As life unfolds, we never really understand in the moment how one event will later affect another.
For instance, I never imagined that the first foster cat I brought into my home would become a permanent fixture. Nor did I know that her presence would be the proverbial straw that broke the back of my rocky five-year marriage.
Maybe it was her wary electric-green eyes peering through the slats of the carrier, directed toward me, as we drove her home that afternoon that first triggered something in my heart. Or perhaps it was the fact that I identified with her struggle as a young single mom who had found herself in less than desirable circumstances. Anyhow, as fate would have it, once she entered my home, she would not leave.
Even my journey as a foster parent wasn’t really something that I had planned in advance. When I initially signed up as a volunteer, I saw myself working directly in the shelter, not bringing animals home.
I pursued the volunteer work for two main reasons. One, after adopting our first cat, my teenaged daughter Zinnia and I developed a passion for the plight of homeless felines. Then later, my daughter started getting into trouble at school, and I thought volunteering might be a good way for us to reconnect and spend some valuable time together while doing something for a cause we both believed in.
My husband, on the other hand, was not eager from the outset. I think he was afraid of exactly what would later happen: that we would end up adopting more cats. We had four at the time and were struggling financially, so his concern was valid in that sense.
In my moral code, my desire to get my daughter out of trouble by getting involved in something larger than ourselves trumped my husband’s worry. After discovering that Zinnia had been abusing drugs and alcohol, I felt that her life was at stake. Something had to change. Because of her interest in homeless animals, I thought volunteering at the shelter would be a good solution.
As we went through the volunteer orientation, there were a number of jobs I was interested in, but fostering was not high on my list. However, the shelter’s priority was trying to recruit more foster homes, so I checked off the fostering box on the list of activities that I was willing to do.
Wouldn’t you know it that the first job the shelter selected us for was to become foster parents?
My husband was not happy, but at least he made that first trip to the shelter with me to pick up the mama cat who needed a safe place to nurse her babies until they were big enough for adoption.
My young son, Justin, named the mama cat Starry on the trip home. She had four kittens, who he named Louie, Fendi, Tiger, and Cookie Chanel.
This was my family’s first experience caring for kittens. They would be housed in my daughter’s walk-in closet and their care would be primarily her responsibility. I expected my husband to check on them during the day while I was at work, as he was the stay-at-home parent.
The kitten family was sweet but very messy. They tracked poop all over my daughter’s blankets, floor, and shoes, which were lying around in her room.
We had to do laundry almost every day.
"It’s costing a lot of money to wash so much laundry," my husband said one day.
"Zinnia got home late from school and I had to clean the litter box," he said another day.
As time progressed, my husband’s dislike of the kitty family increased. Starry came down with a nasty eye infection, which required medication. Zinnia and I tried to apply it, but Starry fought so hard that we asked my husband to help. When he picked her up, she screamed, clawed, scratched, bit, and hissed like a wild ninja woman fighting for her life. My husband hated her from that moment on.
Starry wasn’t the best mother. We often found her perched vertically in the closet, hiding from her babies. She’d let them nurse, but it appeared that the experience was uncomfortable for her. Mothering was something that had happened to her, not a choice she made. She would go along with it, but it wasn’t really what she wanted.
Starry had no desire to receive physical affection from us. She hid most of the time, perched atop boxes in the closet or under my daughter’s bed. If a resident cat ventured in the room, Starry would appear from nowhere and start hissing and growling to chase them out at the speed of light. She was more like a ninja than a mom.
As the kittens grew, the time to return them to the shelter neared. Oddly enough, Starry started to sit near my daughter on her bed.
The kittens were well-adjusted, playful, and healthy. Starry, however, was still battling her eye infection. She was all black. She did not want to be petted. And after living with us for a couple of months, she was just starting to show signs of comfort. What would returning her to the shelter do for her?
"Can we keep Starry? Please?" I begged my husband one day.
"No way. We have enough cats already," he said.
The day to return the family to the shelter came. As I loaded them into my minivan, I started to cry. I knew the kittens would be okay, but what about Starry?
While I was at the shelter, I completed an application to adopt Starry against my husband’s wishes. And I didn’t tell him. I didn’t really think the application would be approved because we already had four cats.
Around 2:30 p.m., I received a call notifying me that my application was, indeed, approved. My thoughts were "Oh shit" and "Yay!" simultaneously.
My husband discovered Starry in my daughter’s room a few days later, after our son ventured in and asked, "How did Starry get back home?"
The very qualities I was drawn to in Starry, her honesty and willingness to express herself, were exactly those that my husband despised. I realized that the very thing I most appreciated about her (and animals in general) was the lack of inhibition, to be totally real in every moment. They do not lie. If they like you, they show it. If they are mad at you, you know it.
Six months later my husband left. He could not get over his contempt for Starry and whatever it was she represented to him.
Meanwhile, my daughter quit using drugs and alcohol. The volunteering had the effect I had hoped for.
I came to understand that the only relationships that have any integrity are those in which all parties are honest and open through good times and bad. It does not mean everyone is nice all the time, or always easy to be around. But it does mean we work through the fluctuations in life together. There has to be a give and take. Animals seem to understand this. You feed them, keep them safe, pet them, and they are loyal to you forever.
People, however, are more complicated. Their needs and desires are not always expressed openly. Sometimes they say one thing, but their actions show another. Some people are comfortable always being on the receiving end, with very little to give. But an unbalanced life can only last for so long before things start to deteriorate.
I adopted Starry about a year ago. Gone is the reclusive, scared, anxious ninja. In her place is a confident, playful, social, affectionate, and beautiful black cat who is always near me when I am at home.
My daughter got her GED and just started her first paid job. She is happy and healthy. I didn’t expect that the intervention I’d planned for my daughter would end my marriage, but I couldn’t be happier with the outcome.
Has a cat ever changed your life? Tell us your story in the comments!
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About the author: Kezia Willingham works for Head Start by day and is a freelance writer on the side. She lives with her family, which includes 6 cats and 4 dogs, in the Pacific Northwest. Her writing has appeared in xoJane, Literary Mama, and the Seattle Times. You can follow her on Twitter.