Let Love In: Lessons Learned from Nigel

Over ten years ago, my sister and I were at the animal adoption center, wandering between rows of penned animals. Don’t ask me why we made a habit out of breaking our own hearts; we had recently moved out of our family home together and one of the bold-faced rules in our new rental agreement wasย NO PETS. Still. We both loved animals, and apparently, we both thought it was enjoyable to pass a Saturday afternoon checking out scads of animals we could never take home or love beyond those few, fleeting minutes.


On a fateful day in October 2003, we walked by his cage, saw his orange face, and felt an inescapable stirring inside. We glanced at the name tag on the front of his pen: “NIGEL”, it read. Exchanging a knowing glance, we mouthed “perfect!” to each other, and within the hour, Nigel had found his forever family. Screw rental agreements, right?

How could we resist a face like this?

How could we resist a face like this?

Nigel was in rough shape when we took him home– physically, emotionally, and socially. For one thing, he was greasy. I’m talking really, super greasy. Even though the vet estimated Nigel was around four years old at the time, he either didn’t know how to, or didn’t care to, clean himself, so his fur was matted into what looked like a badass feline faux-hawk. Furthermore, his chin was sprinkled with generous doses of what we like to callย catne— cat acne, for those in the know, and he had approximately zero muscle tone in his legs and torso. You could lie him on his back (theoretically), and his front and hind legs would splay out on the ground like he was making a snow angel instead of staying relatively pointed toward the heavens. Definitely unusual for cats.

Still greasy...

Still a bit greasy and matted…

On an emotional and social level, Nigel was a bit of a nut case, too. “Skittish” was an extreme understatement for him– he’d dart and dash away from even the hint of human interaction, and his eyes seemed to be locked in their ‘Alarm and Mayhem!’ expression permanently. The woman at the adoption center couldn’t even believe that Nigel had approached us, timid as hell, from the depths of his cage before we signed his release papers. During his stay at the center, she informed us, Nigel had earned a reputation as a coward-slash-Bad Seed, and the simple act of showing courage in front of an outstretched human hand was totally unheard of for him.

What the woman at the adoption center didn’t know, though, was that Nigel was on his last chance.

We later learned from the intake vet’s notes that Nigel was a “hard luck guy” who had been passed up for adoption enough times to warrant a scheduling of his demise in the not-so-far-off future. Apparently, acne-ridden tabbies weren’t in high demand as family pets, especially acne-ridden tabbies with deep-seated fears of everything. And even if the adoption center lady didn’t realize this, Nigel must have knownย The End Was Near to the very core of his greasy body. Woo-woo me totally believes that Nigel manifested us and enlisted us to orchestrate his prison break, just in the nick of time. (Rational me says “Oh, look! We adopted an orange cat named Nigel mere days before he was set to be destroyed. Funny that.”) There were only three problems:

1. Nigel had extreme health issues (kidney and liver issues in addition to his general greasiness, acne, and lack of basic muscle tone)

2. Nigel was completely unaccustomed to behaving in ‘normal’ cat ways (being aloof, preening the day away, feeling soft and pleasing to the human touch, etc.)

3. Oh yeah, my sister and I weren’t even allowed to have cats in our rental suite. Other than that, though, this was a perfect date with destiny! ๐Ÿ™‚

Taking a cat nap. NIGE!!!

Taking a cat nap. NIGE!!!

To his immense credit, Nigel learned almost immediately to meet my sister and I half way: we would shower him with love and safety, and he would allow his deep suspicions of the entire world to slowly fade away into trust. We would buy him expensive cat food and let him sleep in drawers filled with our clean clothes, and he would improve his muscle tone and shock the vet at his follow-up visit a month after his adoption. (So fit and vibrant! How was that even possible?) We would try to dust him in “dry cat shampoo” and comb his greasiness away, and he would run around the house like a demon, resisting any and all efforts to tame the prized matted look that had taken a whole lifetime to achieve. Seriously, though– Nigel had known nothing but strife and struggle for the first four years of his life. To allow even a tiny bit of love to seep into the hardened crust of his demeanor took a mad leap of faith on his part, and whether or not Nigel did this “consciously”, he sure showed me by example how much we can all flourish if we simply Let Love In.

Nigel is my North Star

Nigel is my North Star

Time passed, and as things like grad school, blossoming love relationships, and moves away from the city started happening, Nigel was eventually placed in the care of my doting dad– Nigey’s forever and everย home. I swear, you have never seen a cat so loved. My suspicions of who was the Real Boss in my dad’s house were confirmed when Marty and I offered to cat-sit Nigel once on a trip back to Calgary. My dad had left us a 3-page list of caring instructions for Nigel, one of which outlined which stair we should sit on when brushing him, since he had apparently acquiesced to having his fur styled– but only if he got to sit on the top stair and we would sit two stairs below him. Only a truly doting dad could have figured that one out, right? And until some genius invented those magnetic patio door curtains, my dad would patiently let Nigel in and out of his house every few minutes, because even years of loving care hadn’t been able to erode Nigel’s ADHD. Bending over backwards for a cat every four seconds for hours at a time = true love.

