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.
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.
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.”
*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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
3. Give blood: redcrossblood.org or call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).
4. NY Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NYVOAD)
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.”
The How to Expand a Heart by Hands Free Mama, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.