Something was wrong. My baby wasn’t breathing.
She was sick. She had a scary-high fever that had spiked quickly and out of nowhere, and I was laying down with her on my chest waiting for the medicine to bring it back down into more manageable territory. It took me a second even to realize that she wasn’t breathing. First, there was just nothing, the absence of sound, and then her soft baby body went unnaturally hard and stiff. Before my brain even caught up with my body I was on the phone with 911, sirens in the background.
She was back by the time the EMTs rang the doorbell, soft again and breathing normally. It was a febrile seizure, they told me, no big deal but scary as all hell, and actually more common than you would think. It was her first but she went on to have more, and they never stopped terrifying me in that primal way that leaves you shaken and with an adrenaline hangover for days afterward.
She stayed sick for a week, just a virus but a nasty enough one. Her fever finally broke on a surprisingly warm weekend morning, and we collectively spilled outside like a group of weary hibernators starved for the sunshine. I looked around, letting my eyes adjust to the light, and saw something move in the back corner by the shed. The lawn was that electric green it turns in the first few breaths of spring, but there was a dark spot in it. I moved closer and heard a sound like the cry of a baby.
It was a kitten, a few days old maybe at most, curled up and tiny with its eyes closed and a hint of an umbilical cord still attached. It’s mother was long gone, maybe scared off by our dog or our kids or our general volume level, and it was in rough shape. I scooped it up from the grass.
Do not get attached, I told myself, knowing this tiny curled up fit-in-your-palm of a thing didn’t have a chance, but it was already too late. I thought of what my mother had said after Gabby’s seizure, when all our people came by to love up on her with food and gifts and hugs and snuggles, “if we could only remember how much we were adored when we were young, we would never be lonely again.” I knew this baby kitty couldn’t die alone in my backyard.
So I carried him inside in my palm like an offering, settled into the couch and held him against my chest while the sounds of my finally-healthy brood playing outside floated in through the open window. He held on for a while – long enough that I felt hope start to plant seeds in my heart – and then he stopped breathing. Much like with Gabby, it took me a little while to realize anything had happened, and even longer this time to accept it. When I finally stood up, tears were streaming down my face and I could hardly breathe myself. Lost, I called my mother.
“Mom,” I managed to spit out in between my sobs, “I don’t know why I am so upset. I don’t even like cats!”
She was quiet for a minute, long enough for me to doubt my decision to call her. We were not as close as either one of us would have liked and it was stupid of me to think she would understand. But then she surprised me. “Liz,” she said, “where was that kitten when it died?”
“On my chest,” I answered, hesitant. Where was she going with this?
“And where was Gabby when she had her seizure?”
All the breath I had struggled to find came out in a rush when I made the connection, “On my chest!“
Then she did the most incredible thing. She sat there, quiet and listening, while I cried. I cried for the kitten and for Gabby and for how scared I had been and for how much I missed my mother. I cried until there were no tears left and I could hear my kids start to come back inside and I realized amazingly that I didn’t feel lonely anymore.
I don’t pretend to know why these things happened to me like this, together. I don’t know why Gabby was given back to us and the kitten was taken. All I know for sure is that it’s all connected: death and life and loss and all of the things we pull into our chest and hold there for comfort; and all of the things we have to let go of. I think maybe it’s like one of those famous paintings: up close it just looks like a bunch of random dots but when you take a few steps back, a beautiful scene emerges.
These are the dots of our lives.
When enough time passes that we can take a few steps back, in just the right light with just the right distance, they paint the kind of picture that reminds us – like my mother said – how we too were adored, and never have to feel lonely again.