Bud – life lessons from a cat

A flippant exchange with Youngest Son this summer, over who was responsible for making lunch – where I suggested that he was perfectly capable of making himself a sandwich, and he replied, with a florid wink, and an ever-cautious readiness to run, that that, as his Mum, that was my job – made me ponder what exactly I was ‘for’ and what my role and ‘purpose’ was now.

Before everything happened with E, I was pretty comfortable with who I was – I was a Mum of four and E’s partner, I was hoping to do a PhD and trying to build up my writing career.  I had a clear sense of the future and what it held.  I had a fairly secure sense of ‘me’ and everything in my life was tied up in ‘us’ and our family. After E left, all of a sudden, I was thrown into survival mode – I had to give up my studies, put my writing career on hold and find a job, any job to keep the kids and I afloat.  As I was doing this, I felt like I was stumbling along the precarious edge of a deep ravine – my sense of who I was, how attractive I was, how valued I was, had all crumbled into the darkness below and it was all I could do to myself falling, there was no way I could retrieve what I had lost.

Since then, I’ve had to renegotiate my sense of who I am, where I’m going and what the future holds. I’m having to re-learn how to value myself and, whilst I’m still not brilliant at it (and frequently end up comparing myself to K, Forum Woman, O and P and finding myself lacking, or looking at how little respect E had for me and the lies he told about me, and feeling that pain afresh), I really am doing my best to move on and try to not let what happened affect my sense of self.

One of the things that E’s departure has unexpectedly affected is my understanding of the future and how I’ll deal with it. It wasn’t that I was dependent upon E, far from it, but my whole sense of my life was tied up with my sense of us as a couple, us as a pair, facing life’s challenges together.  I never doubted that we had each other’s backs and that, even if I was, technically speaking, making all the decisions re the kids, the house and that mad woman at Waitrose who shouted at me (for not putting my basket on the counter quickly enough), on my own, that I had a partner to back me up whatever happened.  This change, the fact that I’m alone, is probably the biggest change of all. It’s not a bad thing, I quite like the autonomy, but it’s a new thing.

Later that day, whilst I watered various plants, fed our menagerie of pets and did an online food shop for the kids and I, it occurred to me, that one thing I am very good at is Keeping Things Alive. Whilst it can mean a bit of pressure (one of our rabbits thumps her food bowl on the ground menacingly every time she sees me – Youngest Son is similar in his approach to demanding food), it can also be therapeutic – I enjoy looking after our pets and feeding the birds in the garden and watching the plants grow.  I must admit I find nourishing the kids somewhat less rewarding – now that they’re older I don’t feel obliged to make sure they’re getting their five servings of fruit and veg a day (they’re old enough to work that out for themselves now) and I’m trying to resist the pressure (mostly self-imposed) to provide a home-cooked meal for them every night (they can forage in the freezer if I’m too knackered to cook, it won’t kill them), but being bombarded by cries of ‘what’s for tea’ as soon as I get through the door, after a full day at work (and frequently with an evening of writing work ahead of me), means that keeping them fed can be hard work emotionally and physically. There’s also more involved in keeping the kids alive than just feeding them and keeping them clean – which means that the pets, the plants and the garden birds tend to offer more short-term rewards in terms of gratification.

But aside from Keeping Things Alive, until recently I was still struggling to work out what I’m good at, what I’m ‘for’ and how and how I’ll deal with future challenges. However, this summer, and at a time, when I really shouldn’t have been taking on any more commitments, I ended up agreeing to take on another cat – and inadvertently learned a few lessons that I hope will get through the next few years and help me deal with the challenges that life throws at me.

As well as keeping the household (currently comprising myself, four kids, four cats, three rabbits, two hamsters, two fish, one garden, three orchids, one poinsettia, one thirsty hanging basket and one new peony plant) alive, another thing I also do is work as a volunteer fostering cats and kittens for the RSPCA.  Much as I love them, I have never been tempted to adopt any of the strays that have passed through my door.  Part of the joy of fostering is watching the kittens grow, or helping a shy cat to gain some confidence and then seeing them off to a lovely new home with people who are genuinely excited to take them in.  The upside of re homing one litter is also that there’s usually another one just around the corner.

