders of Django, Flaco, Ben and Katie must've been full to bursting. I trudged up to the corner shop and came back with cat litter, dug out the litter tray from storage, and filled it. Ben was first in, surrounded by three others in a somewhat orderly queue, all waiting their turn. After he finished (you could almost sense the relief in him) he exited and Flaco went in next, but not before Ben put a comforting paw on Flaco's back. It was a strange moment mainly because it was so human. He loved Flaco the most, and missed him when he went back home. Django was a tad stand-offish, while Katie could'nt be trusted, but Flaco had been his good friend from the moment they met. As a kitten, Ben used to wrap him paws around Flaco's neck and kinda ride him up the hall, Flaco mewling but not really minding. This little white and black toy kitten, hanging around the neck of a pure black cat for dear life, was hilarious to all involved.
As his six months locked inside began to come to an end, and as he grew from a toy to an adult, Ben became obsessed with going outside. He'd sit at the window and watch the others cavort or stare at nothing in the garden, the injustice of not being able to join them clear on his face. He'd throw tantrums, claw the glass, complain to us until it became too much and I decided to put some clothesline on his collar and walk him outside. It's as clear in my mind now as if it happened yesterday. The look of wonder on his little face, the slight fear in his eyes. I walked him around the garden and he didn't try to run or get free, but I remember the complaints when we had to go back inside.
My mother had been warned by a cat-loving friend that the first couple of occasions when Ben was let outside on his own were crucial, and to make sure that nothing frightened him and that if it did, he was able to get back inside quick. Of course this plan didn't go well – Ben jumped up to the kitchen window, looking to get back in, and my mother opened it which promptly knocked him off the windowsill into the garden five feet below. She screamed "Ben!" in a panic. Ben – apparently unperturbed – just jumped back up to the window, and although looking slightly confused, clambered in. Maybe he thought that this was just the way things happened, and he'd have to be knocked off every time he came up? It didn't matter, as he soon got the hang of things and learned to duck when the window was opened for him. The kitchen windowsill became his favourite place.
I can't really believe he's gone.
That I won't see him lying on the windowsill in the Summer, paws stretched out in the sunshine, pressing against the window surround, dozing off with his fur almost shining, his ears twitching to the sounds of his world. I have so many photographs of him there – sleeping outside, inside on the kitchen sink on his towel, him looking at visiting cats. I don't have children and all my photo albums are of cats, and most of those cats are Ben.
He went through a phase of jumping at laundry. During the Summer on good drying days, my mother and I would hang out sheets to dry in the back garden and Ben took it upon himself to launch his entire body at them for some unknown reason – you know, legs fully stretched, paws too, the way cats do when they're trying to catch prey. Only the prey were white or light-coloured sheets, and they'd come back inside dry, but with tiny little pawprints on them. One time we swung him in a sheet in the kitchen – he lay on his back, paws in the air as we swung him gently to and fro, giggling like idiots, and we got bored before he did.
You couldn't accuse Ben of being a great hunter – in his 16 years I only remember him catching 2 or 3 mice, little dormice or field mice – and bringing them inside for yours truly to rescue in old hairdryer boxes with holes punched in them. He was terrified of the Dyson and would leave the house whenever I vacuumed, but late one night as it stood in the hall, waiting to be put away, my mother discovered him cuddled up to it, entire body wrapped around it like it was his big new plastic friend. She alerted me to this, and we both stood admiring his complete change of heart, at the cuteness. This of course made him get up and walk away as if he was embarrassed at his own level of adorableness.
I picked up the Dyson to wrap up the cable and a little mouse ran out from underneath it, making a bee-line for my bedroom.
My mother's reaction? Well, you remember the mother in Tom and Jerry, and how she'd screech and jump in the air whenever Jerry appeared? It was that made real. After I stopped laughing, and after a painful hour rescuing the mouse and taking him outside (and a safe distance across the road in the hairdryer box) the laughter continued.
