My husband, Lee, was the one who heard the abandoned kittens piping and squeaking like an off-key orchestra composed entirely of piccolos and penny whistles. They were hidden in the overgrown weeds of the front yard, and it was raining. There were six of them, looking like featherless baby birds. I came home from work later that evening to find myself the proud foster mother of a half dozen minuscule, mewling, shit-smeared creatures.
“What would you have done?” Lee asked, scanning my face for signs of exasperation.
When you get married at the age of fifty, you know what you’re getting into — at least you think you do. Lee knew I had once taken in a homeless teenager. I knew that he was a special-ed teacher at the juvenile detention center, where he worked with kids who’d been thrown away by everyone they knew. We’d each fallen in love with the other’s big, soft, foolish heart. So our home’s newfound status as a feral-kitten orphanage did not come as a complete surprise.
Plus, Lee is part feline himself. I have known him to sit for hours in a stifling shed, letting a terrified stray get used to his presence. This is how we acquired the two cats we have, Trixie and Wheat Thin. Both were wild when he coaxed them indoors. A year later they take slivers of chicken from our hands and curl up on our bed each evening. They accept me as a dispenser of food, water, and affection, but they love Lee, rubbing against his ankles and jumping on his lap whenever he sits down to read the paper. Trixie will put a possessive paw over his shirt front and then glare at me as if to say, Back off. He’s mine.
Two cats were enough, we agreed; we were not looking to add to the family.
Lee’s question was a fair one: What would I have done? In all honesty — and I’m not proud of this — I wondered if I would even have noticed them. I can be pretty oblivious sometimes, and that day I was preoccupied with a class I was teaching and a play I was trying to write, which was just about all my narrow, human-centric bandwidth could handle. But Lee had noticed them, and now here we were, parenting newborns.
This essay is not going to be about my heart being softened by a nest of kittens. For one thing, kittens that young are not even cute yet. Cuteness doesn’t kick in until after their eyes open and they get some real fur and can walk around on their own. These blind babies looked like skinned meat. Their shrill chorus of starved, terrified peeps was unbearable. They were all hunger, all need, all mouth.
“They need to be fed every three hours,” Lee explained. “Around the clock.”
He’d do the night feedings, he promised, but in the daytime when he was teaching . . .
I got it. He was the one with the regular eight-to-five job, while I was a freelancer who taught two nights a week. The daytime feedings would be on me.
I didn’t need an abandoned litter to remind me how tough life can be. We live in Oakland, California, a crumbling, vital, dirty, blooming, broken city. Lowriders with radios so loud they rattle our house cruise up and down the street. The neighborhood drunk likes to leave his empties in our front yard, right in the jasmine I planted. A bent-over Vietnamese woman in a conical hat makes her early-morning rounds, rooting in our recycling bin for empty bottles and cans to redeem. When I go to the bank, when I grocery shop, when I step outside my door in the morning, it’s all there: the guy whose shoes are held together with duct tape, the woman talking to herself and picking at the scabs on her face, the mothers slapping their kids and yanking them by their skinny arms across the avenue.
I knew this city would be harsh when I moved here, but, like these newborn kittens, I was hungry: for life, for experience, for relationships, for stories. I thought I’d find all of this in a diverse, crowded urban center. And I love Oakland. I love the kids in baggy pants on skateboards. I love the old man on the bench who calls to me, “The sun came out this morning just to see you, darling!” I love Lake Merritt, where on my walks I can overhear snatches of Hindi, Arabic, Cantonese, Spanish, and other languages I can’t even identify. I even love the mangy pigeons and the cantankerous sea gulls and, yes, the wild cats who slink around our backyard ever since Lee started feeding them. (He has also caught as many of them as he can and had them spayed.)
I love this city, and I grieve for it the way you might grieve for a charming and talented aunt who cannot shake her drug habit. Parts of Oakland are thriving, with green businesses, organic cafes, poetry jams, free jazz concerts, flash mobs, and art walks. Yet each week there are also shootings and even killings, many of them too close to home. A six-year-old was discovered wandering a major thoroughfare at three in the morning last week. The same homeless guy has been haunting the same grocery-store parking lot the entire twenty years I’ve lived here. Every year he’s a little skinnier and a little grayer.
I’ve noticed that when I give a beggar money, if I look into the person’s face and touch his or her hand, I feel a little better. And I’ve noticed that turning away without giving anything hurts, but I still do it sometimes. Here are my excuses: I’m tired. I’m overwhelmed. I’m scared. I’m busy. I don’t want to go rooting around in my bag and get out my wallet; we live in a high-crime area. I have financial worries too. (In this economy who doesn’t?) And where does it all stop, the giving? Aren’t there always more needy hands to be filled?
One rainy night last winter, as Lee and I came out of a movie theater in nearby Berkeley, we saw that the downtown doorways were filled with homeless people bedding down for the night. It was a chilly evening, and one man’s bare feet stuck out from the bottom of his thin blanket. We’d had a fine Mexican dinner and then gone to see a film. It wasn’t an extravagant date — the whole evening had cost about fifty dollars — but it felt wrong for us to have spent so much money on entertainment while people lacked the bare necessities. We drove to Walgreens and bought a few pairs of warm slippers, some fleece blankets, and some energy bars, and we went back to the barefoot man and offered him slippers and a blanket. He waved us away, so we moved tentatively down the street and offered them to the next tousled head sticking out of a bedroll. Again we were rebuffed. It took several tries before a young woman accepted a blanket and an energy bar. We never did manage to give away any slippers; they are still in the back of Lee’s car.
