I didn't go to adopt a cat. I went to sign up as a volunteer. But Maisie climbed my leg and clung to my neck. I didn't know then that she had a fever. Now I know she was clinging to me for warmth. She knew she had to get out of there.
I had just lost a cat I had loved for 17 years. This little face looked eerily similar. Was Maisie the reincarnation of my lost one?
Maisie's instant claim on me was flattering and frightening at the same time. I had just lost one old cat and the other was declining rapidly. Could I salvage their loss by rescuing another? And she was burning up. I couldn't bring her home until her fever broke.
I had been running a cat hospice for months, and now I was going to adopt another sick cat? It wasn't logical. But it was imperative.
The first night I brought Maisie home, I was taking pictures to celebrate the long journey I hoped we would share together She would take the place of ghosts haunting my house, and banish all sad memories of loss and sickness with her quiet goodness. But she clung so tightly to my leg I couldn't focus the camera to record the joy and insecurity I felt. How could she put such faith in me? She was drowning and I was a life preserver. I felt the same way about her, I was drowning in grief and she was the oxygen I needed to keep breathing.
Maisie and I clung to each other.
After two days at home, her fever spiked again and we were in the emergency room. Her first weeks home were a nightmare of multiple trips to the vets with no answers and no cures. She had stopped eating, clinging to life while I medicated her and fed her with syringes. Six weeks of antibiotics. She had chosen me and even when my veterinarian recommended that I return her to the shelter, I couldn't let go.
Even after she started to thrive, the first weeks were surprisingly sad despite her over-bearing sweetness, her eagerness to please and her self contained, unremarkable contentment. I was tightly bonded yet repulsed at the same time; my love for her was mixed with pity.
There was something otherworldly about her eyes, slightly slanted, giving her an inscrutable look. Her way of staring at me as if to see a greater meaning in a mundane moment was unnerving. She moved quietly through the house like a memory, sometimes darting away at some small sound or imagined threat that only she could see. She was still a kitten but she acted like she was carrying a 30-pound pack on her back.
She also kept a rigid schedule. Every morning between ten and eleven a.m. she asked to be picked up and alternately purred and whimpered, apparently only able to be happy while expressing sadness. It felt more like hearing a prophecy or a confession.
Maybe she would be happier with a playmate. In Millie, I found her polar opposite, a kitten exploding with energy and with no other goal than to be frenetically happy.
After a rocky introduction, Maisie embraced her adopted sibling. All tragedies averted, we were finally living in domestic bliss. I was overjoyed with my two foundlings and confident of my ability to provide for their every need. Still, the constant sense of impending doom that is common to anyone raising children haunted me. These were not kittens I had raised...kittens I knew had never suffered a day of neglect. These were refugees...discarded by their caretakers. By adopting them, I was trying to piece together our three lives and outlive our painful pasts. We had only our future to celebrate.
We fit together like puzzle pieces.
For months we had been floating on a joyful cloud, so at first I was oblivious when one day, Maisie began to slip away into a shroud of apathy. She was hostile to Millie and refused food. Her body was burning with the fire of a high and persistent fever. My vet taught me how to stick a needle in her neck and administer fluids to bring her temperature down.
Now, the mere sight of her was a reproach, a warning that I could actually fail at doing something that should be as automatic as breathing: to protect and care for my cats. Speeding downhill with no brakes. She had chosen me and once again, I discovered my role in her fate.
Again, I felt the heavy weight that she had been carrying for months: Her body had been fighting a deadly virus ever since that day we met at the shelter. Before, it had gone undetected even in blood work. But our luck had run out. What was once a benign virus had morphed into a fatal disease called Feline Infectious Peritonitis. Her short time of grace came to an end only 13 days after the fever returned.
For days, Millie and I were paralyzed with grief. Then the grief spurred me into action. I could help others with cats suffering from F.I.P. and raise money for research into this mysterious disease. I could share what I had learned with my vets who had never treated a case of this killer mutant virus. Her loss could give new meaning to my life.
We were floating on a joyful cloud.
Losing Maisie taught me that love has no ending. One love leads to another. From the ashes of loss, Maisie chose me and relit the fire of hope. Because of her, we found a blessing called Millie and Maisie led us to Molly.
Here are their stories in their own words:
Millie's Story: The Monster of the Litter
I was the monster of the litter.
One day a big man in a truck came and took me away to the place where bad kitties and lost kitties go and put me in a cage. I couldn't run, I couldn't jump and I had no one to play with. I went to a hospital and woke up groggy and alone with sewing on my tummy. Would I ever see my family again? For five days I wished they would come and bring me home. Maybe if I acted gentle and sweet they would like me better. Then a lady saw my picture and came to visit me so I could be a sister to her other cat. They couldn't even find me at first because I was still in lost and found. I did my best to act adorable and it worked! She said, "What a sweet, sensible and quiet kitty." (Wink. Wink.)
