Romeo: December 21, 2002: The day before, his vet gave him a maximum of three to four days to live.
Diane Benson fights her grief as she holds her best friend of 13 years.
Diane Benson left this message while we were at the movies: “It concerns Romeo and it is urgent.” I knew then that Romeo was in terrible trouble. I had first learned about this Tuxedo cat one week after Little Guy had stepped out our back door and disappeared forever, leaving me despondent and grief-stricken. Diane could see how miserable I was over the loss of this, fine, little black cat that had been born into my hand. She wanted both to comfort me and to give me hope. "I know how you feel," she said, "Romeo is my best friend and he disappeared for nine days once, but he came back. Little Guy might, too. Don't be surprised if one day soon you open your door and find him standing there."
I told her then about how I photograph cats wherever I go, whenever I meet them. "You must come to Chugiak and photograph Romeo," she invited. I promised to do so and, since her home in Chugiak was halfway between my house and downtown Anchorage, it seemed like an easy thing to do. Yet, nearly two years had passed and I had yet to stop and meet Romeo.
The morning after she took Romeo to the vet and got the bad news, Diane gives him some love.
Now, Christmas was just days away, the United States was preparing to invade Iraq and Romeo was in trouble. I returned Diane’s call. “The vet says Romeo has four days to live,” she told me. “He has complete renal failure.” Complete renal failure is an absolute death sentence, the vet told her, no cat ever survives it. With complete renal failure, there is no hope, not even the smallest chance. “I’ll be there tomorrow,” I told Diane.
As a boy, Diane’s son Latseen had two cats, Serendipity and Jessa. Diane is Tlingit, a tribe of Alaska Native Indians originating in the rainforests of the southeast part of the state. Latseen means “strong” in the Tlingit language. The cat Serendipity had recognized the strength of the boy and so had delighted in crawling up Latseen’s extended arm to his shoulders, from where he would ride all about the house. Serendipity loved the boy and the other cat, Jessa. When Jessa died, Serendipity fell into a state of chronic depression.
Romeo in Diane's hands.
“A new buddy just might bring Serendipity out of depression,” Serendipity’s vet told Diane. “And I just happen to have a stray here that needs a home."
“No,” Diane protested. “I just can’t deal with another cat right now.” Even so, she agreed to step into the back room to take a peek at the stray. There, eager to get out of the cage that held him, was a scruffy but charming nine-month old Tuxedo, but Diane was resolute. “No! I just can’t take him!”
As Diane turned away, she felt a gentle tap upon her shoulder. She turned back to see that the cat had just stretched his paw through the bars of his cage to pat her; next he cocked his head charmingly to one side.
Now, 13 years later, Diane had learned that Romeo, the very same cat that had tapped her so gently upon the shoulder, was about to die. “He is my best friend,” she told me - and I did not doubt it.
Diane gives her best friend a kiss.
After the kiss, Diane inspects Romeo fondly.
Wondering how she will live without him, especially as her son goes to war, Diane hugs Romeo tightly.
A grown man now, Latseen had joined the Army. He had a little boy of his own and would soon be issued a machine gun and sent from an encampment in Kuwait into Iraq and then on to Baghdad. Diane was fraught with worry, for both cat and son. And so, as Romeo’s hour neared, she pulled him close to her. “Okay, if you really have to go, go! But I really need my friend right now, because my son is going to war,” she told him. But what could Romeo do? He now had only three days left to live.
Jim gets involved in the decoration of the Christmas tree.
After I left Diane to watch over Romeo's death at their home in Chugiak, I drove to the Kracker house in Wasilla. It is a fact that whenever I meet a cat, I love it, but even more so for Romeo. That morning, when I first stepped into his house to meet him for the first time, Romeo had come right to me.
This was most unusual, Diane had told me, as he usually shied away from strangers. He sat on my lap and purred. For awhile, the biggest challenge that I faced in trying to photograph him was that he just kept too close to me.
So I felt extra fond of Romeo.
That night, we decorated our Christmas tree and, as you can see, Jim got in on the action right away. All the Kracker Cats participated. It was warm and fun and yet, each time I thought of Diane and Romeo - and I thought about them continually - I felt my heart tear.
According to the vet, Romeo would be dead no later than the day of Christmas Eve. There was no hope for Romeo, the vet had said.
Yet, what is Christmas, if not a season for hope?
Up Next in Part 2: Latseen goes into battle. Fraught with stress and worry, Diane Benson turns to Romeo for comfort.