It Takes a Village

I was in 7th grade when I lost my dad to cancer. As an only child, our home suddenly felt much quieter. It has been almost 20 years since that grey, February morning when we became a family of two.

My family are the people who were there for us during the 14-month cancer battle – and continued to be for 20 years, just like they said they would. My family are those whose actions I watched as I grew up.

My family is the couple who picked me up from school one cold January day when my dad was about to have his first brain surgery. Logistically, I had to stay behind as my parents went to Minnesota for this surgery. There were too many unknowns for me to make the trip with my parents. To this day, I cry when I think about seeing this couple walk into my school to pick me up. They told me we had a flight to catch. This moment was everything to a 12-year old girl who didn’t know if she would ever see her dad again. I still cry when I think about that drive to the airport and that quiet flight to Minneapolis. For twenty years, they have met up with me whether it be a quick trip home from college or a Sunday brunch. They were at all of those ‘big events’. They were there for those days in between, too. They never left our side. They sponsored my daughter’s junior golf program so she could learn one of her grandpa’s favorite hobbies.

My family is the woman who stayed with me during the numerous trips my parents took for surgeries and treatments. Taking in a middle school girl would not be an easy undertaking for anyone. She got me to those 6am basketball practices. She let me choose the radio station on those drives to school and somehow always knew when I just didn’t feel like talking.

My family is a couple I consider my ‘second parents’. He was one of my dad’s best friends. They have never missed one of my events, and in fact, drove my mom and me 762 miles to the National High School Rodeo Finals the summer I qualified. They have invited us to every holiday for as long as I can remember. They come to my daughters’ preschool programs. We call him “Papa Larry” just like his grandsons do. They moved us into my new house when the windchill was -4. Their son and daughter are the “sister and brother I never had”, except, I do have them. I’ve always had them. Sharing the same family name would not have made me love them more. 

My family is my best friend since sixth grade, who has been by my side through it all. She introduced me to the world of instant messenger in middle school. She made the best mixed CDs. From prom dress shopping to wedding dress shopping, we did it all together. We even joined motherhood just three months apart. The week after I filed for divorce, she gave me a stack of cards friends had sent to her from friends all of over the country. She reminded me I could – and I would, get through this, too. There is not a second of her friendship I have taken for granted. My family is her two little girls, who are the same age as my own, who are two of the most incredible little beings I know.

My family is my dear family friends, whose little girl was the first baby I held. She started high school this fall. Her mom was an inspiration for my profession. My high school and college years consisted of sitting around their kitchen table, whether it be to hear the latest or for life advice. Now I watch the way my little girls idolize Emily, and I am grateful for the love that has been shared through the generations.

My family are the friends who moved me out of my house in the pouring rain. They showed up with their trucks and horse trailers and started packing boxes. I was an unorganized mess, an emotional mess. They reminded me that things would get better. They were right.

My family are the college friends, those my daughters call “aunt so-and-so”. They are my sisters – and they are the most loyal friends you’ll find.

My family is the woman who has babysat my children for their entire lives. She was their stability when they needed it most. She taught them how to read. She shows them love and compassion in a way no one else can, because everything she does is done in kindness. She is everything to us.

My family is the boy who loved me when he was 17, and now again at age 31, he loves me even more. He builds us anything we ask for and doesn’t say ‘no’ when we find a new animal to take in to our petting zoo. He builds little houses for my pet pigs, the pet pigs I dreamed of having my entire life, the pet pigs he let me get. He is a coach, a mentor, a constant in our lives. They call him “our Casey”, because there is no categorical term for someone like him. He is not their dad, but they have opened their heart to him. How lucky these little girls are to be loved by so many people.

My family whose bloodlines I share, they are pretty incredible, too. Our time together is few and far between, but I thank God for them and those occasional weekends we get to share. My other family, the ones whose paths I cross every day, they could never know what they mean to me. They could never understand the ways in which their actions have impacted my life.

As a girl, I quickly realized it takes a village. Our joys and our sadness and the days in between are filled with love. As a mom, I understand it in an entirely new way, in the kind of way you can’t possibly understand until you are packing up a life to start again. I appreciate these people in the way That can’t be explained. These are the people who promise you that you can get from here to there, even when you can’t see it yet. They are my family.

The Mama Cat Who Raised my Orphaned Kittens

This is a story about two kittens who needed to be saved and a mama cat who needed a home. This is a story about a series of events with wonderful people and complete strangers doing what they could to help two kittens make it.

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to rescue animals. I had an incredible childhood that included dozens of pets. I made a promise to myself that someday, in adulthood, I would adopt animals that needed a home. In theory, it sounded wonderful. What I wasn’t prepared for was the expense, the hard decisions, the commitment and the heartache that would go with it.

Over the past few years, we accumulated quite an assortment, including Patsy Cline, a sweet and shy white barn cat. She preferred to stay in the barn, but in recent months, she would let me know she was at the door at night. I would be up late rocking the baby watching Friends, and she sat next to my chair eating a snack. We both loved the company. Her kittens were born in April and my little girls were so excited to learn kittens were in our barn. Two days after they were born, my husband came in from chores with grim news. Patsy was hurt and a decision had to be made. After two phone calls to vets, we decided we couldn’t let her suffer anymore. I went out to the barn to tell her good-bye, sobbing as she looked at me. I thanked her for her companionship during my late nights and I told her how much I was going to miss her. I promised her I would do all that I could to save her kittens. My own baby had been saved six months earlier by the NICU team. It had been a particularly emotional few months in our home. When it came to these kittens, I was not going to let nature win.

