The other morning around 5:10, I was in my car, driving down my street to go to the gym, sleep still in my eyes, and I saw an orange tabby cat in the road. Just sitting there. No matter how closely I inched toward him he didn't budge. I figured he must have been in some kind of trouble, totally lacking in any apparent self-preservation instinct.
I could have swerved around him and just gone on with my day, but at the time, I was listening to my audio Bible, and the voice of Paul was talking about how I am nothing if I have not love. He never said anything about only loving people, and I do not dig the idea of being nothing; it's a drag. For starters, when you're nothing it's hard to get someone to help you find the sweet pickle relish at the grocery store, and you also don't show up in any photographs. So I pulled over, got out, and approached the cat.
He was friendly. He didn't look starving, but he was fairly bony. I drove back home and got some dry cat food and a paper plate, which I left for him in the grass, hoping he would at least get out of the road. He nibbled at the food, and before I had a chance to pull away, he was again wandering in the street. He seemed dazed and confused, as though he had just been beamed down from another planet and was trying to assess this strange new land.
I opened my NextDoor app, which is sort of like Facebook, but just for people in your neighborhood, and I scanned through the posts. I saw one from a woman who had lost her cat, and the markings on the cat in the photo were remarkably similar, even if this cat looked a bit more haggard. The post read, "Missing since 6/18." Three weeks. I guess three weeks on the streets would do a number on your mani-pedi.
I knew I couldn't go on my way if someone was looking for him because he was sure to be gone when I got back from the gym. Not one to believe in coincidence, I decided that there was purpose to this event and that God was using me to help this cat be reconciled to his owner. That made sense. I liked the thought of me as the one to help him find his way home. I could be like a hero. So home I went, and came back with a towel to wrap him in, assuming he would let me pick him up. He didn't even flinch.
We went into my garage, where I put out food and water for him, and a fresh towel for him to lie on. Several times, I tried to call the number his owner posted but it was too early and she was still sleeping, so we sat - me and somebody's cat - and waited together. Finally my phone rang and the woman on the other end said that the cat I had was not her cat, and thanked me for trying.
The cat looked at me. I looked at the cat.
"Whose cat are you, anyway?"
I went back on NextDoor and posted the cat's photo. I sat on the garage floor and the cat nuzzled up to me and curled up on the towel. I wrapped him in it. I noticed that one of his paws had an oozing sore on it, and upon closer inspection, I could see fleas wandering around in the fur of his head. His tail was encrusted with dried mud, but he lay there, wrapped up in his borrowed swaddling.
I suddenly realized that by stopping, I had assumed responsibility for this little broken life. I would have to either find his owner, or bring him to a shelter, or find him a home. I started calling local animal hospitals, thinking that at least I could get him a flea bath and have his paw dressed while I ran my errands. At least ease his suffering. No one could fit me in.
Then a notification popped up on the screen of my phone from someone who had seen the photo I posted. It was a neighbor, informing me that the cat I had "rescued" belonged to a family just across the street. This flea-infested, injured, wandering baby was someone's pet. I could see their house from my driveway.
Now that my original purpose of reconciling the cat to its owner had been proven moot, maybe there was another purpose behind this. Maybe the reason he crossed my path that morning was because I needed to be faced with the choice between love and indifference, and maybe I needed to know that as obsessive as I am about my workouts, and my schedule, my desire to help a creature in distress was stronger. It was to teach me that despite all my insecurities, I'm a good person. Yeah, that was it. That made sense.
I sat with him there on the floor of the garage, stroking his head, softly telling him how good he was, too, listening to his purr - a purr so deep it was as if no one had ever been tender with him before and he was making up for all the purring he'd missed out on in his life. He slept and slept. Even if he wasn't mine to rescue or reconcile, for that small span of time, somebody's cat was mine to watch over.
The clock was ticking toward my first appointment of the day. I decided that I would leave the garage door open when I went, leave the fresh towel for a bed, leave bowls of food and water. If he stayed, he could stay. If he went home, I would watch him wander back down the street, but would take the short trip over there and see if there were people there who needed help, because in my experience, you don't neglect your animals unless you can't really care for yourself properly. Maybe that was the purpose of this - he had come to get me, to tell me his owners needed someone to care for them, too. Yeah, that was it. That made sense. It was about how derelict his family was, and I would perhaps rescue them.
So the next day, as I was leaving on my errands, I stopped over at the house where I'd heard the cat lived. The garage door was up, and there were a couple of cat dishes in the driveway. I knocked on the front door. From the front stoop I could see that the house was also neglected, with crumbling brick and broken screens, a home devoid of attention to details like fixing the doorbell and taking sick animals to the vet. An overweight teen-aged boy wrapped in a dingy towel finally appeared at the threshold. I introduced myself and asked him if the cat belonged to him and he said it did. He said the cat was deaf, and apologized that it had gotten out, as though it wasn't a common occurrence. He was dismissive, and there was no adult in sight.
As I walked away I resolved to get the flea medication and the medication for the cat's paw, and if I saw him again, I would scoop him up and tend to him. After all, if I couldn't help him right then and there, I could look for an opportunity to do so in the future. Maybe that was what this was teaching me, to be prepared for future opportunities to be kind. I've been meaning to do that anyway. Yeah, that was it. That made sense.
The following day, the cat's photo showed up again on my NextDoor app. The accompanying message said that someone else had found him in the street and had taken him to the animal shelter. They described him. Old, infested, deaf, injured. Yep, that was somebody's cat.
I found myself again asking what the purpose was behind all of this. Because so far I didn't feel as though I'd accomplished anything at all. I'm pretty sure they euthanize cats that come in old and injured; they're considered unadoptable. I didn't get to reconcile him to his owner, I didn't get to rescue him for myself, I didn't get to tend to his wounds, and his family didn't seem interested in any help. And now he was gone, probably for good.
Assuming that the cat had been "put to sleep" at the shelter, all I really did was love it for a little while. I cuddled with it, comforted it, fed it, cared about it. But maybe that was the last good thing that had happened to him in his little life. I was meant to be his comforter, the last person in this world to show him tenderness. Yeah, that was it. That made sense.
Yet a few days later as I went back and read through the final post that said he had been dropped off at the shelter, I realized that it hadn't occurred to me to go get him and bring him home. Here. To finish caring for him and give him a chance to live out his life well and groomed and free from suffering. But I already have two rescue cats at home, and my son was getting married in a couple of days, and we had family coming in from out of town. I was very busy and really didn't have the capacity to take on anymore.
And maybe that's what it was really all about.
I did something kind by stopping that morning. I did a little more by taking the cat into my garage. I went a little further by going to his owner's house and seeing if I could help in some way. And I made plans to help more in the future. I may have done more than some people would have. But I didn't do all I could. I was willing to be slightly inconvenienced, to give up a work-out, knock on a strange door. But I didn't go very far out of my way.
If those are the limits of my love, if that is my character with a broken little cat, isn't that my character? Maybe that tiny orange angel didn't come by to show me what a good, tender person I am, or teach me about how great my capacity for compassion is, but rather to alert me to how limited it is. Maybe the purpose was to help me understand that my definition of responsibility and love is bordered by my personal schedule and my convenience. In retrospect, and in the context of my spiritual journey, that makes the most sense of all.
None of it was about the cat, or about how the neighbors needed me or about how kind I am. It was about how much more work I have to do in cultivating the quality of heart I wish to offer both here on earth and in Heaven.
The answer is, was, and will be this: it was my cat. It's always my cat.
Julie Scipioni is the co-author of the Amazon #1 bestselling novel series,