Thursday, April 28, 2016

Nikki, September 1999 - April 18, 2016

Once upon a time, there was a cat mommy who had a bunch of baby kittens at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where your Annie worked. She loved those kittens very much, but one day she had to move them and she left one behind - and that one was you! Annie saw that kitten and said "What a cute little kitten, I need to rescue it!" So she saved you, and kept you in a drawer, and fed you with a baby bottle and made you poop with a wet washcloth! But she couldn't keep you at work, so she took you home and put you in a box. But she couldn't keep you there, because she already had a bunch of kittycats, and she had to go to work. She called her mommy and asked if she could take care of you, and she said "Sure, I'll have Harry come down and pick him up." So I came down and saw you in your box, and said "What a cute little kitten!" And we took you to see your Uncle Ben, and when we were leaving his house, I fell and almost dropped you, but I didn't, though I hurt myself! And then I drove you all the way back from there to here, only I couldn't have the air on because the breeze might kill you! And then your mama saw you and said "What a cute little kitten!"And you were just a fetus-cat, and your mama fed you with a baby bottle and made you poop with a wet washcloth. And your Babki gave you Dolly to keep you company, and you've had Dolly ever since - here she is, right here! And then one day you bit your mommy - bit her! - and you said "I am no longer Nikki the fetus-cat! I am Nick-Nack, rough and tough, brave and bold!" And we all loved you, and we always will.

This was Nikki's bedtime story. It was the story of his life, and I told it to him every night for the last few months as we went to bed. He would sleep in the crook of my arm, like a teddy bear. He would get out of bed several times each night, to get a drink of water or go to the bathroom or do whatever cats do in the middle of the night, but in the morning I would wake to find him back in in my arm in his usual spot.

Nikki was born in early September 1999. Here's the story as my sister told it:

He was less than 24 hours old when I took him. His mother had given birth in the early morning (about 5 am) under the steps of my NASA building, moved the whole litter except for him by 11 am, and by 7 pm, it was clear she wasn't coming back for him. That night was going to be cold, and he surely would have died. My friend Shelly and I took turns keeping him warm, bottle-feeding him, and making him pee and poop, and he lived in our desk drawers at work for a few days. When that became unmanageable, I boarded him at my vet's for a few days. Then Mommy agreed to take him, and I believe you shuttled him up to PA. His eyes weren't open yet, and he wasn't even a week old. He had a long and good life. (By the way, he was the best-looking kitten in the litter, though only the size a credit card.) 

I had already been planning to visit my sister to see an REM concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Friday, September 10, 1999. I was opposed to taking on another cat. We already had two cats and a dog, and adding a newborn kitten to the mix was going to present a huge workload. But my mom had recently retired and would be able to perform the every-four-hours feedings that would be required for the first few weeks.

He was such a tiny thing when I first saw him, blind and helpless and only a few inches long. He had been checked for contagious diseases like feline leukemia and FIV, so it was safe to introduce him into a household with other cats. That weekend we got geared up for what we would be needing, kitten formula and kitten baby bottles and the like. We took him to visit my uncle and his family in Maryland. While leaving their house, carefully holding the box with the kitten in front of me, I missed a step set into their sidewalk and fell. I smashed both of my knees, but kept my grip on the box. It never touched the ground, and Nikki never knew what had happened. He slept through the whole incident.

I had to drive him back from Maryland to Pennsylvania - a two-and-a-half hour drive in stiflingly hot late summer weather - without air conditioning. The cold draft could have killed him. We both made it.

My mom took on the task of feeding him with a baby bottle and making him poop with a warm wet washcloth. He took to the baby bottle with vigor, but as he bit off nipple after nipple, we felt sorry for all cat-mommies out there. Then one day he decided he was done with the bottle, and bit my mother instead. That was when we started him on solid food.

Nikki lived in a box for the first few weeks of his life. He had two companions: a life-sized cat doll called Mommy, and a small stuffed dog called Dolly.  My grandmother won Dolly - a toy dog with a baseball cap - at bingo in her nursing home in 1998, the year that she died. She intended it for my nephew, but it never got to him. When we got Nikki we put Dolly in the box with him to keep him company. Nikki was initially half Dolly's size, but in a few months he was bigger than her. Dolly was Nikki's favorite toy all through his life. He would carry her around the house by one ear, purr-crying as he walked. Sometimes he would yowl and slam her around - I think he was demanding that she come to life.

Nikki was many things: rough and tough, brave and bold, loving and kind. He had a thick neck, almost as big as his head. He hated wearing a collar, and would simply slip the collar over his head. Then he would take the collars off all the other cats and hide them in odd paces. Every once in a while half a dozen collars would fall out of the rafters in our basement.

For a while he had a habit of opening the cabinets under the kitchen sink and resting on the plumbing. We eventually had to get a child lock to keep him from doing that.

There is a pecking order among the animals in the house. It is based on in-house seniority - not size, or age, or species. The Senior Animal gets priority at the food and water bowls, and enjoys other privileges. When Nikki came into the house, Haley was the Senior Animal, though Ashes was the Senior Cat. Ashes was not particularly welcoming to the new kitten, though Haley took to him right away. Haley died in May 2005, promoting Ashes to Senior Animal - a position he held for less than a year, until his death in April 2006.  Minnie moved into the Senior Animal spot, but she also died in October 2006. Nikky suddenly found himself in the spot of Senior Animal.

