Photo of Kitten and Hands
"They were about the same size..."

A Fine Mess

Physically, Alice was a mess. She was dehydrated and malnourished. Her ears were infested with mites. Her eyes were running from a chronic infection. Worst of all, she had a hernia which protruded from her tiny body like a golf ball.

We took her to our vet who said an operation was imperative but possibly fatal. She was so small and weak that she could die simply from the anaesthetic. So, in order to improve her chances of surviving it, the procedure was delayed a few weeks while her strength could be built up.

We have a videotape of Alice from those weeks. In the background can be heard Mary talking on the telephone, making final arrangements for the surgery. And on the screen is Alice, digging her teeth into my hand and then pouncing on it. (They were about the same size.) Sick as she was, Alice was taking on the world.

She was a little powerhouse. She ran, played, climbed trees, and explored the backyard as if nothing were wrong with her. Just as she had attacked the string in the alley, nothing in her condition was going to stop her from getting on with the job of becoming a cat.

She leaped into this task. In fact she leaped at everything, jumping many times her own height at any of the toys we dangled over her. Her body would swirl into the air, flashing like a salmon on its way upstream, and then land breathing hard, with her head up, calculating the next attempt. She was tireless, literally jumping for joy, and in the display of her heroic feats, the courage and ardour of her efforts, she had begun to leap into our hearts as well.

But I eyed her with the wariness of a potential mourner. Not knowing if she could endure the surgery, wondering how long we would know her, I stayed back a little ways from Alice. I was not about to make another painful connection.

On the day before the operation, Mary and I stood in the back room, looking out into the yard. We were watching Alice, out in the sunny afternoon, springing on a branch of the apricot tree and sniffing at the few remaining blossoms. In a few minutes we would be leaving for the vet's, and we had to go out and pluck Alice out of the tree, out of the afternoon, and take her. I wondered aloud to Mary if maybe we shouldn't take the kitten to the clinic after all. Perhaps she should just live out the amount of time she had left, instead of dying the next morning on an operating table. Let her have a few more weeks or days or whatever had been decided for her.

In the end, we decided: we couldn't deny the little kitten the chance to become a cat. We drove Alice to the clinic and dropped her off. And the house seemed empty when we got back. Despite me, she had made a space there.

Next day we waited out the hours, past the time when the surgery should have been over, and finally made the nervous phone call: we learned that we still had a future cat. Alice had made it through.

We went to the clinic to pick her up. Jack, our vet, met us at the front desk, smiling. He told us that when he had finished stitching her up, Alice looked like she had a zipper going the length of her body, as if she were someone in a cat suit. "Shhh," said Jack, putting his finger to his lips, "Don't tell anyone."

Out of the back room came Jack's assistant, Robin, carrying an impossibly small bundle of fur -- already smaller in person than I remembered her presence -- and handed Alice over to me. I put her in the fold of my arm. With a tiny exhalation of breath, she lay her head against my chest. It was such an unmistakable expression of relief that, amid the "oohs" and "aahs" that now arose in the waiting room, I realized that this little life had made a connection to me, despite me.

Copyright 1997 by Phillip Schreibman

Photo 1987 by Mary Jane Card

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