As a person who’s rescued and fostered cats and kittens for about 30 years I’ve also seen my own share of loss, both in sending fosters off to good and loving adoptive homes and in the losses of cats I’d rescued who were too ill or injured to save, and the losses of the cats who came to share my life. Loss is a part of rescuing, because it is a part of our life with animals, because their lives are shorter than ours. But loss comes in its own time, and sometimes it can be overwhelming either by the souls who are lost or the number of losses close together, or both.
At one point in my life I lost too many precious friends too close together, old, young, unexpected, the remainder of my cats were seniors and I was sure their losses were imminent. I wasn’t sure I could face it, and I was afraid I’d pull away from them to avoid the potential pain, and never rescue another cat again. Obviously, I did not. Each cat who has come into my life has taught me a lesson and in ways large and small each has rescued me as I rescued them, but this time I needed more than one cat to set me back on the path. This story is my own rescue, my own loss and redemption. After much sadness it has a happy ending.
In 2006 and 2007, I lost my four oldest cats, three of them among my longest-lasting friends, feline or human. Formerly feral Moses passed at age 19 in February 2006, Peaches’ sister Cream at 15 in March 2006, Sophie unexpectedly at 16 in November, 2006, Stanley at age 25 in January 2007. Sophie, we suspect, had a mass in her throat that slowly caused her to lose her voice and weight through 2006, Cream was in renal failure from her arrival in June 2005, Moses was quietly declining for about a year, and Stanley had been diagnosed with chronic kidney failure at age 21 and was slowly giving in to old age. In addition, Namir needed constant supervision, medications and care for his heart disease. There was a lot of intense caregiving for a few years. My other three cats, Cookie, 15, Kelly, 14, and Peaches, 17, were fine.
I remember thinking in those years as I fostered a few rescued cats, singles, moms with kittens, kittens without moms, of new life in my older feline household. But I knew it wasn’t right to keep one of the kittens I fostered when I already had so many, and caring for geriatric animals in their end stages is time-consuming, expensive and emotionally exhausting. I felt I had no time for a kitten. But I remember looking at black kittens and thinking how wonderful it would be to have a black cat again, and especially a little black kitten I would name Lucy.
Right in the that middle of that year of loss I fostered a litter of four kittens born to a neighbor’s cat who we now know as Mimi, but at that time she was just one of their neglected cats who continually reproduced while I tried to catch them between litters, and took the kittens to foster and find homes. I quickly found homes for three of those kittens, two black brothers and a calico sister, but the little black sister was not adopted.
I had forgotten my fleeting thought from the previous year about a little black kitten named Lucy, didn’t remember until a few years later when I found that idle thought in a note in a calendar, but I named her Lucy even before the others were adopted, and I didn’t try too hard to find her an adopter; quite a bit was also happening in my work life and with my mother’s and brother’s health.
Lucy seemed to understand my distraction as I grieved Moses and Cream, as I cared for Stanley and watched over Sophie hoping the condition we couldn’t diagnose would resolve with antibiotics or steroids. Lucy was a kitten in a quiet house full of older cats, but she was the best-behaved kitten I have ever known, exploring a portion of the house and coming back with cobwebs on her face to sit near us at my desk, eating her meals with us and sleeping on the bed with us. I would normally keep a young cat confined for part of the day so she could free feed for a while for more nutrition and my adult cats could get a break, but she adored them all and loved settling on the bed with all of us. I had so much to keep track of that I didn’t even think of confining her after about four months.
Stanley, at age 25, finally came to the end of his path in January 2007. Slowly I could turn from my remembrance of his long life and the losses of all four in the year, and I turn my attention to my Lucy, my new life, and my love for Cookie, Kelly, Namir and Peaches.
I had applied to a low-cost spay program the previous autumn and finally made an appointment after I lost Stanley, ironically on what I presumed to be Lucy’s first birthday, April 1, late for a spay. She seemed to heal normally but a few days later seemed a little less active than usual and I wondered if she’d injured herself somehow in her explorations and watched closely for infection, keeping in touch with my veterinarian. She continued slowing down, and two weeks later when she had breathing difficulty one rainy morning my vet made time to come and see her and told me that Lucy’s chest was full of fluid, and she thought it was likely FIP. I drove through my tears and torrential rain to an emergency hospital where unbelievably 200cc of fluid was pulled from her tiny chest, and even by looking at the viscous yellow fluid the diagnosis was evident.
I took her home rather than euthanize her right then as they urged me to do. At least we could have some time that felt a little normal and she could pass in her own home, surrounding my all who knew her and loved her. It was just too soon, for her, for another loss. She was just a kitten, playing, she was too young to die.
But she recovered, to a certain extent, eating dinner that night and sleeping well. I would watch her for signs, used a variety of alternative and regular treatments and medications, and though slow the changes in her little body were evident. She lived for three months as a member of our household, carefully watched over by Namir.
