It’s impossible to not be touched by the precious lives of our little ones… For me, Mama was a friend that was far more than the sum of every shared experience in our 18 years together… She is a force and a feeling I will carry with me the rest of my life. Losing her this year caused a grief I had never before experienced… This post is a small (but long) tribute to her tenacious, loving and brave little life. Miss you, Mama…
I’ll admit I didn’t really know what I was doing… I always knew I had love of animals – but I was completely unprepared for what that love would entail more than 18 years ago.
Within a year I found myself the default mama of 3 kittens. Scotch (my first) had been dumped in the parking lot where I worked with 3 other litter mates. My boss was kind enough to keep them in her office and put out the word to all employees to come take home a new friend. By the end of my shift, all the kittens had found new homes – all but Scotch – and my boss was on her way to the local (kill) shelter to drop him off.
No. Without thinking I took him home. He stuck to my shirt on my shoulder the entire drive and by the time we landed, he had his name – Scotch – for the tape. Not the drink – though, anyone who knows me, knows I’ve since acquired quite an affinity for this fine drink as well.
Six months later, I found myself walking along the Tennessee River on a freezing cold day in October. Over the noise of the gusty wind, I kept hearing the sweetest squeaking noises. I soon discovered 2 tiny kittens laying on a garbage bag under a bush by the river bank. I couldn’t bear to think of them surviving such a cold night all alone… and while they were very reluctant to come home with me (5 hours and a can of tuna later), home they came.
Scotch seemed pleased with his new girlfriends (the newbies turned out to be sisters) and though I intended to find homes for the girls, within a week they became Cleo and Chloe. Scotch had a special love for Cleo… he was always helping to groom her and they would often be found sleeping together – Cleo right on top of Scotch.
Little did I know how deep their love truly was… soon I would be catching them trying to participate in, how shall I say… Adult activities. A friend informed me that the local shelter provided low-cost spaying and neutering services, so I stopped in to ask about an appointment. They told me the cost would be $60 for each of the girls ($120 total) plus $25 for Scotch. At the time, anything over $100 might as well have been a million. I could barely afford my rent and was often at the charity of my family for food. I decided to keep the lovers separated until I could afford the fix… But it was too late.
Two months later, it was obvious that Cleo was ‘growing’ much bigger than Chloe… Still a kitten herself, Cleo was pregnant. What had I done!?
I did my best to prepare her a place for the birth… I asked friends and family what I should expect (this was long before Google was a part of my life). Because she was so young, it became clear that this situation could become complicated easily – many people thought the kittens would likely be stillborn, while others said Cleo would have a hard time surviving the birth.
The day came sooner than I thought. I returned home from work and immediately saw something the size of a hairball by the coffee table… it was the tiniest kitten I’d ever seen – and it was moving! I soon saw another under the couch – and still another in a shoe! I found Cleo (now Mama) in the place we had made… and was shocked to realize she was giving birth to a fourth kitten… and then a fifth! It was all so unreal… and it was far from over.
Mama had stopped cleaning her babies and seemed stuck in a stare… it appeared that she was pushing out another kitten, but after 10 minutes it didn’t look like a kitten and I got scared.
Without a home phone, I started knocking on neighbors doors… Finally an apartment opened and I begged to use their phone. Every emergency clinic I called wanted $150 – $200 just to come in after hours. Running out of options, I called the University of Tennessee Veterinary Clinic and was told to come immediately with Mama and all the kittens.
I don’t remember the drive, I only remember being told to prepare myself for the worst as they took Mama to the back. They were very surprised that all the kittens were alive – but cautioned me that everything could change very quickly in this kind of situation and that things didn’t look good for Mama. I told them to do anything they could. The only payment they required was the $27 dollars in my pocket…
Almost two excruciating hours later, the vet came out to talk to me.
Mama had prolapsed her uterus and had almost completely bled out. They had performed emergency surgery and a full blood transfusion. She was alive but not out of the woods yet… they would likely need to keep her for a few days. The kittens too were all still alive. The staff felt it was best to keep Mama and her babies all together… they had done all they could for now and it was time for me to go home.
I visited her every day and on the third day Mama was given the Ok to come home. When I arrived, it was clear that Mama’s tenacious strength and sweetness had made quite an impact on the entire staff. Everyone had a story for me about her awesome personality… my favorite was Mama trying to snatch back her kittens when it was time for their bottle feeding. Because of the surgery, she was unable to nurse them herself – and had developed a mammary gland infection that would make it impossible for her to produce milk at all. Her whole belly was so swollen it resembled a gladiators breastplate, and I was given detailed instructions about applying hot compresses to this area every few hours to ease her discomfort.
The kittens also came with a detailed list of intricate and intimate instructions – most of which I’ll spare you. The primary task would be feeding. All five kittens, every three to four hours. Armed with kitten formula and tiny bottles, I left to begin this new adventure in babysitting.
Using my bathroom as a safe place for my new nursery, I made Mama and the babies as comfortable as I could. The staff had recommended that Scotch be kept away from his new offspring initially but that Chloe (Mama’s sister) could have full access.
I had no idea how magical the bond between these seven incredible creatures would be to witness… Chloe immediately started helping Mama with the bathing and bathroom maintenance of all five babies. Within the week, Chloe even started lactating! Not enough to really help with feedings, but enough to blow my mind. Mama shook off her near death experience and reluctantly allowed me to tend to her swollen chest every few hours – while keeping a watchful eye on all her babies and even wiggling free every now and then to grab one that wandered too far for her liking.
Two weeks later, with permission from the staff at UT, I introduced Scotch to his kids. I only wish we had smart phones and convenience cameras back then… He greeted (sniffed) each one, licked a few heads and then laid down to be explored and crawled over by the swarm of his little ones. Beautiful.
I was blessed to have the love and support of my incredible family and a few close friends. They helped me with everything – feedings, supplies, moral support – and most of all, new and happy homes for all the kids when they were ready to leave the nest.
The UT Vet Clinic allowed me to pay off my considerable balance in installments (some as small as $5) for as long as it took – every time I arrived, I was greeted by someone who wanted an update on the Miracle Cat and her babes.
As for Mama, she took her babies leaving the nest all in stride – but her Mama instincts remained and she quickly turned her focus to the boys in the house… And us. We all knew she was the boss… and we all loved and respected her special kind of love… none more than our sweet Scotch. I sometimes think Mama was a reincarnation of some impressive human souls… A little Mother Teresa, Eleanor Roosevelt and maybe a touch of Margaret Thatcher.
It was an honor to be picked as her ‘human’… and an honor to share with all of you how Cleo, the tiny kitten from the riverbank, became the legend we all love (and still miss) called Mama.