My mother will be 85 next month. Her mind is sharp and her will is strong, but she is ill and tired of life, and has been dying, I feel, since my father’s death almost eleven years ago. She has breast cancer, which she does not want to treat, and barely walks. She was a doctor. Therefore, she does not see doctors. But she still lives in the large apartment she shared with my father and their last cat and insists on taking care of all her daily needs. Since the cat died – at the age of eighteen – three years ago, she lives completely alone.
For many years, from long before she retired at 73, a part of her routine has been feeding alley cats in her neighborhood. She lives in Israel where though one very rarely sees homeless dogs, homeless cats proliferate, eking their meager existence on the streets. Those who survive their first year around garbage containers of apartment houses, which are their natural food source, usually live for another two or three years, and, among them, my mother’s cats are an exception – some of them have reached the age of ten and even more. But kittens are very vulnerable, most of them die before they ever venture with their mothers on their scavenging expeditions – even cats my mother feeds at best succeed in raising one kitten out of every litter.
My mother feeds alley cats every day. When she was younger and had to leave town, she never left without delegating this responsibility to someone. She prepares their meals every morning, mixing commercial cat food, cut hot-dogs she buys on purpose, left-overs of her own meat and fish dishes, and, for the younger ones, bread soaked in milk. Until very recently, she limited the animals she fed to females and the older kittens they brought with them: tom-cats no longer supported by their mothers, she decided, would take care of themselves.
Her own condition deteriorated very significantly since her own cat died. Like the death of my father, this was a blow from which she could not recover. Walking, in particular, became very difficult. She lives on the second floor in a building without an elevator and has to go down and up several long flights of stairs each time she leaves her apartment. She also became much more sensitive to the wearing out heat and humidity, which are more or less constant there. Still, no matter how she feels and what are the conditions outside, she goes to feed her cats morning after morning after morning. I tried in vain to entice her to move in with me. When it became absolutely clear that she would not, I many time suggested that she bring home another animal. “I am a responsible person,” she would reply, “I no longer can take care of another living being. To feed alley cats once a day is the most I can now do.”
But a week ago, while on her feeding duty, she found a little kitten, maybe a month old, peaking from under the roof of the basement storage room of her building. He did not belong to any one of the cats she knew and from the trust with which he allowed her to pick him up she concluded that he was used to people and, probably, was left there on purpose by someone who did not want to keep him any longer. She brought him to the food and made sure that the other cats did not chase him away and that he ate something. Then she put him back into his hiding place, where he was at least somewhat safer than in the open on his own. During our daily trans-Atlantic phone conversation she told me about him. “Mom,” I said, “take him.” “What are you talking nonsense?” she responded irritably, “Don’t you know that I am old and ill? I could not clean after him, to teach him how to use a litter-box. If I were not ill…” The next day she told me he cried all night, not letting her fall asleep. When she came down to feed the cats, she saw his eyes were now inflamed, he was becoming sick. “I was thinking,” she said, “maybe I should take him.” “Yes, you should,” I said. “What are you talking nonsense?!” she responded again and the usual argument followed. “All right,” I said, “I won’t say anything.” “Yes,” she responded, “don’t.”
Late that evening, my brother flew in from Scotland to visit her. There are three of us – all living far away from her – and we are trying our best to spend with her every bit of free time that each of us has. The kitten was crying outside. When we talked next day, my mother was all aflutter. “You know, he lost so much weight, the little thing, and his eyes were hurting. Michael brought him home and he did not even want to eat…” Turned out, my brother called a woman, whom I once asked to visit my mother from time to time, who lives near a vet and has several cats of her own, and told her the story, and she agreed to come after work and take the kitten. In the meantime, my brother brought him to my mother’s apartment and the little guy spent there several happy hours. Several happy hours – for a month-old abandoned animal and for an 85-year-old sick woman. “If I did not bring him home then,” my brother wrote in an e-mail, “he would have died.”
My mother could not stop talking. “I tried everything. In the end he ate a bit. He only ate some cottage cheese with sour cream. But you know? He really loves cats’ food from the cans. I opened for him a can and he even roared.” “He roared, did he?” “Yes, he roared.” There was such pleasure in her voice. “And then, for a couple of hours, he slept on my neck. He was comfortable. He purred.…Of course, I was already getting attached…”
Liah Greenfeld is the author of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience