So let’s just get it all out on the table up front…to say that 2016 was not the best year for me would be a massive understatement. Kind of like saying Adolf Hitler had a few character flaws, or a venom-spitting cobra might not make the best pet for your 6-year old. I mean, we’ve all had bad years, but this one? It was the queen mother.
Growing up, I was considered by many to be the “strong one” in my family. My mother had sustained severe damage to her heart as a child (courtesy of a bout of rheumatic fever) that left her in and out of the hospital for most of her life. As the oldest of 7 kids, I became the surrogate parent, always careful to maintain an air of competence and control so my brothers and sisters wouldn’t worry.
But this year, that seemingly strong persona was confronted again and again by one challenge after another – hard-hitting, painful blows that left me reeling and physically and emotionally spent. It started with a bang: in January, my husband of over 20 years informed me he didn’t want to be married anymore and wanted a divorce. Two months later, Mom was hospitalized several times due to a severe, life-threatening case of the flu. While she was in the hospital, I was 2,000 miles away going through a brutal divorce mediation process.
In the Spring, I began having excruciating headaches that at first I just wrote off as stress. Over time they got progressively worse, often developing into migraines so severe I couldn’t leave the house. I was also experiencing bone-crushing fatigue, and some days could barely get out of bed. After a visit to the doctor and some blood tests, it turned out that stress was not the only culprit; my body was producing way too much insulin, and my cells were unable to absorb glucose out of my blood. So although I was eating healthy food, my body was literally starving for energy, causing the headaches and fatigue.
Attempting to utilize the tough protective shell I had carefully maintained since childhood, to anyone who asked, I was fine, just fine, thanks for asking, but I’m a-okay. Except that I wasn’t. With my shell disintegrating, I was heartbroken, emotionally battered, and physically sick. I felt worthless, hopeless, depressed, and alone.
Fortunately, there was one thing I had to look forward to.
Serendipity – And Kittens
Every year, the mecca for pet bloggers is the BlogPaws Conference. As luck would have it, this year it was being held in June in my hometown of Phoenix, so I was able to attend for the very first time. During the 3-day conference, I was surrounded by people that I completely understood and who also understood me – we were all pet lovers who loved to write. It was like being able to breathe again. I felt energized, encouraged, part of an amazing family bigger than myself.
I also met the one who would turn my entire year around.
The first day of the conference, I was between sessions, and soon found myself wandering through the large exhibit hall filled with fascinating booths of all things pets. As I walked down one of the long aisles, I almost missed it – the small adoption booth sponsored by a local animal rescue. I happened to look down at the floor and saw this:
Although there were several other kittens playing nearby, this little girl was alone in her bed, intently focused on kneading it into submission with her tiny paws. At the exact moment I looked down, she looked up – and out of the dozen or so people standing there, she immediately locked eyes with me.
Of course, now I HAD to go say hello so as not be rude (or so I told myself). Sitting down on the floor, I reached out to pet her, and as I did, she immediately started purring and arching her delicate little back into my hand. Then she sauntered out of the bed and came right up into my lap, climbing as high as she could up to my shoulder.
She was so small that her entire body literally fit into the palm of my hand. I held her with one hand, up against my shoulder, and she immediately fell asleep.
I learned her shelter name was Gypsy, and she was about 8 weeks old. She, along with her brother and sister, had been seized from a semi-hoarding situation 3 hours north of Phoenix. There they had been taken to a kill-shelter, where the rescue organization found them and brought them here to find forever homes.
As I chatted with Samantha, the Rescue Manager, Gypsy curled herself into a ball in the palm of my hand, all dead weight, sleeping like a tiny little coma patient. When it was time for my next session, I handed her back and asked if she would be there tomorrow. Samantha said that she would be.
The Chosen One
The next day I couldn’t wait for my first break so I could see Gypsy again. After what seemed like forever, I was able to make a beeline for the adoption booth, but when I walked over, I didn’t see her. Samantha saw me and immediately warned me that Gypsy was in one of the carriers because she was simply over the whole noise and commotion of the exhibit hall and currently didn’t feel much like being social. In fact, one woman had tried to hold her 10 minutes prior, and Gypsy had squirmed to get loose and actually karate-chopped her with her tiny little paws (which I thought was hilarious). I said no problem, if I held her and she was still agitated I would give her back immediately.
Samantha reached into the carrier to extract Gypsy, butt-first. I heard her faint “eh eh eh” objections as she was pulled out and put into my hands. As she turned around and saw me, her expression immediately changed. Her little face softened, and she spun around, climbed right up onto my shoulder, and snuggled into my neck, purring so hard her entire body vibrated. Samantha said simply, “She never acts that way around anyone else but you.”
Oh, damn. Now I’m in trouble. There was no way I was prepared for this. On paper it was a horrible idea. I was going through a divorce, preparing to move out of my house, and already had two 9-year old previously-feral cats at home. My job at the time wasn’t secure, my financial situation was temporarily unstable, and the last thing I needed was the responsibility of a young and fragile kitten.
That night I barely slept. The conference was over the next day, and after that I knew I most likely would never see Gypsy again. During the night, I remember thinking I would just see her one last time in the morning, to say goodbye. Yet every time I thought about life without her, I felt a pit in my stomach – like walking away from her would be wrong on every level, a decision I would regret for the rest of my life.
Of course by now you can guess what happened. I didn’t walk away, and Gypsy, whose name is now Piper, came home with me a week later. It was the best freaking decision I’ve ever made in my adult life.
For the first time in what felt like a very long time, I had something to focus on other than myself and my circumstances. Two days after I brought Piper home, like most kittens from shelters or foster care, she came down with an upper respiratory infection that required round-the-clock care. Over the next several weeks, I nursed her through the respiratory infection, along with the episode of ringworm that followed immediately after.
In return, Piper gave me back my strength and my humanity. She had chosen ME, and in so doing ensured that I no longer ever entertained the selfish idea, however brief, of simply not waking up the next morning. She and her brothers needed me, and I would be there for them, no matter what.
Now at 7 months old, Piper still sleeps in my arms like a baby and often gently strokes my cheek with her paws. She greets me with a happy chirp every time she sees me, even if we’ve only been apart for 15 minutes. She makes me laugh out loud with her crazy antics, something it seemed like I had forgotten how to do.
The way she looks at me, with the purest of love and devotion, reminds me that I’m not permanently broken, just healing and doing the best I can, like everyone else. This amazing creature reminds me every day of the depth of love that I’m capable of feeling, and that I am worthy of being loved in return.
Yes, the timing was inconvenient. But I shudder to think what I would have missed out on had I listened to my brain instead of my heart.
Piper may not have talked me off a ledge, pulled me out of a burning building, or stepped in front of a bullet for me. But somehow, by miraculously choosing to place her trust in me and making me “her person”, she reminded me of every good thing this life has to offer – and in so doing, saved my life in every way that it’s possible for one living being to save the life of another.
Has your relationship with an animal ever changed the direction of your life? Please share with us in the comments below!