Her name was Lily. She was so tiny that she fit sweetly in the palm of my hand. She yawned, stretched all four sinewy limbs and made a valiant attempt at a meow, but it was barely a squeak. After that huge effort, she just went back to sleep.
I don’t know what made me stop at the scrawled sign on the side of the road. It was foolish, but even the lettering said “little girls” to me, so I pulled over and carefully read the words: “Free Kittens.”
I noticed the two grinning sweethearts sitting on the farmhouse porch. Each held a tiny ball of fur in her hands. As I approached, they scrambled anxiously to their feet. I climbed the steps, knowing before I looked inside the box that I was a goner.
The problem with kittens is that one day you wake up and they are cats. You don’t see it happen, but there they are, rubbing up against the pant leg of a new suit, bigger than the day they stole your heart and dulled reason. That inevitability slipped past me as the brown-eyed beauty who someday would steal the boys’ hearts put Lily into my hands.
As if responding to some prearranged cue, Lily yawned and went home with me before I remembered saying, “Yes.”
We had once been owned by a wonderful tiger-colored cat. For several years, he allowed us to be his favorite people, and we were grateful. We named him Samantha but changed it to Sam for biological reasons. When he didn’t come home for three days, we knew he hadn’t just strayed. We learned that Sam had been hit by a car and died in a neighbor’s yard trying to return home. I vowed never to have another cat, but weakened at the pleading of tender eyes and promised my children to find Sam’s successor.
As I drove home, I found myself half watching the road and half watching the sleeping fuzz ball on the seat next to me. I was looking forward to the squeals of delight from my children. I was keeping my promise to them. Justifying my weakness to my wife would come after it was too late to turn back.
The workweek had been long. Saturday had been filled with all the items on a long honey-do list. Sunday was a welcome oasis, a literal day of rest. We went to church in the morning, ate a tasty and leisurely dinner and settled in for some quiet time.
Outside I could hear the musical laughter from our kids. Six-year-old Katie was atop a step-over ladder between our yard and that of the backdoor neighbor. The little bundle of fur in her hands was the center of the kid’s attention. Three-year-old Mary was nagging her sister for her turn with the kitten. They were pleasant sounds. It was a calm and restful day, life as we always hope it will be. Then, in an instant, there were cries of fear, dismay and terror.
Lurching to the sliding patio door, fearing a fall from the ladder, I was met by shattered little girls. Tears rolled down their cheeks. Through sobs that could not, would not be controlled, both babbled about a crisis I did not yet see. In the confusion, I finally focused on the crushed and writhing form in their tiny hands.
As I stared in stunned silence, I heard the words, “Daddy, please fix it.”
Desperately seeking for the right words to say, I remembered an experience from my own childhood with my father.
Dad was raised on a Depression-era dry farm in central Utah where his father and seven brothers scratched a living from the Sevier County soil. They were raised with just life’s necessities. “Use it up, wear it out, make it last” was their motto, same as every other family of their era. Rawhide and bailing wire were everyday tools in their battle for survival.
As a result of his upbringing, the father I knew could fix anything.
Early each spring in the days of my childhood, I would accompany Dad to the local feed and grain store where we would purchase 100 baby chicks. It was a magic time for me. I was fascinated by the fuzzy yellow balls with legs. Dad reminded me constantly to keep my 4-year-old hands away from them. I tried in vain to get him to let me have one of them for a pet, but come August, these chicks were destined for the family freezer. He knew the folly of letting me have a “pet.”
One Saturday morning, I snuck into the hatchery. Thinking I could return a borrowed chick before anyone noticed, I slipped away to a secluded spot in the yard with my purloined prize. The grass was fragrant and warm in the spring sunshine. I was hidden from view. Getting comfortable there on the lawn, I released the fuzzy chick. He hopped away to freedom. Just before he got completely away, I snatched him back. Time and again we played this silly game.
I finally decided I’d better sneak the weary chick back into the coop. As I was about to get up, I noticed a 16 penny nail poking out of the grass. Words cannot explain what happened next. I don’t know why I did it. Curiosity, I guess. I pulled the nail from the grass and pushed it into the chick. Immediately I recognized my horrific mistake.
All fear of punishment left my mind as I rushed to find my father, the only hope I had that the horror of my deed might be reversed. Dad could fix anything. I found him in the garden. With tears of remorse streaming down my cheeks and anguish in my heart, I simply looked up and said, “Please, Daddy, fix it.”
He had every right to be angry. I had been disobedient and sneaky, and the result had been the painful death of the tiny bird. For one of the few times I remember, his eyes glistened and his voice cracked. He knew that I was paying a price that he could not relieve. No amount of chiding could return the chick to life. Moreover, he loved me and understood that the lesson had already been learned.
As Katie stood atop the ladder in our back yard, Lily had become frightened. She clawed at Katie with those finely sharpened claws unique to new kittens. Losing her grip, she let the helpless kitten fall to the ground. The neighbor's excited dogs, already jumping and barking at the giggling girls, attacked the stunned kitten. Lily never had a chance.
With an ache in my heart, I again heard the plea, “Daddy, please fix it.” There are some things even daddies cannot fix. Patiently, I asked them to go see their mother and I would take care of things. I suspect my father must have done the same so many years before.
Time has passed and healed the wounds. Sometimes it is the best and only tool for fixing things.
An unabashed fan of outdoor humorist Patrick F. McManus, Ed Smith is a freelance writer, golfer and fly fisherman. He resides in West Bountiful with the love of his life, Ann. His email is [email protected].