I’ve always had an intensely strong sixth sense. It is not uncommon for me to think of someone right before they ring me on the phone, and I’ll answer and say, “I was just thinking of you!” At times, it’s so uncanny that it unnerves me and leaves me forever pondering the universe. As Susan Sarandon says in Bull Durham, the world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self awareness. Sometimes I’ve thought, that would be a relief.
We’ve been in Europe for the last three months on Sabbatical, and are two days shy from going home. Nearly two weeks ago, almost simultaneously, Bruce and I both began to feel like it was time to go, and that we were ready to get back to our home and to our family and to our cat, Nigel. Neither of us mentioned it at first, as we’d made a promise that we’d invested in this trip, and we were going for the full Monty, the trip of a lifetime, living for three months in Europe. A couple of days later, we both finally admitted it, when Bruce said he’d had a dream about Nigel. We both sensed we needed to get home.
Three days later, on Thursday of last week, our beloved Nigel passed away, wrapped in a heating blanket in an incubator at our local veterinarian. He’d had severe anemia and had gone into shock from blood loss due to flea bites, brought on by a flea infestation, which had taken rapid hold of him over the preceding days. At fourteen years old, his body simply could not recover.
He was laid to rest in our back yard, by our girls and some friends. We’d spent two frantic days trying to deal with the situation from afar as we looked for ways to get home sooner. Devastatingly, we were not there for him.
It seems forever ago that I wrote the following in July before we left …
“My mania on leaving our cat, Nigel, for four months has had me fraught with anxiety. Every day, I look at him and I think, how do I convey to you that it’s only for a little while? We’re not abandoning you. I know you will think you’ve been abandoned, but we’ll be back. Have faith!”
Like all things in life, there are no do-overs. There are only lessons learned. My sixth sense told me not to leave him, repeatedly, and despite all we did to ensure his well being, it wasn’t enough. We couldn’t have predicted this outcome in our worst nightmares. My regret at leaving him will stay with me forever.
He’d become more complicated in his older age. He was far needier, less invincible, more fearful. In retrospect, I also know that he was aging, and that he’d have had an alternate fate some day, for everything has a season, and there is a time to every purpose under heaven, so says Ecclesiastes 1:3.
There was a morning a year or so ago when I awoke very early, before dawn. It must have been spring or summer because it was warm enough for me to take my cup of coffee and go out onto the darkened deck. Nigel had done his traditional circling of the house, which he did every morning when we went out. He would head one way or another sniffing, marking, and verifying the perimeter was as it should be. When he returned to sit at the edge of the deck with me, dawn was only just breaking deep beyond the woods to the east.
Suddenly, I heard a rustling in the hostas to my left. In the deep twilight, I could just make out what I thought was a baby deer approaching. But then I zeroed in on the low creeping movement of the animal, its eyes trained on Nigel, about five feet away. It was a fox. The scraping of my chair sent him turn tail, and I screamed like a banshee as he fled into the western woods. On that morning, one alternate choice, one step inside to warm my coffee would have changed his fate. It was not yet his time.
In 1999, my 16 year old Siamese cat, India, who was the love of my life, passed away on a Sunday night, surrounded by her family. She simply fell over of a stroke or heart attack. It was a wrenching sadness, and yet, in retrospect, a beautiful way to go. She was old, and her body hurt, and she spent most days sleeping. But on that day, she’d been outside for a little bit, a rare privilege in her life, with four of us surrounding her every movement to keep her safe as she pondered a bug hidden in the tree bark. Hers was a good and pampered life, and she was the smartest and funniest animal I’ve ever know. She was an old soul.
A couple of months later, in October, as we were driving through town, Bruce unexpectedly pulled into the pound, just to look. I couldn’t have imagined another cat at that time, but we went inside anyway, and there was a whole room of them, all crying out, hoping for a chance in the lottery that is animal life.
There was one little kitten, maybe two months old, who wasn’t crying. He was just sitting in a cage watching us, his little head cocked sideways, with those huge eyes. He was a gray tabby possessing just a hint of orange on his belly, with large ears and paws, and already showing signs that he was to be long haired. I distinctly remember saying, what about this little guy?
We took him out of his cage and held him while he purred and pawed at Bruce’s beard, so we set him on the floor a moment and he scampered about, chasing a fly in the room. He was beyond adorable, and that was that.
We were told his orange siblings had been adopted and he was the last of the litter. We were also told that he was a she, so he spent about four days named Sylvia, until the vet confirmed the error, and then he became Nigel, named after the Thornberry’s cartoon, a favorite of the girls at the time.
I remember when the girls came home that evening, and Heather freaked for a moment when a little gray thing ran 100 miles an hour between her feet. She turned rapidly to see him flying about, being his kitten self and chasing things only cats can see. He was to become a source of constant joy, affection, humor and silliness. One thing is for certain. He was a loved and pampered little prince.
