Atlantis Alumni

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Remembering Nikko


by Dan

As a special pet, Nikko the Burmese cat taught me much about felines, about Jim and myself, and about life. After our previous cat, Rob, died, Jim and I had no intention of getting a pedigree pet. We had always searched for animals, dogs and cats, at the animal shelters. We had no luck in finding the right cat, and finally I suggested we try a Burmese, because my first partner, Paul had raised them, and they were so human-friendly. Skeptical Jim was of the opinion that pedigrees were difficult and also did not last long, as they had all sorts of health problems---or so he thought. Yet Nikko had fewer medical problems than our other pets, until his final kidney failure, and he lasted longer than any other animal we lived with.

The Day We Brought Nikko Home

We found Nikko through a newspaper ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The ad was placed by a woman who raised Burms in Brynn Athyn, a suburb of the city. We drove out to her big place in the country to find a house and farm lands full of kids, dogs, and of course Burmese kittens. Nikko’s mom walked on the breeder’s shoulders, which was a good sign. To me Nikko looked like the runt of the litter, but he was a male among many sisters, and my good friend Louise had always said, “nothing is such a good combination as a female dog and a male cat.” How right she was: male cats bond with humans to an extraordinary degree, while female dogs become the most loyal of companions.

Nikko bonded with me quicker than with Jim because as a tiny, 8 week old kitten he sat in my lap, in a shallow cardboard box on the way back to Philadelphia, and I took on the job of feeding him daily. But when he first saw the car he growled at our dog Frida. Frida, a wonderful large golden dog, looked puzzled at the small ball of brown fur, while Jim said, “oh no, they won’t get along.” Within a matter of days they became soul buddies.

After a few hours home, Nikko laboriously followed me up the stairs. He was so small that he had to take one step at a time. In the bathroom he watched me use the toilet and then hopped down in the bathtub—the other appliance in the room---and used the tub to relieve himself. The breeder had told us, “oh, yes, he’s housebroken,” but no doubt he had used the vast grass tracks in the country as a natural bathroom. So, the next day, we filled the bathtub with water, and took Nikko down to the basement and placed him gently in the litter box. He caught on immediately, proving how smart cats are. That was the first time Nikko proved his intelligence, and I’ll always remember him as one of the smartest animals I’ve known.

How Nikko Talked to Us (1)

Nikko, like many Burmese and Siamese, was a very talkative pet. Jim decided that cat talk originated on Mars, where all the cats came from. They landed on Earth only after digging all those canals. After all, Jim reasoned, how could any Earth creature have such huge eyes? Nikko, an extraordinarily beautiful cat, had sleek dark chocolate colored fur, a round ‘apple head,’ and enormous golden eyes.

More than any other pet we’ve lived with, Jim liked to ‘interpret’ what Nikko told us in his talky way. Jim would say remarks like ‘Daddy, I want to go out in the yard to visit with the birds,” or
“hey, you guys, don’t step on my tail!” (The last comment was a loud screech in Martian.)

How Nikko Talked to Us (2)

Nikko constantly talked to us using body language, as well as telling us his thoughts in ‘Martian.’
As Jim mentioned in his remembrance, Nikko quickly learned how to jump on my shoulder. I’m round shouldered, with a curvature of the spine, so my shoulders were a comfy place for the cat to sit. It was higher off the floor to Jim’s shoulders, but Nikko sometimes leaped way up there as well. Jim loved watching Nikko wait on my shoulders for a piece of fish or chicken.
During the cocktail hour we enjoy before dinner every night, Nikko always came when called. He was such an ‘equal opportunity’ pet that he would switch from my lap to Jim’s. Only in his last few years would he stay mostly on my lap, which seemed perhaps an easier place to be since Jim liked to give the cat power massages. But at night Nikko curled up on Jim’s arm, since I’m a restless sleeper. Nikko spent more time outside with Jim also, since both were the outdoor type. While Jim tended the garden at our house on Fire Island, Nikko would happily chase toads or birds, or nibble on grass. Other times, he loved to stretch out in the sun. As Jim might say, all cats love the sun because they recall how bright it was on Mars.

Being smart, Nikko told us what he wanted in body language. Our friend Tom M. was amazed to see Nikko hop up to a kitchen counter and stare with pleading in his eyes, toward the cabinet where his food was kept. That was a trick Nikko learned early and repeated throughout his life.

Nikko’s Last Hunt

In the last couple years of Nikko’s life his kidney disease slowed him down. Yet remarkably, when he was 17 he brought me a last bird—an old sparrow---on Fire Island. He was a great hunter, and many mice as well as a few birds landed up at our feet. I might shudder, but always tried to thank Nikko for the offerings he wanted to share with us.

Not only did Nikko easily capture our hearts, but he got along remarkably well with his canine companions. He would spar with Frida, and they would lie down next to each other. After Frida died, Jim was devastated. It took us four or five months to find another dog in a shelter. Or, the dog who selected us, I should say, did not come along until Bradley claimed Jim. In the meantime, Nikko had been the sole animal in the house. When Bradley moved in, Nikko went on a hunger strike, insulted and disappointed that his humans would bring another animal home. But after a couple more weeks he was playing with Brad, and the two remained lifelong friends.

