The Ballad of Oberon

I’ve lost the sweetest cat I’ve ever known in my life.

Oberon literally showed up unannounced in my yard one on of the worst days in my life – a December day on which I saw my horse drown.  It was almost like he was someone cluelessly showing up at the worst possible time asking “Hey, I heard you have a vacancy?”  But there was something very different about this cat: not only was he immediately friendly, coming up to me awkwardly for pets and scritchies, but…my dog, Xena, hadn’t chased him away.  She normally chased away any cats that weren’t “hers” (at that time, my cat Othello still ruled the roost, and Olivia had just been adopted a few months earlier and was still a kitten.)
When presented with an open door, Obi just walked into the house, provoking quite a display from Othello, and immediately becoming Olivia’s playmate.  He soon buddied up to Othello too, cuddling up next to him to take naps, and soon the two were inseperable.  Obi was a keeper – right at the end of 2006, he was kind of a little furry Christmas gift.  It was amazing to see Othello take a new face on board as lovingly as he had done with Olivia, because Othello’s brother Iago had died just three years earlier and he hadn’t quite been the same until he suddenly had to look after two younger cats.  (If anyone’s wondering about the Shakespearean naming convention: Olivia and Oberon’s names begin with “o” because they were raised by Othello; Portia was raised by Puck.)
But something else happened right before Christmas; Obi really had no idea what he was signing up for.  In September 2007, our first child was born, and this was where Oberon really came into his own.  Faced with a crying baby, Othello and Olivia frequently put distance between themselves and the usually adorable but suddenly loud and screechy baby.  Not Obi – he’d hop into the crib with Little E and cuddle up to him.  He was okay with having his fur grabbed and touched, and he’d flop around next to the baby as if to say “Hey, I can lay around and wait to be fed, just like you!  You’re basically a cat!  Or I’m an honorary baby!”
He was an honorary baby.  He’d bum chicken nuggets and other snacks off of E as they both grew up together; they were best pals.  It really became evident, as E took to walking and then running around the house, often with a grey stripey blur right behind him, that Obi was his cat, not mine.
Obi did cause some grief though; he had a habit, in our first house, of bolting out the door.  It all looked so interesting out there.  There was the friendly dog (and, later, two friendly dogs).  There was the neighbor’s horse out in the pasture to talk to.  So much countryside to explore.  And that just seemed natural to Obi – hadn’t he found us, his new family, by going exploring?  (We never did get a fix on where he came from, except for one time when I encountered a whole herd of cats who looked just like him on a back road.  Was that his tribe?  Was he their missing king?  Or had he gotten busy with the kitten-making before he moved in with us?)
Once he was gone for two days.  E cried.  I did too.  I really needed my big dumb stripey cat to stop running off and breaking the kid’s heart.  In 2009, Othello died, and Obi was bewildered as to why his buddy wasn’t there anymore.  Toward the end of that year, without my really attempting to recruit a replacement for Othello, a replacement found me at work – another black cat, who I named Puck.  Oberon welcomed Puck with open arms, to a degree that I sometimes wondered if he really realized that… Puck… isn’t Othello?  But that ability to just happily welcome a new face into his tribe was going to be a life-changer for all of us.  2011 saw three new additions: two feral/stray kittens, Portia and Maria, and a Rottweiler mix puppy named Gabby.  Each of them was Obi’s new best friend…and that made it okay for them to be accepted by Olivia, who had oddly grown up to been fiercely against any new faces.  But they were okay with Obi, so now they were okay with Olivia, and suddenly we had five cats and two dogs.  I think Obi’s gentle disposition also rubbed off on the new arrivals; even to this day, they might get into little spats, but generally…they’re all sweet and playful and mischievous.  It’s the Oberon Effect.
And then in 2014, we had another kid.  Obi was just as solicitous of Little C’s welfare as he was of Little E.  And Little E liked hanging out with his little brother too, so really, it was a win-win for Obi, getting to hang out with both boys.  When C began talking instead of babbling, his first word wasn’t “mom” or “dad” or his brother’s name…it was “Obi”.  Because Obi was always there, someone would always talk to Obi, and so C got to hear his name quite a bit.
When the kids’ mother took off just after Thanksgiving 2015 and took the kids with her, Obi, Portia and Puck were left behind for me to take care of.  I could tell this severely confused Obi.  Where were his kids?  With no kids to cuddle up with at bedtime, Obi – and his brother and sister – began sticking to me like glue, especially when it was time to sleep.  When the boys resumed coming over (to the point that they were there almost all the time), Obi would wait at the door to see if it was just me coming home, or if the boys were with me…but he’d happily cuddle up to whoever walked in the door.  In 2016, as my podcast-recording sessions became commonplace, Obi would hop up on my desk and talk to me while I was recording.  It became such a regular occurrence that I stopped trying to edit around him; if I saw the meters move when the inevitable meow happened, I’d just say “that’s right, Obi,” like he was the de facto co-host.  (He was, in fact, the de facto co-host.)
When 2018 rolled around and we all moved to Utah, Obi and the other cats were piled into cat carriers and joined us on the cross-country trip.  He seemed genuinely fascinated with the new scenery – hotel rooms, and then a new house, and not just a new house, but a new house with stairs, and he and Puck took to sitting atop the banister like gargoyles.  Furthermore, the back yard was fenced well enough that the cats could roam outside for some time every day, and suddenly Mr. Run Out The Door was in heaven.  He looked forward to going outside every day.

