Tiger in the Snow

Pets, and cats in particular, ask so little from us. Food, a litter box, a roof, a warm radiator or basket of laundry, perhaps a stuffed mouse or two. In return we receive their lifetime of affection and companionship without judgment or question. In the end there is one last thing they need, but can not ask for, nor would they if they could. It is difficult, but it is our duty.

– Stefan Vapaa (My husband)

I’ve always been a cat person. From birth my parents always had a pair of Siamese cats, often we had three cats at a time but there was always a pair of Siamese. That pair were always a male named Nani and a female named Nekko. Typically they were litter mates or from the same parent and close in age. I vividly remember going to pick out the pair of kittens that were a major part of my life, from childhood in the early 80’s into my adulthood when they died one week apart, almost 19 years later.  I had long since moved out and gotten married and started a fur family of my own when the very sad news of their passing came.  I regret not being able to say goodbye to them, but I am filled with many wonderful memories of them and keep them close to my heart.

Every time I lose a pet, it’s like losing a part of myself.  It’s a reminder that life changes and when you lose someone who’s been such a major part of your life, animal or human, it reminds you how fragile and beautiful life is.  My pets are a very big part of what I define as my family.  Cats and dogs love you unconditionally, they make no judgment and they are with you through the highs and lows of your life.  They are there for you when boyfriends or lovers break your heart and when you lose a family member. You don’t relate to them the way you do with other humans, it’s a completely different relationship; not comparable.  At times they seem to be the only stable part of your life, that is until they become ill, or worse.

My father says on Sunday, September 19, 1982 that I told him I had been wishing on my moonflower the night before for a kitty.  That morning in the paper my mother saw an ad for a Siamese Lilac Point male kitten, six weeks old for $50.  I came home with the little guy later that day.  We had a Nani at the time, he was not too eager to meet Nicky.  I was in love.

He spent lots of time outside in our wooded backyard where we would often play together.   I was at work the day my mother took Nicky into the vet because he had become lethargic.  She came in to the drugstore I was working in later that day to let me know that she’d had to have Nicky euthanized. My heart sank.  I was overcome with sadness and struggled through the rest of my day.

On July 1, 1995 I was living at home and going to the University of Delaware.  There was a cat show at the Bob Carpenter Center this day and I begged my father to go with me.  All the way there in the car I asked for a kitten. I had become smitten with the idea of finding some exotic breed of cat, a Devon or Cornish Rex or perhaps another Siamese as that was the breed I was most familiar with.  I’m sure I kept pestering Dad the entire time we were at the cat show.

He gave in, but not there, not at the cat show. Instead he drove me to the local SPCA and there I saw him.  He was about 11 weeks old, mostly white but with markings that indicated he was part Siamese. We asked why he was in the shelter and they told us his previous owners brought him in because he was “too energetic.”  Imagine that, a kitten who was too energetic?!  I took him home immediately, in those days you could do that, and in keeping with my parents tradition I named him Nikki.  I chose I slightly different spelling, Nikademous, for his full name. I fell deeply in love with him. And yes, he was full of energy and he was perfect.

My father is wonderful. He has kept a journal from the time he was 19 years old and I can always call him up and ask him what happened on a particular day and he can go to his journals and tell me.  Here’s the page from the day when he took me to the cat show and I found Nikki at the shelter:

Nikki was not immediately appreciated by Nani and Nekko but soon the three of them formed quite a bond.

When my parents moved to West Virginia for my dad’s job in 1997, Nikki moved into an apartment with me.  He always was a fun companion, made his presence known and often chatted with me, surely his Siamese roots at work.  He was quite boisterous when he was hungry and would not be ignored. I’d try to catch a few more winks in the mornings by putting him out of my room (he slept in my bed each night) and closing the door.  He  would somersault against my bedroom door until I couldn’t stand it anymore and I would get up to feed him.  Then after being sated he would curl up in one of his favorite nesting places and sleep happily.  He continued this behavior for the rest of his life.

Nikki did well living on his own with me and he also did really well with our other pets.  When I moved to Blacksburg, Virginia in 1998 with my new husband to start graduate school, of course Nikki moved with us.

A few months later we adopted (rescued) a Smokey Persian cat, named Dakota.  He and Nikki were only months apart in age and they quickly became bosom buddies.

Later on in 2000, we brought home a miniature schnauzer puppy, Saabina.

Saabina was my first dog and Nikki took to her like a big brother. Dakota, tolerated her but only so much. Nikki and Saabina were often cuddling and playing together.

In 2002, when I graduated with my master’s in landscape architecture, my husband’s job left him and so we were both looking for work.  Although we wanted very much to stay in Virginia, there were no jobs to be had.  My husband was offered a job back in our home town of Wilmington, DE so we reluctantly moved back to Delaware.  We had trouble finding a house and decided to settle on having a house built in a new community, an idea we were less than thrilled about. During the months we waited for construction to start we lived with my husband’s 93 year old grandmother in her tiny ranch house in Dover.  We were only allowed to bring our dog, Saabina with us so Nikki and Dakota stayed in West Virginia with my parents for that time.  We hated being separated from our cats.  Once it became clear that our house was not going to be built anytime soon we decided to look for a house in Wilmington again.  After a rigorous search we found the lovely old house we’re in now.

