I did not have a happy end to 2018 or a promising start to 2019.
On New Year’s Eve day, I found a feral kitten in a window well behind my parents’ house. It was struggling to get out, so I gave it a little help by lifting it out and setting it back down on its feet. Only it couldn’t stand up on all fours anymore. Instead it frantically pulled itself away from me into my parents’ shed by its two front paws, trailing its two hind ones as if they were broken. I told my mother, who’d been feeding it and a few other ferals, and we began calling around to find someplace open on this last day of the year that could fix the kitten’s broken leg(s).
Though we found an emergency veterinary hospital willing to take the kitten, we couldn’t catch it. Every time, it would panic and scoot away out of reach, under or behind some heavy equipment. New Year’s Day was much easier, only because the kitten wasn’t moving much anymore — only badly shaking, from the time I placed it in a carrier with a blanket all the way to the hospital. From the cold, or fear, or shock, we weren’t sure.
At the hospital we got bad news. The kitten had far worse than a broken hind leg or two. The doctor said it had a fresh bite on its back from another, larger animal — probably a coyote, maybe a raccoon. Its spinal cord was severed and the kitten was in worse pain than we’d thought with no good chance at all. My mom cried and consented to the kitten’s euthanasia, but didn’t think she could be present when it died. So I went back with the doctors to be with the kitten for its last minutes of life, wishing the whole time I could hold it just hold it against my heart a moment and make it all okay.
When it was all over, we brought it back to my parents’ yard, where my brother made a grave for it, near the remains of our collie Tansy, our cocker spaniel Jasper, and several other unfortunate feral kittens and broken-winged birds we’ve buried in the 40 years our family has been there.
I’m a sentimental and superstitious person. When things like this happen, I get sad same as anyone else. But when they happen on holidays, on certain anniversaries, in an especially vivid dream, or in a cluster of other sad or strange events, I look for meaning. For some kind of reason for the pain, or some kind of pattern whose devastation I can start to predict so that I might better prepare for further sadness and strangeness. Other people might call my thinking senseless.
But the whole rest of New Year’s Day, I couldn’t stop crying, couldn’t get the picture of the shaking kitten out of my mind. And I couldn’t stop wondering how fresh the bite on its back was. When I’d walked up to my parents’ back door, had I just missed the coyote, had the sound of my footsteps interrupted it mid-kill? What if I had arrived just a couple minutes earlier, or a couple minutes later? I also kept thinking about a woodpecker I had seen on my balcony New Year’s Day, before the kitten died, and how naïve I had been to think that was some kind of good sign for 2019. The next morning, on the way into work, I saw a coyote from the train window. Was that the sign I’d been looking for, or only as incidental as the woodpecker sighting? How about the kitten’s life and its suffering? Also incidental and insignificant? Or meaningful, like I and my mother and brother want it to be — worthy of sorrow and reflection.
Because these things have to mean something, don’t they? Sudden woodpeckers and coyotes, suffering kittens, unexpected sorrow and moments of wonder. If they don’t mean anything, if they’re all just incidental, then what’s all the feeling and wondering about? Why believe in the significance of anything then, whether the loss of a little being’s life or the changing over of day into a new year? Why let anything touch you?
One of my favorite childhood songs is “Rainbow Connection,” sung by Kermit the Frog. It came out when I was about 8 years old on the soundtrack for The Muppet Movie. I didn’t get to see the movie back then, but Kermit sang it on the Muppets TV show a few times (once even with Debbie Harry!) and I had the 45 record. I loved the song because it was gentle and open-hearted and searching for meaning, and at that age, I unquestioningly believed everything was supposed to mean something. Everything mattered — songs, stories, dreams, holidays, the feelings I felt listening to certain songs or anticipating certain holidays, and the love I felt for my family and pets, and the love I was sure they all (pets included) felt for me. The song is a gentle strike against cynicism and emotional hardness, and the fact that it’s sung by a puppet frog playing a banjo isn’t a punchline, but a nod to whimsy to go along with the lyrics’ wonder, a “why not” punctuating a song that starts with the word “why.” It’s a perfect comfort song, at any age.
The bad news I witnessed New Year’s Day unfortunately wasn’t isolated. It’s been a painful holiday season and I’m already having difficulty staying positive for 2019. I feel kind of low and anxious. But I think the lesson of “Rainbow Connection” — if not the significance of woodpeckers and coyotes and kittens — is that if you’re feeling and questioning something, well at least you’re feeling and questioning something. At least you’re not numb. At least your heart is still open for the moment when the rain brings out a rainbow.
(Song recommendation by René Ostberg)