We were never pet people. Ours was a family compassionate to animals when the situation dictated but never imagined that one day we would have a set among our ranks. However, in the spring of 2009, three little surprise visitors forever changed the scheme of our household as they crept into our hearts and buried their claws deep.
It all started in the month of May when a giant ginger tom kept sneaking into our guest room. Mom had been insisting there was a cat living under the guest bed but, having searched the premises and finding no four-legged critter, we dismissed it as a random incident. But the cat sightings continued and with increasing frequency.
One night during dinner, Mom complained this cat had the audacity to slink right past her earlier that day into the guest room and back out the sitting room window a few minutes later. “Bold as brass!” deplored she. She had checked immediately after under the bed to make sure the intruder hadn’t chosen our home as its personal outhouse and finding nothing where it shouldn’t be, closed the door to remove further temptation. Mom seemed satisfied with being able to one-up her nemesis and we again set the problem from our minds.
The following day, no sooner that I reached the office, Mom called me in sheer panic. “There are kittens in our guest room. They can’t be more than a week old,” she cried.
I frowned. “I thought you said it was a cat.”
“Not a cat; kittens. Three of them!” She was hyperventilating and sounded ready to faint.
“Mom, please calm down, take a deep breath and tell me what happened. Slowly,” I added for good measure.
Whoosh, she went but was nowhere near calm as she began explaining. “I was crossing the corridor when I heard sounds coming from the guest room. I thought the cat had gotten in again somehow and went to check. And there they were, three little kittens, crawling about the floor on their front paws like tadpoles, mewling themselves hoarse. The ginger wasn’t defecating in our house, it was keeping its babies safe. And I kept it from its babies.”
Mom started sobbing in earnest but I couldn’t help smirking. Hah! Tom was really Molly.
“Hello? Are you still there, honey?”
“Yes, Mom, I’m still here,” I replied, pulling myself out of my infelicitous musings. But I refused to believe all was lost and tried recollecting what I once learned from my third-grade teacher about handling strays when our class had found an abandoned kitten in the playground and was given permission to take care of until the animal shelter fetched it. “How do you know if they’re less than a week old? Have their eyes opened yet? Because don’t touch them at all if their eyes haven’t yet opened.”
There was a pause as Mom was startled out of her weeping by my line of questioning. “What happens if I touch them before their eyes open,” she asked timidly.
I stifled a groan. “It would mean you’re correct about their age. In which case, any physical contact with you would leave your scent on them and that might cause their mother to abandon them.”
“Oh. How do you know all this?”
“Never mind that. Did you touch them?”
“I thought they might be cold on the floor so I put them on a towel.”
“Their mother kept them on the floor. They would’ve been living in a bush otherwise.”
“I didn’t think of that at the time, ok? And how was I to know touching newborn kittens can cause them to be abandoned? I was feeling guilty about separating them from their mother. Poor babies, they must be so hungry. No wonder they’re howling like that. Should I feed them?”
“You can put a little warm milk on a flat saucer next to them and maybe the smell will attract them into having some. But please, Mom, don’t touch them again. Leave them be and keep all the windows open so Molly can get back in and collect her kittens.”
“Molly is what you call a female cat, as opposed to the tom we thought our furry little intruder to be. Now I have to get back to work. You let me know when she’s come to take the kittens.” I hung up with a sigh and a prayer. And though Molly and her kittens had burrowed into my conscious mind, I had little time to make any follow-up call for a progress report on their reunion. Since Mom didn’t call back the rest of the day, I thought the crisis had been averted as planned. However, when I reached home that evening, chaos greeted me.
Three little kittens were scattered about the garage floor, caterwauling as high as their tiny voices would allow. Mom was right. With their bulbous heads larger than their bodies and only the front paws yet in working order, they did resemble tadpoles. Unable to see with their eyelids still shut, they had crawled away from each other in different directions and now lay stranded alone in this dark unknown world. My heart wrenched.