Moments like these, and many, many more, will be carried in me forever. Little memories of my life, punctuated by him.
He didn't like going to the vet – I guess no cat does – and I can count only three times Ben had to make the journey. Mewling helplessly in the back of the taxi with me, me putting my fingers through the mesh of his little temporary prison so he could rub his cheek against them and feel a bit safer. Two of those trips were to get him neutered – the first trip for the actual operation, the second to fix it after he tore his stitches (making something pop out where it shouldn't pop out). The third time was when he injured his leg one dark fifth of November, probably from a fright from a firework. After his injury, he slept soundly in the cat carrier next to the fire in the lounge. His friend Flaco sidled up to him and kept and eye on him until he awoke with nothing more than a slight, temporary limp.
He had an incredible coat. Fur you'd swear actually belonged on something a lot bigger, like a polar bear, but condensced onto a much smaller body. You could spend a long time just sinking your hands into it, revelling in the warmth and softness. And you want to know the strange thing? For such a permanently affectionate and caring cat, he never, ever slept on anyone's bed. The only time I do remember is when we first brought him here, and my girlfriend and I were in bed with this manic ball of fluff until we heard a thump in the dark, and that was Ben, gone. And he wasn't a lap cat either. Instead he'd sleep anywhere. On the sofa, in the hall, on the kitchen sink on his towel, in the strangest fucking places. The entire house was his bed. He was affectionate, of course – he'd sit in front of my mother and have his face smooshed forever, sticking his face up the sleeve of her dressing gown, or he'd sit on the sink and wait to be petted then run away after a minute or two, apparently perturbed about the public display of affection.
The only fight I ever remember him being was one I wasn't there to witness. I was at work and I got a hysterical call from my mother that he'd been in a fight with someone, something, and had calmly walked back home and into the kitchen covered in so much mud and cat saliva that she'd initially thought it was some new, strange cat. After I'd calmed her down, she'd gone to work on him with a lot of water and facecloths, and lo and behold, it was actually Ben. We never found out who his opponent had been, and Ben – for one – wasn't telling.
As the years rolled by, all 16 of them, he aged, but aged well. He started a fondness for cooked chicken which lasted until his final days. He saw cats come and cats go. During one short period of his life – perhaps around 11 or 12 – he was the only cat in the house. He didn't like it one bit. He'd wander around from room to room, looking for company that wasn't myself or my mother. You could feel his loneliness. He'd shared his house with so many other cats, so many other little personalities with so many other foibles. It was obvious he craved company – even those who'd watch him with a wary eye or a warning hiss when they first arrived, only for them to soften over time until friendship eventually blossomed. In the past couple of years he wasn't as limber as he used to be, but until his final day he still managed to jump up onto the kitchen sink, front paws hooked over the basin to pull himself up. Sometimes he wouldn't make it, and I'd lift him up despite his protests.
In his three final years he made a great friend – Henry. Henry had arrived hissing at the kitchen window – out of the blue at first, then a regular – before finally moving in and proving to be a big, kind softie at heart. Henry was 11 to Ben's 16, and they soon became as thick as thieves, following each other out into the garden, sitting on the path together waiting for my mother to come back from the shop or sleeping together in the hall beside the radiator, neither of them hogging the space or the heat too much. In many ways it was the perfect relationship – two older males, both placid, secure and exceptionally friendly to each other – sharing food and water and a lot of affection. Where one would go, the other would follow, and never far behind. In retrospect it was the perfect friendship for Ben, and was probably even more so for Henry, as Jake – the other current inhabitant of this house – has paranoid delusions that somehow Henry is planning SOMETHING TERRIBLE for him. Ben somehow softened the antagonism between them (all Jake's doing, believe me) over the years.