For much of the last year of her life, Haley slept with me in my bed. She was at my side much of the time, lying at my feet as I worked on the computer, taking increasingly longer walks early in the morning until she couldn't any more. After she died, Ashes attached himself to me, sleeping on my bed and staying close whenever I was on the computer. When he died, Minnie did not take the spot near the computer, but she did move into my bed. (One of the first signs of Minnie's illness was when she spontaneously fell out of bed and was unable to jump back up.)

After Minnie's death, Nikki attached himself to me. As with most of the Senior Animals before him, he moved into my bed and took a spot next to me when I worked on the computer.

Just before Minnie died, we had taken in a stray. She brought our cat count to four, along with another cat my brother had rescued back in 2000. Then we took in Scooter in the Summer of 2007. And then, in 2009, we rescued some orphaned feral kittens as quickly as we could before a neighbor could poison them all, as he had poisoned their mothers and some older ferals.

Suddenly Nikki felt his position as Senior Animal threatened. For a while he boycotted coming to bed with me, after I had taken some of the kittens into my room for a night. Eventually he relented, and came to be friendly to the younger cats - as well as the older (but still junior) cats and dog we inherited from another neighbor when she died.

For the last few years, Hershey had also slept in my bed. He slept at my side, often on top of the covers, pinning me in bed until I could convince him to move. Nikki slept alongside him, sharing his warmth but still huddling against me. When Hershey died, Nikki began searching for a new sleeping position. He experimented with sleeping at my head, then on the nightstand near my head, then on my head, then on my back. He eventually found his comfort spot, sleeping in the crook of my arm like a teddy bear, his head pressed against mine. He would jump out of bed several times each night, but would return to his spot each time.

As Nikki began to show symptoms in late 2015, I was able to monitor him closely in bed. I felt the increasing prominence of his spine. I listened to his breathing and his heartbeat. Most importantly, I was able to give him his medication last thing before we went to sleep and first thing when we got up.

In his last week Nikki was showing weakness but still able to jump up and down from the bed. I worried that soon he would lose that ability. But more than that, I was afraid that by having access to the whole house, Nikki had too many places where he could hide away and die. One morning - the Thursday before he died, I think - I woke up and he was not next to me. I called his name and heard muffled crying in response. I found him under the bed. I decided that we would have to start sleeping somewhere else.

I set up a sleeping spot for him in our parlor. I laid out numerous blankets for him, as well as the towel-covered pillow that had been a favorite sleeping spot for him when I wasn't in bed. I laid out a sleeping bag for myself, though I added a folded out twenty-five year old foam sleeper chair after the first night. In this way I was still able to sleep alongside him for the last nights of his life.

Each morning I was surprised to see him still alive. Friday morning, Saturday morning. Still alive. Still drinking on his own. He had lost interest in eating sometime in late February, until we started offering him different, cheaper types of cat food, which he ate with gusto for a few weeks. By Easter he had stopped eating again, until we offered him some leftover ham. He loved the ham. After a week or so we ran out of Easter ham had to go out and buy more.

He had lost so much weight, nearly three-quarters of what he had weighed in late 2015. His body had become nearly flat. Yet still he went on.

I think he stopped eating on Saturday.

Still he hung on. Scooter had died so quickly, relatively speaking. Nikki was not. But we could not bring ourselves to take him to be put to sleep. Not because of reluctance on our part. On his last few trips to the vet he had been utterly terrified. We were not going to put him through that. I would not let him die in fear.

I was amazed to see him up and about Sunday morning. He seemed to rally at night, and prowled the house a bit. He would drink water, and find a place to pee. He would find a comfortable place to curl up. In the morning, he would usually be hovering over me, or sleeping nearby.

Sunday he did not drink. He did not eat. He had stopped jumping up and down on the chairs. He barely changed his position throughout the day.

Sunday night I told him his bedtime story again, as I had every night. As he lay on the floor next to me with his back to me, I placed Dolly, his favorite toy, on the other side in front of him. After a while he reached out and put his arm around her.

I woke up extra early Monday morning, expecting to find him dead, expecting to need to take his dead body to the vet's to be cremated. But he was alive, awake, and aware again. I took my shower early and spent a good long while sitting with him before I had to go to work. I handed him off to my mom, kissed him, told him he was my best friend, told him that I would love him forever.

We agreed that if he was still alive Tuesday morning, we would take him to be put to sleep.

I imagined what it would be like. I remembered what it was like when Hershey died. I imagined stopping the procedure before the first injection, so I could tell him his bedtime story one last time.

He died Monday afternoon at about 4:00. Dolly was with him when he died in my mother's arms. I stopped for two big bags of ice after work. Set him up in a bathtub overnight. Placed a towel on the bags of ice, placed him on the towel, covered him with the blanket.

I dreamed of him that night. Dreams of him dead and watching me, following me with his head after I took him to be cremated, the vet explaining to me that that this was perfectly normal.

I woke up Tuesday morning dreading what I would have to do. I took a shower, had breakfast. Wrapped his body in a towel and put him in the car. Drove him to the vet's and made the arrangements.

This morning we picked up his ashes. The box is tiny. There wasn't much left to cremate. I will put Dolly alongside him. As they were at the beginning, so they will be now.