In June 2003, we all moved in and our furry family was back together again. In September 2004, at nine years old, Dakota became very sick and my husband and I had to make the very difficult decision together to have him euthanized. Dakota had congested heart failure and we couldn’t let him suffer.  Together in the vets office we held him while he breathed his last breath and we took him home.  We buried Dakota, who had always been an indoor cat, along with some photos and a few words about him on a card in our garden amongst the hellebores and ferns under the white birch tree.  We placed a playful, copper birdbath as his grave marker.  It was the first time my husband and I would go through this experience together.

In  late November, 2006 we went to the local cat shelter and fell in love with a tiny gray kitten who had been left behind.  The shelter had just had a cat event and all the kittens were adopted, except for “Puff”.  Puff had been found under a car in Philadelphia.  She purred constantly and drooled when she nuzzled and we knew she would be going home with us.

On December 1, 2006 we brought her home and named her Kikimora, “Kiki” for short.  Naturally, she and Nikki became best pals and Saabina too really took a liking to her.  We referred to her as Saabina’s kitty.  The two often played together and Kiki was always giving her headbutts.

On December 17, 2009 Saabina was fatally bitten by a dog while out on her afternoon walk with my father-in-law.  We were devastated.  Nikki and Kiki were our rocks.  Two weeks later, on December 31, 2009, heartbroken over the loss of our canine companion we brought home a 3.5 month old pup and welcomed him into our feline home.

Stefanwolf (“Wolfie”) and Nikki became fast friends. Kiki took a while to warm up to Wolfie.  Nikki and Wolfie would often curl up together in Wolfie’s bed or on the couch.  I occasionally found Nikki lying almost on top of Wolfie.  I credit some of Wolfie’s feline mannerisms to Nikki.

A few days ago, January 26, 2011 to be exact, I had to make that heart-wrenching decision that every pet owner realizes someday they may be faced with.  When you adopt an animal you aren’t thinking about the hard truth that someday this beautiful creature that you have bonded with will die.  The circumstances may be out of your control or it may be left to you to know when the time has come.   This week was the second time my husband and I were faced with that decision.  Up until last March when our vet diagnosed him with hyperthyroidism, Nikki was very healthy and happy.  Our vet said he may do well on medication and estimated he could have another 1-3 years of good life. I guess we were really hoping for the three years, but we didn’t quite make it to the one year mark.  On Monday night he became very sick and would not eat at all on Tuesday.

My husband and I woke up Wednesday morning and found Nikki searching for solace in Wolfie’s crate in our bedroom. He wouldn’t come out, he wouldn’t eat, he wasn’t happy and neither were we.  It was snowing and we took him to a nearby vet without an appointment.  After blood tests revealed his kidneys were failing and learning that it was going to take some pretty heroic measures to get him back on track, we decided it was time.  He’d lived a wonderful life with us. He was there for us through some amazing good and bad times.  We stayed with him and just like with Dakota, we didn’t let go of him until he let out his last breath.  I tucked him into a pillow case I had made many years ago and hugged him to me as we drove home in the snow.  Stefan dug a hole under the viburnum shrubs, next to Saabina’s grave in our garden and we laid our sweet boy to rest.

That day it continued to snow and we both went to work with heavy hearts and came home feeling lost.  That night it rained, the rain turned to sleet and then it started to thunder and lightening.  Then the snow came again and when we woke up we had about a foot of snow.

Yesterday I made a snow sculpture on top of Nikki’s grave, a tribute to my tiger in the snow and today I’m sitting here writing this missing my baby. I keep finding his white hairs everywhere and I keep thinking I see him.  I know I’ll never stop missing him, but he’ll always be with me in my heart and he’s out there in my garden forever.

Over the 15 plus years we had Nikki, he had really become quite a big part of our lives.  Every morning I could count on him following me into the bathroom while I showered and got ready for work.  He either perched on the sink counter and watched or curled up on the floor to wait on me.  It was guaranteed that each evening he and Kiki would greet me and Wolfie at the door when we arrived home from work.  Another ritual I became very accustomed to was one where as my husband and I were eating dinner in the living room, usually watching a movie or some episode of Iron Chef or whatever, Nikki would slink down the stairs, through the iron railing, and jump down to the couch.  He would first stop to knead my shoulders then plop down between us on the couch.  I am really missing those daily routines, I am really missing my boy.  Here is the last picture I took of him on my iPhone, the “Caturday” (cat for Saturday) morning shared together:

I miss you old boy, there’s a piece of my heart missing now.  Someday when I’m ready I will gladly open my heart to a new feline furiend meanwhile Kiki, Wolfie, Stefan and I will forever remember you fondly.

One Response to “Tiger in the Snow”

  • Don Gartman Says:

    Saying “Good-Bye to those we love (people and pets) is the tax we must pay for the joy we experienced while they were alive and so important in our daily life routine. You expressed this so well….I understand.

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