If I’d been working that morning, I never would have gone into the backyard.
The kitten looked impossibly tiny sitting on my back porch. He was watching my cats, Morpheus and Trinity, through the patio door with his one good eye; the other was swollen shut, twice its normal size. He didn’t run or seem frightened when I approached; he just turned and looked at me, his head cocked like he was asking me a question. All sharp bones and huge head, he looked several weeks younger than he turned out to be.
I swept him up, rushed him to the vet. He was starving and thirsty, that was obvious. The eye was due to some sort of cold virus; his mother had probably abandoned him because of it. But the most urgent problem, Dr. Silva told me, was the fleas. They were draining his blood to a dangerously low level—she pulled his mouth open to show me the gray-white gums and tongue that should have been pink.
They set up an IV for him, for fluids and nutrients. They started him on several medications. She gave him a pill to get rid of the fleas, and as I watched, fat flea after fat flea squirmed off in spirals onto the table; the little black spots falling off his black fur like he was coming apart bit by bit, and would crumble to nothing.
I didn’t think about the timing of it all then. I’d just quit my job; after twenty years of training and work, I had to accept that my chosen career was damaging me, body and soul. I felt like a failure, a wasted life. All those people I’d set out to help, I was abandoning them. Sure, I’d been able to help some, but so few, in the grand scheme of things, and I didn’t know how to be at peace with that.
I breathed a sigh of relief when it came time to take the kitten home; he looked much better, and was playing with everything in sight. Even his towel-blanket.
But when I checked on him the next morning, something was wrong.
I rushed him back in; a different vet, Dr. Knudsen, had me leave the kitten and come back in two hours. I didn’t knowing where to go while I waited. I pulled up to a beauty supply shop, and wandered up and down the aisles, tears silently falling.
Why had the universe entrusted me with this kitten just to take it away?
And how could I love him so desperately in less than 24 hours?
I went to my car and started a session of Tonglen, meditation that breathes in the pain of others, and breaths out compassion for them. I tried to focus through the tears.
Answers filled me. This wasn’t about me, or my pain. It was about how I could help another being, about a soul that could die cold and alone, or warm and loved. The outcome was not in my control, but my actions were, and my role was kindness. Compassion. Love.
I went back to the vet.
“It’s not looking good. We can keep treating him, but it’ll just cost you a lot of money, and he’ll likely die anyway.”
I looked up at him. I saw the cynicism and burn-out that comes from watching countless animals die despite your best efforts. I saw a man who’d seen more little kittens like this than he could count, and who knew there were thousands more. I understood that from his perspective, this one kitten just didn’t make much difference.
But from mine, he did.
“You understand he’s probably going to die regardless?”
“Yes. Do everything you can for him.”
He gave me an odd look, and nodded.
I returned several hours later. The vet tech, Wendy, came into the exam room carrying the kitten.
His eye was open. And he was playing with his towel again.
We hadn’t won yet, she told me. He’d need special formula every two hours, fed from a syringe. She showed me how, and I watched with laser focus; one slip and I could drown him. He’d need four medicines several times a day, and he’d need a water bottle to keep him constantly warm. I’d need to wipe his bottom because he couldn’t eliminate on his own.
But he was alive.
Little Neo survived; he’s almost three years old now, still playing with everything in sight. And every day he’s my reminder that while it sometimes feels like what tiny amount I’m able to give doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, it does matter.
To someone, it makes all the difference.
Author: Michelle Chouinard
Editor: Renée Picard
Images: via the author