Sometimes art, or at least my books, imitates something in my life. And sometimes my life imitates my books. That’s what I’ve been experiencing lately. In my recently released novella, The Darcys of Derbyshire, I wrote about the courtship of Darcy’s parents, including this discussion of things one feels impelled to do:
“Lieutenant Darcy,” she said with amusement, “this is all very flattering, but did you not hear a word I said earlier? I am marrying another man.”
His charming smile brightened his face once again. “I heard you perfectly well. I simply did not accept it.”
“It is not up to you whether to accept it or not!” she snapped. If only he would stop pretending she had a choice in the matter. Did he suppose she liked the idea of being married off like some sort of chattel?
He halted and turned to look at her, laying his free hand on hers as it rested on his arm. “Lady Anne, I cannot and will not stop you from marrying him if that is what you truly desire, but I also must act on what I know in my heart to be right. I do not know how to explain it, but have you never experienced the sense that something must be done, regardless of what difficulties stand in your way?”
“My family would tell you I experience that far too often!”
“Then you know what I mean. I would be very curious, I must admit, as to what sort of thing you might have felt you had to do.”
Fortunately, I didn’t feel impelled to marry someone who was already betrothed. No, I just felt impelled to adopt a dying kitten.
It all started when my son’s beloved cat Fiji, his constant companion and his best friend, died unexpectedly in October. My son was devastated, so we needed the distraction of new kittens. I quickly found a pet rescue group, Passion 4 Paws, with four litters of kittens available for adoption.
My son and I looked at online pictures and descriptions of their kittens for hours. And hours. And hours. It was the only thing holding him together. My daughter from half-way across the country looked at them for hours too. And both of them picked out Snowdrop as the kitten they wanted. The only problem was she had a grade VI heart murmur – that’s a heart murmur you can feel just by touching the kitten’s side – suggesting congenital heart problems. She was due to have an echocardiogram to assess the damage, but I didn’t want to put the kids through loving and losing another cat so quickly, no matter how adorable Snowdrop looked. When I tried to steer them away from her, my son said, “I think maybe Snowdrop needs us,” which of course just about broke my heart. He has some issues about anyone with a poor prognosis and a touching faith in miracles, which you can read about here.
So I said no Snowdrop, and off we went to meet the other kittens. Stephanie was fostering 19 kittens at the time, mostly rescues from a cat hordeing situation. After a regretful glance at Snowdrop, Brian immediately zeroed in on Satsuki, an extremely tiny calico kitten, the runt of her litter. For me, the most important thing is to get a cat who is affectionate, so I went to the an empty corner of the room to see which kitten would come to me for attention. You guessed it. Snowdrop. Her heart murmur was obvious as soon as I picked her up. Her entire side shuddered with it. But Snowdrop started to purr, with a purr even louder than the murmur. I petted her and regretfully put her down so I could look at the other kittens, but she followed me everywhere .
In the meantime, Brian picked out the two kittens he wanted, and my husband had fallen in love with a different one. In the interest of family peace, we agreed to take all three, which was pretty crazy to start out with. We took the 3 kittens downstairs and put them in a carrier. Snowdrop followed me, and then kept pawing at the carrier trying to get into it. Yes, a cat trying to get into a carrier! Rather desperately, in fact. She might as well have held up a sign begging us to take her. Did I mention that Snowdrop is also completely adorable? She’s the sweetest kitten imaginable. If you looked up ‘cute kitten’ in the dictionary, there would be a picture of Snowdrop next to it. Anyway, even I could read the signs, so finally I told the Stephanie to call me when they knew the echocardiogram results, and we’d think about whether we could take her as well. It was heartbreaking leaving her behind, even though taking on 4 kittens would be totally nuts.
The echocardiogram results were very bad. A miracle she had been born alive, another miracle she had survived to 10 weeks. Multiple heart defects and already moderate to severe heart failure; nothing could be done. Prognosis: grim, most likely death within 2-3 weeks, certainly by Thanksgiving. The fact she was alive at all was a testament to her incredible will to live.
Now, with all the problems in the world, it was probably silly for me to get so worked up about whether to give a home to a dying kitten, but like Lieutenant James Darcy, I couldn’t let go of it. Finally I decided if we took her, it would hurt when she died, but if we didn’t take her, I’d feel bad forever for leaving this affectionate kitten in a shelter for her last weeks of life. My idea was we’d just let her play with the others and try not to get too attached to her.
She developed severe diarrhea on the way to our house. We thought it might be stress, but within a couple of days, she was close to dying from dehydration. I couldn’t let this poor kitten who had survived massive heart defects die from diarrhea, even if she only had a couple of weeks to live. I made her special food several times a day, sat with her while she ate, gave her meds and supplements, and monitored her closely. She was with me pretty much every minute – so much for not getting attached. Then our two old cats fell ill after eating contaminated cat food. Both almost died, and it was touch and go for a few weeks. By the time they finally stabilized, it was almost Thanksgiving, the deadline we’d been given on how long Snowdrop could possibly survive – and Snowdrop was doing fine, apart from her recurrent diarrhea. At one of those 3 AM moments when I was hand-feeding the cats, it occurred to me that people in heart failure are given diuretics to cause mild dehydration and take the stress off their hearts. Here I had Snowdrop who was in heart failure and dehydrated by diarrhea – and living beyond the expected lifespan. I decided to take her to a veterinary cardiologist and see if diuretics might give her a little more time.
The cardiologist did a very thorough echocardiogram. For those with some medical knowledge, she found a large ventral septic defect, mitral stenosis, tricuspid valve failure, severe dilation of everything except the right atrium, weakness in the wall of the left atrium, pulmonary artery stenosis, and severe pulmonary hypertension. 5 different substantial defects. Translation: very, very, very bad. The good news was that for unknown reasons, cats with severe congenital heart defects who survive the first couple of months often live for a year or two. That may not sound like much, but when I was waking up every morning wondering if she was still alive, a year or two sounded really good!
So what does this have to do with Christmas? When we expected Snowdrop to live for 2 weeks, my son became fixated on the idea that we should somehow keep her alive long enough to celebrate one Christmas. I thought he was setting himself up to fail, and kept telling him she wasn’t going to make it that long and that love wouldn’t be enough to cure her heart. He refused to listen. Turns out he was right about how long she could live, as evidenced by this picture of all four kittens on Christmas morning. I was wrong on another front as well. The cardiologist said one thing working in Snowdrop’s favor is that she purrs whenever we pay attention to her. The vibration from cats’ purrs, it seems, helps heart muscle grow stronger and heal. So it turns out that even if love and attention can’t cure her heart, it’s been enough to give her some happy months and us some special memories of our little white Christmas miracle.