A year ago our cat Nietzsche died soon after we returned from our vacation in the Midwest. One thing I realized after it happened is that although many people may have met or known Nietzsche, the only people who really, really knew him were those of us who lived with him: Tina, Thomas, Graham and I. Consequently, we all shared in the private pain of his loss – a pain that nobody else outside of our family can appreciate in the exact same way that we do. Nonetheless, as a final act of farewell, I thought I would share some of my memories of Nietzsche’s life.
He was only a few weeks old when we first saw him at the ASPCA in 1992. He meowed almost continuously for the first few days after we brought him home. Even when we went to bed at night we would have to hold him close to us so that he would stop meowing and we could get to sleep. He was so tiny in those days but he proved to be a good eater and soon became the fat cat that we grew to love so much.
That fall we took him with us to New Mexico for our wedding. While we were there we discovered that he was an excellent mouser when he caught several mice in Tom and Jan’s house in Corrales. He was so proud of one particular catch that he left it on our pillow in the spare bedroom where we were staying. Tina jumped and screamed when she put her head down on the pillow and found she was inches away from a dead mouse! When it was time to return home, we almost had to leave him in New Mexico because we didn’t have all the necessary papers with us to prove he was up-to-date on his shots. Fortunately, a healthy dose of indignation coupled with outrage convinced the airline to let us take him on the plane again. For both legs of the journey we gave him “something to calm him down.”
On future trips, we had to leave Nietzsche at home so that we could avoid airport confrontations. Even though we always had caretakers to feed and water the cats while we were gone, they definitely noticed our absence and would react when we returned. Ming would see us and then walk away aloofly, clearly angry that we had dared to leave them alone for such a long time. Nietzsche was the opposite, meowing continuously as if to say, “I’m so glad you’re back! Why did you leave? Don’t ever leave again!”
When he got old enough to jump up on counters and tables, I bought an electric water gun that would shoot up to thirty feet. The electric motor whined very loudly when you pulled the trigger and the cats (Nietzsche and Ming) soon learned that the sound meant they were getting wet soon. Before too long we didn’t have to even keep water in the thing; just pull the trigger and they would stop whatever they were doing and run away. It wasn’t long before they both learned that they were not to be on the counters in the kitchen or on any table. Sometimes they might cheat if nobody was around especially if there was something that smelled delicious on the counter. Then we might find a bone laying on the kitchen floor thoroughly picked clean. Putting chicken bones in the trash was a bad idea, too, unless you wanted to pick up everything that fell out when Nietzsche tipped it over and dug through it.
Nietzsche was a fighter especially when we lived in our first house. He would get extremely agitated if he saw another cat in his yard. He would growl and pace all the while keeping an eye on the intruder. Even when the intruder was a big ol’ raccoon, he sooo wanted to kick their ass. Sometimes when he was outside he wouldn’t come to the door at night when it was time for bed and would stay out all night getting in fights with the other neighborhood cats. In the morning he would stand beneath our window and meow until somebody let him inside.
On a few occasions fighting led to an injury to his face that turned into an abscess in his cheek. Abscesses happen because a cat’s skin is very thick and sometimes heals before all of the infection is gone. The abscess will grow larger and larger while the skin stretches thinner and thinner until the skin can no longer hold back the infection and it bursts open. The fluid that emerges is some of the most vile smelling stuff you will ever encounter in your lifetime. I cleaned it off his face while I berated him for being such a stupid cat but he wasn’t really a stupid cat. We just called him that.
He did do some stupid things, though. One summer when we returned home from vacation, we noticed that he wasn’t drinking any water. After a few hours we grew alarmed enough to take him to the Emergency Veterinary Hospital where we paid $150 for them to administer a saline IV. It seems that he had burned his tongue by licking something very hot shortly before we got home and had become dehydrated because it hurt him to drink. Stupid cat.
Nietzsche was a lover, too. Every night after I got home and settled on the couch for some evening television, he would jump up on the couch, walk across my legs and crawl right up onto my chest. There he would lay with his front paws on my left shoulder. He knew he couldn’t lay on the right shoulder because I wouldn’t be able to see the TV. I would scratch his tummy with my right hand and keep him from sliding off with my left arm. Sometimes he would lay his head down and go to sleep for awhile. One night I wondered aloud to Tina how much his head weighed and we got into the habit of talking about his “little one pound head.” While he dreamed his body would twitch and he would make noises. I imagined that he was dreaming of being outside chasing squirrels and birds around the yard.
