Our cats had litters now and then, when I was growing up. Getting a cat fixed wasn't something my folks wanted to do, so when a cat gave birth they just took the unwanted kittens to the pound once they could be weaned. How I hated to see the babies go. Playful, tiny, soft kittens.
One litter I remember particularly well, probably because I was a little older, about 10. The word 'runt' had flitted through my consciousness, but not until little Snowball was born did I become aware of what a runt actually was. She was the teeniest, tiniest kitten, the one the others shoved aside to get to mama's milk, the one the mother cat didn't seem to notice or care for, the one........who was different.
Mom warned me against naming the kittens or growing attached to them, advice I normally heeded, but for some reason this little white skinny thing kindled my flickering sensitivities. She needed help, or she would die. From the corner of the blanketed cardboard box I gently lifted Snowball over her robust siblings, setting her next to her mama for milk. I waited while she drank, nudging the other kittens away if they bothered her. I did this before school, after school, and before bed. Every day. Snowball was always smaller, always shoved aside, always different, but she lived, and grew.
Dad declared it was time to take the kittens away. How I'd dreaded the day! I asked him to let me keep "just one?". Somehow I understood his position. He wasn't being mean, just practical. As the box of kittens was loaded into the Lincoln I ran outside and climbed a tree, hiding myself and my tear streaked face amongst the mulberry leaves. I'd kissed Snowball good-bye and could still smell her creaturely breath and fur on my sleeve, feel the warmth of her tiny body on my cheek. "Good-bye little kitty," I sniffed sadly. I sensed somehow that something important, something 'grown-up' was happening in my mind and heart, knew it even at that young age.
At the dinner table the topic of the discarded kittens came up. I asked timidly, "Do you think they will all be adopted?" Of course I really wanted to know about Snowball, as I was quite hopeful the other fat lively kittens would be quickly chosen.
"Sure, all but that little runt," my mother replied. My siblings nodded their heads in agreement as they chewed and swallowed.
"Yes, they're cute and healthy, they'll find homes. All but that runt. She'll probably die. I'm surprised she made it this long," Dad said matter-of-factly, cutting his tough pork chop and stabbing it with his fork.
I had a piece of tough fried pork chop in my own mouth when these shocking words were spoken. No way could I chew that thing now. It felt like it had grown to three times its actual size. Rising emotions seized my throat. My upper lip quivered. My breathing came in irregular mini-gasps. My eyes began to water, everything went blurry. I put my napkin up to my face and with my tongue pushed the pork out of my mouth into that napkin, set the wad on my plate, and left the table murmuring shakily, "I need to go to the bathroom."
Once out of sight in the bathroom, I silent-sobbed until I could breathe again. Sobbed for Snowball. Sobbed for all those who were weak, who were different, vulnerable and unnoticed. It hurt deep, way deep in my soul. It was awful.
I knew I had to go back to the table or everyone would figure out I was crying over a "stupid runt kitten." As it was, no one was the wiser, no one knew of my love for Snowball or of my efforts to save her. After rinsing off my face and seeing my red eyes in the mirror, I tucked my chin and returned to the table. "Please, please, don't let them notice and make fun of me."
The meal was finished, dishes done, kids sent to bed, and no one noticed my upset. At all. Ever.
I've never said anything until now. I felt guilt for a few years for not trying harder to rescue Snowball. Maybe she died physically while still tiny, maybe not, but she has lived in my heart for forty years. I'll always remember that little 'runt,' unnoticed by her family, unable to reach vital nourishment without help, her own mother indifferent to her needs.
Because of Snowball, and the feelings of compassion and action that she aroused in ten year old me, I have an inkling of how God intervenes in the lives of those of us whose differentness is misunderstood. By intruding upon the indifference of our given environment He provides special means of nourishment for our hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits, while watchfully caring for and guiding us in ways unknown, though appreciated, to growth.
When those who ought to care do not, when differences seem too complicated to sort out, when ignoring comes easier than effort, from 'outside of the box' can come God's merciful hand to set things right, his own way.
He makes all the difference.