I went through a mid-life crisis early. By about two decades.
In 1999, in my early 30s, as both the century and yet another dead-end relationship was winding down, it occurred to me there was a very real possibility I’d never get married. In Indianapolis, I was too black for white Jews, too Jewish for black Christians, and guys weren’t exactly lining up to throw rings at me. So later that same year I became the foster parent of a nine-month-old little girl, and I adopted her three years later. A couple of years after that, I adopted my son. We became a family.
I like to think that my daughter, Kenya, now 13 years old, was always fated to be mine. After all, she arrived in my home with the same name I had already chosen for my cat, which I later renamed as The Cat Formerly Known as Kenya.
My father, who spent part of his childhood in foster care, devoted his entire career to child protective services. He called all foster kids, “my kids.”
“See, Daddy? I got one of your foster kids,” I said as I raised Kenya up to see a family photo. “Are you proud of me?”
My father passed in 1993, almost a decade earlier, so he never got to meet my daughter.
“I wish you could be here to help teach me how to be a parent,” I said aloud. “There’s so much I don’t know. You would have been such a good grandfather.” My throat tightened.
I was about to burst into tears when my daughter started wiggling violently: She had spotted the other Kenya—the cat—and wanted to play with her. There went my moment. So I laughed and introduced them.
Two years later, as we napped in bed, Kenya lifted her head off my chest and said, “kih cah.” I looked around, confused. Then she swatted me on the forehead and yelled, “kih cah!” while gesturing at the cat who was preparing to jump in bed with us. (I gather that was the baby-equivalent of, “I said, kitty cat, stupid!”) It was Kenya’s first word.
Alas, my son, Jake, is allergic to cats, so when I brought him home with me, I had to find a new home for The Cat Formerly Known as Kenya. It’s now been ten years since I let The Cat Formerly Known As Kenya go.
But a week ago, a stray cat decided to give birth on our doorstep in California, where we moved seven years ago. We call her “Mama.” I had been feeding her, off and on for about a year, so I guess she decided that our doorstep was as good a place as any. And even though I had stood firm in the face of my children’s previous pleas to let the cat inside, this new development—a kitten birth—and the fact that I’d seen neighborhood kids throw rocks at strays, weakened my resolve.
And so Mama and her litter of five moved into my Jake’s bedroom, while he moved into mine in order protect him from the wheezing and congestion that began every time he came near the cats.
I told my kids repeatedly that fostering these cats was temporary. I told them that Mama was going back outside as soon as I could get her spayed, and that the kittens would be placed with other families when they were safely weaned.
I posted ads online letting folks know I had a litter of five brand new kittens that would be available for adoption in a little more than a month. A woman who saw my ad had found an abandoned kitten starving outside and asked if my nursing cat might feed it.
A few days later, our litter became six—and Mama accepted the newcomer instantly. My adoptive mom heart melted, and I boasted about my mitzvah to friends and family, posting photos on social media.
One day, I was out for a walk when Jake, 10, raced out to meet me. He was sobbing. All the other kittens were nursing, he said, but one was lying still. Much too still.
We found a scenic spot near a tree to bury it and asked G-d to look after this little kitten until its mother and siblings—years later—could join it in Heaven.
Days later, a second kitten died. And this past Monday, a third.
Each time it happened, my son was traumatized, and so was Mama. And I guess I was, too. It may be that I’m hypersensitive: May is always a tough month for me, encompassing Mother’s Day, my father’s birthday and his yahrzeit. Daddy is already gone. My elderly mother’s health is failing. Could I at least have some lousy kittens? Must we watch them all die, one by one?
But every time I find myself in that mental space, I stop to think about a particular Shabbat when my children were very young at Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation for my father’s yahrzeit. I had been looking forward to saying kaddish for him.
At the time, Jake was little more than a year old, and Kenya was three years old. All through the prayer they moved around restlessly and made distracting noises. Strangers started to throw us disapproving glances, so I had to interrupt my davening several times to shush them.
After services I sat in my seat, staring off into space as others shuffled out of the sanctuary. A woman I didn’t know saw my moist eyes and asked if I was OK. I told her I was fine, just a little disappointed because I didn’t get to say a proper Kaddish for my father.
“But you did say Kaddish,” the woman said, nodding at my children. “You’re a mother. G-d is blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, right there. Every day.
Courtenay Edelhart is a journalist, Reform Jew and single mother by choice via adoption. She lives in Bakersfield, California, with two children, an obnoxious Chihuahua, and assorted dying houseplants.