How to Expand a Heart

“When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.” – Paulo Cohelo

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that my family got a kitten. Although saying we “got” a kitten doesn’t really do justice to the providential manner in which Banjo came into our lives. I have been drafting this post in my mind for months. But it wasn’t until recently that it became clear why this story needed to be told in this space. This story contains a four-letter word that is the essence of living “Hands Free,” and it is not by accident that I publish this post the day after the US Presidential Election. May we let go of the bitterness and anger and regard one another with open hearts. 

This is our story …

One evening in June, I received a call from a neighbor who found a kitten at the lake where she was vacationing. Her family had miraculously rescued the tiny flea-invested, starving kitten from the clutches of a dog’s mouth. And now my friend was calling me to see if we would take him. I couldn’t help but wonder: Why me—of all people she could call? And why today—on the eve of my daughter’s 9th birthday?

The kitten’s picture appeared on my phone, and that was all it took; I was in love with this gray ball of fur with hazel eyes.  But I knew I must contain my excitement; there was huge hurdle to overcome. I am married to The Anti-Cat Guy. My husband endured one neurotic rescue-cat nine years ago, and I was pretty sure he never wanted that experience again.

But I felt compelled to at least try. I forwarded the kitten’s picture to my husband at work with a few “motivational” thoughts.

First he saw this:

Then he read this:

I don’t suppose you would consider this sweet kitten that would not be a house cat, just a basement and outdoor like the cat I had when I was a girl. My mom was allergic to cats but that worked for her to have Tigger outside and in garage. Shannon found this kitten at the lake and said he is the kindest, most friendly cat she’s ever seen. I think the girls are responsible enough now and need to have a pet sometime while growing up. Thanks for considering. Love u

My husband later told me that he showed the message to a few colleagues who unanimously declared, “You’re getting a cat.”

My husband and I decided not to tell the children we were going to get a kitten until we knew for sure that the animal was healthy enough to take home. The day after I received the okay from the vet, my husband and I mysteriously told the girls we needed to run an errand as a family.

After driving for about fifteen minutes, we pulled into the parking lot. I watched as my oldest daughter read the letters on the sign that spelled out: Animal Hospital. As her eyes darted back-and-forth from the sign to the facility several times, I could tell she was trying to make sense of it all.  With hopeful eyes, she searched my face for confirmation that her long-time dream was coming true.

It isn’t every day that you see a child cry tears of joy. But that is exactly what my daughter did. This child’s heart was created to love—especially young children and small animals. Our choice to adopt this animal was validated in my daughter’s face right then and there.

My 9-year-old daughter at the animal hospital holding ‘Banjo’ for the first time.

And the validations keep coming.

Banjo is the first thing my nine-year-old goes to see when she wakes. Kissing him goodnight is the last thing she does before she goes to bed. She plays with him so much that he carries his ball in his mouth and drops it in front of her. If she is on the computer when he approaches her, she shuts it and says, “There will always be time to play on the computer, but Banjo won’t be this playful forever.”

I once told my daughter where the mother cat cleans her kittens on the front of their face. Whenever she strokes Banjo there, she asks, “Do you think Banjo thinks I am his mom?” I was not inclined to say YES until she told me she’s memorized the sound of his purr.

As the instant love my daughter had for this kitten has grown into an indescribable bond, her compassion for the suffering of all animals has expanded.

As we were pulling out of the neighborhood last week, we saw a missing cat sign. When my daughter asked what could have happened to the cat, it triggered a vivid memory that had been locked away since I was four-years-old. And what came out of my mouth was an experience I had never spoken aloud …

I was playing in my driveway when I heard the screech of tires a few houses down from ours. My mom and I watched an older gentleman quickly get out of his car. Lying motionless next to the wheel of his car was a beautiful stripped orange cat.

My mother and I walked toward the man. In well-worn overalls and muddy work boots, he was down on bended knee as if begging or praying—or perhaps both.  Although his ball cap nearly covered his eyes, I could see he was crying.

“Ma’am is this your cat?” the man’s voice trembled.

“No.” my mom said holding my hand tightly. The way she held her body in front of mine, I could tell she wanted to shield me from the pain and suffering displayed on the tarmac before me. At age four, I had yet to see a living creature die.

