A Purr for Help: How A Rescued Cat Opened My Heart

A Purr for Help: How A Rescued Cat Opened My Heart

Illustration: Ellen Rooney

Nearly broke and pessimistic about the world, journalist Jane Ganahl heart and mind were opened by one abandoned cat.

I glance at my watch quickly, at the risk of spilling some of the Sancerre in my glass. It’s almost 10 p.m., and I’m doing the sleep-math in my head. If I go to bed by 11, I’ll get only seven hours before I have to wake up and prepare the traps. Oberon, Ariel and Puck will be waiting for me on the sidewalk as they have these last two months since emerging, blinking tiny eyes, from the depths of the garbage-filled ravine where they were born, seeking their daily meal. They trust me now, and it’s time...

“Jane rescues cats! Don’t you, Jane?”

My friend Ellen raises her martini glass in my direction with a smile, and the mention of my name snaps me back to the present. She is an author of some renown, and we are surrounded by other A-listers at a San Francisco fundraiser for the literary festival I produce. Armistead smiles and the corners of his eyes crinkle with mischief.

“You’re too young and hip to be a crazy cat lady!” he quips.

The others laugh, but I feel a flush of embarrassment. “Not just yet,” I reply with a wry smile. “But that time is coming, and soon. When you see me showing up at these things wearing my bathrobe, stage an intervention.”

There’s no point in trying to explain myself. It’s impossible, in this setting and in most others, to translate verbally what has happened to my life in the last two years. How my smoothly running life’s been upended and complicated — but also enormously enriched — starting with just one small act of kindness. How insane it was to have six cats in my home — three of my own and three fosters — during my daughter’s recent wedding. And how, by doing this work, the “eyes of my eyes are opened,” to quote the great e.e. cummings.

So, as usual, I wordlessly collect my things and tiptoe toward the door. This time, I’m intercepted by a woman I know a little through publishing circles. She says she wants to know more about my avocation. “I’ve fed strays near my house for years,” she says. “But I don’t have the time to trap them, get them fixed, find them homes. How are you able to be that committed?”

I pause. No one has ever asked me this. “I don’t know,” I say with a smile. “I just can’t see suffering and not do something about it. Maybe I’m a Buddhist in the making?”

I want to finish the thought, but fearing an outburst of florid emotion, instead I say my goodnights. I want to say that I do it because when I rescue a cat, knowing it will transform from a sad, parasite-ridden, emaciated scarecrow into a healthy, silken-haired angel with the promise of a date on someone’s lap, it makes me feel like the world’s best gardener. I can take a neglected rosebush and make it bloom anew.

And in turn, despite the cost and disappointments and setbacks, I have bloomed as well. My life has never been fuller, more gratifying, or more full of grace and love. My spirituality, long buried by a too-busy life and misplaced priorities, has pushed its way into my everyday consciousness. Where my version of bliss was once getting a good book review, now it’s coaxing a first purr from a long-feral puss.

I blame this entire thing on one plucky and beat-up old kitty who appeared at the front door of my Northern California coastal home almost two years ago around midnight, meowing indignantly. When I brought it food (how could I not?) and put a blanket on the chair by my front door, I thought the wayfarer would be gone in the morning. Instead, there it was, sunning cozily on the blanket and waiting for its next handout. This kitty was a mess: flea-infested, scrawny, and with ears tattered by battles in the wild. It was also clearly not a feral cat, but someone’s pet gone astray: happy to be petted, and it even purred.

I would have sent it packing by refusing food, but something about it touched me. Maybe I recognized a fellow survivor?

I was, at that moment, totally broke. After a 2006 newspaper layoff, I’d run my 401K dry. A book I’d spent a year writing did not earn me a dime, and I was looking at declaring personal bankruptcy. But when I realized that my new friend needed medical attention, I did not hesitate.

“Does it have a name?” the local veterinarian asked me. Being a huge San Francisco Giants fan, I had an idea: “Well, it’s either Buster or Posey, depending on how the exam goes.” The vet smiled. “It looks like you have a Posey girl,” she said.

The vet also diagnosed her with inflammatory bowel disease, which would explain why she was wasting away, and treated her for fleas and worms, which she had aplenty. When I puzzled as to why such a lovely critter would end up on my doorstep, the vet’s reply stunned me: “I imagine she was dumped in the bushes near your house by someone who didn’t want to deal with her medical issues. It happens all the time.”

And then she refused payment. Soon after that, other small miracles started to happen. My father, never forthcoming with money, offered to help me out of debt. One friend offered a teaching job, another an editing gig. When I shared this with my friend Carole Simone, a Palo Alto spiritual coach, she smiled. “Don’t you see? You rescued Posey, and Posey is you.”

After doing everything for myself and everyone in my sphere since my divorce nearly two decades ago, to be on the receiving end of generosity was simply overwhelming.

