Monday, February 22, 2016

Goodbye, Obi.

In 1999, my sister Trish and I had been roommates for about three years when she learned of an opportunity to adopt a kitten, so we decided to go see the two cats that remained in the litter — an orange tabby and a black-and-white cat with big ears, prominent fangs, and a white mustache. Both kittens were adorable, of course (what kitten isn’t?), but there was something about the kitten in the tuxedo. We’d already had experience with pretty, kind of haughty, cats. Tuxedo-cat wasn’t pretty — he was, frankly, kind of goofy looking. Naturally, we fell in love with him. We took him home and named him Obi, partly to match the awards-show-themed names of my mother’s two cats, Emmy and Clio, and partly because Star Wars:Episode I came out that month. Obi would turn out to be much more entertaining than The Phantom Menace.

Obi very quickly established himself as different from any other cat we’d had. We’d had lap-cats and high-energy playful kittens who eventually settled down, but Obi was both a playful goofball and a cuddly stuffed animal from the beginning. And he was loyal and clever enough that we began to think that he thought he was a dog. Without any reinforcement he instinctively figured out how to fetch things (usually those rings around the caps on milk bottles) and drop them right at our feet (or sometimes, when he got really ambitious, right in my lap or my hand). He was talkative and expressive, and he liked being around people. I soon got used to waking up with leg cramps from not wanting to disturb him while he lay between my thighs, or on my back, or on my stomach. He divided his time almost evenly between my sister and me, and instinctively knew which one of us needed him more, when we were bored, sad, or in pain.

Because my sister was paranoid that he would not know how to find his way back to the apartment if he ever got out, we got a harness and leash for him. That didn’t exactly go as hoped — once the harness went on, he refused to move. But oddly, he had no problem riding on my shoulder like some demented parody of a pirate and parrot as I walked him up and down the street, greeting pedestrians. I once took him to my then-regular hangout, Cleo’s Saloon, where he got a lot of loving attention from the other patrons until one elderly regular shamed me: “He’s not a dog. He’s probably scared out of his mind. What a terrible thing to do to him.” I didn’t take him out as much after that. Eventually he got too heavy for my shoulder, anyway.

Obi was the sort of cat who made people reevaluate how they felt about cats. I was told this by no fewer than four non-cat-people who met him. He was just ... likable. A good little boy. It’s really hard to convey what it was about him that made him so idiosyncratic and clever and special. The fact that he learned and responded to his name faster than any other cat I’ve known. How you could make a small gesture and he’d know you wanted him to come sit with you. How loudly he purred and how he sometimes was so relaxed and happy that he drooled a little (which was gross and funny and sweet all at once). His terrible, terrible breath, the origin of which we never figured out and the remedy for which we never discovered. How “Little Fang’s” overbite made his face so much more expressive and how his wide-ranging vocabulary of whines and gurgles and meows made it so easy for him to communicate exactly what he wanted from you, whether it be food, or for you to chase him, or for you to move over so that he could demand a belly-rub.

I think you could probably put 10 people in a room together to talk about their pets and nobody would be able to truly convey to the others what was special about their relationship.

A few years after Obi joined my sister and me, my parents moved from Philly to California and Trish headed west, as well. I don’t remember any lengthy discussion of custody, but since I was now the last of our little clan on the East Coast, and alone, it seemed natural that Obi stay my companion. The two of us lived a bachelor existence, two buddies, for about a year. And thank goodness for that, because it was a hard adjustment for me and he brought a little light into a not-especially-bright time of my life.

And then Obi moved, too.

It was at least partly my own decision, of course. I won a not-insignificant amount of money on a television game show and thought the best use of it would be to see the world. I planned a months-long backpacking trip through Europe and decided the best thing to do with Obi was to temporarily leave him with my family (including Emmy and Clio) in California.

I never made my trip to Europe. The reason why is a very long story itself, and not worth going into here, but the bottom line is that Obi never moved back to NYC. My family argued that he was enjoying the big house and the outdoors and tormenting the other two (older) cats too much for it to be fair for him to go back to living in two rooms with two windows, and, besides, I couldn’t afford it. I argued, they wore me down, and eventually I agreed with them. And of course it was a better life there. But he was still my little guy, and every time I visited I got a pang that maybe he would have been better off with me. Or at least I would have been better off. I sometimes missed him more than I did my parents and sister, to be honest. At least I could talk to them on the phone.

But remember when I talked about his doglike loyalty? Well it is a fact that for years, every time I visited, he would move right back into the guest room I used a few times a year. And I was told that every time I left again he would spend the next day looking for me or sitting at the door. And it is true that, when my family insisted I talk to him on the phone, I would say it was ridiculous when they said he would start purring when he heard my voice, but secretly I was thrilled by the thought.

Eventually Emmy and Clio died, and we were devastated. But then my parents’ household was joined by three other cats, and Obi finally got to be an older, crankier alpha cat the way Clio had been to him. And, right up until last week, as he passed 13, then 14, then 15, and 16, he continued to be a runner and a jumper and a scrapper, even as he started becoming bowlegged from old age.

It’s hard to explain how I can so much miss a cat that hasn’t lived with me for over a decade. But even after growing up with our first cat, Whisper, and then picking out Emmy and Clio for my parents when Whisper passed away, Obi was the first cat who chose me. He was my little guy no matter who he lived with, just as he was my sister’s. And as long as he was there, I never got another cat, out of loyalty to him. No other cat would have been quite like him, anyway.

Obi, I am so sorry I couldn’t be there with you yesterday when your time suddenly came. I am having a hard time even imagining what it will be like to go to LA and, for the first time, not immediately go find you to give you a hug once I walk through the front door. The thought that the things you do won’t be the first things my mother and sister share with me when we talk on the phone feels so strange. I’ve always missed you, but now missing you is too painful, and every time I think about you I get teary, so I’m trying not to think about you. But I love you, Obi-Wan, and you will always be my best boy.


  1. So very sorry for your loss. I am feeling it as well right now. I lost my boy of 15 exactly 19 days ago. He was my NYC kitty that I dragged with me to NC, PA, MD, and now TN. I had a cat as a kid that lived to almost 19 and my parents had another one when I was in my twenties but Ben was mine. There will never be another one for me quite like him. I see you feel the same about Obi.

  2. I am sorry to read about your loss, Chris. One of our best human qualities is our ability to connect with other animals.