Wednesday, January 28, 2009

His Little Life

It all started with an animal rescue mission gone awry. Our previous dynasty of cats no longer ruled the mouse-ridden turf outside our abbreviated country estate. To save ourselves, we needed a renewed feline presence.

“Dad,” our Darling Daughter intoned in her best darling daughter voice, “could we get a kitten?”

It just so happened, at that time, a feral outcast skulking around the outbuildings at her dad’s work—the county jail—had given birth to a brood of kittens. To save the pitiful urchins from a destiny akin to their mother’s, a secretary in Chris’s office had arranged to have them captured and brought to her home, to nurture (which included frequent bottle-feedings), tame from the wild, and of course, ultimately give away to good homes where in their adult lives they would be prevented from casting off future litters of feral cats.

In due time, we visited that cat-rescue center, where Darling Daughter managed to exit with not one, but two, kittens. Perhaps in a token nod to the location of the kittens’ birth, or perhaps in recognition of the line of duty of that workplace, one of the four kittens ended up being a black-and-white. Law enforcement being so closely intertwined with black-and-whites, it was not the last we were to see of that motif.

Life progressed admirably with the proper adoption and training of our two new residents. Once away from their humble origins, they took on the comely aura bestowed more by heritage than happenstance. Spoiled as only children, they had the aristocratic air of an Abyssinian, and commensurate with their newly-acquired lofty position they knew no common life. Shot histories immaculately recorded, visits to the vet dutifully kept—until one day at about six months, our vet kindly reminded us that it was time to think about having the little cherubs fixed.

“But they look so young, so small,” we thought to ourselves. “We’ll wait a while.”

“And wouldn’t it be fun to let them have one bunch of kittens?” our Darling Daughter intoned in her most darling daughter voice. After all, our property was best maintained at its mouse-free status with about eight cats. And Toes, the doddering spinster aunt from the last passel of cats, though still hanging on to her neurotic crotchety life, was well beyond hunting age. We could use the additional help.

Dad, predictably, caved.

And so, in good time, Tux and Macready each became proud moms with their own four kittens—kittens which, incidentally, Darling Daughter’s Dad fully intended to give away to good homes, just as had happened to their mothers before them. And, of course, once the moms fulfilled their duties of motherhood, it was to be off to the vet to insure this was the end of our cat procreation.

It took us until after we discovered one of the “babies” had birthed her own litter to realize that this breed of cat was genetically disposed to either tinyness or precociousness. At any rate, black-and-white Tux had given us, among others, black-and-white Waders, who quickly produced a runt litter of two more black-and-whites. The reproductive rodeo, as Chris dubbed it, was now in full swing.

Other than producing runts, you could say Waders had achieved the ideal family: one boy, one girl—except that there was something unexplainably wrong with the male. While the girl, Checkers, grew to be cute, perky, and irresistibly charming, the young boy seemed to be suffering from the feline version of “Failure to Thrive.”

One day, we accidentally noticed that his mom had actually rejected him. He was shunted off into a corner of the kennel, and she wasn’t nursing him. Ever the animal lover, our daughter bought equipment and formula to bottle-feed him. That earned her his eternal gratefulness, which he signaled by lawn-mower-loud purring every time he thought he’d be brought inside for another feeding. But it also became a manmade circumvention of Mother Nature’s brutal eugenics program, most commonly dubbed Natural Selection.

“I could so easily snap his little neck and save him from his suffering,” Chris observed one day. As we watched him grow, it daily become more painfully obvious that this little kitten had been the victim of inbreeding—a private curse he never asked for, but one which became his lot before he ever knew life.

By this point, we were discovering that the market for free kittens had dried up just as surely and concurrently as had the housing market. Meanwhile, our Reproductive Rodeo had yielded more cats than we could manage to name and we defaulted to generic descriptors. Since surely this little guy was not going to make it, though, we hadn’t bothered to name him.

Yet in his own pathetic little way, this kitten wormed his way into our hearts. One day, as we opened the kitchen door to the garage where we kept the kennels, our pitiful guy revved up his purr-motor and leapt up the step to charge into the kitchen. Our Sealyham Terrier, barging down the hallway from the opposite direction, met him in a near-head-on collision, and, as Sealyhams are genetically programmed to do in the chance meeting with a rat-sized object, nearly gulped the poor guy whole! We saved him from such a catastrophe, of course, but from that point, he was dubbed Tidbit.

It is horrible and mean-spirited to laugh at another’s handicaps, of course, but something about the pitiful but endearing Tidbit brought us great mirth as we watched his growing-up antics. Though he hardly could figure out how to exit the garage through the cat door, he did learn how to romp and play with the other cats sometime in the late summer, well beyond the time his age-mates had learned to do so. It was sweet to watch him discover the joy of running, especially in the grass. Something short-circuited in his brain, though, and he often would get stuck in tight loops, running in circles when he became anxious or excited. He’d become so excited at dinner time that he would run in circles until well after most of the other cats had finished eating. Of course, he never forgot the possibility of that wonderful time of bottle feeding, and the merest touch to the back of his head to pet him brought on gales of purring, and the loudest, most plaintive meows as he pled to be let inside for another treat.

One day, as Tidbit was still puzzling over getting the hang of using the cat door, unbeknownst to him, we had just pulled in the driveway and opened the garage door--the panel to which the cat door was affixed. Tidbit must have just convinced himself it was okay to put his front paws on the threshold of the cat door in preparation to exit, when, out of nowhere, the door began to lift…and lift…and lift. In our front-row car seats to this comedy, we saw the garage door move, and then a kitten begin to dangle from the uplifting panel—much in the manner of the “Hang In There Kitty” posters of years ago—and we couldn’t stop ourselves from laughing. Of course, we halted the door’s advance immediately, and went to tenderly—and carefully, as this poor creature was also incontinent—rescue Tidbit from his predicament.

As sorry as his life was—this is where the Quality of Life Cops demand the upper hand in pronouncements—it was a life, and we wanted to respect that. We did what we could to make his life comfortable, sweet, and manageable. And really, what are these little concessions in the face our own life’s demands? Giving him a cozy bed and a heating pad in the midst of winter’s cold snaps, or a nibble of something he deemed tasty, cost us little in the midst of all our competing schemata of Life. Life with Tidbit was not a zero-sum game. We did what we could for him, and it in no way deprived us of our own lives. On the contrary, Tidbit became one of those small blessings in life that enriched our own lives.

And so, as incredible as it may seem, when we returned last week from an out of town trip to find Tidbit stretched out lifeless on our garage floor, it warranted a wave of melancholy in seeing his passing.

He had his little life, we had always said. His little life. But it was a life—and that was what really mattered.

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