(Loki’s story has been heavy on my mind lately because my 13-year-old Shih Tzu may push me into a very difficult decision within the next week or two. I’m 34 and I’ve never had to decide if it was “time” for a beloved pet to leave. It would hardly be the first time I couldn’t save an animal in my care though. The miracles and the heartbreak are all entwined in this life.)
Let me introduce you to three newborn kittens. Marley is black and white; Smudge is all white except for a bit of gray near her nose; Loki is gray and white. A well-meaning person, not realizing that Mama Cat may simply be off finding food, discovers these tiny, helpless kittens all alone in a field and brings them to the animal shelter on a Friday afternoon. They are less than two days old. Their umbilical cords still trail from their bellies.
The shelter is full; it is almost the weekend and they have no staff to care for these fragile little lives. Shelter policy for kittens too young to eat on their own is euthanasia at the end of the workday. A rescue group spots the litter and sends out an urgent plea: Can anyone take these babies? They add a warning that all three will probably die even with care, but if the kittens are left where they are, death is certain.
A lady who signed up to volunteer just the day before agrees to take them, and another volunteer drops them off at her door with just enough kitten formula for a round of feedings (her husband sighs — what has his bleeding-heart wife gotten into now? — and dashes to the pet supply store for more tiny bottles and Kitten Milk Replacer).
Two of the kittens mewl weakly from their raggedy cardboard box. The third, Marley, is already dying.
I named him Marley, you see, named him that while I walked around with him tucked up against my chest because of the lyrics I softly sang to him (I suppose “Three Little Birds” is as good a song to die to as any other — “Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing is gonna be alright…”). I knew from the moment I laid eyes on the kittens that he wouldn’t make it, so after feeding the two who could still eat (and trying in vain to coax him to do the same), I carefully lifted him and carried him around with me.
I told him he was handsome and that I loved him (because really, what kind of person doesn’t instantly fall in love with kittens or puppies?) and that his life mattered…that he was precious and wanted, but that it was ok if he couldn’t stay. And I sang to him, just whatever came to mind…not expecting him to even hear me (newborn kittens — not so great w/sound, heh) but because it was one of the only things I could do for him, to sing him across to the Other Side.
I ate dinner one-handed while my other palm cradled him against my heart. I explained to my kids that all lives matter, even the ones that are so short…that he was going to go but we should squeeze all the love we could into the time he had with us. And they did. Their chubby little fingers were so gentle, like feathers against his tiny frame. (We tend to not give small children enough credit. They have a natural compassion for and grace with the frail, the ill, and the dying.)
Marley died about an hour later, wrapped in a soft blanket in my arms. Just a furry little bit of sweetness, in this world for less than 48 hours.
The other two kittens seemed fairly healthy. They mewled me awake at regular intervals all night long from their heating pad-warmed box, a stronger box I had lined with soft old shirts. I kept them in a cozy corner in my bedroom so I’d be sure to hear them, and I dozed between feedings, helping them eliminate, and cleaning milk off their tiny faces.
Upon waking toward dawn, I realized I could only hear one kitten crying. Smudge was dead. She looked like a sculpture, her little form snow white and so still.
I stared down at the sole survivor, Loki, and wondered how long I had until he passed away. Would he even hold on until noon? How could this one tiny spark of life wrapped in fuzzy softness keep going, with no siblings and no mother?
But he did.
On the advice of a friend, I rolled up some socks and tucked them around him as he slept, pseudo-siblings to mimic a more normal environment. It was the saddest thing, to see him snuggling against them. And when he was a week old and showed signs of infection around his umbilical stump, I called my vet. She said I could bring him in if I wanted, but that it was probably a waste of money since he’d likely die anyway. I knew she spoke from years of experience, and I was exhausted.
I brought him in. I insisted that we be seen. The receptionist shook her head pityingly at me. Something in my face must have convinced her I wasn’t leaving, and she waved me to an exam room. I waited with tears in my eyes and my jaw set.
Loki will be five years old in September. I still get choked up talking about his siblings. Is that ridiculous, to have mourned kittens I knew for less than a day before their deaths?
No, I don’t think it is. I’m not great at letting go, as some people define it. I have this trouble with broken friendships, with lost loved ones, etc. because once you’re dear to me, even if you’re a day-old dying kitten, you will always be dear to me.
That’s not to say that I don’t move on; I do. Learning to live without someone (or somepet, or whatever the case may be) is a process, and a healthy one if we’re kind to ourselves during the transition. But letting go as we often speak of it implies a sort of learned indifference, a wall built between the past and now, over time, as though it’s critical to reach a place where formative events/losses no longer touch us at all. Is that healthy?
The past doesn’t torture or haunt me. I don’t dwell there. But it matters. I don’t want to ever be indifferent to it.
This is Loki’s story.
I was a “failed foster,” of course — after all of the scares and the hard work, the weeks my hands were hashed with thin red scratches from his needle-like claws as he fumbled for a grip while he drank from a bottle as long as my index finger, the countless times he drowsed in my arms or curled up by my neck on the couch, purring like crazy (he purred audibly early on, anytime I touched him at all), cheering every milestone from his ears standing up to him learning to walk (backward at first! it was the funniest thing)…I kept him.
He lives up to his name (I should have chosen Fluffykins McLazybutt!), but he lets me do things (like turning him upside down in my arms) that would get anyone else shredded. He leaps onto the back of my computer chair and hangs out over my shoulder like a weird, purring parrot. Would I do it over again, knowing how it was going to go?