“Could you get me something to hold the cat?” the man’s voice teetered on the edge of breaking.

Mom and I retrieved a cardboard box from our garage. With trembling, weathered hands, he broke down one side of the box so he could tenderly slide the cat into the box. Immediately, a dark red pool of blood collected beneath the animal’s furry white belly. Oddly, the man gazed at the cat lovingly. He was not repulsed by the blood; surprisingly, neither was I.

The last thing I remember seeing was the man’s tear-streaked face as he looked at the cat with love and tenderness. I don’t know if he was going to go house to house looking for the owner or if he was going to bury the animal with dignity. All I know is that he looked devastated.

When I told the story to my daughter, she had one just one question: “Why did the man cry, Mama? It wasn’t his cat.”

I blinked back my tears. Even now, 36 years later, it was painful to remember seeing someone so distraught—so distraught about causing the death of someone else’s beloved pet. Perhaps that is why I repressed the memory for so long.

“Honey, I can’t be sure, but I think the man cried because he felt so badly about hurting the cat.”

But there was more. I just knew there was more, and it took my child’s own loving words to figure it out.

Her message was contained in a card for her aunt, uncle, and cousins in sympathy for the their beloved dog who recently passed away. I had asked her to draw a sketch of their beloved Labrador Retriever, Josie. But instead she wrote something so beautiful—something that could only be written by someone who was experiencing first-hand this type of transformative love.

Dear S, J, S, and E
I am sorry about losing a friend. I think it would be very hard losing a pet. Sometimes Banjo carries a ball of yarn in his mouth to say he wants to play with me. I am so sorry for your loss of a funny, jumpy friend.
Love * Hope * Peace
Natalie and Banjo

As I stared at my daughter’s message with tearful eyes, I finally knew why the man cried.

When the man in overalls picked up the box containing the orange cat, he knew what he carried in that box was more than a pet; it was someone’s companion.

Someone who had rubbed against legs, big and small …

Someone who kept all the secrets whispered into his dainty cat ears …

Someone whose fur held tears of disappointment that only a pet could bear  …

Someone who protected night after night from the foot of the bed …

Someone whose love never ceased …

This was not the man’s companion that he carried, but it was someone’s companion. And because he, like my daughter, had loved a small creature in his lifetime, he knew the value of this life.

And maybe, just maybe, those tears I saw were not tears of sorrow, but tears of gratitude. He knew that small creature he carried was the instrument in which a human heart grew.

Maybe that man knew what I now know after watching my daughter with Banjo:

When we love something smaller and more vulnerable than our self, our heart expands. Our capacity to love, to be compassionate, and to empathize increases. And whether we love a special friend for six weeks, two years, or for an entire lifetime, we grow in immeasurable ways; for love knows no time.

And when that friend must go, there should not be regret, but instead gratitude for its contribution to your life.

So if you are looking for a way to enrich your life, try love.

Love something smaller than yourself. And give your children the opportunity to love, too. Whether it is a cat, a dog, a fish, a timid classmate, a sponsored child, or an elderly neighbor, the heart grows in the act of loving another being.

Yes, something bad could happen—what you love can be taken away.

But something beautiful happens first:

Your heart grows …
And you become a better person …
And with each expanded heart, the world becomes a better place.

*****************************************

 

What experiences do you have of loving something smaller and more vulnerable than yourself?  What experiences have you given your children to expand their hearts? Thank you for being a part of  The Hands Free Revolution. Together we are learning to let go and live … learning to let go and love. What a beautiful way to live.  

“I feel the capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest significance.”

 -Pablo Casals

*If you are interested in extending love to our East Coast friends affected by Hurricane Sandy, here are ways to help. The following are reputable 501(c)3 nonprofits and government agencies recommended in this Huffington Post article:

1. United Global Shift’s Virtual Food Drive

2. For those of you in and near New York who want to volunteer to help with clean up, please emailnycservice@cityhall.nyc.gov.

