I have many special memories of Tabby’s Place’s staff veterinarian, the eminent Dr. C.
My favorite: performing a lunchtime duet of “Rock Me Amadeus” for a righteous purpose. Some of our younger staff members couldn’t quite believe us that such a song existed. Now they know better. They are also slightly and appropriately frightened.
My second favorite: the Kittens Will Die speech.
I had been working at Tabby’s Place for all of two weeks when Dr. C unceremoniously pulled me into Jonathan’s empty office and said, “I need to talk to you.”
We did not yet know each other well. Dr. C knew that I did not yet know kittens well. She also knew — she is, after all, a doctor — that I have an incurable case of All Heart No Brains, leaving me vulnerable to what I did not yet know about kittens.
Thus commenced a brief but unforgettable speech. I am paraphrasing (badly; forgive me, Dr. C), but the gist was thus: Kitten season has begun. Kittens are wonderful, adorable, and about to be coming our way in huge numbers. Kittens are extremely fragile, especially the motherless kind we’re most likely to get. Not all the kittens who come to us will survive. We can do everything perfectly “right” for them, and some of them are still not going to make it. Kittens will steal your heart. Kittens will break your heart. Kittens will die.
I did not immediately feel warm and fuzzy inside and think, “this, right here, is going to be a cherished memory.” I think I probably got tearful and stupid (I am very good at both of these on even an ordinary day). But I thanked Dr. C, and numbly stumbled back to my desk, and tried to forget that Kittens Will Die.
An eon later, I can never thank her enough. She welcomed me as gently as one can into the fellowship of the tearstained, the kinship of the heartbroken, the communion of those who love with open eyes, and courageous compassion, and the willingness to face loss without turning to stone.
As it turned out, 2007 was a fairly gentle summer for Tabby’s Place kittens. They came, in galumphing hordes, endless breadsticks to our banquet. They fought tiny terrible battles with infections and parasites and all the vile things that clobber kittens. But they survived. We were victorious. Life was a feast. We adored each one as though she were the only one; we cheered and cried for each adoption.
But then came 2008.
I saw Dr. C and Denise work with the furious love of a hundred thousand heroes. I saw staff members transform into actual angels before my eyes, bottle-feeding and sleepless-nighting and giving everything they had, and more than they knew they had, for a single breadcrumb of a baby. I saw something so much better than “the best efforts,” my words can only fail to describe it. I saw the full force of relentless Love.
And I saw kittens die anyway, over and over and over again.
You learn pretty quickly at Tabby’s Place that you never get immune to kittens’ towering powers. I have yet to hear anyone say, “you’ve seen one kitten, you’ve seen them all,” or, “Oh, another kitten? Huh.” No. The breadsticks keep arriving, basket by overflowing basket, but every single morsel is as magical as if it were the first and last. The universe may bake us boundless blessings, but each one is a fresh revelation.
You learn, too, that you never get immune to kittens’ more crushing powers. Kittens Will Die, and the brittle crouton of your heart will crumble to dust every single time. If every kitten is as cherishable as the first and last and only kitten, every loss is utter and complete.
Kittens Will Die. And yet, somehow, we will go on.
The ones we’ve lost never leave us. They sit, warm and wobbling on our shoulders, tiny unopened eyes and rounded infant-ears and hamster-tails, urging us on, loving us on, nourishing us across the years and the veil.
When the crumbling hours come — and, my stars, do they come and come and come again — the kittens who have crossed will come back to us, as near as breath, bidding us to keep at it, eyes open and hearts open, foolishly open, recklessly open, irrevocably open to the uncertainty and the frailty and the invincibility of love.
Kittens Will Die. Many more will live. In every case, it will have been worth it.
Even when we feel we “fail”, we have won in that mysterious manner that defies words. Most of our kittens will go on to live novel-length lives, full of adventure and affection. But even those poems that close halfway up the page are worthy of Pulitzers here. The shortest life, the howlingest loss, is no failure when every word was love.
Each one was warmed with a total embrace.
Each one was written into the Grand Story of unfailing tenderness.
Each one knew her worth.
Each one is with us as the heat kicks up and a new kitten season begins. The breadsticks, as you see, have started coming. Our powers are not endless.
But an endless mercy holds us all.
It’s good to know that Kittens Will Die, but only because you know that Love Will Conquer. Our wounds won’t heal, not on this earth, but our hearts will grow. Our hands will keep reaching. We will feast on tears and triumph.
So bring on Kitten Season 2021. Rock us, little breadsticks.
Important note: Every one of the 2021 breadsticks pictured here is very, very, very, very, very, very much alive.