Sleep, Sleep Tonight

We found the cats on a Thursday. Someone had abandoned five kittens — four small, one very small — outside the church where my wife works. They’d left them in a cardboard box with a bowl of water; miraculously, none of the kittens had drowned in the bowl. They looked to be no more than ten days old, far too young to be without their mother. The most likely explanation is that someone didn’t spay their cat, and rather than find a way to deal with the kittens, they left them at the church and hoped fate and charity would take over. The kittens got more than that in my wife, though. They got a home.

She brought them home that evening — no shelter would have taken them and let them live, and they can’t even be adopted out until they’re six weeks old — and we bathed them with lemon-scented dish soap to kill the fleas that had already taken root in their thin fur. We fashioned a clean bed for them from a new plastic litter pan lined with towels and a shirt, under which we placed a heating pad. That first night was so long: cleaning, feeding, caring, figuring out what to do. The kittens needed to be nursed every two hours, and we used cotton swabs in warm water to simulate their absent mother’s tongue and get them to relieve themselves. They scrabbled and howled, and they walked with a tremor, and we loved them. My wife took them to the vet before bringing them home, and the vet had made it clear that there was no way to know if the kittens would survive, or for long. We could only feed them, and help them, and hope.

The little one’s eyes hadn’t opened yet, but that didn’t stop him from yowling at every opportunity. He ate less than the others, but he was also half their size. We did for him what we did for them all. We held him and fed him, we told him he was safe. We knew he had a fight ahead of him, but we saw the way he scrambled around and refused to quit. We hoped.

Tuesday night — five days after the kittens came to us — we bathed the litter and changed their bedding. The kittens had grown stronger since their first bath, but also more understanding on some level of what was happening around them, and they put up far less of a fight for their second bath. The little guy was a little too resigned, though. While drying him off, I noticed a dark smear on my hand. He’d begun having diarrhea. I massaged him a while until he was finished, then cleaned him off. The kittens had started defecating a couple days earlier, but not like this. This was different. This was bad.

As my wife and I took turns feeding them throughout the night, we noticed that the littlest one wasn’t eating as much as he used to, nor as much as we reasoned he might need to eat to start replenishing what he’d lost when he was sick in my hand. It’s dangerous to overfeed kittens, and my wife and I had both been worried about how little the tiny one was, but we’d hoped that his sporadic bursts of appetite had been a positive sign. We never forced food on him.

Wednesday morning, he was the same. Not his old self, but not great. He didn’t eat much, if anything. He was still half the size or less of his brothers and sisters, just two or three ounces. Around midday, my wife noticed he wasn’t responding to her attempts to feed him or offer physical affection. Worried and tearful, she took him to the vet immediately, though we already had a follow-up appointment that afternoon for the litter. When she arrived, the doctor examined the little guy and determined that he was suffering from what’s known as Fading Kitten Syndrome. Essentially, living was becoming too much of a fight for the little boy, and there was precious little to be done. He was already unresponsive and uninterested in food, and his heart rate was drastically lower than what it should have been. Seizures would be next. The last thing my wife or I would ever do would be to cause harm to an animal, especially one as vulnerable, confused, and innocent as this one. My wife agreed with the vet’s recommended course of action, and we allowed our little man to be put to sleep.

He was just shy of three weeks old. We knew when we took the litter in that their odds of survival were small and wavering, and that the little one would have the toughest road to walk. We prepared ourselves in the abstract for the possibility that at least one of these five helpless creatures might not survive. People asked us for pictures of the litter, but my wife and I didn’t take any. We didn’t even discuss it with each other: we simply knew that we wouldn’t be able to bear looking at the photos if things took a turn for the worse. Our little guy left us just five days after we met him, but we gave him the best home we could in that time. We gave him a warm bed, and food, and we tried to give him every chance at life we could. Mostly we just loved him. His time here was short, and it’s likely that he wouldn’t have made it even if he’d had his mother around. But we loved him anyway. We gave him a place to sleep and be happy, to eat and rest with his brothers and sisters, to try and find a way to fight. That he couldn’t isn’t a failure on his part, or ours. It’s just what had to be.

I think about how he came to us, and about how someone threw him away. Some days I want to find his former owner and howl at them about their recklessness and ignorance, about their total disregard for the safety of their own pet and the children it had, about what kind of empty freak they must be to have such little respect for life. Other days I remind myself I don’t know where he came from, and that maybe whoever used to have him regrets not being more responsible, and that I should be grateful they were at least thoughtful enough to leave him and his siblings outside a church where people would likely find them. I don’t know. I don’t know how to feel about that person, and I try not to think about them. Instead, I think about our little guy, our brave boy, our little warrior, our tender man who tried so hard to live and who wanted so badly to make it, and who, in the end, slipped away. We loved him, and I hope so much we made him feel better for just a few days. How we loved him.

He never even opened his eyes.