My new mom kept me by myself at first. In the morning, she came in to visit me and put me inside her bathrobe and tied the belt and toted me around while she made coffee and ate her toast and gave me little bits of egg too. Then I met my new sisfur, Mazy, but she hated me. Hiss. Hiss. Hiss. She yelled at me all day long. Mom said: "I've had enough! Can't you two little punks get along?"
After seven long days of acting afraid, I couldn't take it anymore. I got up some speed and ran straight into Mazy like a bowling ball, screeching with all my might. She toppled over. When she picked herself up, she looked at me with owly eyes! After that, everything changed! She stepped back and let me walk by! We both got into our own baskets. Mazy walked up to me and stuck her nose right into my ear! I didn't dare move. Then she mumbled a little hiss that wasn't scary at all. Just a quiet Fizzz.
After that we started liking each other. She would follow me around and tease me until I chased her. I would sneak up on her and try to tickle her tummy then run away.
We never fell asleep alone.
I still can't believe what came next. Mom said my sisfur Mazy had to go to a bridge and sometime I would see her and we could cuddle again. I looked everywhere for the bridge but I couldn't find her anywhere. I stopped eating for a little while cause my tummy hurt I missed her so much. My mom gave me a pill from the doctors but I still felt bad. I wanted Mazy back...but Mom said we could adopt a new sisfur or brofur. Some nights, Mom picked me up and held me to her face and I could feel water leaking out of her eyes. Mom went to the shelter to meet my new buddy but none of the kitties picked her. Finally one day, she met my new sisfur. It took a long time! Six weeks! Her name was Molly.
For the first two years of my life, I worried: Would I get enough to eat? Have a warm place to sleep? If I went potty on the floor, would I get hit or thrown outside? I learned not to expect much. Nothing lasts forever and if you have a home, you can't hold onto it. By the time I was two, I had four different homes...twice I lived in the same orphanage.
When I was old enough to be a teen mom, they made me go outside. A man in a truck said I was a "public nuisance" so they took me to the place where lost kitties live and they give you operations so I wouldn't be a mom. Pretty soon a man adopted me because I was cute. But only a few months later...he kicked me out. He said he had allergies but he got angry when I peed over the top of the litter box. Why didn't he just clean it and get me a higher one? I learned to hide where no one would hurt me. I didn't want anyone to pick me up because they might throw me again. I learned to hunt on counters or cupboards for food if I didn't see anything in my bowl. I didn't need much to eat because I hid all day and slept. And I moped. I was still very young but I felt very old.
My first day home.
She examined me like a cheap used car. She even opened my mouth! Was I good enough? YES, I said bumping her hand with my head. BE THE ONE I said burrowing my nose into the space under her armpit. PLEASE DON'T GO I said, rubbing her legs with my cheeks. When I saw the open cat carrier in the corner, I hid inside. Even if she didn't pick me, I could escape! She left without me and I went back in the cage. Again. But then she came back and picked me!
My new sisfur, Millie, wanted someone to play with and boss around. She was lonely because her other sisfur got sick and went to a bridge.
Millie was an all-star wrestler and all muscles! She was much stronger than me. And wild, too! So I hid under the bed. I stopped eating I was so worried. I tried to show her not to come near my box by peeing over the edge. I hissed until I was hoarse. Mom didn't understand why I cried when she tried to pick me up or why I wouldn't play with Millie or why I wouldn't ask for food or eat in front of her but I would find an empty can on the counter and lick it clean. I knew my Mom liked Millie more than me. I didn't know yet if I could trust Mom or love her either.
But Mom didn't give up. She got me a higher box and put it where Millie couldn't use it. She kept picking me up every day and one day, I stopped crying because I believed she wouldn't throw me or drop me. She took me to the doctor for not eating. I had to lie on a table and they shaved my tummy and looked inside my guts. Mom taught me how to eat pills and I was pretty good at it. Next we went to another doctor for my chin sores. She made me special homemade chicken dinners and coaxed me out from under the bed.
We had a lot to learn. Mom taught me that I was worth keeping and I taught her to slow down to my speed and be patient. My sisfur taught me how to play hide and seek and how to wrestle. My mom was teaching me to stop worrying.
At first I couldn't even purr. But one day I saw my mom sitting next to the fireplace and I climbed up onto her lap...and I felt a little purr coming. I didn't feel shy anymore. I knew I was where I belonged. Mom was purring at me too, she just kept stroking my cheeks and neck and saying my name. When she felt my throat vibrating from the little purr sound, she hugged me a little too tight but I liked it a little. I knew she must be my real mom forever because I never lived this long in one place before.
I clean her face and she cleans mine.
I'm not scared of my big sisfur anymore. Sometimes I put her in a headlock to let her know I'm boss. We love to play hide and seek. Every night we curl up together and I clean her face and she cleans mine and we tell secrets and sometimes we talk about that time long ago when we were in the orphanage where lost kitties go and we hold each other tight. Then Mom says: Goodnight my sleepy bears.
Leslie Goodwin is the author of the award-winning book CAT SKILLS: Loving care for cats. For over two years, she volunteered on an F.I.P. support site and continues to support F.I.P. victims. Find her on Facebook. Story and photos ©Leslie Goodwin, 2016