Nigel wasn’t supposed to make it past October 2003, but he found a way to escape his fate and to thrive in an environment of love, safety, and trust. After ten years of living the Good Life, Nigel’s previous health issues suddenly came back full-force, and the vet’s prognosis was heartbreaking: pain, suffering, deterioration. My dad, fiercely devoted to this badass feline, made the courageous, never-easy decision to bring Nigel peace. Now, all that’s left of Nigel is his legacy:

Let love in and thrive against all odds

Allow yourself to be loved, even when it’s hard to love yourself

Let love transform you, and love will show you what’s possible (you’ll be amazed!)

R.I.P Nigel-- 1999 (?) to November 20, 2013 xoxo

R.I.P Nigel– 1999 (?) to November 20, 2013 xoxo

I love you, Nigel. Thank you for letting me in. xo

24 responses

  1. It’s always so hard to lose a pet…they become members of the family. I’m happy to know Nigel had such a good life with you, your sister and your Dad. He was a lucky boy to find such acceptance! So sorry for your loss.

    • Thanks, Cindy. I’m not sad for Nigel himself– I know he had a fabulous life and taught everyone in our family a valuable lesson about unconditional love. I’m more sad for my poor dad, losing his little buddy. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ Thank you for the condolences.

  2. So sorry Dana. We are an animal family and I agree 100% with everything you said- including manifesting your family. I took in a stray cat- Gene- who had cancer all over her ears so the first thing the vet did was cut off most of her ears. 12 years later I put her down and had to have a friend drive. So many to adopt and love….

    • Phew– I’m not the only one who believes in animals manifesting families for themselves! It’s so hard losing the little guy, but I know that big hurt reflects the huge love we had for him. Thanks for commenting. xo

  3. What an adorable story! Brushing on the stairs! Oh, the absurd things we do for our pets. I put up with a lot of abuse from my cat… but she was a bit of an unstable mess when she was rescued too. I’m sorry for you and your family.

    • Brushing on the stairs worked like a charm, though. ๐Ÿ™‚ I can only imagine how my dad figured that one out, but once the secret was discovered, it was ENFORCED for the rest of Nigey’s life.

      I love animal rescue stories, even though I know they usually entail unspeakable difficulties for the pets in their pasts and definite hardships for the forever families when we have to say goodbye. I’ll pass on the well wishes to my dad, who is taking the brunt of the hurt these days. xo

    • It is so true that we are never the ‘owners’, Laurie. Hahaha, I have to laugh when I think about how fully Nigel ended up owning my dad. There was no question who ran that household, and he was covered in greasy orange fur. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for stopping by and wishing my family well.

  4. Tears… I thought you were the coolest before reading this,Dana, but have decided there is more cool Dana to know. How wonderful what you and your sister did! You gave him that chance. When everyone else–sniff–couldn’t or wouldn’t see. You did it. And then your dad did it. I am sending this blog post to my daughter. now. More tears.

    • Aww… don’t cry! It’s a beautiful thing when love can crack us wide open. I still feel sniffle-y when I think too hard about Nigel these days, but mostly, I’m super grateful to have been given the opportunity to stretch my heart by having him be part of our family. (I might be more of a wreck if I still lived in Calgary, but because it’s been a long time since I saw Nigel more than once or twice a year, I’m doing okay. Let’s all send prayers to my dad, though. He’s experiencing the double whammy: losing a pet and being a man who’s not supposed to be so affected by a cat. Healing thoughts to my doting dad…) xo

  5. My tears for sweet, perfect Nigel and hugs to you and your super-awesome Dad. We lost our orange and white furbaby Punkinhead (a.k.a. Kitty) in October 2007… Then had a beautiful torty named Lulu Belle join our world in 2008 before we were “ready” – She would dart IN our door whenever we would be leaving to go somewhere!

    • Thanks, Michelle. Nigel was AWESOME. His nickname was either “Nigey” said in a squeaky high voice or “NIGE!!” bellowed like a soccer fan. He liked them both. (I think.) We also called him “Ndugu” after that Jack Nicholson movie… forget what it’s called. Oh, dear. The silly things we do for pets! ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Awww. This is such a beautiful tribute to Nigel. Isn’t it amazing what animals can teach us? Tearing up here… partially out of happiness for Nigel, that he found you and your sister and your dad.

  7. Oh, Dana, I LOVE this tribute to Nigel, and I’m so sorry he’s gone. When I lost my cat Tashi, whom I’d had for 17 years, since she was 7 weeks old, it broke my heart. But how wonderful to know that Nigel was SO loved. I had to laugh at your dad giving instructions on which step to sit when brushing him.

    Hugs from Ecuador,

    • I still laugh when I think about those brushing instructions. And Nigel took FULL ADVANTAGE of my dad’s softie tendencies. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Isn’t it heartbreaking to lose an animal? I’m not sure if you were reading my blog in 2010 when we lost the dog we had been taking care of. I *still* cry when I think of her, and it’s been close to 4 years since she passed away.

  8. Oh God. Woah. Girl, you KNOW I feel your pain. Nigel looks like he was an AWESOME little buddy!! Nothing like watching him go from greasy and matted to allowing himself to be brushed from two stairs down!!!
    It sounds like he had an awesome life. And remember, your dad set him free. The greatest act of love we can show our fuzzy friends if they ever need it.

    • Thanks so much. I have been breezing through life with a song in my heart since Nigel passed on. It’s hard to wallow in grief when I know how awesome those 10 years of being part of his family were… ๐Ÿ™‚

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