One of our first ever foster families consisted of four lovely black and white kittens.  We had them from a few days old and watched them grow from small, blind, rodent-like creatures into mischievous, trouble-making bundles of fluff (or ‘flof’ – Oldest Daughter informs me all things cat should be spelled differently from all things human) that climbed the curtains, wrecked my pot plants and melted our hearts.  However, whilst three of the kittens grew ever more sprightly legs to spring around on, and their ears grew more pointed (so they could do that peculiar satellite dish swirl to the side and back), one of the kittens just didn’t seem to grow.  Whilst his litter mates scampered enthusiastically around the living room, this little chap’s legs didn’t seem to grow and he stumbled around, on shorter legs, like a new-born kitten.  As his brothers developed curiosity indicating ears, his ears remained stubbornly small, and as the other three kittens’ faces became increasingly defined and feline, his face remained rounded and almost pug-like.

Even though he wasn’t developing as quickly as the others physically, he was doing everything else he ‘should’ be doing – he was eating and drinking, he was using the litter tray, whilst he wasn’t playing with quite the same alacrity as his brothers, he was certainly happy to be distracted by a laser dot or a dangling piece of string.  There were differences though – whilst the others ran at the mere sight of the vacuum cleaner, this little one would wait until it was turned on and then amble up to it and sit next to it, if the others were far too busy being kittens to enjoy human cuddles, this little guy was perfectly happy to snuggle up and doze on Oldest Daughter’s shoulder, hidden in her hair, for hours at a time.  We were completely in love with him.

In the end, the physical difference between him and his litter mates was so glaring that we took him to the Vet to make sure he was okay.  I was very concerned that the Vet was going to say that he had something stopping his development, that meant he would need to be put to sleep and tried to prepare the kids fort the worse, just in case.  To our relief, the diagnosis was that he had a form of feline dwarfism and whilst it may mean a slightly shorter lifespan (depending upon the cause of the dwarfism), he would have a perfectly happy life.

At this point, we didn’t have a home for the kitten (christened Patches by the kids), and I said that if nobody took him, that we would adopt him.  Of course, the kids were absolutely delighted by this idea and were quite vocal in their hopes that nobody would want him.  In the end, though, he was adopted, along with his favourite brother, renamed Mr Filbert and went off to a happy new home.  Whilst we were all happy that he’d found a new home, the kids were devastated and I promised them that if we ever had another kitten like Patches that we’d adopt it.

Of course, like lots of parental promises, this one was predicated on the assumption that the situation simply wouldn’t arise or that the promise would be forgotten.  After dwarfism is pretty rare, so  I figured it was a safe promise to make.  However, sometimes, lightning does strike twice, and just three years later one of the litters we were assigned had not one but TWO kittens with restricted growth.

This litter was one of four black kittens.  When I first had them, I was looking after another litter, and I took these on as an emergency foster (their carer had to go away at short notice), so they were living in my bedroom for a little while.  These kittens were the same age (in fact a few days older) than the other litter and we noticed that they were all smaller than the other litter, but didn’t think much of it, they were just smaller cats.  It was clear that two of the four kittens were much more active than the other two (who seemed content just to cuddle up together), but at this point they were very little and they soon went back to their carer so I didn’t think much more about them.

However, a couple of months ago, there was a text asking for volunteers to bottle feed a couple of kittens, and I couldn’t resist.  It turned out that the two kittens needing bottle feeding were the two from my emergency foster.

Like Patches, these two had little pug faces and tiny legs and tails.  I put them with the existing litter (who were the same age), and the contrast in their development was striking (Oldest Daughter informed me that they were officially known as ‘smol’). They had been seen by a vet who’d said they were physically fine, just ‘developmentally delayed’, so they were healthy, but, unlike Patches who’d happily eaten and drunk with his siblings these two – bizarrely named Potato and Bud – just didn’t ‘get it’.  We then launched into a regime of four hourly feeding and trying to encourage them to lap milk from fingers/bowls in order to get them to eat like ‘normal’ kittens.