I like to imagine that maybe Nikko shattered some stereotypes about cats: he wasn’t the most independent of creatures since he constantly followed us around the house. He spent more time in our company than Bradley the dog. He often knew what you were saying to him, and he was a quick learner. When he first groomed Jim’s head--- a great honor for a human--- Jim told him ‘no.’ So he rarely performed that function on my tall partner, instead waking me up with his rough tongue grooming my hair. Nikko taught me more than any other animal I’ve ever known. Whoever comes next has huge paws to fill. As Jim would say, “this little guy soaks up love like a sponge soaks up water.”

Thoughts on Nikko

by Jim

“Remember the way I held you,
You’re always in my heart.”
- from “Lay Down Burden” by Brian Wilson

We enjoyed Nikko for almost 18 and one half years. Losing an animal companion that you have loved for so long, one that has loved you back in return more than you can measure is like losing your own child. The pain is there when you wake in the night, or at times when the mind wanders. The pain will lessen with time, and with the presence of a new little kitten, but the unique memories will never leave.

What was so special about Nikko? For me it was in the special relationship that he had with Dan and me…different in the way he interacted with each of us. He loved us both as much as he could, but showed his affection differently to each of us. I have fond memories of Nikko the shoulder cat. In his younger days “Neek” would hop up on Dan’s shoulder at mealtime, and follow Dan’s fork from dinner plate to Dan’s mouth hoping to intercept a morsel. Sometimes he would walk across the shoulder of dinner guests at dinner parties! He rarely got on my shoulder, though. In Cherry Grove during his youthful years, he was fond of playing the “string game” in bed, chasing a piece of floss. We used to purchase toy mice for him. I would throw the mice and he would chase them. Sometimes he played so intensely that his little ears actually got warm! He loved the garden at 2506 Aspen, and particularly, our garden in Cherry Grove. He would go to the door and ask to go out to the lower garden at Liberty Bell. He spent many hours there chasing toads, butterflies and other miniature wildlife. One time In Cherry Grove he captured a poor small green bird and proudly brought it up to the top deck to show us. In the 2506 Aspen Street garden one time we found him with a dead squirrel, one that was obviously an elderly animal. I said to Neek, “What happened?” I used to answer for him a lot. His answer: “This squirrel was dead when I found him. He must have had a heart attack!”

In the morning, he had a bag of tricks to get us up and feed him. A vocal cat, this was one of his most vocal times. However, his most intense trick, reserved again almost exclusively for Dan, was grooming Dan’s hair with what we called his brush tongue! With me, Nikko seemed to be fond of my handling, which was I’m sure too rough at times, but he just about always came when I called him, for a nap, or a power pet, or a neck or back rub, just to sit nestled on my lap at my knee with my legs crossed. I used to demonstrate for guests my fondness for turning poor Neek on his back and giving him an intense back massage. He tolerated it each and every time. Nap time with Neek became a ritual in later years. He would call out after lunch, and join me in bed, lying next to me with his front paws on my arm as I hugged him with my other arm. His purr was so loud and so comforting. It was only at the end that I struggled to hear it.

With both of us he was always very affectionate. He would just about always join us sitting on Dan’s lap for evening cocktails. He and Bradley got along very well. Sometimes Brad would nip at him playfully and sometimes Neek would groom Brad. They were a fine team, the “C” team as Dan and I termed them (earlier animal companions constituted the “A” and “B” teams.)

We said goodbye to Nikko at the beginning of this week of vacation prior to embarking on a wonderful Mediterranean cruise. The flight overnight was rough for me, coming only hours after I took Nikko to the vet for the last time. The heavy sadness I felt could have cast a pall over the entire vacation, but then good things, and some totally unexpected surprises started to happen to us, some little and some not so little, and continue to happen to us on our trip. I'm not religious nor a believer in gods, but I do feel as though the natural force of a special little feline friend is looking out for us, taking care of us, and letting us know that all is OK, that everything is all right.

So soon we will look for another feline companion, not to take the place of Nikko, because none could and it would not be fair to expect that. But rather, to enrich our lives in the way only a cat can. If we’re very fortunate, we’ll find another as special in his or her own unique way as our little Nikko was and is. That is my hope.


Paquette said...

Thank you for the very poignant and beautiful memories of Nikko. Having known him, I can picture him in all the situations. Your heartfelt renderings, each written in your own hand, reflects beautifully your own personalities and true love for a dear pet. It was a lovely and spiritual way to begin our Sunday.
Love, Carole and Pete

Diane said...

My heartfelt sympathy to both of you on the loss of Nikko. THey take a piece of our hearts when they have to leave us, but they leave us so many wonderful memories of fun times, times they made us laugh and sadly, made us cry. I fell in love with my first Burmese boy back in 1973 when I saw this brown kitten in a pet shop window. I had him for almost 17 years and will always remember his "benevolent dictatorship" as he supervised my life. When the time is right, the right kitten will choose you. (((((((((HUGS))))))))
Diane Michelson