But by Thanksgiving 2019, he was losing a significant amount of weight and behaving sluggishly.  Obi had always had a curious binge-and-purge eating disorder; he’d eat dry cat food and barf some of it up.  But he was simply giving up on dry food now.  We took to giving him canned meat – chicken, beef, tuna, turkey – and he suddenly began packing some weight back on.  Which was fortunate, because a series of events beginning in the summer of 2019 with my ex-wife being injured on the job and being left unable to work led to us being… invited… in no uncertain terms… to vacate our Utah rental house.  We looked for other places, but with the nightmarish housing situation in Utah proving to be a real bar to entry for anyone not already ensconsed in the Utah/LDS ecosystem, and with my job being 100% remote, we elected to leave the state again and head back east to someplace more affordable, though backup plan after backup plan fell through and we ended up not far from where we’d started in Arkansas.  My ex, the kids, and the dog temporarily moved in with her parents; I found a rental house not too far away that turned out to have significant issues, and that’s where I took my cats, my belongings, and became stuck there as we went from “family emergency cross-country move” to “national emergency pandemic lockdown”.

Obi in November 2019: belly full, body tired.

When the kids waved goodbye to Obi in February, that was the last time they’d see him.  (Their mother has elected not to allow them to visit the building I live in.)

The lockdown was a challenge.  On the upside, the canned meat we’d acquired in Utah for Obi…we brought with us.  I had a healthy supply of stuff for him to eat.

Me and Obi snoozing in March 2020: the building in which I rode out the first months of the pandemic had no heat, so I had to sleep fully dressed; Obi did his part to keep me warm.
And gradually, he stopped eating it anyway.  Worse yet, my remote work hours had been cut down to a minimum; I couldn’t afford to take him to see a veterinarian until, in July, I resumed the graphic design job I had left in 2018.  But when I started reporting to a day job again, Oberon just seemed lose the will to live.  His two favorite kids weren’t there to keep him company.  And now I wasn’t even there for most of the day.  Even the meat no longer appealed to him.
More pandemic lockdown snoozing with Obi on my pillow, May 2020.
And going into the last week of July 2020, water really didn’t interest him anymore.  He started flopping over on his side in what seemed like hiding places – kitchen cabinets, a corner of the bathroom, a couple of times I found him asleep in the litterbox.  He wasn’t keen on snoozing with me anymore.  This was the behavior of a cat getting ready to make his exit.

This morning, I took him to his final vet visit, the third since I suddenly had a paycheck again.  Though it broke my heart, the vet and I agreed…nothing more could be done for Obi.  He was dying.  I elected to let him make a painless exit.  Well, painless for him.  I’ve had to duck out of sight several times today to try not to weep openly at work.
The last picture I ever took of Obi, in June 2020: taking over my chair with his sister, Maria.
This was a big, lovable lug of a cat who showed up just in time to look after my kids, and then, faced with suddenly not having kids to look after, began looking after me…until he simply couldn’t look after me any longer.  Nearly a third of my life to date was spent with Obi.  He’s a big part of why I’m now sitting here with four cats instead of five.  He helped raise some of that mostly-feral crowd to be sweet domesticated goofballs just like him.
That’s the Oberon Effect.  I will never forget him.  I will miss him – very, very much.  And I just thought I should tell you his story.  Between him straying from wherever he came from only to find my house, to his numerous unauthorized adventures outside the front door, to his cross-country travels and his return to Arkansas…he had quite a journey, one that could’ve ended any number of times.

But he still had us to look after.

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