“Your father won’t let them inside the house anymore because newborn animals may carry infectious germs.” Mom stood by the inner door to the garage, her eyes strained with guilt. Her salt and pepper hair that she usually kept locked in a neat bun had come slightly undone.
I sighed. My father had always lived on this side of paranoia when it came to illnesses. Our house ran the gamut on over-the-counter medicines tending to average afflictions, prescriptions were refilled before they ran out and he prided himself on being up-to-date on pharmaceutical journals. He was a retired government officer who had worked in the foreign ministry for thirty-four years deciphering coded messages between our embassies located around the world.
“In the off-chance that they are carrying infectious germs, they need to be tended to also,” I reminded her.
“I know but what are we going to do? You know how your father is about diseases.”
I often felt sorry for Mom; she kept getting wedged between her conservative husband and progressive children. “It’s okay. We will take care of it. Can you get me a pair of those examination gloves Dad keeps?”
Mom looked relieved to have something constructive to contribute. Along with the gloves, she handed me a cardboard box padded with discarded linen that was covered in a soft cotton scarf. It was the package for the DVD burner my brother had bought a few months ago for his desktop and still sturdy from its newness. Compared to the space the kittens occupied collectively, the arrangement was palatial. Mom had obviously given much thought to their comfort.
“Molly didn’t return?” I asked, carrying the kitten back into the house.
“She did. You were right. Mama cats abandon their kittens if they smell people on them. How did you know?”
“Remember the time I got to take care of the kitten with my classmates for a day in third-grade? Our teacher told us. It always made me curious so years later I looked it up online.”
“I can’t believe a mother would do that,” Mom berated. “Cats must be heartless creatures.”
“Well, to be fair, not all cats do. It depends on how much human interaction the mother cat is accustomed to. A pet feline would probably be perfectly comfortable to allow her human family to touch her children.”
“Well, small blessings. I still like dogs better.”
This was true. Mom and I had always stored more faith in dogs. My brother was the only person in the family who defended the bad rep cats received, calling what people say about their selfishness “independence”. The only time Dad probably ever thought of any animal was when it came in the form of food. The irony is Dad grew up in the country.
“What will happen to them,” Mom asked as I tucked the scarf around their huddled bodies. They had tired themselves to sleep.
“We’ll have to take care of them until they’re old enough to take care of themselves.”
“Your father will have a conniption.”
“He’ll have to deal with it because these cats are too young to survive in the elements on their own and I’m not living with that on my conscience.” I felt angry. It seemed ridiculous to even think there was another option and the sooner everyone got that programmed into their system, the better.
Mom nodded but she did not seem convinced. My brother, some six years younger than me and still in college, took the same approach when he returned home that night. With odds against him, Dad had relented but steered clear of the guest room where we returned the kittens for their temporary accommodation. Truth be told, every member of our family lived by the same code of justice and this was one time when fate had left justice in our hands to uphold. No one wanted to test that honor, however wary we were of tiny little furballs.
That first night frayed us all to the edge of our nerves as we tried to find a way that would comfort them. We brought in a lamp and placed it next to their box, cushioning them with thicker linen to substitute the heat their mother would have provided. My brother laced his fingers in warm milk and tried to dribble it into their mouth but they mostly rejected it. We learned on the internet that kittens that young needed to be stimulated into urinating and armed ourselves with damp tissues to relieve them. They were inconsolable and they were loud.
I checked in between failed attempts to rest up for the next day’s office while my brother moved into the guest room. A number of times Mom was already there. In hushed tones, we exchanged theories of what might be the matter with them aside from the obvious reality of the missing mother. At some point, I even bumped into Dad in the hallway and he asked with concern how our guests were fairing. The wailing that seemed to have become the Muzak of our house had yet to stop. Our goal was to ensure they lived and we were all worried if they would even survive the night. The vigil went on.
Sometime just before dawn, Mom had an epiphany and came rushing in with a large plastic bottle full of hot water. “I couldn’t find the hot-water bag so this will have to do.” She proceeded to swaddle the bottle in linen and tucked the makeshift flask into the kittens’ bed. Then she nudged the critters towards the bottle. Silence.
