Kindness Matters

Heading home from the recycling center, I stopped at the corner, waiting for the light. Something caught my eye in the road. It was a kitten—a tiny one who was having trouble getting his back legs to work—and each time a car passed within inches, he cringed and then lunged closer to the curb. I stared, horrified, thinking any moment now the poor kitten would get hit or run over, and I would be front and center to witness the carnage.

I threw my 4Runner in park, turned on the hazards, and hopped out into the early evening sun. He was close to the corner now, and scrabbling to make it to the curb. I could tell from how he flinched as I knelt close to him that he didn’t really want me to touch him. Luckily, there was enough of a break in the traffic for me to scoop up his feather light little body. I deposited him in the grass on the corner lot. An elderly man strolled toward both of us on the sidewalk, telling me how sweet I was to help. I didn’t know what to do next.

I got back in my car and sent a Marco Polo message to my husband Sterling, explaining what had happened.

“I don’t know what to do! I can’t unsee this little guy trying to get across the street, and I know he’s hungry and thirsty.” I navigated the road and my messages, attempting at red lights when it was safe to search online for cat rescue groups. It was after 6 p.m., and hardly anything would be open. Especially if I were to take him to a veterinarian—if I could find him again!—I’d be stuck paying for the emergency ones.

By the time I got home 15 minutes later, Sterling had gathered a box, a towel, a water dish, some cat food in a plastic Ziploc bag, and a bottle of water. The plan was to rescue the kitten and take him to the Houston SPCA, who had an after-hours ambulance that would be able to pick him up, considering he was possibly injured.

Sterling and I met at the corner where I had originally helped the little guy into the grass. It appeared to be abandoned; there was an auto shop across the street and a gas station and convenience store to the left, but on this lot was just a shuttered building and some overgrown, yellowing vegetation. There was no sign of the kitten upon first glance, but he definitely hadn’t been moving very fast and I’d only been gone for a half hour.

“I think I hear something,” Sterling said, gesturing toward a dry, scraggly bush that looked as if it desperately wanted a drink of water.

I peered underneath it and sure enough, the kitten had found refuge there. He didn’t look comfortable or safe, but he knew at least those monstrous, noisy hunks of metal were no longer whizzing past him. He stared at us with huge eyes and made tiny “mew” sounds.

We sat on our haunches, examining the bush and how to get in there. “He’s got to be hungry, and thirsty—and scared. I think he’s too young to be without his mom,” I fretted, swatting at the bugs in the summer heat.

We tried coax him out with some cat food and water, but the kitten just burrowed further under the bush. Even in his terror, he seemed to sense we were kindred spirits. Finally, Sterling just reached into the bush, scratching his arm in the process, but he was able to grab the tiny body. Safely in the box on a towel, we gave him a little bit of food and water. He took some grateful sips, but was mostly uninterested in the kibbles of cat food. He might need kitten food or maybe even bottle feeding. I worried about what had happened to his mother and his siblings. There had to be more of these little ones around, but because he’d been crossing the street it seemed hopeless to figure where they all might be.

We put him in the front seat of the 4Runner so I could keep an eye on him as I drove, even fastening the seat belt around the box. I called the HSPCA and arranged for the ambulance to come retrieve him as we drove back toward our house. He had stopped mewling; at one point I saw that he had practically passed out with his fuzzy head tucked into the towel and the corner of the box.

At home, we put him in the air-conditioned garage, still snuggled in his box. We didn’t think it would be a good idea to introduce our full-grown (very alpha) cat Batman to a random stray kitten. Every half hour or so, we’d tiptoe into the garage and look inside the box, checking to see if he was okay. He seemed exhausted, curled up in a ball, sleeping deeply. I comforted myself with the thought that he felt relaxed enough to rest.

The ambulance didn’t come to pick him up until 10:30 p.m. At that point, we’d gotten him some kitten food and were planning to put him in our cat’s carrier with a tiny litter box in case we needed to keep him overnight. The kitten stirred when I picked up the box, blinking at me as if to ask where he was going now. Outside, in the glow of the streetlights, the ambulance driver seemed like a sweet teddy bear of a man. I handed him the box, complete with the towel and water dish—I figured the HSPCA needed them more than we did. As the ambulance driver thanked me and I thought, “For what?” I could feel a small pang of something gnawing at me. Maybe I should have kept him. But I didn’t see how, considering we already had Batman.

I walked into the comfort of our brightly lit kitchen and promptly burst into tears. What was wrong with me? I lamented to Sterling. Was this some type of reaction partially delayed or attributed to losing our dog months ago? I worried that the poor little guy wouldn’t make it, or they’d just put him to sleep. What was the point of rescuing him if that was going to be his fate? Sterling gently reminded me of what I’d been saying all night: I had saved him from dying on the road, being hit by a car, being killed by some larger animal, or some other terrifying thing.

“Look at how he was sleeping so peacefully,” he pointed out. “You saved him, and it was so kind of you. You are always kind.”

I shook my head, wiping tears from my eyes. “Naw, I didn’t do anything special. I mean, wouldn’t anyone have saved a kitten? And you helped me,” I added.

“Think about it,” Sterling said. “You stopped the car in a neighborhood where it’s not a great place for a woman to be walking around alone, and you rushed to his aid.”

I widened my eyes as I gazed at him through tears. “Well, I didn’t even think about myself – I just did it.”

Sterling smiled at me. “See?”

I thought perhaps he had a point.

In Memoriam: Silver Snarfer Robinson the First

I met Silver Robinson when he was three years old. He belonged to my new boyfriend Sterling. I had seen pictures of Silver – it was, after all, the background on Sterling’s phone – this beautiful, square headed yellow Labrador Retriever. In the photo, he looked regal, proud, strong.

