When I sat down to think about it today, I realized I didn’t know how old he was. Between my decaying brain cells and the sheer numbers of animals we have called family, the exact adoption dates have blurred and jumbled in my mind. He was seventeen. Born sometime in the spring of 1989.
In those days, we were the keepers of one very homesick niece who had moved halfway across the country to make a point to her parents…and came to live with us. In an effort to cheer her up, we got her a kitten. She and her uncle cleaned up this tiny, flea-infested scrap of fur…indeed, nearly killed him with an overdose of pesticides, trying to rid him of his cast of thousands. Then she considered the now soggy, slightly groggy mite, with an eye toward giving him a name. Upon hearing his tiny, high-pitched kitten squeak, she laughed. "I was going to call him Willie (after Willem Defoe, her then-favorite screen star), but he sounds more like Beaker (after Muppet character Dr. Bunsen Honeydew’s language-challenged sidekick.)" So Beaker it was.
But even the little mostly-white-with-a-striped-tail-and-matching-nose-splotch kitty couldn’t entice the niece out of her funk. Before he reached his first birthday, his young mom packed up and moved back to the midwest (where she promptly got another cat, which she did name "Willie." Who, coincidentally, died just last month.) Beaker was left behind like a discarded toy. It was a less than amicable parting, and we had to fight with her to keep her from packing him off to the shelter (out of spite?) instead of leaving him in our care, in the only home he’d ever known, where he was perfectly welcome to stay. Eventually she relented, and left him with us to raise as one of our own. And so we did.
We had read all the books when we brought him home. And all the books said to put a pillow or a scrap of cloth in your new kitten’s bed to ease the loneliness he would feel being newly separated from Mom and littermates. So we put a gigantic red wool sock in his bed for him to snuggle. He nursed and nibbled on that old thing for months. Unfortunately, for the rest of his life, wool was Beaker’s "comfort food." We quickly learned to ascertain the fabric content of any upholstery or clothing material that might, unattended, find itself at the mercy of his oral fixation. He licked bald spots in wool rugs, gnawed wool fringe on pillows, and ate holes in my favorite wool jacket. He was like a giant furry moth with whiskers.
When Beaker was only a few months old, we acquired yet another member for our "pride"—a mink-tipped, blue-eyed little acrobat we named "Ming," but has been known for most of her life as "Bebe." From the moment she crossed the threshold, Beaker accepted her as his own personal kitten. The four older cats hissed at, spit at, or ignored the lowly youngsters. But they couldn’t have cared less. The two of them ate, played, and slept together, twenty-four/seven. Their favorite toy was a "Tinkerbelle": a little spot of light, either accidentally or purposely created, that inspires cats to fly off the ends of couches and skitter across glass end tables... I have archive footage of the two of them, rushing from one end of the living room to the other, up speakers, over television, across carpeting, chasing a flashlight beam.
And then there was "kitty fishing"—the toy which consisted of a pocket-sized fishing rod loaded with kitty bait, usually a feather or a catnip mouse, which you would cast across some large open space in the house—across the family room or down the hall. Then reel in any cat who happened to be in the vicinity. Beaker’s favorite lure was a giant jingle bell that had fallen off some ancient Christmas decoration. He would chase that bell until he was too tired to stand up. Eventually, that toy was lost in the bottom of a closet somewhere, but for years afterward, Beak would come running whenever he heard a bell jingle.
How the years have stacked up, one upon another, since those days. Beaker and his mates moved with us from that home to another, and another, and yet another. Hugged the woodstoves in dismal weather, stretched out in the rare sunspots on the winter carpet, sniffed at screen doors and raptly followed the ever-changing cast of Kitty TV in four different back yards. From the "pig tree" to the pines to the Dougs to the poplars. Chickadees and thrushes, finches and grosbeaks, hummers and squirrels, jays and siskins.
Upon the demise of our beloved Andrew—the last of our Illinois cats—Beaker stood to inherit the title of "alpha male" of our brood. He was fat, happy, middle-aged, and ready to rule the roost. But something went wrong. He suddenly dropped a bunch of weight, began to look hollow-eyed and scruffy. A trip to the vet told us he had developed diabetes. At the ripe old age of eleven, he began the two-shots-per-day insulin regimen that he would follow for the rest of his life. And so he became our "problem kitty." The diabetes gave him continence problems, an insatiable appetite and unquenchable thirst, and clouded his eyes with cataracts. Still, for five years, he lived quite comfortably in spite of his condition. Until a couple of months ago, when his appetite tailed off, his eyesight got noticeably worse, and he started having "spells" that were almost like seizures. The vet discovered gum disease and pulled two of his teeth, but warned us that there was probably something more sinister going on with him, since he was showing signs of kidney failure and was anemic. He was a sixteen-year-old cat who’d been an insulin-dependent diabetic for a third of his life. His systems were just starting to wear out.
Last week, it became obvious that old Mr. Beak was probably not going to last much longer. I laid him a bed of an old towel in his favorite spot—under the china cabinet in the dining room. From there, he still had a view of Kitty TV, was close to me as I prepared for my upcoming event, and the other cats could snuggle up to him and lick his head from time to time. He was just…winding down. Didn’t seem to be in any pain, really. I had it in my mind to let him go naturally, in familiar surroundings; spare him that traumatic last car trip to the vet.
But cats are so tough. They don’t let go of life easily. He lingered and lingered, dying by centimeters as the days passed. I had to leave for my job on Wednesday. I knew, one way or another, he wouldn’t be there when I got back. I crawled under the china cabinet, petted him and said goodbye. Told him to go ahead and join his brother Andrew, and grandpa (my dad), and that we knew he would be waiting for us on the other side of the bridge. Husband came home from work on Wednesday, saw how sick he was, and made the tough decision that I had been trying to avoid. He packed him in the cat carrier and took him out to the vet. Mr. Beak was too sick to object. And a few minutes later he died in his dad’s arms.
In the end, we broke down, pushed Nature aside and arranged the death of a beloved pet to fit our crowded schedules. I hate that life’s frantic busyness doesn’t allow us time to deal with the really important things. With all the other colliding agendae going on in our lives right now, neither of us had time to sit vigil beside a dying cat to ease him on his journey. But we didn’t want him to die alone.
I picture him today, sprawled on a wool rug, occasionally rousing himself to chase a gleaming fourteen-karat jingle bell cast by my dad’s expert hand…