I spent most of this morning alternating between feeding him small plates of canned salmon, and picking him up, cuddling him, whispering that I loved him, even though he has been deaf for at least two years. I was putting off digging the grave in the garden, didn’t want to think about how deep, how wide. What is the measure of a cat?
Bennie came to us in the cold middle of February 2005; we heard him howling at the back porch, howling so loud and tormented that I was certain he was a female in heat. Jon and I thought it was sweet that a cat had “come a-courtin’” for Kobe, who had been castrated three years already. Kobe, our only male cat at the time, welcomed Bennie, never tried to chase him away, never got his tail all poufed up over him.
One night I went outside to look for Bennie and he came limping up the concrete walk to the back porch. His eye was so torn up it appeared to be hanging out of the the socket. We put him in the garage for the night, fed him, gave him a litter box and a place to sleep until we could take him to the vet. This diminutive white cat with ginger patches stunk to high heaven.
He could jump no higher than the couch, needed trashcans and step-stools positioned so that he could climb one to the other, onto the window sill where he stretched out on his back, his belly in the sun. The vet said he was probably out on his own for two years before he found us, and that malnutrition weakened his legs.
From the beginning, we narrated Bennie’s life, made up origin stories and mythological feats. Jon gave voice to Bennie’s complicated thoughts about politics and human behavior. This slightly Southern voice was part Meatwad from Aqua Teen Hunger Force and part mumbling, lispy Milton Waddams from Office Space. But Bennie, according to Jon, was smarter than the both of them. Over time, Bennie was a physicist, testing theories of gravity with the bat of a paw and gazing out the window as he pondered string theory; a champion hot dog eater; a physician with great healing powers; he was a gourmand, a native Floridian who hated Ohio, a spy who held the code name “AQ11” on the Internet, and an expert on everything. The most interesting cat in the world.
Bennie became the unofficial mascot of the Ohio University Bobcats, when the first time he sat with me while watching a basketball game, we won. On Facebook, I touted his psychic powers for victories on the court and the football field. He became Bobcat Bennie.
At times, he would crawl across the floor on his back, like he was doing the back stroke, and we would say, “Swim, Bennie, swim.” He danced in the kitchen with Vi, the previous owner who I believed haunted (in a good way) our house.
He was two years old when he found us. He warmed up immediately to Jon, but it took a couple of years before he would look for my affection, not wanting me to hold him and never sitting on my lap. Later, I could walk around with him in my arms, while he licked my hand ferociously, the only one of our four cats who tolerated such coddling.
He was Mr. Boo, Bennie Boo, or just Boo. And, right out of To Kill a Mockingbird, that softly prodding, “Hey, Boo.”
This morning, he looked up at me with his head tilted to the right, pupils huge and kittenish. He had always walked as if he didn’t have joints in his back legs, stiffly swinging one paw out in front of the other. The tiltiness started a few years ago when he got a virus that some cats get during late summer. We learned then that he had a mass deep in his ear. He quickly lost his hearing. He began to meow loud enough to drown out a smoke alarm. It was as if he put his whole self—every muscle and whisker–into that meow, maybe so he could feel its vibration and know that someone could hear him, even if he couldn’t hear himself.
But lately he stopped howling. His meows were mouthed or scratchy and low. He breathed heavily, his torso puffing like a tired bellow. Food passed through him too quickly, unabsorbed, and the vet suspected lymphoma. Running my hand across his back, I could feel every cord in his spine. For weeks, he stood at the back door like he wanted to be let outside forever. Go back to where he came from, return to the earth. Watching him fade, his eyes dim, his weightlessness hovering, felt unkind. I knew. Jon knew.
The ride to the vet today was disrupted only by the sound of our crying. Bennie, wrapped up in a colorful beach towel, was calm and quiet. Peaceful, really. Jon thought he could see Bennie’s approval in his eyes. Yes, I know. It is time.
The grave I dug this morning had filled up with water by the time we brought Bennie home. We had to start another one, sawing off roots deep in the ground. We know that we’re not supposed to bury pets in the yard but couldn’t bear to think of him tossed in an incinerator with dozens of other cats. Cats without PhDs. That’s snobbish, I know. But I wanted to cradle him into the ground, in the garden that he looked upon from his window, knowing always where he was so we would never lose him again.