After a blissful afternoon on the riding mower, the warm sunshine above and the gorgeous Blue Ridge mountains across the road from me, I decided to empty the mower’s utility wagon, which had spent the winter behind the shed overflowing with branches I’d trimmed last fall. The multitude of winter’s snowfalls had compacted the pile, I noticed, as I attached the wagon to the mower. I went into the shed for the pitchfork, lay it across the wagon and drove several hundred feet to my burn pile.
As I slid the pitchfork under the last stack, lifted, and tossed it onto the mound of dry wood scraps and twigs, I heard a squeal. I stood stark still as my mind filtered through decades of learned sounds and instantly recognized this sound that I hadn’t heard in a very long time. Seeing nothing on the ground, I peered into the wagon and was stunned to gaze at four black and white kittens, eyes closed, squirming in a nest of pine needles, one squealing loudly as it nuzzled around its siblings. I blinked disbelievingly, imagining a homeless mother cat using my not-very-pristine wagon for her birthing event.
I wanted to touch the crying baby, to reassure it that things would be okay, but held my hand back. Were they like birds, who abandoned their eggs or young if touched by a human? I didn’t know, so decided not to take the risk.
Quickly I jumped on the mower and returned the wagon to the rear of the shed. I wanted mama to find her babies, so I left; a re-visit a few hours later showed no sign of mama. Or—wait—was there? I looked toward the burn pile and saw a dark cat standing nearby. Ahh, I’ll bet you’re mama, I thought. Come on over here. Your babies need you.
I left again, re-checking several times until, just as the bright orange sun lowered behind the trees near the shed, I found the kittens still there alone; yet, I believed that mama would return. The following morning, a sunny day greeted me as I walked around the shed, silently praying for the kittens’ safety. Before I turned the corner, though, I heard squeals. One kitten remained, pushing against the wagon’s corner, crying profusely. Okay, three are gone. She’s in the process of moving her family to a new home, I thought, and returned to the house.
Engrossed in projects, I forgot about the kitten. Hours later I hurried to the backyard and was dismayed to find it lying on his back under full sunshine, making no sound or motion. Lord, had he died? Quickly I scooped his soft body into my palm. He began to squeal just as before, which reassured me. Now I suspected mama had abandoned her noisy child.
I brought Kitty inside, wrapped him in a soft towel, poured some organic skim milk into a tiny bowl thinking, I don’t know if this resembles your mama’s milk or not, little one, but it will keep you hydrated, if nothing else.
I found a tiny dropper sealed in cellophane in my silverware drawer and tore it open. My fifteen-year-old cat, Hilary, slept on the back of the couch in the next room, completely unaware, as Kitty squealed while I warmed the milk. When I placed the dropper of milk in his mouth and squeezed gently, Kitty quieted and eagerly lapped. After several droppersful, he seemed satisfied and I returned him to his outdoor nursery, giving mama one last chance to claim her sweet baby.
At 5 pm, though, he still lay alone and my heart officially pronounced Kitty “Abandoned.” I brought it inside, then drove to PetSmart to purchase a feeding kit for orphaned kittens, a new experience for both of us ahead. I heated the thick yellow milk and poured it into a plastic bottle about three inches high. When I first gave the bottle, Kitty briefly choked and struggled, yet quickly got the hang of our endeavor.Once, the precious being no larger than a sausage, lifted his tiny paw and held the bottle.
An hour after feeding, Kitty woke, shakily muzzled around his basket but, in time fell asleep again, curled into a circle, and occasionally whimpered or twitched. My God, how fragile and precious is life. Can this tiny being survive? I wondered as I gently stroked Kitty’s head and back with my forefinger, wanting him to know how deeply I cared, how much I wanted him to survive. If he did, I promised, I’d care well for him.
The next day we went to the vet, where I learned Kitty was probably less than two weeks old. Kittens open their eyes at two weeks. The tech thought he was a male; the vet didn’t guess because she said she was usually wrong. I needed to put Kitty on a heating pad, she told me, feed him every four hours, stimulate its butt so it would eliminate, and return when it was three weeks old for deworming and a checkup. She told me how to begin weaning him at 3 weeks: mix some kitten food with formula and work on the transition to the bowl. She told me also to keep his eyes wiped; one kept getting stuck shut.
Kitty opened both eyes on 4-15-09, a few days later. They were deep blue, almost navy, and extraordinarily beautiful. The next day Kitty didn’t smell as clean as I wanted him to when he met my friend, so I filled a chili bowl with warm water and suds, gently sponged him, and rinsed him off under a gentle, warm stream of tap water. He howled ceaselessly during the entire one-minute bath but quickly quieted when I wrapped him in towel bunting. Then he ate and slept, nestled in all the clean towels and rolled washcloths that I tucked on either side of him to give the sense of companionship.
I took Kitty to work each day until he could stay home alone, which was several weeks away. My friend below, Carol Tyree, loved and cared for Kitty, along with me, throughout our workday.
(The above is an excerpt from Kitty’s Journal. I named him Button, as in “cute as a …,” and estimated his birth date as April 2, 2009. It was the date my seven-year-old son, Keith, died. I knew Keith would be happy to transform the date from sorrow to joy.)
Happy belated birthday, Button!