The lessons I learned from this experience did not come easily. If anything, I had to convince myself to learn them as an alternative to succumbing to a crushing sadness.
I believe that if there is something that sets me apart from most other people in the world, it is my empathy for anything outside of myself. For the longest time, I didn’t realize that a lot of individuals, including close friends and family, either choose not to or aren’t capable of feeling the wide range of emotions that I do- and that’s absolutely okay. Now that I understand this part of me, I am doing my best to use my power for good!
Here’s the story:
I was visiting my neighbors one afternoon, a big family of good people, and while we were chatting by the front door I noticed a small creature on their porch. It was so small that I thought it was a mouse at first, but upon closer inspection I found that it was a kitten.
“There’s a kitten here on your porch!” I alerted them redundantly.
“Yes,” said the nine-year-old, “I put her out here because she was messing in the house. We had her mom who had kittens and we tried to give them all away but nobody took this one yet.”
Without hesitation, “I’ll take her!! Do you have a box?”
I brought her home, crushed up a canned sardine and put it on a plate. It was half as big as her body but she found a way to eat it all. I put out water and she drank from it to fill any space she had left in her stomach. When she finished, I didn’t have to prompt her, she waddled over and sat on my foot. I remember noticing how cold she was. I also thought this was silly because I’ve never had an animal do that. It reminded me of the movie Santa Claus is Coming to Town, the scene where Chris Kringle befriends a penguin and out of nowhere says, “I know! I’ll call ya Topper!”. That scene always made me laugh, so I named her Topper.
I didn’t have anything to do that day so I sat with Topper, pet her, and gave her my love until the sun started to set. During that time, she “messed” on the floor and I realized how sick she really was. If I had to guess I would assume she was eating any kind of scraps or garbage she could find on the ground outside of my neighbor’s house.
The next morning, I went to the market and bought her antibiotics, which I administered to her before I left for work. At lunch, I stopped home to see how she was doing- she seemed fine. When I returned home for the evening, I gave her a bath and combed the fleas off of her. She started purring so loudly it was hard to imagine that the sound came from her tiny body. After that, when I was home she was always between or on my feet. With food, water, medicine, and a bath, I gave her comfort. Having never felt comfort or affection before, this seemed to have meant everything to her.
We kept moving forward like this day to day, and her health seemed to be turning for the better. One morning though, I woke up, called her name and heard nothing. I leaned over the side of my bed and there she was, dead. I jumped onto the floor and placed my hand on her body, seeing if there was any chance of reviving her. Her body was stiff. I saw tape worms squirming next to her, and her face was frozen with her teeth bared as if she died in pain or was trying to get my attention when it was happening. I realize that it was rigor mortis but I couldn’t help my mind from thinking the worst.
After sobbing uncontrollably and feeling like my heart had turned to ice, I pulled myself together and dug her a small grave underneath my apartment. It was a thick red clay that I couldn’t get more than a few inches down through. As I was digging, neighbors and stray dogs walked by, staring shamelessly at me and the small parcel on the ground.
I then, still without changing out of my pajamas, went over to the neighbors to apologize for not taking better care of their kitten. At first, I could barely get the words out that Topper was dead.
I rephrased, “The kitten that you gave me, she died last night.” I looked to the mother.
“Oh… That’s okay, we can get you another one.”
I stared at her.
“You probably killed it by giving it too much antibiotic,” she continued.
I didn’t have a response in me suitable for either of those statements, so I left. Maybe I did kill her. I walked back into my empty apartment, now fuming about the insensitivity that this very nice family was capable of. They are a well-known, religious family and active community members. How is it possible that they can be so… inhuman?, I thought. For days this disturbed me. When this experience seemed to be all too much, I decided to set aside time to write down every frustration in dark, bold ink into a notebook that nobody would read. Tears and cries of rage fell out of me during this process. Then it was done.
It took me this time of reflection to realize that in the case of Topper, and all of the other domestic animals that were sick or dying around me, it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Nobody is actively trying to make their animals sick or abuse them, there just aren’t enough resources to go around to take care of more than just your loved ones. In too many cases, there aren’t enough to do even that.
I wrote as a tool to accept the fact that Topper did die, but that did not mean that myself or anyone else had failed. That she knew love before she died, that I had tried, made a difference. That was my lesson. No matter how much it might hurt, it is always worth it to try for the sake of making a difference.
When people don’t care, that makes the world worse. In other words, it doesn’t matter how you express these feelings of empathy, just know that when you act on them it does make the world a better place.