When the Butler and I married nearly six years ago, his three kids still lived with him and his ex-wife hung upside down in a belfry across the football pitch from our house. Certainly a challenge to any new wife, but eventually dealt with via a restraining order against the ex (who subsequently melted in a sudden rain storm) and an all-sales-are-final deal with a passing circus for the three kids. The one challenge I hadn’t come prepared for was the step-cat, Binks.
Fourteen pounds of muscle, claws, and pure evil dressed in a fur tuxedo who’d jump into a lap under the guise of affection and then draw blood. The Butler doted on the beast. Pud Pud, he called him, as if he were a crème brulee instead of the vicious killing machine whose favourite trick was attacking me in my sleep. I’m not a gentle soul (ask the Wild Kids of Borneo, next time the circus passes through town) and Binks got many a flying lesson for the night time death raids.
Then the Butler went on deployment. His lift came at 2:00 a.m. and I waved him off from the end of the drive. When I turned back to the house, there Binks sat, gold eyes staring at me, the tip of his tail twitching.
I am in control, his posture said, and I think you should die.
I might not be gentle, but neither am I aggressive. I gave Binks a wide berth and went about my normal activities. In the kitchen making dinner, the small black corner of cat ear visible just past the doorjamb. Hanging up laundry, a feline silhouette at the end of the footpath. Weeding the flowerbeds and two golden eyes peer through the dahlias like the German officer from Laugh In. One night at the computer, I looked down and there he sat, not stalking me; being companionable. I reached down and scratched his jaw. No blood was drawn.
When the Butler came back from deployment in the wee hours one morning, Binks and I stood together at the end of the drive to welcome him home. The military operation had ended for all three of us.
Here in the Writing Closet, we think of Binks as Sean Connery’s James Bond. A black cat with a dinner-shirt-white breast, he’s poised, dignified, old enough to no longer have psychotic episodes. He doesn’t have much of a voice, so his demands are meted out with silent perseverance. He takes no issue with the neighbour cats and is often seen sitting on the lawn with local toms, pondering.
|Binks & Bast ponder.|
Then we took care of my son’s cat temporarily. A slightly built black and white female of a similar age, known to stare down attack dogs and sleep with a large pet iguana. When Binks saw her, he did a pole dance on his scratching post. She threw a glimpse of disgust at his embarrassing contortions as she sauntered by. After several months and Binks’ many attempts, the most attention she gave him was to play footsie on either side of an electric heater.
But his loyalty to her never wavered. Once when they were both outside, one of Binks’ pondering fellows wandered into the flowerbed. A third black and white cat. The female went for him, although he was twice her size (which to be honest, most cats are). Binks flew to her rescue. There I was with three black and white cats clawing and hissing, limbs and tails and fur mixed together, a glimpse of Binks’ eyes showing white with fear from the bottom of the heap, sickening me. I clapped and yelled and stamped until the pal took off. Our cats were ruffled but unharmed.
|Binks & Bast help El Punko study.|
Once my son took his cat home, we humans thought Binks needed feline company, so adopted a calico (tortoiseshell and white) kitten. Calypso. Binks was twelve at the time. My advice, don’t ever do this to an older animal. Calypso attacked and killed everything in sight and some things that weren’t visible to the human eye. We’d wake to her in the dark above us, having climbed the posts of our four poster bed; or to Binks squeaking in outrage as she wouldn’t give him peace. During her first heat when she was kept inside and unsuitable suitors roamed the garden, Binks took them on, his former pondering pals, and suffered a battle scar or two in her name.
|Calypso & Monster|
At fourteen years old, Binks has arthritis in his hip with subsequent muscle loss and is down to thirteen pounds. When he darts across the garden, he rarely goes up a tree, often hugs it, looks to see if we notice, and if we do, hides under the peonies until the memory fades. He wrestles with Calypso, ponders the garden with my son’s cat when she visits. Often sleeps in our bed and never draws blood. He’s the stable and sane animal in the household.
A few weeks ago, he developed runny eyes. Off to the vet, a place he usually only goes once a year, having a dirty protest in the car on the way. A few applications of drops and his eyes look better but not great. A few days later, he starts to shake his paws and lose the hair from his dinner shirt. Back to the vet, who thinks he’s over-grooming. A few medications and we’re sent home. Things worsen. He’s got dander all over his coat, the hair loss increasing. The Butler thinks we should get a gold medallion for Binks’ bare chest.
And so back to the vet. When we put him on the examining table, he leaves scales from his paw pads on the metallic surface. They do blood tests and take skin biopsies. They consult with a feline dermatologist. They argue among themselves. We bathe him in case he’s walked through something toxic, canvass our neighbours for chemicals in sheds. Binks loses more weight but still comes out each morning, leaving a trail of dander and hair to visit the litter tray, then stand silently in front of the fridge and demand milk. Other than that trip, he stays on a chair in my office, shedding, losing more weight. I groom him and bring him food several times a day.
|Binks & Calypso then.|
Binks is now just a little over eight pounds and nearly bald from behind his ears, down his chin, all along his belly to his tail. His front legs have been shaved for the blood tests and skin biopsies. He’s bare around each claw on all four feet. And still he’s dignified in a Sean Connery’s James Bond sort of way.
Yesterday they admitted him to vet hospital to do an ultrasound on his liver. There are some shadows there, so they hope to build him up over the weekend to prepare for surgery on Monday. It’s for diagnostic purposes only. If he’s got a tumour, there’s nothing they can do. If there’s no tumour, then they go on treating an illness they can’t diagnose.
I’m not sure we should let Binks have surgery, but I’m the step-human. It’s the Butler’s decision, not mine and for this, I’m glad. Because even though he’s ill, Binks is still there in his nest of dermatological debris, interacting in his dignified way, making the epic journey to the fridge every day. If they find a tumour on Monday, I won’t be the one who has to say it’s over. I can sit on the side and grieve, leave the hard decisions to someone else.
|Big Nose gives his bed to sick Binks, with El Punko & Bast.|
My very first memory is of a cat. This is true. A wet night in Texas and a young cat wails to be let in. I’m two years old and stand in front of my father who sits on a bench. I pat his leg and he bends over to meet my eyes, a smile on his face. I point to the cat on the other side of the screen door, ask my father to let the cat in. I don’t remember the rest but I’m told that the cat, a stray, came in and gave everyone but me ringworm.
|Binks & Calypso now.|
I’ve spent my life making cat memories, have met some extraordinary cats, and come to the conclusion there are no ordinary cats. You could say I’m rich in cat memories so shouldn’t be so selfish, but I just didn’t think Binks and I were done yet. There is something more enduring in a love you have to earn, even if it comes from a cat. An intimacy and a bargaining. It’s a joint effort that either party can back away from at any time. When neither of you choose to end it, when something else comes between you such as a dodgy liver, then an invisible hatchet cuts away at tender parts of your emotional being.
|Bink's empty chair.|
Tonight we go visit Binks. Both my son’s cat and Calypso have had overnight stays at the vet hospital so we’re well versed in its ignominy. Sean Connery’s James Bond deserves better than this but to be honest, we’re not ready to let him go. As long as his cathood still looks out of those golden eyes, I don’t think I ever will be ready. I count on the Butler who was brave enough to make this decision for his own father whom he cherished; will surely do the right thing by Binks. A shadow lurks on the edges of this, of what happens to the two of us as we grow older. A whisper that I may have to make these decisions on my own in the decades to come, and not for a cat or a dog. I wonder where the bravery comes for living life. I wonder if I have it at all.