Did we do the right thing that night, or would it have been better to have written a check to our local food bank, or just to have handed out a couple of ten-dollar bills? I don’t know. Judaism teaches that it is not incumbent upon you to solve all the world’s problems, but neither are you free to turn your back. You have to do your part. What my part is, and how much time, money, energy, and heart it will cost me, is a question that has troubled me my whole life.
And now the question had moved into our house, mewling and shrieking.
I spent several hours the next day perched awkwardly on a stool in the basement, feeding the tiny beasts expensive, warmed-up formula out of tiny bottles with minuscule nipples. To do this I had to reach into the towel-lined box, disengage one writhing kitten from the piping mass, lift it gingerly onto my towel-covered lap, and dribble milk next to its mouth until it caught on and began frantically chewing and sucking. After five or six minutes of feeding, I’d drag the nipple from between its sharp teeth and diddle the kitten’s bottom with a gloved finger until I was rewarded with a few drops of warm urine and maybe a smear of cat shit. Their mother would have nursed them and stimulated their elimination functions by licking their bottoms with her rough tongue. In her absence it fell to Lee and me to become chief cooks and bottom-washers.
After this part of the operation was done, I’d place the kitten into a new box with a clean towel and reach in for a sibling. The whole job took about forty-five minutes and had to be repeated at three-hour intervals throughout the day. Upstairs, working in my study, I’d imagine the kittens in the basement, climbing all over each other without the comforting presence of their mother nearby. Did I mention I was trying to write a play?
A few days into our adventure Lee and I were both looking the worse for wear. He was unshaven and hollow-eyed from late-night and predawn feedings. My jeans had milk stains on the knees, and there were smears of kitten feces on the fronts of my T-shirts. Most distressingly, we had no exit strategy. We couldn’t adopt six kittens. Our friends had better survival instincts than we did and resisted our animated sales pitches. And our city’s animal shelters did not have a no-kill guarantee. We couldn’t stand the thought of these creatures being euthanized.
A friend of mine, who had been a practicing Buddhist for many years, had recently taken bodhisattva vows. A bodhisattva is someone who, having attained enlightenment, puts off entering nirvana in order to stay on earth and help others. “Suffering beings are numberless; I vow to liberate them all” was the promise my friend had made.
What a commitment! I’d thought when I heard that. And then: Better you than me. But really this was the same question I had been living with all my life, just dressed in different clothes. Christianity asks the same. So does Judaism. So does Islam. So does Hinduism. So does every religion. We are each other’s keepers. But how far does our responsibility extend?
Had I been a bodhisattva, maybe I could have endured this situation indefinitely. Instead I began posting shameless cries for rescue disguised as Facebook status updates: “HELP! I am up to my eyeballs in feral-kitty excrement!” I was rewarded by the sympathy of friends and friends of friends, one of whom had some practical advice:
“You didn’t hear this from me,” she wrote, “but” — and here she named a nearby city — “has a no-kill shelter. If you take your kittens there and say you found them within that city’s limits and claim to be city residents, they will take them.”
I’m not going to put a good face on this: her solution involved lying. In our defense I will say that we were desperate and couldn’t think of another way out. A friend in the nearby city in question said I could use his address. On the car ride over, Lee drove while I held the cardboard box full of kittens in my lap. We agreed to say that we had found them in a Safeway parking lot, but we argued about who would be better able to pull off the deception.
“You are the world’s worst liar,” he said. “Your every thought is writ large in flashing neon for all the world to see.”
But in the end Lee had bonded too deeply with our foster felines to hand them over. I had to do it. Red-eyed, he stuck his hand inside the box one last time and stroked their soft fur.
“Good luck,” he whispered.
I hoisted the box and marched into the clean, well-lit shelter. There was a man with a ledger just inside the entrance, and I told him I had found the kittens in a parking lot and gave him my friend’s address. He wrote it all down without comment, and I proceeded to the counter.
The woman there wrinkled her nose as she picked up one kitten, then another. During the car ride they had managed to shit all over each other.
“They look well nourished for being abandoned,” she said.
I kept my gaze as blank as a sheet of paper.
The kittens, released from their box, began exploring their new environment. Overnight they had gotten cute: two tiger striped, two soft gray, and two tuxedo black with white chests and white paws. They had outgrown the baby-bird phase and were beautiful little cats, bright and full of life.
“I don’t think we’ll have any problem getting them adopted,” the woman said. “They’re adorable!”
I smiled and waved and walked out feeling a heady mixture of relief and guilt. Our city was broke, so we had offloaded our problem onto another community. But the kittens were alive and healthy and, I hoped, would go to good homes.
On the drive back, the car felt very quiet without our miniature peeping chorus. I looked out the window at the gray cityscape. Lee took the freeway, rounding a familiar exit ramp where I often saw a man standing under the overpass with a battered cardboard sign that read, Hungry. Please help. Sometimes — if the light is red and my wallet is handy and I have a couple of ones in there — I’ll roll down my window and give the money to him. Other times I’ll stare straight ahead and pretend not to see.