Because he was heavy, my shoulder would start to ache after a bit and I would kick him off if he wasn’t sleeping. Soon he would return and I would ward him off telling him, “No, not now, Nietzsche.” He wouldn’t be deterred, though, and had sneaky ways of getting on your lap. He would jump onto the back of the couch and try sneaking up behind me. Or he would move oh-so-slowly across the couch watching me warily. Tina and I laughed because it looked like he thought we couldn’t see him. Still, he was successful many times in crawling onto my chest without me really noticing until he had been there a few minutes. Sometimes I would blow on his ears to bug him as he lay on me. He would flick his ear a few times and then turn to look at me wondering why I was being so cruel. Sometimes Tina would chime in, “Stop it!”
He always knew when it was time for bed. Our TV makes an audible “click” when you turn it off and Nietzsche knew click meant it was time for him to get up and get off. Every night he would instantly jump down as soon as I turned off the TV. He wouldn’t follow me to bed immediately but would usually jump noisily onto the bed just as I was drifting off. Unlike Ming, who has always tread oh-so-carefully across the bed, Nietzsche would just tromp across the covers, completely unmindful of whoever might be lying under them.
I only have myself to blame, of course, because I taught him to cuddle when he was only a couple of years old. I would hold him next to me in bed each night and prevent his escape for a few minutes while his little fuzzy body lay next to mine. At first he was quick to run off when I let him go but eventually he grew to love it and would jump in bed with me and lay down next to me. I’d roll him onto his side and hold him against me while he held my arm with his legs. I’d scratch him under the chin and he would purr while we both fell asleep.
Sometime during the night, though, he would abandon my side and move up to my or Tina’s pillow. Many mornings I awoke with a sore neck because of Nietzsche. He was not considerate of us in the least and would often “hog” the pillow when he stretched out. Often you could end up laying on him and that’s when you’d get a “crick” in your neck. If you were still awake when he settled on the pillow, he might reach down across the top of your head with one front paw and touch your forehead or your eyes to let you know he was there. Rewarding him with a scratch or acknowledging his presence seemed to be enough to get him to remove it. One morning Tina recounted waking up in the middle of the night because she couldn’t breathe. Unsurprisingly, it was Nietzsche laying on her face. What was surprising (and horrifying) was discovering that his little butthole was planted right on the tip of her nose.
Nietzsche’s presence on the bed signaled his domination of the cat household. For years, Ming didn’t dare jump onto the bed when Nietzsche was there. Only during the winter when it was especially cold at night would Ming join us and then he would only lay at the foot of the bed, as far from Nietzsche as possible. In later years that would change when Ming, who was a year younger, took over as dominant cat and Nietzsche was exiled from the bed for periods of time. I took that opportunity to teach Ming about cuddling just as I had taught Nietzsche years before. Now that Nietzsche is gone, I am glad that I did because the kittens are very reluctant cuddlers.
Nietzsche only slightly tolerated Ming who was the playful kitten to Nietzsche’s serious lap cat. Each night Ming would come out of his hiding place when it was clear that fearsome little boys were in bed. He would be wound up and would often skid around the kitchen floor chasing after lint or a piece of paper. When he grew bored with that, he would go looking for Nietzsche, who was never in a playful mood when it came to Ming. Ming would bite at his butt until Nietzsche would run away with Ming in hot pursuit. Usually they wound up in the Big TV room with Nietzsche hiding under the hearth or behind the coffee table, hissing at Ming and growling. Sometimes he would be trapped in the middle of the floor where he would lay down on his back to hiss and claw at Ming. We would reproach Ming and Nietzsche would jump up on my chest for comfort and safety.
He was a great cat for kids. Unlike Ming, he never defended himself when the boys invaded his space or bothered him. Instead of biting or scratching, he would merely escape and run away. It didn’t take long after Thomas became mobile that Nietzsche learned to keep his distance. When Thomas was learning to talk, we tried to teach him Nietzsche’s name but he mixed up the order of the syllables. Nee-cha became na-cha-chee. At that moment, Nietzsche’s nickname became “Nacho Cheese.”
