By Janet Carpenter
They called him Cry-Baby. And he was. You could hear the pitiful noise from two rooms away.
My son and I headed for the stainless-steel cage in the front room that held two identical kittens. Inside were beautiful tiny littermates, mirror images of one another with their round, little “apple heads” and big, sparkling eyes; the only difference being that the girl was a striped-gray tabby; her brother was orange. My mother, on the other hand, was drawn to the loud wailing in the other room...the room in the back, filled with empty cages and carriers, a dim-lit and depressing room that held the Cry-Baby, waiting to be gassed with the next round of sad cases.
As my son and I cooed over the perfect little siblings in the front room, I heard my mom’s determined voice say, “This is the one we need...this one in here.” Curiosity got the best of us. My son and I followed her voice around the corner to see what she was talking about. On the front of her shirt, literally clinging for dear life, was a lean, white, juvenile male cat with the bright blue eyes of a Siamese. “Well,” I thought, “that explains the verbal propensity.” The kitten’s torso was covered in a sprinkling of orange fur, accenting his shoulders and hips. The bright orange stripes on his limp tail hanging down below my mother’s waist, a dead give-away that he was not pure Siamese...that there had been a tabby in the woodpile somewhere in his lineage.
Mom had opened his cage and let him out; he held on to her heart with both hands. By then a worker at the Humane Society came out from a farther back room and stopped, taking in the scene. She was wrapped in a strange apron and wore thick rubber work-gloves. “Oh,” she said when she saw Mom holding the cat, “I guess you found Cry-Baby. That’s what we all call him. He’s been here a while, and all he ever does is cry. I came out because it’s the first time he’s ever been quiet.” The worker then tried to lift the cat’s slender body off my mother to put him back in the cage. The cat held on tight. The worker gave up briefly with a resigned sigh and said, “Well, he’s next, if you know what I mean. We need to get him back in the cage...unless, you’d like to adopt him. But he really is a cry-baby. He just never shuts up, and nobody would want that.”
“We’ll take him,” said my mom with a firm resolve, “and the other two kittens in the other room. I’ll pay for them all right now and we can take them home with us.”
“Oh,” said the surprised worker. She removed her thick rubber gloves used to wrangle cats into the gas chamber. “Well, you can adopt them today, but we can only release them after they’ve been fixed.”
“Really? Because we’ve gotten cats here in the past and we usually get to take them home with a coupon or something so we can get them fixed at the vet.”
“Yeah, that must’ve been a while ago; we don’t do that anymore. We used to, but too many people weren’t following through on the spay/neuter appointments.” She shook her head. “Now we keep the cats here, make the appointments, and you pick them up from the vet after the surgery to take them home.”
“Oh,” my mom said, warily, “and how long does that take? I mean I want to pay for them and adopt them today. There won’t be any mistakes or misunderstandings that they are ours, right?” My mom eyed the worker in her apron holding her thick gloves in her hands.
“We will take good care of them. You can pick them up at the vet in a couple of days...they’ll be fine here in the meantime. In fact, I will put all three together in a big cage so they can get used to each other before they go home with you.”
“Okay, then. Let’s do the paperwork.” Mom looked down at her clinging companion. “But first, we have to get this guy to let go of me. I don’t think you have a cage big enough for me to be included.”
I helped Mom get the kitty to relax his claws, and I briefly got to hold and pet Cry-Baby before putting him back in his cage. There was a desperate, sad look in his blue eyes. I just knew he thought that once again he had been rejected by possible parents and the possibility of freedom. He began his loud, pathetic lament as we left the building and headed for the office.
We were all nervous in the office that somehow, something would screw-up and the teenaged Cry-Baby and two kittens would never be ours. We were assured we would be able to pick them up in a few days from the vet. The office people gave us multiple reassurances the kitties would be fine.
The very next day on my way to work I stopped at the shelter in Kea’au to visit the kitties. True to their word, the facility had all three cats together in a large cage filled with towels, blankets, and food and water. I took each kitty out and held them one at a time, telling them it would be a couple more days before they would be coming home with us to stay. I also checked to make sure they hadn’t messed up, and to my surprise I was told that Cry-Baby had been quiet and settled when they put the three kitties together. I left smiling, knowing everyone was finally happy.
