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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Farewell to Benny

Benny basking on the back deck and reaching out his paw to ask me for more petting!

For the past seven years, I have been cat-sitting a positively ancient white and marmalade feline whenever his owners go out of town. Despite the fact that Benny was painfully thin, increasingly greasy, possessed the world's crabbiest-sounding meow, and that I'm much more of a dog person than a cat person, the Ancient Kitty and I developed a definite rapport over the years, no doubt because whenever I came over, Benny was in for a couple of hours of concentrated kitty massage! So it is with some sadness that I must announced that on Tuesday evening, November 8th, 2011, at the grand old age of 18 years and 8 months, Benny parted ways with this world.

Me and the Ancient Kitty
Our routine went something like this: when I was taking care of Benny, I'd come by in the morning to freshen his food, say hello, and bring in the newspaper, occasionally letting him out to spend the day on the back deck if the weather was fine, and then in the evenings I'd come back to feed him again (including giving him his dinner treat, which over the years varied from a couple of shrimp to little pieces of pork chop; he never ate much, so there was always the hope that something special might induce him to consume a few more calories), and then settle down to watch TV and pet him for a couple of hours. During the early years of our acquaintance, Benny would sit on my lap for the petting sessions, but as his arthritis worsened and it became harder--and then impossible--for him to jump up on my lap, I took to sitting on the floor with him. He loved that. He had the somewhat unfortunately tendency to drool when he was happy, so he'd purr and drool while I pet him, whether it was on my lap or snuggled up against my leg while I sat on the floor. He always ate better after a vigorous massaging session and I may have in fact prolonged his life with all that attention! He liked to be pet anywhere except on the stomach and especially delighted in being rubbed under the chin. He was always skin and bones during the years that I knew him, so it wasn't all that pleasant to touch him, but he loved it so much that it made it worth my while to make him so happy.

The King of the Couch back in the days when he could still jump up on it.
Benny was a cat of simple pleasures. By the time I got to know him, he had pretty much outgrown toys, though he occasionally indulged in a bit of catnip over the years and I understand he had something of a leather shoe fetish. What he loved best of all was lying in the sun and to his last days he enjoyed a good roll in the dirt. He wasn't a particularly social cat, but whenever he heard me come in through the front door, he'd yowl hello and want to get right to the snuggling.

Benny spent hours warming his old bones in the sun.

He was also of the opinion that there was nothing so fine as a good roll in the dirt!

The skinny kitty.
There was no getting around the fact that the Ancient Kitty was OLD. I thought for sure he was a goner as far back as the summer of 2006, when he was 14. Each time I came over, I braced for what seemed like the inevitability of finding that he'd died during the interval since I'd seen him last. I knew what to do in that event; his hold on life seemed tenuous enough that his owners and I had discussed that possibility and they always left a bag to store his body in until their return when they went out of town. And yet, Benny just kept living and living and living. His arthritis got so bad over the years that his paws were deformed and he had to walk on his tiptoes, causing frequent carpet snags, and his back was permanently hunched. He cleaned himself less and less over the last year or two, so his fur was often greasy and his increasing stiffness meant that eventually he couldn't reach his back at all, resulting in mats of fur along his spine. I've mentioned that he ate very little; I discovered that he preferred pates over chunks when it came to his wet food, but even then, the best you could hope for was that he'd eat a few mouthfuls. Constantly refilling his wet food one spoonful at a time with a rotating variety flavors was the best way to tempt his appetite and he could be relied upon to eat a little bit of dry food daily, but he was positively skeletal. Yet he continued to live and live and live, basking in the sun, until he finally stopped eating altogether and his owners saw that the time had finally come to put him down.

It may seem strange that someone such as myself who is so particular about tactile sensations would be willing to devote many hours to running my hands over a cat who was unpleasant to touch, but I do so love to pet animals, and I also really loved making Benny happy. What he wanted was so simple and so easy for me to give. He was old, he wouldn't live much longer (though he lived longer than anyone ever imagined!), and all I had to do to fill him with bliss was to rub his body. How could I refuse to do this for him? All of us become less pleasant in our final years and I felt, somehow, that massaging Benny even when he wasn't so nice to touch was a way of saying that we remain deserving of love (and of pleasure) even when we are old, and me giving this love to Benny, even though I hadn't known him since he was a kitten, was also a way of being hopeful that someday, when I'm old, there will be people who care for me even though they did not know me when I was young and fun and beautiful.

I'm very glad that the last time I saw him, exactly one month before he died, I gave him a wonderful spa weekend. He'd ceased cleaning himself entirely by that point and his fur was in a horrible state. I spent the first evening cutting and working the mats out of his fur during our TV time. I was in agreement with his owners that a bath would kill him and I was worried that even wiping him with a damp towel would be too chilling since he had no body fat left, but I really wanted to clean him somehow. Fortunately, thanks to the internet, I found that cornstarch can be used as a dry shampoo for a cat's coat and I rushed right over to give it a try. The method of sprinkling the cornstarch on his fur, massaging it in, and brushing it out worked like a charm! He absolutely loved it, since having me thoroughly rub through every bit of fur on his entire body essentially amounted to the mother of all kitty massages. Two hours later his fur was considerably whiter and soft and non-greasy to the touch. He was one happy cat! The next night I did a follow-up round of searching and working out every last mat and bit of cornstarch as well as some general petting. Benny was very happy and his owners reported that it was like getting a whole new cat and that he seemed considerably less depressed to be so fresh and clean!

Benny doing his best sphinx imitation and purring like mad after his cornstarch bath.

And so Benny has moved on. This is not a sad thing. I've been expecting his death for four years now and am astonished that he lived as long as he did. It was time for him to go. I will miss him, though, and his cantankerous meow and his love of being petted and our evenings spent on the floor together watching "Lock-Up" on TV. I feel like Benny has made me a better person, more giving and less judgmental, and gave me an opportunity to better understand and honor the aged.  So thank you, Ancient Kitty, and rest in peace.

March 1993 - November 2011

It wasn't always easy to photograph Benny because, unlike my dog, he wouldn't hold still for the camera! However, Benny did have the opportunity to meet Mouse a few summers ago and one of the resulting photographs is available for sale in my store! This is one way in which he will continue to live on. 5x7 Cat and Mouse - Sun Enough for Everyone

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