Still, her end was a shock, even with all that time to prepare. My heart was broken, and the weight of all that caretaking over the years caught up with me. I was beyond grief, I was simply numb after all that loss, so quickly, and in part unexpected. With Lucy’s loss, my household suddenly reduced from nine to four and all of them teenagers, Namir with a serious heart condition, I looked at the four who were left, their losses imminent, as potential sources of pain and something began to unravel in me as my life with cats began to look like one long parade of loss that I did not want to follow any more. I knew that I needed to do something quickly to save myself, but I had no idea what.
The day Lucy died, I saw her mother in my garden, her petite black body laden with another litter of kittens in her belly. I watched her drinking from the water bowl under the pink phlox and the thought came to me, as if someone had said it out loud to me, that I needed to take her in. I ran to get my camera and got just a flash of her as she stepped into the bean plants in my garden, but I had captured the moment.
I called my veterinarian hoping—in fact, expecting, as she always did—she’d tell me “No, it’s too dangerous, you have enough cats, you’ve had enough loss, don’t do it.” Instead, she paused and then said, “I think that would be a good idea.” I discussed with her and other veterinarians the risks and we determined I could safely do this. I asked the neighbor to give me the mother cat this time instead of just the kittens. She said that would be fine. And that would be the last unaltered cat at that house.
Though FIP is not itself contagious and the coronavirus that would have infected Lucy was most likely long gone, I had taken the time to thoroughly clean and scrub my home after we lost Lucy on July 10. If there was a genetic link to FIP and any possibility there was a molecule of it here I was taking no chances. Cookie, Kelly, Namir and Peaches patiently followed me around, supervising my activities.
I finally had my home and the foster area ready. Mimi on her own would have been housed in the studio but my neighbor had come over to tell me the kittens had been born so plans had changed. Honestly, I have spayed pregnant cats and considering the risk of FIP and the fact that Mimi was very small and had already had a number of litters, a spay had actually been recommended by a couple of veterinarians. Mimi would arrive on a Sunday and see a veterinarian on a Monday to determine that, but I guess it wasn’t part of the plan.
I had decided to use a large dog cage to contain Mimi and the little family, sure that their mom would want to move them behind something in the studio/spare cat room and I wouldn’t see them until they were eight weeks old and lost in the wilds of all the boxes and stuff in there, and I also felt the need to observe them all from the very beginning for any signs of illness.
Also, for the sweet and docile kitty Mimi is today, she and I had a somewhat difficult relationship when she lived outdoors as she was timid of other humans and always ran from me when I found her in my garden. I really wasn’t sure if she’d perceive me as a threat, and even without kittens I wasn’t sure how friendly she would be. I couldn’t know how protective she might be of her kittens in a new space, and how threatened she might feel by the smells of other cats and the presence of them outside the door. I anticipated trouble.
The day came, my neighbor came over and asked if I was really taking the cat, and she would go get her and the kittens. I had everything ready, all I needed was the cat and kittens, but was hesitating, that fear of pain from loss, the mother and all the kittens might be sick, it might be a mess, I might put the rest of my cats at risk…but I told her to bring her over.
She appeared back at the door with a smallish square box with the flaps folded shut and handed it to me. Was this just the mom cat? No, the kittens were in there. She left.
I was terrified! They were newborns! The mom could step on them and kill them! I could feel her shifting around in there. I didn’t want to open the box right there and possibly have her escape, Namir and Cookie and Kelly and Peaches were right there stretching their noses toward me, ready to see the new additions, but I had to walk up the steps with this box! Well, I could do that, and began slowly walking toward and up the steps, into the studio, and shut the door behind me with my foot, right in four curious faces who knew exactly what was happening.
Slowly and carefully I put the box down on the stool I had next to my work table and opened the cage door. The blind was pulled because the day was hot and sunny and I wanted the room cool and dim and protected for the new mom and kittens.
Only tiny scuffles came from the inside, but no other noise. I had no idea what to expect when I opened the box. Would she spring out and run and hide? Would she leap at my face? Would she crouch down and hiss at me and smother her kittens? She had been less than friendly, she had just been put in a box with her kittens and carried around, she was a new mom in a strange place, there were cat smells all over, she would have no idea they were behind a door and she was safe.
I carefully slid the box flaps apart just a little and peered in the little square of darkness so I could see what the cat’s reaction was. One round softly glowing eye appeared at the opening. Curious, not angry. I opened the flaps a little more. She looked up at me, calm, calmer than me. I opened the flaps all the way and folded them back. Her head periscoped up to see over the edge of the box as she looked around. So this is what it’s like in here, she seemed to say, then looked back up at me.
