My friend Deb is allergic to cats, but has ended up with a few over the years because we live in the country with lots of feral cats and she has a soft heart. Currently she has only one, Shadowcat, who has wormed her way into the house. But last winter a couple of black cats started showing up on the porch, a short-haired bow-legged boy who’d run to greet you, and his long-haired more skeptical sister. We discovered that Deb’s neighbors had moved away and left the young cats behind. Within a few months, the boy was predictably run over, and the girl was adopted.
The friends who adopted the girl left on a long trip a few weeks after they took her home, with our promise that we’d take care of her in their absence. Since we were sort of the reason they adopted her. And because that is the kind of place we live, where we all pick up the pieces. They set up a nice bunch of beds and roosts in their garage, with all the things we’d need to care for her with the utmost convenience, including a free-feed station where she could eat all the kibble she wanted. She was a prickly little thing, hissing at Deb when she tried to pet her, and just ignoring me.
After a week, I thought she was getting too fat on the free feed, so started rationing her to one cup a day. A week later, she was even fatter! I was pretty sure what this meant. So Deb and I hauled her off to the good doctor, who confirmed that she was pregnant.
“Not just one or two pregnant,” he said, “more like four or five. And you can expect them in two or three weeks, closer to two I think.”
The neighbors were still a month away. They had no idea! Clearly there had been a miscommunication when they’d had her checked out. They hadn’t settled on a name before they left, and gave us license to name her if it came clear to us. We laughed all the way to the vet playing with names, and on the way home the name did come to us: Heidi. Heidi Ho.
I went into midwife mode, committed to building her trust before her time came. If there were any complications with the birth or afterwards I wanted at least a chance of being able to handle her and the kittens. And I wanted to start handling the babies shortly after they were born, so the proud grandparents didn’t come home to a shop full of feral kittens with a hissing mother that wouldn’t let them close.
I brought a quarter can of wet food every day, and sat across the room while she ate. I set up three nest boxes, two carrying crates with blankets, and a cardboard box arrangement lined with towels. I talked and sang to her (“oh she’s da heidi heidi ho!”) and stayed with her for ten or twenty minutes after she ate, watching her waddle around the garage and check out the nest boxes, or sit and clean herself. Eventually she’d take a treat from my fingers and let me rub her head a little, but I never heard her purr and she never wanted a lap or a real petting.
Last week I eased into touching her belly while she ate, checking her nipples and letting my hands rest on her swollen sides. On Sunday I felt one of the kittens move, and more action on Monday. Tuesday I opened the garage door and she didn’t come running. Across the room I heard little peeps and mews. Two weeks four days.
As I cleaned the litter box she came trotting across the room. She gobbled her wet food as I snuck a peek into the cardboard box she had chosen for a nest. She ran and checked on me a couple of times but let me take pictures. After she ate she curled back around her babies and let me watch them nurse. I couldn’t get an accurate count the way they were squirming all over each other, but thought I counted eight. I was surprised at how huge they seemed, to have been out of her less than 24 hours. I congratulated her on the wonderful job she had done.
Naturally I was smitten the moment I looked in on the little wad of wiggling kittens. But right now my hands are full and my pockets empty. The Colonel always advised me never to take responsibility for more lives than I could manage to care for adequately. I went into this thing knowing that I would not take a kitten out of this litter. I was sorely tempted to think about it, though, after watching them for just a few minutes.
When I checked the pictures at home, I could see there was a little foot that never moved in all the images and videos. Uh oh. A little dead one. So I ran back over, tricked Heidi with another blob of food, and reached in quickly to the back of the box to remove the kitten carcass. Poor little cold dead one. I brought it home and buried it under the peach tree.
That was my kitten, the little dead one. Holding its cold little body for just a few minutes, stroking the soft dead fur on its little head, looking at its little open paws… I felt a little surge of love and grief. I said a few words about what a good kitten it would have been, such a good cat, how much it would have meant to me, and then covered it with dirt and straw, inside the tree fence so the dogs can’t dig it up. I placed a tiny bouquet of apple blossoms over the grave. A silly tiny thing, but still: one small thing I could do in a world of endless death. Lately I’ve been remembering that child I was at nine, and thinking maybe that was my prime. Before everything else. At nine, I would have buried that kitten with somber pomp and circumstance, deep and heartfelt ritual. And so I did something like that yesterday.
It was so much easier! So much easier to bury a stillborn kitten that could have been mine, than to love and live with it for five years, or ten, or fifteen as I have with other cats, and then lose it to the inevitable death that comes for all our pets before we’re ready. We’re rarely ready for death, even when we’ve had weeks or months to prepare. That first final emptiness when we look at the dead body of a beloved pet, or person, is always a shock, at least for me. So I got that loss over with preemptively, bringing home my share of the litter, living that little moment of might-have-been, and laying it to rest. Whew.
I went again today to tend the little mama, un petit d’un petit herself, and her litter. While Heidi was eating I took the top off the nest and folded up the damp, birth-stained towel, set in a clean one, and started to move the babies. MWEEE! MWAAA! they shrieked, and she came running. She stepped in and watched anxiously as I hastily, gently, moved them all onto the new bedding and removed the old. Then she curled around them, and I settled the box back over them. She purred and purred on her nice dry towel. Seven of them! Seven little warm unnecessary kittens. Deb and I have already lined up homes for most of them. Maybe, just maybe… Day Two, and already the wheels of rationalization are turning. No! I will not!