Apologies for the long delayed update, but it took a while before I could write about the last month with any perspective at all.
I’m still haunted by an agent’s critique of a memoir proposal I wrote six months after my sister’s death. “Put it away, and come back to it in a year or two when you can write about it without opening a vein and bleeding all over the page.” Point taken.
Blogs are also a bummer when the writing is vein-opening and lacking insight, so I waited a few weeks until the misery had turned to miracle, as happens sometimes. So now that I’ve stopped holding my breath, now that I can exhale, here’s the story.
In brief: two months ago, I agreed to take in a feral mama cat and her seven kittens that had been trapped in a canyon. Exotic and jade-eyed, I named mama cat Isis, and named her kittens after prominent Americans (because really, after a while you run out of themes): Teddy Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Quincy Adams, Chester Arthur, Alice Paul, Nellie Bly and Pearl Buck. Taking in the family would overlap with the fostering of Bandita (she of the broken legs) but I thought it would be okay because, you know, I can work wonders! I can!
I decided to take the kittens in for vaccination and sterilization in batches. Three little boys (Quincy, Chester and Teddy) were first to go. The day after they came back, they all seemed to be getting sick. They were seen by a vet, languished, improved, backslid, for one scary week. Two of them started to rebound, while the third, Teddy, started fading. On a Saturday, he had shut down entirely, not eating, curled in a ball. I rushed him to Adobe, where he died as they tried to tube-feed him.
Stunned and horrified, I demanded to know why. How could this happen?? I was told that sometimes kittens just “fade,” but I had to know, because he was part of a large litter that had been living in close quarters. They ran tests, and the dreadful not-quite-conclusion was panleukopenia – also known as feline distemper. Very rare today, very contagious and almost always fatal. Worse, by cuddling Teddy, the virus could spread on my clothes to my own cats.
Now, a cat’s early FVRCP vaccination should prevent them from getting distemper, but it has literally been a decade since a couple of my older cats had been vaccinated. A vet was quickly called to come and give boosters to all the others in the house. Then I waited, my heart in my throat, for the other shoe(s) to drop.
Next was Alice, a sweet and submissive grey kitten, whose descent was also rapid. Determined to put up a better fight this time (because really, I can work wonders!) I took Alice to my local vet hospital, where they kept her for two days of IV fluids and syringe feedings. And then I got the call. Alice didn’t make it.
Dizzy from crying and incredulous that my tremendous luck and gift of healing was seemingly running out, I steeled myself for the next round. This time, Nellie, the spunky alpha-girl, and Jimmy, the little chatterbox runt of the litter, began to fail. Losing their appetites, they became lethargic and withdrawn. This time I was ready with a protocol the vet recommended: round-the-clock force-feedings with a syringe. I would mix special food, probiotics (they had terrible diarrhea), and water, and squeeze it into their miserable faces every four hours, even setting the alarm in the middle of the night. I refused to accept the idea that I would lose another kitten on my watch. This just didn’t happen to me. Even so, over the course of a week they both dropped almost half their body weight, until they were tiny skeletons of themselves.
And I was a wreck. Anxious, angry and sleep-deprived, I began to question whether I had any skills at all, or whether the praise I’d heard for the last few years about “working wonders” with healing kitties was just wrong, an exaggeration based on a few lucky breaks. In near-despair, I sought the counsel of a friend who is an intuitive. She suggested that I put up an image of Saint Francis in the sick room along with some pink flowers. And she told me quite bluntly that she thought the kittens’ chances were 50-50, that they could go either way – toward life or death – but that I needed to let go of the outcome.
“Sometimes the word ‘rescue’ doesn’t mean saving them from death,” she said. “Sometimes it means loving them as they transition.”
This flew in the face of how I’d been approaching things, but after a good cry I realized she was right. I followed her directions with the flowers and the image, which I pasted on the mirror above the bathroom counter where the kittens tended to sleep. The next day, Jimmy started to show interest in food… and Nellie started to die. Lying on her tucked-in face in a curious pose, she was motionless, breathing lightly. I covered her with a towel to keep her warm, and decided there would be no more forced feedings. And there would be no rushing her to the vet, where she would die like Teddy and Alice, without me in a sterile room. She would die at home with me, her mama and sibs nearby – who seemed to be standing vigil.
I checked Nellie hourly through the day, meditating to St. Francis, trying to let go, holding my hands on either side of her to send her warmth and energy. Sensing the battle was lost, I told her it was okay for her to go, that I would take care of her family, and that she had been loved and would live again.
And then… she didn’t go.
The next morning, when I walked in expecting to find her passed, Nellie opened her eyes and lifted her head. And when I offered food, she perked up and licked at it.
It’s been a month now, and both Nellie and Jimmy have gained back all their lost weight and then some. They are bright-eyed, sweet and playful. And the vet is amazed. (“I’d have given them 5% chance of making it,” she said.)
The two healthiest boys (Quincy and Chester) were adopted to a wonderful home, and I’m working on finding one for Nellie and Jimmy (they are very bonded after their near-death), as well as Isis and Pearl, who are very attached.
So what’s the lesson from this awful experience? Perhaps that I was too proud that I always knew the right thing to do, that my belief in my ability to always heal and transform was arrogant at best. I’ve been humbled by not having the answers, and by how much I still have to learn.
But this is one thing I did learn: that letting go and just letting love guide your actions can work wonders indeed. Saint Francis, thanks for the help.