3. Give blood: redcrossblood.org or call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).

4. NY Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NYVOAD)

5. New Jersey Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NJVOAD)

6. Daily Candy NYC Edition has some ways to “Help NYC Bounce Back.

7. Mashable has “7 Ways to Help Victims of Superstorm Sandy Online.”

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Comments

  1. 3

    Ellie says

    This story is so similair to ours this summer. After a few years of loss and struggle in our family, the night before my daughter’s 9th birthday I found out that a coworker had rescued 3 kittens from under her shed. They had humanely trapped them and the mom. The mom was spayed and released since she was too wild. They took the others to a vet and one of them was adopted by a tech. Luckily for my two kids, the others came home with us. They are inseperable. The kittens sleep with each of the kids that is “theirs” and chase and snuggle. Any time a kid is sick or hurt the kittens seems to know and be extra gentle. They bring such joy to our lives and my kids are learning patience as the kittens get into mischief and they repeatedly forgive them. After having them 5 months they asked me “what did we ever do before we had the kittens?” I know they will always remember and cherish these dear friends.

  2. 5

    says

    This post makes me sad! I had 3 dogs throughout my childhood and loved each one. My husband and I had a rescued stray cat when we had my son. When he was 2, we discovered that he is allergic to cats, so we gave it to a neighbor. I feel bad that I haven’t given my son the opportunity to love a pet, but honestly, he has never asked for one. To be honest, I don’t want one, because I know all the work would fall on me right now. Maybe there is another option? I’ll have to think about this some more. I have to tell you that Banjo is the cutest cat and the name is just perfect! Who named him and how?

    • 6

      says

      Hi Jen, it’s interesting you mention that your son is allergic to cats. My daughter (the 9 year old) is, too. When we adopted Banjo, we decided he would be mainly outdoor, on the screened-in porch, and in the basement when it is cold. At first, my daughter did react to the cat but after 6 weeks, the reactions subsided. My friend who is a nurse said this is not uncommon. I am no expert, but I thought I would share that.

      Thank you for the sweet words about Banjo. I have had several cats in my life, but he is definitely wins the prize for personality and warmth. I guess it is the writer in me that loves to come up with names for things –pets and babies!– and so while we were waiting to find out if the kitten was adoptable, I started a list of names. We were standing in the vet hospital when I showed my daughter the list and asked her if she liked any of them. She glanced at it for less 20 seconds, then looked at the kitten and said, “BANJO.” I thought of that one because my youngest daughter plays the ukulele. :) It does seem to fit him perfectly!

  3. 7

    says

    Well, gee, I am crying now, too, and I am not even a “cat-person” ;). I have to admit, though, I laughed out LOUD when I read the unanimous reaction of your husband’s co-workers that “he was getting a cat!”

    Beautiful story. I still miss my dog Maynard who we had to put down three years ago. And I share the joy and love you feel when you see your child’s capacity to love deepen. That is our legacy as parents.

  4. 8

    says

    I tell the girls the more love you give, the more you get. I have a decade or so to tell them that adage doesn’t always ring true while dating!

    I’m so happy Banjo chose you. Loving animals is such a sign of humans evolving. I love finding Cy or Max on the kids’ beds in the middle of the night. It’s a dimension of mess and chaos and unspoken friendship that will give them lessons I cannot teach.

    Thanks for sending this to me. You made my day!

    • 9

      says

      Love this, Lori: “Loving animals is such a sign of humans evolving … It’s a dimension of mess and chaos and unspoken friendship that will give them lessons I cannot teach.” How true. Thank you for your insight and loving encouragement. xo

  5. 10

    Kim says

    Thank you for this WONDERFUL post. I am not a pets person. Of my three kids, I have one who NEEDS to love pets, needs to love things smaller than she is, things she can cuddle. Oftentimes, my family and friends comment on the fact that I’m a bit of a sucker, to take in animals, when it’s not really my thing and we are already spread so very thin. But your post reminded me WHY I do it. It is part of who she is, as it is part of who your daughter is. Because of this, we have rescued two birds and a baby squirrel (which she nursed back to health with a syringe of milk). She cried each time we have turned them over to the wildlife center, and I have held her as she grieved. We have been through three cats. She feeds, clips, brushes, and loves these animals. Her love and kindness for these small beings is beautiful. And like you, I will do what I can to support and foster this. THANK YOU.

    • 11

      says

      Oh how I loved reading about your daughter, Kim. What a beautiful heart she has. I think our two children would get along nicely — perhaps opening a care clinic for lost and injured animals. Thank you for fostering this special quality your daughter has. It brings me hope to know your daughter is in the world spreading kindness and compassion.