In my doting care, Posey improved rapidly over the weeks from a scrawny mess to a beautiful tabby with rich fur and bright eyes. And as she transformed, so did I. My Type A routine faltered: I began to find it unsatisfying to spend every waking moment at the computer or on the social rounds; instead, I found excuses to hang out with Posey in the spare bedroom, reading a book or watching TV while she curled up on my lap. My heart, solidly closed after innumerable unsatisfying relationships and years of fiscal disasters, began to open.

When my friend Wendy, who had lost her senior kitty months earlier, adopted Posey, I cried, before collecting myself to reassess. “What a wonderful experience!” I thought. “I’m so glad that worked out so beautifully and that the karma was so ... instant! What a nice chapter in my life!”

Little did I know that once the door to my spiritual heart had been kicked open, it would refuse to close. Soon I was seeing feral kitties everywhere — including a small colony in a deep ravine right across the street that I’d never noticed.

I met a small but dedicated group of women and learned the ropes: how to lay trap, how to rehabilitate cats with medical care and spay/neutering, and how to love them unconditionally so they bloom like sweet roses.

After Posey there was Rufus, another abandoned pet, who was so terrified at first that he would pee himself; now he is the light of the life of a woman with a serious illness. There was Tio, a huge and fluffy gray fellow who showed up at my door, ears bleeding from a fight with a raccoon. Once I took him inside and got him fixed up, he was an instant lap cat, and he is now the “baby” of a friend who had been in grief over the loss of her old kitty. There was Pippin, a fluffy gray-and-white kitten from the ravine who is now sleeping on the bed of an autistic child.

In the best sense, this work can make me feel like a distributor of love.

In all, I’ve taken in 15 kitties in the last two years and found homes for all but those few who were too wild to tame. I cry for joy when I catch them and cry for sorrow when they leave me to be adopted: remarkable, as I’ve never been a crier. But when the heart is this full, it must overflow.

And it must make inquiries. Always curious about Buddhism, I did some reading. The Buddha taught four noble truths: life is suffering, suffering has a cause, the end of suffering should be the goal of life, and our days should be spent trying to remove the cause of suffering. It resonated deeply with me — as did the words of Deepak Chopra about the importance of giving of oneself in a volunteer capacity: “The less you open your heart to others, the more your heart suffers.”

I plowed through the wonderful memoir A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by journalist Steven Kotler, a powerful mélange of philosophical reflection and first-person storytelling, and found great edification therein. Kotler, like the radical animal rights advocate Peter Singer (Animal Liberation) suggests that animals are our equals, though he admits he has no idea what would happen if humans adopted this stance. “I only know what the scorecard says: that every other time we’ve tried equality the results have been spectacular.”

I began to feel increasingly alienated from friends whose edges were hard and minds were closed: when I left a dinner party abruptly after the trash talk turned to a friend of mine, I knew there were probably mutterings about what has happened to Jane? But I didn’t care.

I asked Carole Simone what she thought, and she said, “Your fear level has gone down, but your trust level has gone up. You’re someone who has gone through a lot of phases, but you’ve never been softer.”

As someone who knew me during the dark days, Simone even suggested I had found my heart’s calling. “You needed something to propel you out of your survival story, Jane,” she said. “It wasn’t working for you. You didn’t know how powerful you are on a universal level. Animals are the healers. And through animals, you can help heal others.”

Then she recommended that I seek help from my “spirit guides” — something I always doubted existed. I told her I’d try but wasn’t sure how to do it.

The next morning, I woke up with these words in my head: “Where there is hatred, let me sow love. … Where there is darkness, light. … Where there is sadness, joy.”

I recalled that it was a prayer that was spoken in church when I was a child, but when I Googled the words, my jaw dropped. It was the prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. When I called Simone to tell her, she chuckled. “I’d say you have an ally,” she said.

Some days, I need one. There have been trapping attempts that have gone comically wrong, “regular” ferals that disappear, at least one kitten that remains uncaught. And deaths.

Every time, though, that a found kitty purrs at my touch, I am astounded at the ability of my fellow mammals to love, even after being cast aside, stepped on, or written off for dead. It gives me faith in my fellow humans to do the same.

As Kotler writes in inviting us to make inquiries: “No matter where you look nor whose testimony you hear, you’ll find none who have hunted the meaning of life in the world of animals and returned wanting. This alone should pique our curiosity.

After the San Francisco fundraiser, the morning arrives painfully early. Still, I get up, burn a candle, and say an entreaty to my guides — including Saint Francis. I put the trap out, with the food underneath it, and wait. Ten minutes later, the kittens Oberon, Ariel and Puck are stuck in it, desperately seeking a way out but finding none. They are now in my care. They might not like the idea at this moment, but they all have dates with loving humans — starting, temporarily, with me.

I peer into the trap, and they stop their frantic dashing about to return my gaze. Their breathing slows.

“Welcome,” I smile and whisper, “to my garden, little roses.”

Illustration by Ellen Rooney.

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