Let go of thinking love or friendship should look a certain way, and you will feel gratitude for what is actually here in this moment.
—by Charlotte Bell
As I sat in meditation one morning in mid-November, a stray thought popped into my head. I momentarily wondered what I would do if I went outside to feed my four beautiful feral cats and found that one of them was sick, injured or worse. Would I go to work anyway? How would I deal with it? I dutifully dismissed the thought and returned to my breath.
After I got up from my sitting practice, I went to feed the ferals. I first noticed that the bed one of them usually camps out in was displaced. Then I saw tufts of hair in the yard. Three cats came to breakfast. Then I saw the fourth.
I’ll spare the details, but she had met a violent end, probably trying to get away from a dog or raccoon. I remembered the thought that had entered my mind during meditation. It didn’t seem so random anymore.
This cat was the mother of the other three. In 2000, she chose to have a litter in my backyard, four gorgeous female kittens, all completely different. I called her Big Mama, to distinguish her from the petite mama kitty that had a litter in my yard in 1994. My yard seems to be popular among pregnant feral cats.
While I was able to catch her kittens to have them spayed when the time came, Big Mama was much more cautious, more street smart. I had to study her—I felt a little like a wildlife biologist—to figure out how to lure her into my trap. By the time I caught her, she’d had two more kittens, males this time, and was in heat yet again.
Three of the six kittens remain. Attrition is high in outdoor cats. Still, the survivors are 12 and 13 years old, quite respectable for feral cats. I’m not sure how old Big Mama was, but I noticed her hearing had deteriorated and her gait had stiffened and slowed over the past year.
I’ve always known that I could face this kind of tragedy any day. When one of the ferals misses a meal, I worry. I go looking for them, hoping to find them healthy—maybe curled up comfortably in a sunny corner of my yard—but knowing I might find them otherwise.
Most people might say that, well, they’re just feral cats, at least they weren’t my “pets.” It’s true that they don’t sit in my lap or sleep with me, although one of them, Lucy, loves to be petted and brushed—as long as I’m sitting on my back steps. The others don’t want to be touched. Perhaps some people would not consider a hands-off relationship to be a real connection. I beg to differ.
When I go out to feed the ferals, Lucy runs up to the steps to be petted. Righty (the lone male) sits two feet away and purrs loudly. Robbie rolls around on her back with her eyes glued to mine. And Big Mama came close and blinked at me. In the past year she’d become rather brazen, letting me get very close and sometimes letting me touch her head for a very quick moment. Each cat has his/her own way of expressing connection.
This is what they have taught me: Connection does not have to look a certain way. Each being that comes into our lives shares a unique bond with us. With some, we show outward affection or share a sense of humor; with some, we engage in deep conversation or spin out on cynicism; with some, we enjoy silence. We may hike, bike or ski with some; with others, we share a quiet cup of tea. The ways of connecting are infinite.
It’s easy to get caught in an idea of what love looks like—usually grand gestures of physical or verbal affection. When that is what we expect or feel entitled to, we can’t see or appreciate the small kindnesses we are being offered countless times every day. When we think love or friendship should look a certain way, we can’t feel gratitude for what is actually here in this moment. These beautiful feral cats have taught me that love and appreciation are universal, and they do not fit into the narrow confines of my own definitions.
I feel the loss of Big Mama in a different way than I would one of my indoor cats, but I feel it no less deeply. It pains me to know that her passing was traumatic and probably agonizing. But I remain grateful to her for what she and her kittens have taught me about love and appreciation. And her sudden and shocking demise reminds me to appreciate every moment with every being I connect with today and every day, no matter what those moments look like.