The day before Palm Sunday, one of our cats had kittens on my daughter’s bed. It was only barely morning by the clock. The natal activities woke and kept us up for a good few hours. We witnessed the emergence of the first kitten after a terrific yowl – a wet, grey bundle that looked more like a drowned rat than anything. Marshmallow let us peek in the dim light as she licked and licked the protective membrane off, licking the kitten into life and breath outside the womb.
We kept our distance, eventually drifting back to beds, my daughter bunking in with her little sister, my son going to the flustered rest of a new dad. Marshmallow was his cat. I fretted to sleep, one ear tuned to the noises that followed, hoping all would be well for our young queen and her first litter.
In the morning, there were two kittens on the end of the bed, but no mama. My son found her under his bed, licking another kitten. I scooped up the two and brought them to my son’s room. At the first tiny “mew,” Marshmallow shot out from under the bed, straight to the sound. Mama instinct. They were soon settled together, and I went to strip the sheets from the birthing bed. Flipping back the corner of a blanket, I found a fourth kitten, who must have oozed its way under for warmth. Finally, mama had her full quartet under the bed, pulled in close to the warmth of her belly, and all we could hear was purring.
Our other cat Luna had a litter one January, under this same bed. It too was a late night affair. A snowstorm raged, and the old floor was swept with draughts. Five kittens made their way into the world, but when I peered under the bed at the end of it all, I saw the little bodies lying scattered, and mama sitting near them, but not with them. I told the kids to stand back, and I stretched my arm for the farthest little mass. It was cold, and though I rubbed it, no life throbbed under my fingers.
The rest were still alive, but something wasn’t right. I gathered them all and placed them next to Luna. She sniffed them, gave one or two licks, and settled back into a sphinx position. We coaxed her into lying down, and brought the kittens to her ready nipples. One or two began to nuzzle, feebly. We brought old towels and blankets and arranged them protectively around mama and the kittens. My husband brought up a heater, and we pointed the fan under the bed, combating the wind that whistled through the floorboards. It was all we could do.
By morning, another kitten was dead, and Luna sat aloof from the remaining three. The mother cat watched them, but she would not go to them. She would not warm them, or feed them. We brought them downstairs to a basket by the fire. Mama did not like this. She dragged those kittens back upstairs, and put them under another bed, guarding from a distance. Over and over, we rescued them from the cold corners of the second floor. I called a vet, drove to town, and came home with tins of kitten formula. I coaxed a few drops into the tiny mouths, whispering encouragement, holding them close to my chest. I persisted with the recommended feeding schedule, but most of the milk dribbled out the sides of their mouths. It was not enough. Over the next 24 hours they faded away, one by one. Mama had rejected them, for her own secret reasons, and they could not accept the substitute love we offered.
My son had chosen one to be his own kitten, the strongest one, pure black. And I was helpless as his hopes fell. We tucked that chosen one into a box in the freezer, with a name on it, until the ground thawed, and we could bury it with a crown of dandelions.
Each day this holy week I shine a dimmed flashlight under his bed, counting the squirming bodies with their wrinkly closed eyes. Four. Still four. Four are heaped together in sleep, or pushing over each other for the favoured feeding spot, or receiving rough-tongued baths. The mama queen flops contentedly beside them, a look of proud ease in her glinting eyes. When they cry, she runs to them. When she purrs, the vibration pulls them close to her heart. All is well in the give and take of the world under my son’s bed.
The rest of the world, well, that’s a different story. Why does a mother cat reject her kittens? Why are kittens born too weak, too sick to thrive? Why are these things irrevocable? Why do families fall apart? Why do missiles strike and manmade storms steal the warmth of homes? Why do we feel so helpless and alone?
Luna knew a secret. Something in her instinct told her those kittens could not be saved. She never let them out of her sight until the last one lay cold. She sniffed it to make sure, then walked away. It was finished.
Oh God, there is a secret in your kingdom too, a secret only Good Friday can show us. Let us look into the dark, cold corners of the places we hide. Perhaps we will see why bombs fall and young ones cry. Who doesn’t want a world where every child has a place near her mother’s heart, in his father’s house?
We see the painful revelation in Jesus’ eyes.
We were shown a way to live that led home.
A truth about the desperate incapacity of our blind souls.
A life that radiated with healing, nourishing love.
It was in every step he took and word he spoke and breath he breathed – every moment of his being vibrating with grace calling us close.
This long awaited king, the one we wanted to fix it all – he spread his arms wide to reveal a kingdom of hope – and we drove nails through them. This is the secret. That love can come, and we can still refuse it. We refuse him. He will not force feed us a single drop. The only crown he accepts is the circling thorns of our rejection. All the suffering of the world is hidden here – in this turning away from love to cold and lonely corners.
And does he retreat, stone-faced and silent? Does he keep distant? For three days, we wondered.
But Easter Sunday breaks open the womb of a deeper mystery – that perfect love can bring what’s dead to life. That death-defying love births something new from under the bed – a secret that could vibrate us all back to his heart.
My son stretches his arm to the mass of humming fur, gently touches each cradled kitten. He coos, smiling at the little family. Mama purrs and licks his fingers, and she is pure and glossy black.