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March 14, 2002: Baby fix

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Walking into D's house is, for me, like stepping back in time. An orange tabby nearly trips over his own feet to come greet us, while a small siamese is a bit more sedate about seeing visitors. Several other cats peer at us with a marked lack of interest from shelves and around furniture. There's a puppy nearly falling all over himself with excitement because there is someone new to inspect. Under the coffee table, a kitten who has just reached the long, scrappy stage peers out at us cautiously, before skittering off into another room to inform the other cats, lurking just out of sight, of the arrival of intruders.

We are there to visit D, but the primary reason for coming this night is in the back room. She leads me back, insisting I wash my hands first before she opens the cage door. An orange tabby purrs inside, demanding head scritches and pets, and then moves aside so that we can pull out four squirming balls of indignant fuzz. They are fat and healthy, eyes just beginning to open, and still trying to make sense of their limbs. One is gray striped, another is calico, and the remaining two are differing shades of pale orange, like their mother. Their tails are tiny nubs barely two inches long, held straight out and quivering with excitement. They squeak and wiggle, and the darkest of the orange pair tries with blind determination to burrow directly into my chin.

"They're healthy," she tells me, relief evident in her voice, and perhaps only those who have fostered such small babies can truly understand why this is such an important thing to know. These babies have a mother who is feeding them, cleaning them, caring for them. She is not too sick, like so many of the cats that come into this situation. They have not displayed any signs of the normal upper respiratory infections that plague shelter cats. There is no abnormal discharge from their eyes, no inflammations to treat, no fleas, no disease. In the world of a foster home used to having to bottle-feed tiny ones this size, especially a home that is too used to little ones requiring extra care, these babies are a rare and precious exception to the rule.

We hold them against our chests for a short time, leaning back in chairs so as to provide them a stable surface to scrabble upon. The older dog insists on inspecting them - to him, all kittens are his to monitor and protect. A slender black and gray mackerel tabby winds around the chair legs, his dappled coat looking as if a master artist had carefully painted it. Another tabby - this one gray striped and barrel-chested - flops on the floor, exposing his stomach in a shameless and un-feline plea for attention.

There are times when I miss this part of fostering - the healthy cats and kittens. I miss sitting down on the floor and having a pile of kittens tumbling around and over me, attacking shoelaces and fingers and anything else that moves. I miss the rattle-purr of little ones just learning how to make the sounds, and watching tiny babies grow taller and longer, losing the soft layer of extra fuzz. And it wasn't too hard to pretend, sitting there in D's living room with a pile of two-week old kittens in my arms, that it was always this simple - just providing a home to let these abandoned animals live until they are adopted by their forever homes. Too easy to forget about everything that could and did go wrong.

We left her house, fast-forwarding to what is now, and not my past when she and I were college roommates and our house bustled with this sort of feline activity on a regular basis. We drove home to our more sedate feline horde, to let their noses work overtime with all the smells of strange cats on our clothes and shoes.

The past is sometimes nice to visit, when I am dreaming wistfully of kittens. Every once in a long while, especially when I'm in her house and surrounded by tiny noses and whiskers and paws, I toy with the idea of trying it again. But the thought always fades. I'm no longer willing or able to handle the emotional toll that came with the fostering. And so for now, I'll leave the past where it belongs - in the back room at my friend's house, where a mother cat lies on her side, curled around an uneven pile of kittens who are still too young to understand just how lucky they are.

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