  6. 12

    says

    I love this story, and the words of wisdom expressed through the telling of it. I, too, was blessed to have parents who felt it was a good thing to give my brother and I the responsibility to care for our pets, and these lessons continue to influence the relationships we have with our four-legged friends to this day. Love can be painful, especially when we have to say good-bye to those we care for deeply but, as the saying goes, “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Thank you for reminding us what unconditional love looks like, and how much we all benefit from it!

  7. 14

    Eleissa says

    oh my goodness…I love all of your posts, but I think this is my most favorite thing…”When we love something smaller and more vulnerable than our self, our heart expands.” for sure it explains being a mama. thank you.

    • 15

      says

      Thank you, Eleissa! I worked and worked on that line until it was just right. It makes me so happy to see that it caught your eye and touched your heart. And I especially loved how you to related it to being a mother! How beautiful!!! Thank you for taking the time to make me smile today.

  8. 16

    Elizabeth Kane says

    “There will always be time to play on the computer, but Banjo won’t be this playful forever.” Wise words from a Hands Free Child. :)

    When we let the noise overtake our life, we miss out on moments like this that remind us how fragile and short life is. Our empathy and compassion to let our guard down and take the risk to love others is our strongest asset – not a weakness. Once again you’ve written a beautiful post that reminds us to stop and appreciate all that life has for us in this moment. And as usual I am crying and feeling inspired all at once. Thank you, Rachel.

    • 17

      says

      Elizabeth, you read my mind! I tried inserting something in the story about my daughter already being a Hands Free Mama, but it just cluttered up the paragraph! So I just had to smile when you nailed it with “wise words from a HF child.”

      You are a lovely writer. What an eloquent and inspiring statement: “When we let the noise overtake our life, we miss out on moments like this that remind us how fragile and short life is. Our empathy and compassion to let our guard down and take the risk to love others is our strongest asset – not a weakness.” I shall remember these beautiful words when I take the risk to love. Thank you, Elizabeth!

  9. 18

    Brenda says

    The timing of this article was perfect for me. My almost-15-year-old cat has a tumor in his jaw and face, and he can’t get better. We are keeping him going, but we know we need to put him down soon. We are having an impossible time deciding when to do it. While your article didn’t help with our decision, it did remind me of all the pleasure our cat has given us over the years. So thank you!

    • 19

      says

      My heart goes out to you, Brenda. I had a cat 9 years ago that also had a tumor. We had it removed, but it grew back rapidly. I chose not to do chemo, but instead love Callie with all my might and let her live out her life in peace. I, too, had to make the decision of when to put her down. I didn’t think I would actually know, but when the time came, I just did. I held her in my arms as she went to sleep for the last time. I felt blessed to have had 7 years with her and I know she felt the same. Sending you peace and love tonight, my friend.

  10. 20

    Marni Scofield says

    Once again, I am crying tears and at the same time your stories and shared heart are expanding mine … what a blessing.

    We got a puppy 2 years ago for the same reasons – I wanted my boys to not miss out on the experience of loving and caring for something smaller and more vulnerable than they are.

    What I didn’t expect is how much this dog has expanded our love for each other. The other day my 12 year old said, “I think Bogey has brought more joy to our family. I can’t really remember what life was like before Bogey, but I know I’m happier.”

    Words which heal a mother’s heart and as always, make it grow …

    Thank you and may God bless you and your precious family (including sweet Banjo!) –
    Marni Scofield

  11. 22

    Surinder says

    This message is an aswer from God to my prayer of a hint to help me heal for my recent lost of a long-time friend. I had my cat for three years and a half before he mysteriously disappeared. I loved Tibet as much as your daughter loves Banjo. This is a love that healed me many times and that had become bitter; thank you for answering my prayer.

    • 23

      says

      What a true gift to know that my message today was a gift to you, Surinder. I am deeply sorry for your loss of your precious friend. I am so thankful my story helped you find some comfort. Sending you love.

