TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — So Long, Squirrel

His full name was Squirrel The World’s Grumpiest Cat. He was the boss around here for 19½ years with a grating, tuneless, demanding meow.

For a long time, we didn’t know exactly how old he was. You see, we kept his records taped to the inside of kitchen cabinet, and when we pondered his age years ago, India mistook the date of a rabies shot as his birthdate, so the running gag was that Squirrel was 19½ rabies shots old.

India was a toddler and Dylan was in second grade when they brought that tuxedo kitten home from a pet store, complaining and shaking his head. “He’s so squirrelly!” Thus, his name. We soon discovered he had ear mites. Poor guy.

That would prove to be a constant battle over the years as Squirrel insisted on going out and brawling with the mite-ridden neighborhood strays. Orange The Outside Cat, who adopted us for several years, put a permanent notch in Squirrel’s ear during one contest.

At one point, Squirrel was part of a veritable herd. Inside, we had Tiger Cat, a shy Bengal who eventually found happiness in a friend’s barn, and Hunny Bunny, a sweet Persian who met a tragic end in an encounter with a stray dog. Before that was Phil, a short-lived tabby rescue who came to us with bad lungs, and Orange’s girlfriend, another stray, who was eventually exiled to the Eszlinger Ranch to hunt gophers. Squirrel was the last cat standing.

The joke was that in the divorce I lost the custody battle and had to keep the cat. Squirrel adored Julie but was somewhat indifferent toward me. We got off to a rocky start as bachelors when I observed him wheezing as he climbed the stairs. I put him on a diet, and in time had him in perfect condition. And he resented me for it even though it added years to his life.

When the kids moved out, we were forced upon each other. He yelled at me each morning to be fed and again in the evening. I soon learned that it was necessary for me to talk back and acknowledge his abysmal treatment, otherwise he just wouldn’t shut up.

He and Gus the Wonder Pug became fast friends, united in their bullying at feeding time. For a while, it was just us boys. Then, Dylan returned to work with me at the newspaper, and India took a year off after college, much to Squirrel’s delight. So much attention.

The last couple of years were marked by the inevitable decline. Squirrel’s bestie, his veterinarian, Emily Fox, explained that cat kidneys just aren’t built to go that long. So there was that. Tooth and gum issues. Hearing loss. Arthritis, and possibly creeping cat dementia. Or maybe Squirrel just mellowed. He grew increasingly affectionate toward me. But he was drifty, sometimes staring off like he was at a Grateful Dead concert.

We wanted to give him one more summer. But he only went out a couple of times, choosing instead to stay inside, sleeping more and eating less. You know how these things go. I assessed Squirrel daily. He was happy but on the precipice of misery.

Emily took it hard when we scheduled Squirrel’s last visit. He was the oldest cat in the practice, and she loved that old man. The night before, India FaceTimed her mother so she could say goodbye to Squirrel, too.

Squirrel instinctively seemed to know. He was especially affectionate as he made the rounds between us in his last week. I struggled with it, wanted to call it off, but after watching him wobble from the arthritis as he walked by one day, I became secure in my decision.

He drifted away peacefully with the three of us, Emily, and an assistant, at his side.

We’d come in separate vehicles and I got home first. I stopped at the mailbox, mechanically going through the motions, still numb. Then, as I sorted through the letters, I began to smile and then laugh.

The kids saw me grinning at the top of the stairs when they arrived, still somber and red-eyed. I handed India a postcard. “A message from Squirrel,” I told her, laughing.

It was a reminder. His rabies shot was due.

Squirrel visited me in my dreams that night. There was a tuft of black fur by Squirrel’s food dish yesterday. Another gentle wink from beyond.

You know, 19½ rabies shots old is a pretty good run.

© Tony Bender, 2023

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