We got the call the next day - but it wasn’t the call we were anticipating from the vet, or the call we were dreading about an error at the shelter. Because the female kitten was so tiny and young, there was only one vet who could spay her with the skill required. So, we had to wait an entire month for her to get to the proper age and weight to do the surgery. Did we want to go ahead and get the boys fixed and bring them home, or wait a month and do all the kitties together? A month seemed like a long time...a prison sentence, in my mind, but at least if we waited, they would have each other.
So, every day on my commute from Volcano to Hilo and back for work, I would stop to visit the three little inmates; holding them and reassuring them that they were not abandoned, not forgotten, and certainly not unloved. On weekends when I didn’t have to work but the shelter was open, the whole family went to see the three in Kea’au; not unlike visitation day in a real prison I would imagine. We saw other kitties come and go, some to loving homes and others to the back room. We wished we could take them all. We almost adopted a dog. The humane shelter is a dangerous place. It’s hard not to fall in love with every animal there.
But we were devoted to our little family. My son named the soon-to-be new additions: the juvenile Siamese was named Mel because of his blue eyes (my son was a Mel Gibson fan at the time); the orange male kitten was named George; and the little gray sister-cat, Fran. It was Frannie’s tiny fragile female parts holding up the show, as they say, and in her intuitive cat way, I believe she knew she was special and held all the power over the other two. Her cat-ti-tude never changed for the next 14 years.
Finally, the day arrived for the surgery. I had seen the kitties almost every day for a month, and now we were picking them up from the vet and bringing them home! My dad drove. My son sat in the front seat with little Frannie on his lap, still groggy from the anesthesia. I sat in the back seat with bright-eyed baby George; and Mel, ever the curious teenager, sat like an Egyptian statute on the console between the two front seats observing the big world around him all the way home.
We decided to keep all three kitties together upstairs in my son’s room to not overwhelm them in the big house. This way they could acclimate to their new surroundings and comfo each other. My son had a bunk bed that would provide climbing and entertainment in a safe environment while the kitties healed and explored their new home.
One evening I came home late from work, exhausted, but never-the-less attacked by my son with hugs at the door and a plea for help with his homework. My dad added to the chaos with his verbalized frustrations of trying to figure out the new math in his attempt to help with homework, and my mom struggled in the kitchen to make a tasty meal from previous leftovers. In organizing things and getting a semblance of order to the madness of my life as a single parent, I forgot to ask how the kitties were doing. When I did...everybody looked blank. As individual problems took precedence over the cats upstairs, no one had made the time to check on them all day.
With a heavy sigh of acceptance of my added responsibilities to this new reality, I trudged up the stairs to check on the kitties. I opened the door to a scene I’ll never forget. On the bottom bunk was Mel, stretched out. Baby George was nursing Mel’s tummy with grabby little paws kneading for non-existent milk. Under Mel’s neck and sucking on the Siamese’s long “Fu-Manchu” chin-hairs was Frannie, self-soothing with her tiny paws kneading in a similar rhythm to her sibling. Mel’s bright blue eyes connected with mine immediately as if to say, You think you’ve had a long day?...This is what I’ve been putting up with for a month!
We bonded that day, as only single mothers can...the sacrifice, the patience, the love. And from that day forward I called him Mother Mel. (I also promised that I would never tell a soul about our shared secret.) He raised many kittens since...always the steady, level-headed elder of the indoor cats. His nurturing nature guided him throughout, and in turn he taught every single cat we had how to trill, chirp, and verbalize like a Siamese. Cry-Baby indeed.
Mother Mel passed away Wednesday night in my arms after 19 years together. We spent the day enjoying the sunshine, the breezes coming in through the window, the warmth of a heating pad on our old bones, and a playlist of his favorite Queen songs.
But the lesson I learned from Mel was profound: sometimes the squeaky wheel doesn’t get the grease...sometimes it gets the gas chamber. But if you find something you want, something life-changing, something worth fighting for...you hang on for dear life with both hands and never let go.