One winter, when the girls were young, there came a ponderously beautiful, deep snow, the kind that mushrooms every surface and every twig. Out we all went to make a snowman, and I’ll never forget as the snow fell in droves, Nigel literally leaping feet into the air, trying to catch snowflakes while the girls laughed and chased around him. In the early years, he would also climb under the Christmas tree and hide, and you could find him peeking out from underneath, his eyes all aglow in the magical light.
There are a million memories of his life, but I recall so much how he would bury his little head in Bruce’s beard all the time, using him as a scratching post, sometimes to the point of annoyance, but he was really just paying homage to his dad, the King Cat.
He remained a kitten his whole life. Certainly, he’d slowed down some, but oh how he loved the days when Bruce and I would go out onto our large deck. It didn’t matter what we were doing, he came to do it with us.
If we were gardening, he’d be in the garden too, shuffling through the forest that was his world, looking for his bugs and the occasional mole. Sometimes, he’d climb to the top of the eight foot garden gate, and would ride as we opened and closed it. If Bruce went up into the attic, up went Nigel, and we’d have to leave the stairs down until he emerged some hours later. Same with the crawl space under the house. If we were in the pool, he’d climb the steps, coming just to the edge to say hi. Or he’d climb the banisters and claw and reach, swatting at imaginary objects, just to make us laugh.
We have a weathered trampoline in the back yard, long past its prime, when the girls were young enough to bounce around. They used to take him on there, and he’d suffer through their playing and jumping with him. He hated things that moved, including cars, so he’d eventually make his escape.
But in these last years, you could find him out there most days, watching nature, and listening to the woods, with pollen strands and who knows what caught up in his long fur. I’d walk out near dusk to get him, and he’d patiently watch me come, knowing it was time to go in. I can still feel his heft, as I’d pick him up and preen the flotsam and jetsam from his fur as I took him inside for the night.
Birthdays and Christmas were his favorite days, and ours, as he would bury himself in the wrappings and play with the bows. There isn’t a birthday recorded that you can’t find him buried somewhere in the picture, inside all the crinkly paper or inside a bag or inside a box.
In his later years, he became much more human like. As a young cat, he rarely meowed or spoke. But as his age progressed, he became much more vocal, sometimes to great annoyance at 5:00 in the morning, when he wanted everyone to know it was time to get up.
He joined the family for every event from games on the floor to his sly attempt to join in for Christmas prime rib dinner.
I think it’s his later routines we will miss the most. We have an eight foot jetted bath tub, which we use every single day. We make a French Press of coffee, fill the tub, and together, have our half hour of morning time talk before the busy days take their toll. Every morning, he would come join us, sitting on the edge of the tub to play with water droplets I would lay up there for him to catch. And then he’d wander around to the back where Bruce would fill his shaving mirror with cold water from the tap for his “morning drink”.
I will desperately miss him beside me, in the big chair where I work with my laptop. He had developed a routine where he would stand on the arm of the chair, and literally do a practiced half inverted flip dive to wind up beside me in the chair, on his back, where he would sleep while I worked. That is until it was time to go over to Bruce on the couch. He’d creep to the edge, ponder Bruce for just a bit, calculate the jump, and then up he’d go, landing with a plunk right on his stomach, creating a resounding Umph! He’d splay himself out along the length of Bruce’s torso, snoozing until Bruce’s arm would go to sleep.
He was a member of our family, and adored beyond measure. We are dreading what we face at home, but we know its time to go home and face it.
Many friends have offered words and thoughts of comfort. It is perhaps my old friend Ginger’s message that resonates the most, for she is and has always been, an animal whisperer.
We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached.
Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way.
We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan.
How utterly beautiful. How completely true.
Our grief comes in huge waves, at times so fierce, as to be uncontainable, much like a geyser that emits boiling steam high into the sky, a pressure valve releasing from depths unknown. We can only trust in time and the universe as we move forward and try to make sense of this terrible loss.
France has treated us kindly these last few days, if you discount the drivers. Two days ago, we encountered double rainbows twice as we drove for hours through the countryside trying to clear our minds and our hearts.
We were on a walk late Sunday evening, when a beautiful, golden eyed, long haired tri-colored tabby visited us near dusk on an otherwise empty street in our medieval village. He circled and loved and rubbed on us until I picked him up, at which point he nudged my chin with his face and tucked his head in the crook of my neck purring deeply, just as Nigel would do.
Hannah’s kitten Ollie has begun to try to drink from the faucet at home, and Heather’s cat Data has been laying hangdog over the arm of her chair, behaviors neither cat exhibited previously.
As Ginger also said, there is a thin veil between worlds for animals, and I know their spirits move in mysterious ways. I think he’s visited upon us, letting us know he is ok, and that he knows of our great love and deep sorrow.
Today is Halloween, and we’ve read that children do go trick or treating here in France. We drove past little spooks on their way to a party as we headed home yesterday. So we are prepared for tonight, just in case, with a pumpkin to light their way, hoping for little witches and cats under the crescent moon. We have a bag of Kit Kats at the ready. How fitting is that?
Rest peacefully, sweet Baby Nigel. You will forever remain a kitten in our hearts.
Lorie McMillin, France, October 2013