I have been on vacation in Sicily for the last week and, as always, I am struck by the stark contrast between the raw beauty and sensuality of the place and a sense of disconnectedness between the people and one another, the land, the public spaces, and the natural resources. Here, as where I live in New York City and anywhere else I have traveled, we seem to forget how we are connected to one another, how our actions and words have consequences, our inherent interdependence. This contrast is magnified by an awareness of current suffering – developments in Syria, the fall of Detroit, soaring obesity and diabetes and cancer rates, and any number of issues that raise my anxiety levels to the point of overwhelm, helplessness, and hopelessness.
Oftentimes, when I reach such a point of delusion, something happens to shift my awareness just slightly, and to cause my heart to open rather than to shut down. That something happened last night.
My boyfriend, his cousin, his cousin’s cousin, and I met for a late-night drink (a non-alcoholic bitter for me) in Messina. Afterwards, we went for a little stroll along the water to see the restaurant where my boyfriend’s cousin works as a chef. It was late and I was ready to go home but we continued to walk out on a little stretch of the dock that allowed access to the boat slips. On our way, we encountered a beautiful cat, whose name I learned was Romeo. At that point in the evening, about 2 am, when my Italian language skills had reached a point of fatigue, feline seemed the only language I could understand. But I hesitated to reach out to him because my boyfriend had commented just two days earlier on the fact that I was more interested in the stray cats in Syracusa’s archeological park than I was in the 2500+-year-old ruins.
As we came back from the boat slips, we were greeted again not only by Romeo, but also by about 10 other cats, including kittens as young as 4 and 8 weeks, the parents probably not more than a year old themselves. It has always been difficult for me to handle outdoor cats. I understand that felines gingerly walk the fine line between wild and domesticated, that they probably fulfill their cat-ness by surviving outdoors. Still I always want to take them in, to give them a home. And I can understand how people become animal hoarders, how they just want to save one more. We stayed with the kittens for a few minutes. In my head I was rationalizing how the mild temperature, abundance of fish, and mostly friendly caretakers contributed to a life worth living for these homeless creatures.
Just as we were about to leave, I heard a cry. At first I wasn’t sure if it was human or animal. I walked to the limits of the dock, where a gate prevented me from going any further, and saw two of the older cats looking down into the water, where the concrete dropped off steeply. The cries grew louder and more desperate; it was clear they came from one of the kittens. I didn’t want to hear the cries. I didn’t want to feel what I felt when I realized a kitten had fallen into the water below, with no way to climb back to safety, that its mother was looking on helplessly, much the way I was, gripping the gate. Then the cries stopped.
A kitten just drowned, I said to the guys. They protested, especially my boyfriend who would rather protect me from any upsetting thoughts than allow me to think about an animal’s suffering. It just drowned, I said again, and I just stood here. For a moment, I felt a surprising sense of relief wash over me – relief at the idea that whatever suffering a small animal was experiencing had just ended abruptly. But then I heard it again and saw movement in the water. The kitten was swimming away from where it had fallen, further out into the water, but in the direction of the walkway we had access to.
As I realized what was happening, I turned around and expected to find the guys standing behind me motionless, exchanging impatient looks, as I was help rapt by the drama of an insignificant being unfolding before me. But instead, I found that one of them had stripped off his shirt, was prepared to dive, and was scaling the fence that separated us from the drowning kitten; another had gone in search of a net to draw it safely from the water; and my boyfriend preceded me down the walkway in the direction of the struggling kitten.
I got down on hands and knees and crawled out on the walkway, trying to call it toward me, seeing how it could barely keep its head above water, and that it was clearly torn between the terrors of the water about to swallow it whole and the giants clamoring to get at it. Something allowed it to come closer, though, perhaps the current or its own last efforts, and my boyfriend was able to extend himself to the point of toppling into the water, to catch a few hairs on the edge of the kitten’s foot and draw it in. He handed it to one of the others, who lifted it out and brought it to safety.
The kitten was limp and appeared to have already drowned. Some of the water it had swallowed was coming out of it’s mouth in a foam and it had defecated in that final way the body has of letting go. One of the guys held the motionless kitten with its head down so the rest of the water could come out. But it was gone. Dead, I thought, and again felt the relief of the end of its suffering. At least it didn’t get swept out to sea, I thought. At least we did what we could. At least we tried.
The dead kitten lay on its side, sodden, still, and not weighing more than a pound. I stroked its small body, and tried to imagine that there was some movement or warmth coming from it, when I heard a small cry, and saw a little movement of its head. By that point, one of the guys returned with some paper towel and we began to dry it, to massage it back to life, to clean up the mess of dying. As the little thing regained consciousness, it loudly protested the vigorous massage. The other cats came closer than they had earlier, perhaps no longer viewing us as a threat, to get a look at the commotion.
I watched as the other kittens played, tackling one another and rolling around by the edge. This happens every day, I thought. One of them falls into the water and drowns, or gets too close to the street, or crosses the path of someone who has forgotten his or her basic goodness. And life goes on. I felt helpless and thought, There are too many to save. There is too much suffering in this world. What is the point of trying to help when there is no way to succeed?
The kitten continued to be gently but firmly reinvigorated, this little thing that perhaps no one would have missed. We left him loosely wrapped in some paper towel, a safe distance from the edge of the dock, so that his mother could attend to him without onlookers. Maybe he survived the night. Or maybe the experience was too much for him and his small body gave out after we left. I don’t know for sure. The mixed emotions of knowing we had done what we could and recognizing that his little life was now back in the hands of a harsher reality weighed heavily on my heart.
Rather than a sense of relief at his rescue, I felt pulled to let go of hope for a happy ending and also a small sense of having done something important. I could have pretended not to hear the cries. The guys could have remained unmoved, emotionally and physically. But we all chose to make a difference in a small life by allowing ourselves to feel something. Holding these mixed feelings simultaneously is a tricky thing. In the end I was left with the confidence that it still matters to try, to make an effort, however small and seemingly insignificant. That many small efforts could lead to something greater. That we can always try to be the person who would save a drowning kitten in some small way every day.