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  • Today I said goodbye to a pet of nearly 20 years. He'd been with us since May of 2004, living with us in Europe, several places in mainland U.S., and Hawaii. A tiny bit of Tate's story follows.

    In January, 2002, we moved to a small village in the Rheinland Pfalz area of Germany. We rented a floor of house overlooking horse pastures, a year-round stream, old stone barns, a very old mill, and – across the road – farmlands ascending up to a small castle. Despite the pastoral beauty of our surroundings, my wife grew increasingly depressed. She had hoped the Air Force would leave us in the U.S., or at least send us to an English-speaking country. Never having studied a foreign language or aspired to travel abroad, she felt alienated in Germany. After nearly a year of staring out the window and feeling isolated, she got a job with the German office of an American company. Getting engaged in business with both Americans and Germans forced her to acculturate enough to pull out of the worst of her funk, but she was still homesick.

    Later that year, while driving home from an outing, we were passing a German farm and saw several kittens playing on the steps of a barn. The owner was standing outside. Spontaneously, I stopped and asked if we could have one of the kittens. We had noticed that people in the region generally regarded cats almost as vermin. We doubted the farmer would mind us taking one off his hands.

    "Er ist krank," the farmer said. The kitten was ill. It didn't look ill. It was batting a sibling's head from a higher step.

    "Ich verstehe," I said, acknowledging that I understood. The farmer nodded his head toward the kitten. I scooped him up and brought him to my wife. She'd never been around cats and was a bit intimidated. Our son, in the back seat, begged to hold it, so we passed the kitten back. Once at home, my wife moved quickly from trepidation to delight at the kitten's antics. They quickly became attached. After a few weeks, we noticed the kitten – by now named by our son as Kaiser Dieter Brotchenkopf (Dieter, for short) – was sneezing a lot. He became less energetic by the week and was not growing at a normal rate. The vet checked for worms. Deworming did not help. Blood tests revealed feline leukemia, which – we learned – is rampant in Germany. At six months age, we had to have Dieter euthanized. My son and I were very sad, but my wife was crushed, after having fully bonded with Dieter.

    The following May, in 2004, I learned the Einsiedlerhof Animal Shelter was seeking homes for a bumper crop of kittens. My wife's office was in that town. I decided to drop by the shelter. A large wire cage bustled with rambunctious kleine Katzen. Children and adults were quickly choosing their new pets. I noticed the most gregarious and active kittens were being chosen first. I was drawn to two kittens at the back of the cage. One, an exotic brindle tortoiseshell who seemed oblivious to the commotion around her, and the other, a little black and tan tabby whose head seemed twice too big for his body. He looked like he was tempted to play, but found it a little overstimulating. While I was stunned by the tortie's beauty, I realized the tabby resembled Dieter. I signed for him, put him in a lidded box, and headed for my wife's office.

    She was surprised to see me. I was slightly earlier than usual for picking her up. Then she saw I had a box. She was slightly alarmed – not one for surprises. As I opened the lid, the little tabby meowed. I could see both delight and pain in my wife's face. Her office mates politely gushed over the kitten. Once I saw I was not in trouble, I told them all about the kitten adoption experience, and mentioned "there was this one, incredibly beautiful, exotic looking kitten just sitting serenely at the back of the cage." Seeing right away that I was smitten, my wife said, "Why didn't you get her?" I said I figured one kitten would be all she'd want to deal with, and he," pointing at the tabby, "was the most like Dieter."

    "Go get that kitten," she urged. "You'll always regret it if you don't."

    At the shelter I was very surprised that she was still there. The technician said people preferred the more active pets. I asked if she were sick. "No, she was spayed this morning and is still feeling the drugs. She'll perk up later tonight." But that's another story. This is about the boy cat.

    Little Man Tate, soon trimmed to "Tate," proved to be a wiry, athletic, sweet natured, cautious, catastrophe-prone survivor. He, along with the tempestuous tortie, Sassafras (Sassy), graced our homes and thoroughly entertained us in Germany, Virginia, Washington State, Hawaii, and New Mexico.

    Tate always watched Sassy's energetic escapades and seemed to want so badly to join the play, but he was too timid. If a ball or feather-on-a-string came close enough, frequently enough, he might eventually swat it once, but then he would become self conscious and back away as Sassy tackled the target. Tate learned to tiptoe around Sassy, who was quick to hiss and slap if he got too close. Sassy would pick her spot, then Tate would settle just out of striking range.

    Until he went blind several years ago, Tate's favorite pastime was watching birds through any window. Everywhere we lived, he would spend hours visually tracking birds. His face would twitch and he would chatter, as cats do, when the birds were close to the window. As with play, even when outside (always on a harness) and near birds, Tate wanted to go for it, but was just too timid. I could see his mental gears turning, the anticipation of striking, then the reining in of emotion, in stereotypical German fashion. Even when young, he seemed old.

    Tate loved to drape over a left shoulder. The right would not do. You would have to bend your left arm, as if it were in a cast. He'd keep his rear paws on the left forearm and your shoulder under his front paws. He could stay there for hours. It's amazing how heavy a 10-pound cat feels after fifteen minutes like that, but the rumble of his purring was so satisfying that we'd allow him to stay until our arms were numb.

    About ten years ago we learned his kidney function was failing. We switched him to the best possible diet and started a regimen of medications that grew over the years. About eight years ago, a vet told us he might have six months left. Around five years ago his super-high blood pressure caused his retinas to separate, leaving him blind. His quick mastery of the house, without sight, amazed us. He remained fairly active until a little over a year ago, and has been – essentially – in home hospice care since. I never thought I would be administering subcutaneous saline or giving B-12 shots to a cat, but you step up to whatever you must to improve the quality of life for someone you love.

    Several days ago, as the last of many indicators, he lost interest in eating, refusing even the favorites we always held back as a bribe to get him to take noxious meds. He also could not get comfortable, and appeared to be having micro-seizures. This morning, it was clear to me that he was only partially coherent, was in pain, and had fully stopped eating. I called my wife, who is visiting our granddaughter, far away. She – very sadly – supported my observations and decision. I called Tate's vet, arranged the appointment, and took him to be euthanized. It was a smooth, peaceful process. The staff members and vet were very kind. I felt fortunate to have this option to bring Tate's very long, happy, and eventful life to a humane end. He was an fine tabby cat, a heart-stealing little Deutshlander. We will miss him deeply.
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