Both Henry and Jake have been muted over the past 36 hours. They wander around the house knowing that Ben's gone, that a key component of their life is now missing. Jake isn't his usual vocal self, and I've found both of them sitting in the hall, staring at the door as if they expect Ben to come home any minute. For him to walk in, and for everything to be the way it was. For Ben to stand in the hall, meowing so someone would open the front door for him, even though there's a perfectly good cat-door for him to use, but even perfectly good cat-doors don't allow him to trot up the hall surveying the outside world as he goes until he stops on the path and looks back.
That adorable little face, the same face I loved for 16 years.
I brushed Ben for the last time on Monday morning. He hadn't been doing too good for four days – waking up suddenly and meowing in distress until my mother or I came to him, speaking softly, consoling him until he felt okay again, when he'd go into the kitchen for some milk or water, then to guzzle some food. I'd planned to take him to the vet on Tuesday, as Monday's are incredibly busy times for our local vet and I didn't want to upset him even more with the cacophany of dog barks and strange smells as we'd sit together in the waiting room. As I said – he was in distress, but not as much as you'd think from his behaviour. His appetite was as healthy as ever, and even though he'd been drinking more liquids than normal, after his meowing he would be fine, looking at my mother and I as if we were the ones with the problem.
Brushing Ben was usually the longest time you could spend with him while being actively close, close enough to hug, and although he always needed to be cajoled into enduring this forced grooming, he'd end up purring in spite of himself. So, Monday morning I gave him a good, long brush. The house was quiet, and it was just him and I, with him protesting then submitting, little paws sliding on the kitchen sink. If you talked to him, told him how handsome he was, how he would always be Baby Ben, what a good cat he was, that sort of thing, well he'd soon relent and stand while I worked at his coat, that incredible, thick coat. Then the same routine – I'd finish, and depending on his prevailing mood he'd walk across the kitchen surfaces to glare at me while finishing with his tongue the horror I'd just perpertrated against him. On Monday he stood next to the toaster, glaring at me, then came back for some milk, indignities forgotten.
I wanted him to look good for the vet on Tuesday.
He'd been gone for hours before I noticed it. He'd recently taken to sleeping at the doorway to my mother's bedroom, cosy on the thick carpet, ignoring the fact that her bedroom was Jake's Domain, although Jake had never bothered with him sleeping there, even the times he had to leap over Ben to come into the hall. I was in the kitchen, cutting my hair, mainly because I wanted to look at least semi-decent for the vet too. I had assumed that Ben was still there, fast asleep, as had my mother. I came out of the shower at around 11pm, dressed, then went to check on him.
He had gone. And gone for hours.
I searched the house, every possible hiding place, but there was nothing. No sign of him. He never spent more than an hour outside, and even though it was quite a mild, calm night, I quickly calculated that it had been about three hours since I last saw him, if not more. I alerted my mother, then I went outside. There was no sign of him anywhere, and this was a cat who never went far these days. I wandered empty streets for a good hour, calling his name. Wandered into gardens, around wasteland, behind garages, treading in God know's what in the dark, calling his name in a halting stage whisper.
But even before I'd left the house, I knew he'd gone. To curl up somewhere safe, somewhere quiet, to die in peace because he knew it was his time to do so. The search was fruitless, of course. Ben didn't want to be found. He just wanted to go away and die a peaceful death. My tears became sobs pretty quickly, and I didn't give a damn who saw me searching. Eventually I came home, unable to stop crying.
No-one slept soundly on the evening of Monday, the 9th of January.
I awoke on Tuesday morning early. Grey skies, but dry and I slipped on the mud-caked trainers I'd worn the night before and started searching again. The same areas, the same quiet places I thought he'd go to in his final moments. I saw a fox trotting through back gardens. I met a little black cat, probably about a year old, and I asked it if he'd seen Ben, because I'm a stupid cat person and questions like that are not only essential, but valid, especially in the context. I listened to the bird song for no other reason than I hoped they'd somehow help me, because Ben was friendly with all birds. I cried a little – not as much as the night before – as I trod in dog-shit and mud-streaked grass, pushing away the bare branches that whipped my face. Everything that wasn't green or brown or dark was Ben. Unfortunately, because of the recent storms that hit Scotland, there's a lot of detrius-filled plastic bags still lying around, caught in bushes or trees or butted up against corners where the wind couldn't push them any more, and these were also Ben, every one of them, and every one of them had to be checked, and every one of them was a disappointment. I covered the same 100 yard radius but now in weak daylight, walking through people's gardens, checking under cars, the mild night before now transformed into a cold, driving windswept morning, the light rain stinging my hands and face. I searched as dog-walkers walked dogs, as cars and vans drove by, as people went to work, all of them unaware of me but maybe giving me a second glance, catching a look at my red-rimmed and swollen eyes and the desperate face surrounding them.