My husband brought the tiny kittens inside. I immediately posted on social media and reached out to several rescue groups looking for a foster mom cat. I knew it was a shot in the dark, but I was desperate. A stranger responded that she had a cat whose kittens had just left the previous day. Her only stipulation was that I adopt her cat. Her landlord had agreed to let her keep it until the kittens had found homes and now it was time for her to re-home the cat. I absolutely did not want another cat and knew the stress of moving into our chaotic home would not be ideal when trying to convince this cat to raise a litter that was not hers. I also knew I was running out of time.

I drove across town to pick up the cat. I learned that this mama cat had belonged to the woman’s grandmother, who had died a few months earlier. The cat’s name, a word I cannot spell, meant “unwanted” in Lakota. My eyes filled with tears as she told me how much she loved this cat and how grateful she was that it would be moving to a good home. I understood all too well the bond you can have with a pet when it is your link to a lost loved one. I promised her that her cat would be well loved and cared for. I then stopped at Pet Smart to stock up on orphaned kitten essentials.

When I returned home, my hope of love at first sight was immediately demolished. She wanted nothing to do with the kittens, growling out of irritation. I didn’t blame her. Our home had two little girls and a baby boy. It was a strange place and she had lost the only home she had known. I again tried to find another foster mom cat. In the meantime, I was doing what I could to keep the kittens alive. If you have ever taken care of orphaned kittens, you know exactly the amount of work that is required to bottle feed and stimulate them and keep them warm. The next day, a friend of a friend offered her cat as a foster trial and I drove straight there. Her kittens were approximately four weeks old and we hoped this first-time mama would be okay with two add-ons. She immediately let them latch on and I cried tears of relief. However, the relief was short lived as the woman texted me early the next morning to tell me her cat had rejected my kittens.

Again, I posted on social media asking for help. A stranger, Jennifer, a local cat rescuer, contacted me. She was willing to meet to give me some supplies, such as better nipples and a scale. We both left work to meet. My friend, Kristina, a teacher, had offered to help me bottle feed the kittens as she was on spring break. She was willing to spend her coveted spring break doing the countless things these kittens would require while I was at work. (I spend my days doing home visits and our April in South Dakota was cold and snowy, making it impossible for them to stay warm in my car.) The three of us met at a gas station. I sat there in amazement, listening to a stranger give us a kitten 101 lesson and a tote of supplies. People can be so amazing. Jennifer told me she thought these kittens might make it and I believed her because I wanted to. I spent the next week caring for the kittens around the clock and dropping them off with Kristina during those first few days while I worked. Kitten duty on top of full-time, self-employed working mom life was exhausting.

It was around the fifth day at our house that “Unwanted”, who we had renamed “Mama Kitty” (due to our inability to pronounce her beautiful Lakota name) decided to check out the kittens. It was as if she had decided I was failing miserably at doing all that was necessary to keep them alive. She walked over to the kittens and laid down, letting them latch on. I thanked her as I watched her start licking them. From that moment on, Mama Kitty took over. She had spent ten weeks raising her last litter and she did not know these kittens, but she knew they needed her. I continued to bottle feed the kittens regularly, not knowing if she had enough milk to feed them. One morning, I woke up to Mama Kitty dropping two starving, loud kittens next to my bed. She sat there, staring at me as if to say, “It’s your turn, Lady. I finished the night shift.”

The first time I offered them canned food, she sat next to them, letting them eat first. I have since noticed, every time I feed them. she lets them eat first. Some evenings when they are particularly wild, she throws them down with her paw and holds them there until they decide to use their manners. She is not afraid to put them in their place. When she needs a break from them, she sits outside their pen with my little girls, enjoying being doted on but always keeping a watchful eye on the kittens. When my baby cries, Mama Kitty comes quickly down the hallway, concern in her eyes for what he might need. She cares so much for everyone in our home.

The kittens are now eight weeks old and thriving. The female is white like her mom and named Patsy Cline Junior (“PJ” ) in her memory. The male is orange like his dad and named Merle Haggard Junior (“MJ”) in his memory. They each remind me so much of their parents. I think about that day I said good-bye to their biological mom, and I like to think she knows I kept my promise. I think about the day Mama Kitty had to say good-bye to the only family and home she knew, and I hope her family knows she is still loved and well cared for. I think about the stranger who gave me the materials they needed, a friend who gave me her time, and my mom who was willing to kitten-sit when my chaotic schedule or the cold temperatures made it impossible in my workday. I think about the dozens of people on social media who helped me find a mama cat, that unexpectedly became one of the sweetest cats I’ve ever owned. The kittens’ survival depended on each and every person in their story. Many life lessons were learned by my family over the course of the past eight weeks. Although her name meant “unwanted”, God made sure she would find her way to a home – and two tiny little beings – that needed her the most.