I instinctively reached to touch her, just lightly touch her head. She sat up taller to meet my hand and looked softly at me. I forgot any doubts. She then began to climb out of the box and stepped onto the edge of the worktable and I could see how very small she was as she turned around for a sniff of my hand and another pet. Little bits of rainbows began to speckle the walls and floor and the top of my drafting table. I sensed the sun streaming in the open door behind us and envisioned Lucy walking in the room behind me. Rainbows? The blind was pulled almost all the way down and the window crystal was nearly on the windowsill where the sun could barely reach it. Of course, when I turned around, the door was closed, and Lucy was not there…but she was, and as the rainbows slowly spun around the room from the chance of a tiny sliver of afternoon sun on the window crystal as it twirled in the slightest breeze, Lucy became a part of this family forever. I looked at Lucy’s mom, who sat down and looked at me. It was then the healing began for both of us, and Mimi and I became soul mates.
Then I heard scuffling and remembered her kittens and she needed to explore her new space. I looked in the box at the little fuzzy black objects squirming just a bit—really, newborn kittens don’t look like much, especially black kittens when you can’t even see features, they look like large caterpillars.
One by one I gently lifted the nearly weightless warm little bodies covered with soft fuzz and laid them on the fleece in the cage, then held my hand over them just feeling the energy of their little lives in their tiny bodies. Who knew what they’d grow up to be like? I pictured them in stages as they’d grow, remembering other kittens, seeing them tumble around and play, and walk and pounce and give themselves baths, race around on gangly legs with little whips of tails. And here they were at their beginning.
I was afraid I’d be afraid of them too—expecting illness, afraid I’d break them, but after tentatively petting them a few times I picked up each one, then picked up all of them in one big handful and kissed them all. Their mother stretched out on my drafting table, relaxed and confident. I knew we would be fine. I had the feeling she’d known all along this would happen.
Even though it’s not really advised with newborn kittens, and mother cats don’t usually care for it, I picked them up individually and in groups several times a day, but their mom watched me with understanding and I gave her a pet and a kiss each time. I named them all after characters in my favorite opera, La Boheme, because the little black cat reminded me of the waif embroideress Mimi.
I had Mimi’s vet records and knew she was actually safe to allow with my other cats, so we invited Mimi to join the household, get a break from the kittens and enjoy some quiet time as a house cat. She laid in the cool air by the front door, then joined us at the desk, quietly tiptoeing among the older cats and finding a small spot to curl up and quietly meditate on her new life. Of course, they all knew each other. She had been visiting the garden for years, and there had no doubt been plenty of silent communication through the screen door from the patio to the basement.
And while I inspected the kittens and their mom several times a day for signs of fatal illnesses, marked the kittens’ ears with colors so I could tell them apart should one of them become ill in some way, tortured my veterinarian with questions and kept waiting for the bad news to come, they simply ignored me and grew up.
All my seniors joined in watching the kittens and began teaching them how to be cats. I forgot to look for signs of illness, and there were none anyway. When it came time to spay and neuter them all, I had thought I’d finally have my moment of fear because that was when Lucy was diagnosed, but I got through it without really thinking about FIP.
I decided, supported by the veterinarians I questioned, I’d keep them all for a year to observe, because I didn’t want someone else losing a kitten at 15 months as I did. I thought Mimi would stay with me, and maybe one or two of the kittens. I remember trying to determine which one or two, Mr. Sunshine, who had Lucy’s eyes and got his name because I called him Luciano, and Mewsette because I adored her strange silliness, and Giuseppe and Jelly Bean were so friendly with everyone and would do better in a shelter or an offsite place.
By the time they were a year old, at the end of July, shelters were full and they were four black adult cats and really didn’t get any attention. Jelly Bean raced me up the steps and hopped into the bathroom sink and purred loudly one day and I told him he was too cute to leave, and Giuseppe was his buddy and was fond of draping himself all over me. By the time there was some room in the shelters for friendly black adult cats, I was already photographing and sketching them. I decided I couldn’t break up this unique family and was inspired by the five silhouettes making themselves into compositions in my visualizations.
Bringing that family into my life was the only thing that could heal my broken heart in the way it did. They became the bridge between my early rescue life, as we said goodbye to Namir and then Peaches, and Cookie and Kelly in the same year, and my current one, when we’ve welcomed our hospice fosters and kittens and frightened and former feral cats. As my prior family was, they are the secret sauce that makes fostering successful in my house. They’ve gone on to help revitalize my career as a visual artist when I was overwhelmed with other things that needed to be done.
Mimi is my best friend, and knows when I need the love and guidance of a feline muse. Her children are as close as they were when they were newborns, but always make room for me as part of their family, and as a group they welcome every human visitor to this house with their irresistible charm and affection. Sometimes I think they are just happily living out their cat lives and then sometimes I’m sure they’re all here to continue rescuing me when I need it, though the biggest job is done. Now I could not imagine my life without them, just as I couldn’t imagine my life without any of the cats who spent their lives with me.
This was originally written from my notes for my talk at the 2011 Pet Memorial Sunday celebration hosted by Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation on the topic of adopting again after loss. It was originally published as “My Loss and Redemption: The Joy of Pets”. I’ve added more detail for this writing.
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