Sterling got Silver from a breeder in Oklahoma after his mom commandeered his chihuahua. When Sterling arrived to choose a dog, he saw puppies roughhousing in a pen. But there was one puppy alone in a pen by himself. When he asked, he learned that the Lone Puppy had been adopted, but then returned when his new parents couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make the payments. Thus, instead of costing $600, he was just $300, the remainder of his payments. He was also a little bit older than the other puppies. 

One Saturday afternoon, I recounted this story to Silver, ending with, “…and that’s why you’re a Discount Dog” – right as Sterling entered the room. 

“What did you just say?!” Sterling asked. “You can’t tell him he’s a Discount Dog!”

“But he is. And that’s okay. I’m simply telling him his origin story,” I said. “He needs to know where he comes from.”

In 2011, after just six months of dating, Sterling and I moved in together to his (and Silver’s) home. I brought with me a crotchedy old cat named Buttercup. Cuppie was nonplussed. Silver was thrilled. He thought she was a toy we’d brought home just for him. A few episodes of Cuppie smacking him on the nose conveyed to Silver that she was boss, she most certainly did not want to play, and she did not like having her rear end sniffed. Silver grudgingly accepted that he should give her a wide berth if he walked by.

Silver came to know our schedules and our habits: he knew that we’d probably go out on a Friday or Saturday night, come home late, and I’d wind up on the floor with him, imitating the way he was lying down showing us his belly, feet up in the air. He was smart: he knew what time he got fed, he knew what time we went for walks, he knew where his food and his treats were. He knew when I was sad, he knew when I was happy. 

In 2012, Sterling proposed to me in the living room of our rented condo in Utah, where we’d been skiing with my parents and some friends. Our friend Mohammed came to pick us up to go to the airport, and when we told him we were engaged, he said, “Silver is like, ‘I finally have a mommy!’” I’ll never forget that moment. Because though we were making our relationship “official,” I had become Silver’s mom long before.

Buttercup passed away in 2014. We adopted a cat a couple months later from the local animal shelter and named him Batman for the mask on his face. He’s a tough tuxedo cat who stalks around the house like he’s master of the jungle. After an introductory period during which neither Batman nor Silver was sure about this other new creature, Batman decided that he and Silver were going to be best friends. He’d snuggle him, bat his nose or bite his hindquarters in an invitation to play. 

Silver turned 13 in November of 2020. We knew we were on borrowed time. He was having trouble navigating the stairs, but I called him my Timex: he kept taking a licking but would keep on ticking. One of the most recent times he hurt himself meant that we put up a baby gate and kept him downstairs, even when we’d go to bed. For that week, Batman didn’t come to bed with us either. He stayed and kept watch on his big brother. Each and every night.

Batman would help him sometimes, sitting on one of the lower steps and meowing to alert us to the fact Silver was having trouble.

“We know, Batty, thank you – now get out of his way.” 

As if he understood, Batty would scamper up the stairs, and after a few stops and starts, a few confused sniffs at the steps and debating where to put his paws, Silver would follow.

In March 2020, when the pandemic shut everything down and I started working from home, I decided that the whole family needed a walk each day. The downstairs robot vacuum was scheduled to run each day at 3 p.m., which became our walk time. It seemed like a no brainer: the vacuum was loud, Silver loved getting a walk, I needed to get away from my desk for both mental and physical health. I blocked my Outlook calendar for a half hour each weekday at 3, and Silver and I would walk. His dad didn’t always come with us, depending on his work schedule. 

But Silver and I walked nearly every day without fail. If it rained, I waited until it stopped, and patiently explained to Silver that we’d go once it cleared up. If someone scheduled a meeting in Outlook during my allotted walk time, I’d move the walk, again necessitating an explanation that our schedule would be somewhat different that day. 

Not just because of our walks, Silver became my buddy. Sterling was back in the office most days during the week, so it was me and Silver most of the day. During my workouts, he thought we were playing, even though I’d been doing these workouts for the better part of a year. He’d try to pick up dumbbells in his mouth, or drop his tennis ball next to me, hoping I’d throw it back in the middle of doing lunges or squats. While he was lying in his bed, watching me pace the room during a conference call or just trying to get my steps in for the hour, I’d lean down and give him a quick scratch between the ears. I’d tell him, “You’re so cute!” or “I love your face!” even though his hearing had gotten so bad he couldn’t hear anything but the loudest noises. I read that even if a dog’s hearing wasn’t great, he could still tell if you were interacting with him, or whether you were being kind or harsh.

Because we were walking each day, and it was summertime in Houston, I got Silver some booties so he wouldn’t burn his paw pads. I should have trained him to wear them long before, because it turns out maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. He would walk around as if his paws were stuck to the ground, looking as if he were drunk. They must have really confused him. So we put the booties away and figured that some day there would be another dog who might wear them.

In April of this year, Silver hurt himself again on the stairs. We were out of town, and our pet sitter called Sterling to tell him Silver couldn’t walk. Sterling and I looked at each other, and we knew: this time wasn’t like the others. We came home from our trip, picked him up from the emergency vet and my heart broke when I saw him being supported by two vet techs in a sling. I started sobbing and I told Sterling, “I’m not ready, I’m not ready to let him go.”

But it was time. We took him to our regular vet, and while Sterling went to get him a cheeseburger from Whataburger for his final meal, I lay on the floor of the exam room with him. I told him how much I loved him, how much I would miss him, and that he had been the best dog. He relaxed with a long sigh as he left us.

He will forever be the best dog.