Courage, and building a new life.
Seven days ago it was Sunday afternoon, and our sweet feral cat Micia was crying just outside our front door. Her water had broken and we knew her kittens would be born soon. Just two hours later we heard the faint cries of the hungry newborns coming from the room below our sun room, which houses the water heater, bundles of kindling, and some plastic tarp. I was sure Micia would take good care of her babies. I went to bed that night confident that all would be well when I awoke in the next morning.
The next morning brought distraught cries from Micia. She was waiting for me at the front door, and she quickly moved in the direction of the kittens, looking back to make sure I was following her. When I entered the room housing the kittens, my heart sank. The three kittens were lying on their backs, they were not moving, and their tongues were protruding from their mouths as if they had painfully departed from this world. I picked one up and I felt a cold, stiff body. Micia looked up at me as if to implore me to “do something.” What could have happened in the course of the night?
I was convinced they were dead, so I put them in a basket and began the grim task of finding a proper burial site.
Then, I saw the faintest of movements. They weren’t dead, just on the verge of making that transition. My head was spinning. What could I possibly do? I ran in the house, read about hypothermia and dehydration of newborn kittens on my Ipad. I was going to have to wing it. So, I went back to the tiny room, and I took each kitten and held them individually in my cupped hands, stopping to stroke them and give them whatever comfort and warmth I could. Micia was steadfast, sitting next to me. She was confused. Her eyes never left me, and they conveyed a trust and hope as she watched me.
I was in that room for at least two hours, patiently waiting for these tiny bodies to warm up. The strongest of the three, wrapped his front paws around my index finger and took the tip of my finger into his mouth. Then I realized that for some reason, Micia hadn’t been able to feed her babies. Either they were too weak to feed after a cold night, or Micia wasn’t yet producing milk.
My next strategy was to try to give them enough hydration and nutrition to rouse them so that nature would take over and Micia would be able feed them. I located an unused syringe, removed the needle, and warmed some milk mixed with water. Again, I sat for a couple of hours getting some nutrition into these tiny, struggling bodies. Slowly, very slowly, I saw signs of minor improvement. But, I was sure I was dealing with a twilight between life and death.
What I was experiencing emotionally is hard to articulate. I was devastated. Even though I know intellectually to let nature takes its course, and that death isn’t a failure, something deep inside was determined to do my best in the situation, while letting go of the outcome. I’m not always good at letting go and trusting when faced with a challenging situation. Normally I try, with the sheer force of my will, to control the outcome of the situation. Oh how I’m learning this is a strategy for utter exhaustion and burnout. It is also a demonstration of lack of trust in the Universe, God, or whatever force holds all of “this” together.
I had no way of knowing how this situation was going to turn out. In fact, my neighbors Carlo and Amalia returned from their trip to Rome later that morning, surveyed the situation, and sadly shook their heads saying that the kittens would soon be dead. I wasn’t ready to give up and let go. I felt that if I did give up, an emotional dam within me would break. Through a swirling mass of confusing emotions I knew I had to just keep doing my best.
The next 24 hours were exhausting. Together with my neighbors, we relocated Micia and her kittens to a warmer place, and into a large basket with towels to keep them warm. We took turns feeding them with either the syringe, or an eyedropper. Micia watched, and she began staying with them more and more – even though they were blindly searching for milk from one of Micia’s teats, yet not finding sustenance. I was already planning a trip to the pet supply store to buy kitty formula, and to be ready to be on an every-three-hour feeding schedule.
Then, we noticed that a couple of the kittens had found Micia’s milk – or Micia had finally starting producing milk. This was indeed encouraging.
Tuesday morning, just two days after their birth, I found two of the kittens feeding with more vigor. Then I noticed one was off to the side and not moving. I picked it up, and felt a completely lifeless body. This little fellow hadn’t been able to transition back to life. I reverently carried the body of this kitten up to my garden, dug a hole in a protected corner, said my goodbyes, and laid him to rest. Big heavy sigh, and tears. Then back to caring for the living.
Today is Saturday, and the remaining two kittens are getting stronger and growing every day. Their bellies are full, and Micia rarely leaves them. When I go for one my frequent “check-ins” she purrs loudly, and we silently congratulate each other on our teamwork in turning around what could have been a sad ending.
Why do I write about this in relation to courage? I think about the Yiddish proverb “Man plans and God laughs.” Our limited human minds have clear ideas about how things are supposed to turn out. We judge outcomes as good, bad, right or wrong, instead of learning to love and accept “what is”. My journey to this new life in Italy repeatedly has been teaching me let go, and to trust. My part is to continue doing the best I can, and to be willing to embrace the unknown. I’d always considered courage as something you did to steel yourself to endure a difficulty. That’s why I’ve spent much of life building armor around myself, and why I’ve often times ended up tensing up rather than “leaning in” to a new or challenging situation.
I’ve been blessed to have magic in my life, but most of what I’ve gone through in this major cultural and life change has been just plain hard work. I’m about to embark upon my third year of residency here and I’m still figuring out the system (which changes with frustrating frequency) and I’m still dealing with a multitude of logistics. I love the Italian culture and the Italian people, but I feel like a junior high school student every day. I say junior high school, because I know graduation is still a long way off.
In the meantime, life is teaching me to not only let go, but to embrace the unknown. It is teaching me to get out of the way of letting life happen. It is teaching me to become excited about the potential of what I have not yet considered.