I have been practicing the possibility, testing it with the tongue of my mind. It feels like nettles, stinging and bitter. He is going to die.
Giles is an orange kitten, perhaps 10 weeks old; his mom was feral, so his age is an estimate. He and three siblings have lived with me for more than half their lives, since the rancher who trapped them brought them into the shelter where I volunteer. I don’t know what happened to their mother, why they were separated at such a vulnerable age. But as the litter’s foster parent, I became her surrogate.
Like any babies, kittens need their mother, so it’s been a fretful six weeks: watching appetite and energy, assessing poop, worrying over one and then another. First Buffy, the white girl with Siamese markings and sky-blue eyes, because she was the runt. Then Xander, the shy grey boy, who grew gangly and gregarious. Then Spike, a plush, marbled tabby who needed a dose of subcutaneous fluids to tide him over a rough patch.
Giles, though, was fine. He was, in fact, the valedictorian of his litter: Sweet and mature — he never faltered with the litter box — and the first to seek my lap, where he sung to me in his kitten voice, a tiny thunder of purring. I didn’t worry about Giles.
Then something happened: A weakness in his exquisite architecture; a flawed realization of God’s perfect imagination.
The other three are now caroming into life as healthy, happy little cats, each day plumper and more playful. I see the beginnings of fine feline features emerging from the nebulous softness of their kitten faces: a hint of refinement, a lengthening of whiskers.
But Giles is languishing. A few weeks ago, he began eating voraciously, while at the same time losing energy and vitality. Our attempts to diagnose and treat his malaise have failed, but a possibility the vet mentioned sticks in my mind: a liver shunt, a congenital defect in which the liver is bypassed by the blood vessels. As a result, toxins that would normally be removed — including substances harmful to the brain — accumulate in the bloodstream.
With intensive effort, a liver shunt can sometimes be managed medically; the other option is expensive surgery. The former requires a devoted owner; the latter, money that a strapped cat shelter can scarcely afford, assuming Giles would survive the surgery and it succeeded.
And maybe what is hurting Giles is not a liver shunt at all. We just know it’s something serious, something that ruffles his once-silky fur, that tires his young eyes, that makes him seem to be shrinking next to his robust siblings, growing visibly each day.
I’m sorry, I say to him. Every time I see him looking weary, sitting quietly apart while the others chase toy balls, play with pipe cleaners, run and wrestle. I’m sorry. I want him to have his kittenhood, to know that manic energy and joy, to grow through lean and lanky adolescence into the organic eloquence of an adult cat.
I haven’t stopped hoping. And at the same time I am practicing the possibility that his little life will be rounded with a sleep much sooner than I would wish. I am considering how hard it is to see young creatures struggle, to watch them tottering on the margins of a life they have barely entered.
This is the way of all flesh: If not age, then genes or injury or illness undo these bodies in which we live. I know this. It can happen at any time.
Still: Not this one. Please. The ageless, helpless, involuntary prayer of all who have loved, standing on the edge of loss: Please. Not this one.
I have taken Giles into my lap again, and as I curl over him, stroking the rumpled fur, he rubs his small head against my chin. Then, that sound: the immense purr rumbling from his little cat chest.
And I can’t help it: I anticipate silence, the aural and emotional expanse of a space recently vacated by one small orange kitten. His absence already shadows his presence. But I keep petting him, feeling that tiny head beneath my helpless hand.
Because he’s still here. For now. He’s still here.