An observation on children, animals and survival
| Last spring, after 20+ years of practicing law, I became a New York City Teaching Fellow. I now teach fourth grade in a "hard to staff" district in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. In many ways, this has been the hardest year of my professional life; certainly it has been the most emotionally draining, and I keep getting congratulated for surviving it. But this isn't about my survival.
Most people would say that I live alone, but I happen to be a "cat lady". I have certain limits, of course; I won't have more than four indoors, and they're all spayed or neutered. (I know that sounds like no limit at all to some of you but, believe me, it stands between me and total insanity.) On the other hand, I don't seem to have any limit on the number of strays I'll feed outdoors, and my kids are used to seeing me with a liberal sprinkling of cat hair on my clothes. Still, my friends seem to love me anyway.
About a week ago or so, I stopped on my way out of the house to feed a feral cat I call Sparky. I've been feeding him since his mother used to sit in my kitchen window, washing Sparky and his sister. There were about five cats calling my backyard home then, but Sparky is the only one left. At some point, Sparky seems to have dislocated his right hip, but he moved pretty well on three legs.
On this particular morning, he barely made it in to my yard when I called. He was now limping on his left foreleg as well and, when he got close, I could see that something had gouged his right eye. His face was black with dried blood, and a milky translucent surface I'm sure was his eyeball was visible through the top of his eyelid. "Oh, Sparky!" I reached for him, but he backed away hissing violently. I couldn't get near him, all I could do was put down food for him, then back away so he would approach the dish. I thought about trapping him, but I frankly don't have the hundreds of dollars my vet will charge, and the public clinics will simply put him to sleep. That might be kindest, but I don't think he wants to die. Cats know when they're dying, and they hide quietly to do it in peace. Sparky is still fighting to live.
I'm telling you about this because Sparky is so much like some of the children we teach. They come to us with horrifying injuries, abused, neglected, needy, fighting to live, but unable to trust us. If we try to touch them, they hiss and scratch, and they have no idea how much they hurt us when they do. It's not personal; it's just survival for them. All we can do is put nourishment before them and yearn, heartsick, to give them more.
Sparky comes when I call him, and he somehow manages to navigate the fallen branches, dilapidated bicycles and chicken wire fences that separate the backyards on my block, He's a tough little thing, but a few mornings later he seemed weaker and thinner than usual. His right eye was covered by a yellowish dome of scab and other substances, and I was sure the wound was infected. Animals clean their wounds well, but he can't reach this one. With the infection so close to his brain, I suspect he won't survive this. Still he comes when I call, and although he hisses at me, he still seems to know that my backyard is a place of safety and that, when I call, he can come and get food.
I cried for Sparky that morning, the way I sometimes cry for my more damaged kids. I do what I can, but, for a lot of them, I know I may have to just watch them slowly die, feeding them, and feeling worse than useless. But, as I keep hoping Sparky will let me touch him before he gets too sick to save, I hope that some morning, I'll be able to touch a child and give him what he really needs.
In the meantime, all I can do is keep putting out food and keep the Bactine handy for the scratches.
A couple of weeks have gone by, and Sparky still waits outside my back door every morning for me to put out food. What I thought was something covering his eye turns out to have been the eyeball itself, swollen out of its socket. Amazingly, the swelling has gone down, and his eyeball has re-seated itself in his head, which must be a lot less painful. His coat is looking less dirty and ratty and I realize that he is going to survive this. He still hisses at me, and he won't let me touch him, he's half-blind and can only walk on two of his legs, but he's going to live and function.
I still wish I had the money to fix all of his wounds, but I suspect that if he had to hunt or search for his food it might have been too much for him, so even if I couldn't do all that I wanted, maybe I was able to do just enough to make the difference between death and survival. That's cold comfort, but it's enough to make feeding him the most important thing I do every morning before I leave for school.
And the possibilty of making that small difference to a child makes going to school the most important thing I've done in my life.