  12. 24

    Tanya says

    I loved this story. It really moved me and affirmed my belief that I need to get an animal in my home sooner then later. We had a dog that due to him being lonely from me working all day and him losing his long time buddy of 8 yrs ( from puppy hood) he needed a new home. He is loving his farm life with people and other animals around constantly.

    I am now off work due to medical reasons and will be a stay at home mom. My boys are struggling with my seperation from my ex-husband and my oldest is begging for a pet. He has a fish but wants a guinea pig or the like. Due to allergies we may compromise with a lizard that he can still handle and give affection to. I am holding by next year to get a service dog of sorts or a hypo-allergenic doc. I think it would be a huge asset to our broken family.

    Thank you for sharing, it warmed my heart this morning.

    • 25

      says

      And thank you for sharing, Tanya! I hope you are able to get a little creature for your family to love. After reading all these wonderful comments about how pets bring families closer together, I am even more happy to have made this choice for our family! Perhaps such an addition would bring healing to your hearts. Sending you lots of love tonight, dear one.

  13. 27

    Pat says

    9 years ago we moved into a fixer upper. Our kids were 4 and 7 at the time. We didn’t want to get a pet right away due to all the work we had ahead of us. At year 5 it was apparent to us that our house projects were taking longer than originally anticipated so putting off getting a pet might mean never doing so. That’s when we found a rat terrier puppy at the shelter. The day we brought Piper home our daughter held her in lap in the car with our son sitting next to them and not saying much. When we got inside and they were sitting on the floor letting Piper climb all over them my son began to cry. I asked him why and he responded, “Because I thought this day would never come, Mom. And now we finally have a puppy.” These creatures bring so much joy to us and teach us so many things about love and forgiveness. Now we can’t imagine our lives without our “puppy girl” :)

  14. 29

    Lynsay says

    Just wanted to say how inspirational you are. You have an amazing gift in writing and it really touches my life. Thankyou.

  15. 31

    Dayle says

    Thank you for this post. As a child, I was the one who brought home injured birds etc, and my Mom was awesome about it. I didn’t “keep” any of them, but my Mom never told me to stop. Instead, she would try her best to save them, and when they passed, she held me as I cried and told me the animal was lucky, because they had so much love at the end of their life.

    • 32

      says

      Dayle, you have such a loving heart. To know that you were a caregiver to all animals at an early age is really no surprise. I cherish every comment you make on the FB page. You always bring a smile to my face with your encouraging and uplifting words. You are a blessing to me and to this world! Thank your mom for me!!!

  16. 33

    Sharon Curtis says

    Once again I am reduced to tears by your story and just the way you write always bring up so much emotion within me. We have had 3 cats now – 2 just disappeared….most likely walked off somewhere to die ….we will never know but he pain and sadness of losing those beloved cats was immeasurable and the not knowing unbearable – especially for my daughter who loved those cats dearly. We have a new cat now 2 years old still playful and so loving – always bringing joy to my daughter and myself. Like you say, your heart expands just that little bit more. Thank you for your lovely story. Wiping away the tears now…..however your words will stay with me.

  17. 34

    says

    Thank you Rachel,

    As someone who loves animals deeply, who have lost too many pets due to all kinds of deaths (including running over by a car) and who is considering a career in healing pet and people – including bereavement – I have tears of grief and hope in my eyes.

    Thanks for sharing this, and helping me with my own emotions.
    Paula

  18. 35

    says

    Wow!

    I can’t believe all the compassion that went into this. It is great to have a person who can not only create such meaningful situations for their children, but who can bring those to life so vividly. Sharing this with world puts you in the for front of leading the proactive parenting movement that seems to be going on.

    Well done!

    • 36

      says

      I am so honored by your words, Seamus! What an extraordinary compliment you have given me. I am privileged to share my experiences with such wonderful folks who provide loving feedback and faithfully accompany me along this journey! Thank you for taking time to make me feel very loved!

  19. 38

    Jennifer says

    Well, It took me nearly 40 minutes to read this from all of the crying! This is only your first post that I have read to far but I definately love your words. I work nights cleaning PNC banks and my hometown bank had a holiday greeting card with a picture of you and your beautiful family! Anywho, this is how I stumbled upon your website, because it was listed at the bottom of the card, I don’t really know why I had to write down the site but I’m glad I did! Can’t wait to read more!
    -Jennifer

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