Potato only took a week or so to work it out, but Bud?  Well, Bud was determined to do things at her own pace.  Whilst Potato quickly learned to eat and drink and eventually headed off to a new home on his own, little Bud still needed bottle feeding and I was beginning to worry that she’d never work it out. Whilst I fretted over this, Youngest Son suddenly remembered my promise after we’d re-homed Patches and with a delighted grin, reminded me that I’d said ‘next time’ we’d offer a kitten like Patches a home.

Since then, Bud has become a new member of the family.  It took us a few more weeks to get her to drink milk from a saucer, but she now happily does this, and whilst she turns her nose up at cat food, or even tinned tuna (!), she now happily nibbles at cooked chicken and the odd bit of grated cheese (Youngest Daughter informs me that she also likes prawn-cocktail Pringles, so no one can say she doesn’t have a varied diet).

I have to say, whilst I pondered my sanity at agreeing to a fifth cat (FIVE!), I am so happy that I agreed to take on Bud.  She’s sort of everything that I need right now.  Things are very stressful at the moment (more on my summer to come, I’m still trying to make sense of some of it) and Bud is the perfect therapy.  It’s like having a baby again, but without the sleepless nights, the sore nipples, and wondering whether you know that person smiling at you, or if they’re just coo-ing at the baby.   She’s incredibly easy to look after. When she needs feeding we just give her a saucer of milk (goats milk – it’s lactose free) and some cooked chicken and she quietly stands on the kitchen counter and eats it – and then waits for us to pick her up and return her to the her room to sleep or play with her. She’s beautifully litter trained and so I never have to worry about accidents.  She does play (very slowly – watching her ‘run’ after a laser dot is still one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen), but she’s never happier than when sat in the warmth of someone’s lap or curled in the crook of an arm.  Because we have other foster cats, and she needs a litter tray, she lives in my bedroom when we’re not supervising her, and every night, she curls up into a ball (‘bol’) on my shoulder and sleeps with me until I get up the next morning.

Possibly the most brilliant thing about Bud is that she doesn’t seem to have any concept of how small (‘smol’) she is.  I don’t mean that she has an over-inflated sense of how important she is (although, as she’s a cat, that will inevitably develop), I mean that she’s developing a very promising feisty side.   She’s clearly learned that this is her home now and, despite being suitable docile when introduced to our cats (who don’t really know what to make of her – our biggest cat, actually sniffed her and then ran away), when we introduced her to our most recent foster litter, she actually growled – admittedly, at first we thought she had tummy problems, but we’re pretty sure now that it was a growl – and attempted a hiss when she saw one of the kittens.  She even arched her back and tried to make herself look bigger when she saw the Mummy Cat.  OK, so she then curled up and went to sleep – but I’m proud to say that it looks like her littleness has had no impact on her fierceness

Bud couldn’t have come into our lives at a better time.  Thanks to E’s latest grenade, it looks like we’re in for a rocky few months, and I suspect Bud will provide comfort and laughter at a time when we really need it.  She has also inadvertently provided us with a few life lessons – from her we can see that sometimes we need to growl and make ourselves look bigger in order to stand up for ourselves, but that, actually, life is lovely and perhaps, when all else fails, it’s best just to have a sleep and worry about the big stuff later.

I’m seriously thinking of getting a wristband ‘What Would Bud Do?’ inscribed on it to inspire me if things get tough.  Admittedly this would give me just five options – ‘sleep’, ‘eat’, ‘play’, ‘do everything at my own pace’ and  ‘try to make myself look bigger than I am and growl’, but, actually, all five – especially the last two – would probably get me through most situations I’m likely to face in the near future.

I’m definitely going to try to Be More Bud in the future.

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