She was just a small kitten when I first saw her, somewhere between cute-kitten stage and gangly-teenage-kitten stage. She was wet, and cold, and hungry, and there was something wrong with her tail; it was not a Manx tail, but shorter and stubbier than it should have been, like she had had an accident and lost about 2/3 of it, or someone had cut it off—maybe that was why she was wandering around at Dudley Farm on cane grinding day in early December 1996, wet and cold and hungry and miserable.
Someone came up to the park service information table where I was working. “I heard you rescue cats,” he said.
“No!” I thought I gave an emphatic reply. At home, I was overloaded with cats—or so I thought.
But one glimpse of the tiny, wet, cold, hungry, black and white tuxedo girl cat was enough to soften me up. I took off the purple cotton cap I was wearing (yes, it does get cold enough in Florida that we need winter clothes sometimes) and put the small cat inside the hat, and hugged her to warm her up. She snuggled close, shivering hard, and purred real loud.
Another Dudley Farm supporter wound up taking her to the vet down the road, where I arranged to pick her up after her initial physical exam. The vet called me the next day. “How many people did this cat have contact with at your event?” she asked.
“Because she has mange.”
The kitten got her initial mange treatment at the vet’s. When I went to pick her up, she was brought out to me by a very muscular young man who had a lot of tattoos up and down his arms. He was not the kind of guy I would have pegged to work as a vet’s assistant, but he was very gentle and affectionate with the kitten.
“Are you going to keep her?” he asked. “Because I’ve kind of fallen in love with her. She’s real good, and just sits real still in her mange bath.”
By that time I, too, was attached. I took her home and because she had to be separated from our other cats until her mange treatments were finished, she lived for a while on our small, enclosed back porch. My husband and I would pet her with gloves on, so as not to spread any stray mange mites to the other kitties, and she would stand on top of the water heater and run at our faces—we called it “rushing our faces”—when we went to visit and pet her.
A couple of weeks later—mange treatments complete—she moved inside the house. I started calling her Myrtle, in honor of Miss Myrtle Dudley, who willed her antebellum farm to the State of Florida so it could remain intact as a state historic site.
One day we were sitting at the dining room table and Myrtle was sitting on Forrest’s lap, being petted. There was still some debate about whether we should try to find a home for her. She looked up at him with her tiny face and shot him what can only be described as a love beam.
“Honey,” he said, beaming back at her, “you just won the home lotto.”
Myrtle and all our other animals had the benefit of a wonderful blessing a little over a year ago when our local dharma group hosted Khenpo Ugyen Tenzin on his first visit to our area. “Many cats,” Khenpo-la commented, the first morning he was here. “After breakfast, all animals in one place, and I give blessing,” he offered.
So we gathered everyone on the back porch, where Khenpo-la chanted many different mantras, for a long time, and went around and blew gently into the faces of those animals that would let him get close.
Khenpo-la looked at Forrest and me afterwards, and moved his hands to indicate “all these animals.”
“Next time, a better birth,” he said. I took this to mean what we in Buddhism refer to as a precious human birth, in which we can meet our dharma teachers and engage in dharma practice.
Myrtle passed away yesterday, right before halftime of the Florida-LSU game. She had breast cancer surgery over a year ago, but the disease came back, metastasized, and claimed her during breast cancer awareness month.
In between that December day in ’96 and yesterday, there were almost 13 years of love, cuddling, and play—often punctuated by kitty calls of “look what I’ve got” as Myrt walked around the house carrying various-colored versions of Kitten Little, her favorite catnip toy. She always seemed to want kittens; I think, now, we should have let her have just one litter because if she could have nursed, maybe she wouldn’t have caught the cancer that killed her. But of course, we’ll never know.
We played the CD of Liberation Through Hearing fairly constantly as Myrtle neared the end. Forrest and I were both with her when she died, and both present at graveside when we buried her this morning.
Rest in peace, Little One. We will meet again, and this particular cycle of suffering has ended, now, for you. May your next birth be a fortunate one, in which you meet your teacher sooner rather than later.
May all beings have happiness, and the causes of happiness. May all beings—even cats!—be freed from the sufferings of samsara.
P.S. Many thanks to the members of Gainesville Karma Thegsum Choling, who dedicated the merit of their practices this morning to Myrtle (among others).
P.P.S. My vet tells me that "...there is not any evidence that nursing a litter protects against breast cancer in cats, and I would hate for people reading that to allow another unwanted litter into this world in order to try to protect the mother from breast cancer. We already euthanize 5,000 kittens every year in this county alone.Pregnancy in humans does confer SOME protection, although not much. Besides, most people don't get spayed when they're teenagers, so you can't make any valid parallels to cats. Don't doubt yourself for having her spayed.
We know from many, many studies that spaying prior to the first heat is the single most important thing you can do to protect them from breast cancer. Cats and dogs spayed before the first heat have a nearly zero incidence."