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In the fall of last year, we adopted a rescue kitten.  She was twelve months old (so the shelter said), with a sweet Kewpie face — big eyes and a tiny nose.  We brought her home, a bundle of bones, and found she had a huge appetite and a fearlessness born of living on the street.

“Mew-ee,” she said in a tiny voice as I opened a can of cat food, and then suddenly she landed on the counter by my hand, as lightly as a bird, without any preamble.

“You’re a spry thing,” I said with admiration.  She buried her face in the food, purring loudly.

She was unfazed by the growling and hissing of our older cat, who was undisputed Queen, because she was that quick.  She could bound out of harm’s way before anything became trouble.   And she was hungry for touch, always seeking a warm lap or crook of the arm, wrapping her front paws around you like a baby when you picked her up.  It was a wonder that this sweet, tiny cat survived on her own for months, but fighters come in all shapes and sizes.  We watched as she filled out.  We joked she would grow to be the bigger, stronger cat.  She fit easily with my girls into joyous days of hide and seek, dress-up, and warm cuddles at night.  We had rescued her into a better life.

Pets are small mirrors of life’s unpredictability.

One day she began to stumble.  She would jump and completely miss the bed.  She would trip on the lower step of the staircase.  She began to spend more time in dark places.  When we took her to the vet, she was diagnosed with FIP (feline infectious peritonitis).  As the vet explained kindly and soberly in the waiting room:  there is no known cure.  Her life will be measured in weeks.

They brought her out to the waiting room, still groggy from the sedatives of her MRI.  She clung to me as if I were a tree.  But her ears and eyes pricked up, and she stared alertly out the window as people walked by and the birds fluttered outside.  I brought her home, clinging to my shoulder, and her little body vibrated with energy, intensity…life.  This cat is not ready to give in, I thought.  This cat will be the exception.

And so began the next phase of her life, where we rallied as a family to stay whole and keep her with us.  And she proved to be the fighter we knew she was.  As her back legs weakened, she found different ways of going up and down stairs.  She was able to jump, we don’t know how, onto the bed so that she could join us for cuddles.  The girls, in particular, showed how children can be so tender and optimistic.  As our kitten’s body slowly failed, they patiently cleaned her and carried her wrapped in old shirts.  They kept her involved in activities, and she obliged by half sitting up, mewing and listening, for her front half was as alert and spunky as ever.  And at night, the girls took turns sleeping with her — a dicey duty considering that she was losing control of her bladder — but the girls, particularly my oldest, were determined that she be with someone loving at all times.  It was working.  She is still with us.  Comfortingly, every morning she has walked out to the kitchen slowly but determinedly for breakfast.

But when she woke this morning, one of her back legs couldn’t move.  She got up to walk and fell, looking up in surprise, and mewing as if to say:  “What is happening?”

My cloud of optimism fell away, and I suddenly saw what she had become: a bundle of bones, tired, shaky, but still with that will to live, propped up on her front legs, eating breakfast as she always would.  She will keep trying and trying until she can’t try any more.  Such is our will to live, especially when the choice is no longer our own.

“Sweetheart,” I whispered to my oldest girl, “she can’t walk anymore.”  “I know,” my daughter said softly, knowing somewhere at the bottom of her heart.

There are much bigger tragedies in this world — of violence and pain and causes beyond our reckoning.  We internalize so much hurt for the things we cannot help and the feelings we cannot show.  But pets are a small pure window through which we can share feelings — their simplicity, uncluttered by emotion, allows us to bare our own.  In their brief intersection with our lives, pets allow us to feel as if we have some hand in their well-being.

And what we learned as a family to fight for a small thing we loved was a gift that prepared us for what may be bigger battles.

And through our tears we find a release for all the other things where we wish we could help but cannot.

And when our rescue kitten closes her big, wide eyes for the last time on this small life, she will have reminded us how living things must touch, bond, triumph, fight, struggle, live…and die.