It was only appropriate that he would get his nickname from food because Nietzsche loved food. He was a tiny little thing when we first got him but he ate voraciously from the start and eventually peaked at around sixteen pounds. One time he ate so much that, unable to stand, he could only roll around on the floor yowling about his too-full stomach. He loved tuna and came running when he heard Tina using the can opener. He also loved caramel and could seemingly smell it from the other side of the house. All of the manners we taught him would be forgotten when he smelled caramel as he jumped on your lap and put his little face fight up next to yours trying to get a lick. He also loved corn on the cob which he would pin to the floor with his front paws while he gnawed on the cob. If you tried to take it away, he would growl at you.
That was nothing compared to what he did when I gave him a bath. Early on, it seemed like flea shampoo was the best way to combat the little pests so Nietzsche had to endure the occasional bath. Or maybe it was me that had to endure the experience. Nietzsche tranformed into what seemed like a badly animated gremlin when he was being bathed. He yowled like somebody was murdering him and kept rotating his head back and forth trying in vain to bite the arm that was holding him down while I scrubbed him. The scene was made all the more surreal by the fact that he looked downright skinny once his long hair was wet. I don’t think I was ever able to escape a bath without injury. He bit hard but that move was merely a feint to setup a swipe from his razor sharp claws. Those scratches were the kind where you could hear the flesh being ripped away. Ouch. After I rinsed all the shampoo from his fur, I would let him run from the tub to the towel I had waiting for him by the closed bathroom door. Then I would roll him up and rub him dry for a few minutes before letting him loose again. He would spend the rest of the day grooming himself while occasionally giving us dirty looks from across the room. He would still be wet when he returned to my chest, though. He never held it against me.
In the morning he liked to lay where it was warm. As I got ready for work in the winter I could always find him on the heating vent in the dining room or in the family room laying in the sun. When I would spend time in my office, he would lay in the cardboard box where I put paper for recycling. Sometimes he would look up at me and meow. I would say, “Oh Nietzsche!” in my most mocking, sympathetic voice and he would meow each time I said it.
He was afraid of balloons, tupperware and my guitar. When I picked up my guitar he would immediately be on alert with his ears pulled back and his eyes wide. As soon as I strummed it he would bolt out of the room, sometimes stopping to look back at me as if to plead for me to stop acting crazy.
During his last few months I could tell that he was not well. We had to take him to the vet to relieve severe constipation on a couple of occasions and he developed a mysterious condition that caused him to wheeze and choke whenever he purred. He inexplicably lost weight even after we put him on special food to help him gain weight. He also lost fur faster than it would grow back, especially on his tail where the fur was at inconsistent length. He was still affectionate but he and I both avoided situations that would make him purr. I let him lay down on my chest and just go to sleep rather than grabbing a big handful of belly fur and kneading it like I used to. The way he liked it.
I was cleaning the garage on the Saturday that he died. Tina came out and told me I should come in and have a look at him because he wasn’t breathing right. In fact, he was not breathing well at all. He was walking slowly around while he wheezed and choked. Occasionally, he would lay down and the wheezing could halt for awhile. In the afternoon, he summoned the strength to visit me in the garage where he lay under a shelf and watched as I moved things about. Still he was obviously weak and the breathing difficulty continued so we decided to take him to the animal hospital to see if they could figure out the problem.
We put him in our little pet carrier and he didn’t put up a fight when I closed the lid. He meowed a bit on the way so I opened the top and put my hand on him to reassure him. As I drove there I worried about him and fretted about how much it was going to cost to fix the problem. At some point during these thoughts it occurred to me that it might be very expensive and that Nietzsche was a pretty old cat. I began to think about what my monetary threshold would be. Dark thoughts, but practical, I guess.
After I got there, I handed the carrier off to a technician and they whisked him away. After I waited for awhile in the lobby, a nice lady came out and escorted me into an examination room. The prognosis was that he probably had a cancerous tumor obstructing his airway. It would cost $1600 to operate and they would have to do a tracheotomy because his throat would swell shut after the tumor was removed. I was shocked. I don’t think that I had thought about a specific dollar amount that I was willing to spend, but $1600 was well over my threshold.