As I marveled at her maternal instincts, Mom burst again into tears. This time, it was out of relief. I realized out of all of us, she had the most to lose by the kittens’ demise. She had been silently blaming herself for having ever touched them, however benign her intentions were. But now she could release herself from carrying that burden.
We went to catch a couple of hours of sleep before the day began. I went to work, my brother skipped classes, Mom supervised his ministrations and Dad? Dad found an old medicine dropper that he gave us to feed the kittens milk.
The days that followed were cat days. We would each go about our daily responsibilities but all of us conscious of the little guests that were growing stronger every hour in our house. We would only exchange cat tales whenever we were in the same room with one another and drove people outside our home mad with new information we gleaned each day from the activities of our kittens.
Yes, they became our kittens. We kept telling ourselves we would send them into the wilds once they were a few months old but the older they became the more entertaining they grew. Only Dad put up any resistance and even his was starting to crack. It finally crumbled when one day the kittens, who were then two months old and a rambunctious lot, couldn’t find Mom and were putting up loud protests at Dad’s ankles whom they had found. While they usually stayed away from Dad, who was the least responsive to their antics, that day the need was dire.
Unable to get rid of them with grumbles, Dad asked them to follow him to the master bedroom where Mom was having a lie-in. Dad later explained that the moment they noticed Mom’s heels hanging over the edge of the bed, their screeching had increased ten folds. They had scratched and pulled at the sheets until they climbed onto the bed next to Mom. Then they had proceeded to crawl all over Mom, mewling as though with further protest to ask why she had left them alone for so long.
It was official. Dad had learned to filter the kittens’ viewpoints of the world with his words just like the rest of us. Family bond was always very important to him and somehow, these small creatures with unintelligible speech had managed to place themselves at the center stage of our family. We were now pet people. In fact, some of us enjoy the company of our pets more than people.
We can spend hours with them without becoming bored. No matter how many times we watch them tangle themselves in anything stringy, it never gets boring. Pets become the source of our inspirations, the life of our lives.
Everything they do interests us. We like to watch them as they sleep and learn to discover them in odd places that they have selected to sleep. Then we go on to simply accommodating these odd choices.
They become the supermodels before our amateur cellphone cameras and are kind enough to assume beautiful poses to fill our social media portfolios.
Sometimes they model for us even in their sleep (cat pets sleep a lot) until they wake up and glare at us with their tapetum lucidum laden eyes.
They become contributing members of our family, i.e. contributing to the mischief. Such as when the house is under renovation and they keep getting into the renovators’ ways. And we seem to love them all the more for it. In fact, they are the only members of your household that never truly seem to get into trouble. Other than babies, of course. And then we wonder why people give us funny looks when we share stories of our pets to reciprocate for when they boast about their children’s accomplishments.
Because the truth is we love our pets as though they were our children. We make sacrifices for them, such as giving them the really juicy piece of the chicken instead of eating it ourselves. We cherish them, nurse them back to health when they are sick. Sometimes we try to leave them alone when they ask for their privacy but other times we don’t. Because like parents, we assume what is best for them.
We love to annoy the hell out of them and don’t mind when they get back at us.
Such as by getting hair all over fresh laundry.
Or newly tailored clothes.
And when they have children of their own, we share in their joy. Our world only becomes more infinite by their presence.
They become our constant companions, sometimes returning the vigil by staying up with us till we work into the wee hours of the morning. We filter our voices with their eyes and make our own lives more interesting -even though they are probably just saying, “Hooman, you are putty in my paws.” Because it’s true. Pets ensnare our hearts.
And when someday, these beloved creatures move onto the next plane, we are left devasted. Our hearts shatter in their absence. But it’s okay because it’s worth the experiences and memories they bless us with for the time when they were here. And we can only hope that one day we will meet again.
All images used in this post have been retrieved from the home photos of Zaireen Lupa.