Ben didn't want to be found.
I know he's under someone's shed, or someone's garage or in some quiet place where he's never been before and where he won't be found by anyone for a while, and he's curled up, looking for all intents and purposes as if he was asleep, only now he's sleeping forever. I know he died safe and secure and in some kind of final peace, and I know as well he'd be purring in his last moments because that's what cats do at the end, when whatever's ailing them becomes too much and triggers the urge for them to find a final resting place.
I just wish it was in my arms. I just wish – knowing now what he was going through – that his end was in my arms at the vet, and that as his head and body relaxed I could tell him for a final time how much I loved him. That all the joy he brought into my life will never be forgotten. That his presence – the 16 years we spent together – will always be fondly remembered. It doesn't matter that I regularly told him how much I loved him, and it doesn't matter that I know in my heart he knew how much he was loved, none of this matters. Just like I wish I could see him wandering up the hall, or sitting on the kitchen sink meowing for chicken or milk or for me to open the front door for him because it was a daft game to him and how I loved doing it for him, just because it was a daft game and it made him happy.
It's selfish, I know.
It's Wednesday morning now. I've found myself standing in front of my bedroom window a lot, looking out into the gardens, not seeing anything but wishing I could see him. I'd give anything to see him walk by, coming back from a morning patrol, walking his particular little walk, knowing he'd be coming back inside for breakfast or for a sleep besides something warm.
I'm still not used to not seeing him. I walk from my bedroom into the hall and there's something missing. Something small and cuddly and affectionate and sometimes annoying. Something that's been a part of my life for 16 years. I walk into the kitchen to make a cup of tea and I fully expect him to be either napping on the sink or outside on the windowsill, waiting to come in.
But he's not there now. And he won't be.
I could bore you for hours with memories of him. I could write and write and write some more about little moments we spent together. I would do this without shame or embarrassment, even though I'd be crying and laughing. Outside of my relationship with my mother and my sister, my life with him is the longest I've ever spent with another sentient being. Christ – I only knew my arsehole of a father for 12 years.
I don't care if you think this is maudlin. I don't care what you think about me sobbing, or wandering the streets looking for him, or putting up posters of him in local shops in the off-chance that someone will find his body, I really don't care. I know that if you're a pet owner and that you've lost one you'll fully understand the grief I'm going through. I know you'll understand why I'm writing this, even though I'm sobbing now as it comes to the end. You'll know why I don't feel stupid spilling these words out, why I want to make a final statement here, on the internet, to live forever, to mark his death and to mark the loss I now feel and the love I'll feel for him until I die myself.
If you'd met Ben – and knew him like I did – I know you'd feel the same.
As I'd said before, I've known a lot of cats down the years. And as I said before, Ben was one of the most unselfish cats I've ever had the pleasure to have known. One of my first thoughts about his death – one I had as I searched in vain for him on a surprisingly mild, Winter night – was that his final, unselfish act was to save me from a final and awful trip to the vet, and to save me from a final vet bill, one I can't really afford but would have paid anyway. It just seems like something he would do, even though I'm going through the irrational hopes and wishes that come with grief, it makes sense.
I can see him now, thinking about going to the vet on Tuesday, and how it probably wasn't going to end well and choosing to go off on his own to die on his own terms, before it all happened.
He was that kind of cat.
And I miss him.