I called Tina and gave her the bad news. Her reaction was the same as mine: it was time to say goodbye to Nietzsche. We decided that I would drive back home for her and the kids so they could give Nietzsche one last hug. The hospital agreed to this and I made the long trek home to get our sad and quiet family. Nothing was said on the trip back to the hospital. After we arrived there was a long wait until we could go see Nietzsche who was in an oxygen-enriched glass cage. The long wait was just another in what had seemed like a series of very long waits throughout the night. All the waiting made it seem like this sad moment had been elongated beyond human tolerance.
When we saw Nietzsche, he was breathing easier but clearly frightened and still very weak. They opened the cage and the boys showed him the flowers they had picked and petted him one last time. The tears began to flow as Tina said her goodbyes. I wanted the agony to end for me and Nietzsche but also dreaded the finality. Tina and the boys returned to the lobby to wait for me while I stayed for the end. Nietzsche was my cat and I wanted to be there for him.
The technician explained the procedure which involved multiple injections similar to the combination that is used for lethal injection executions. The first injection would be a sedative and the second would end Nietzsche’s life. I was determined that I would be holding him when he died but I did not voice this to the technician. It all happened very quickly after that. Nietzsche became frightened after the first shot even though he already had an intravenous catheter in his leg. I put my hand on him to reassure him and hold him in place so the technician could give him the second shot. I thought I would be able to hold him after she finished the shot but he was already limp by the time she withdrew the needle. She wrapped him in a towel and let me give him a final hug. That hug wasn’t long enough but he wasn’t there anymore so it seemed pointless to continue. I handed him over to the technician and she said I could wait in the lobby while they prepared him for his final journey home.
Tina and the boys knew it was over when I returned to the lobby. Soon we were overwhelmed with the emotion of the moment and went outside to wait for them to deliver his remains to us. As we sat outside on nearby steps, I wept uncontrollably for a short time while Graham sat crying next to me. I knew it was important that I be unafraid to show my emotions to my boys. We all cried and hugged as we waited. Eventually, the hospital staff brought him out in a little house shaped box along with a clipping of his hair and a sympathy card with his paw print. Even though the box was small, I noticed immediately that Nietzsche was still heavy. “He’s still a fat cat,” I remarked to everyone as we drove home. Tina laughed.
Even though it was late, we had decided that we would bury him that night. Tina chose a spot for him in her butterfly garden and I retrieved the spade from our shed. I was quite concerned that digging a hole large enough for the box would be nearly impossible but Tina chose a good soft spot that was easy to dig out. After I was done digging, I went to get Tina and the boys. Graham, who was reluctant at first, joined us and sang a song that he had written for Nietzsche. We cried and in a trembling voice I said simply, “He was a good cat,” before throwing dirt onto the little box. The boys threw in flowers and we buried him with his favorite brush. It was all over by 11:30 just two and a half hours after I left for the hospital earlier in the evening. Indeed, it had only been the night before that we caught him stealing food from the table.
Death always makes the world seem unreal to me. It doesn’t seem possible that such a long-constant presence in my life could be gone that easily. It leaves a huge whole in your life that you can feel but can’t really full comprehend. It’s so sudden and final. It takes so long to sink in.
For awhile after Nietzsche died, Ming would come out at night after the boys went to bed and wander around the house looking for him. Sometimes he would stop and look up at me and meow. I kept telling him, “He’s not here anymore, Ming,” but he kept looking for him for weeks after. I know how he felt. Sometimes I would glimpse something small and dark out of the corner of my eye and immediately think, “Nietzsche!” And then I would remember, “He’s gone.”
We still miss him but the pain is mostly gone. I no longer see him out of the corner of my eye, but I sometimes see him in when I look in Baby’s eyes. Or I’ll think of him on the rare occasion that Rory jumps up on my lap. I’ve had a few pets in my life but none others that were really just mine. Nietzsche was my cat and I don’t think I’ll ever have that bond with another animal. I’m glad that he was in my life for 15 years and hope that his time with me was as happy as my time with him.