Steve Henderson, Steve Henderson Fine Art
The promise of life — in a child who is at the beginning of it — is a wondrous and awesome thing. "Reflection," by Steve Henderson.

Well, one of the kittens died.

I know, it was gray and ugly, the product of its homely, drab, tabby-striped, alley-cat, pregnant feral mother that someone dropped off on our property. The morning she gave birth we all looked at one another and said, “Great. Four new gray and ugly alley cats that all look like their mother.” And then we found the family a box that we set on the porch where it would be safe, put out food and milk and guarded the area from the chickens (they’re bullies, you know) while the mother ate.

“Maybe,” I told my husband, the Norwegian Artist, “after we feed her for several weeks, she’ll feel safe and warm and wanted.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” he responded, and proceeded to coo at one of the kittens. OK, to be strictly honest he didn’t coo, but he didn’t snarl either. The lifting of his upper right lip could as easily be interpreted as a smile as it could a sneer, but I’ve never known the Norwegian to sneer.

There’s something about motherhood that ennobles animals who are otherwise anything but noble, like this ratty, random cat. Within hours she had commandeered the porch, streaking like a bullet from the box toward any animal that stepped within 10 feet. When Mozart, the Russian Blue patriarch who has benevolently overseen the feline farm for 15 years, padded softly behind the carrier, there was a pronounced thwack as the new mother poofed up, her trebling, trembling tail hitting the ceiling before she hurtled onto the bewildered interloper.

Ten seconds later she was back in the box, licking the gray matters of any dirt they could have picked up in the interval of her absence.

Three of the gray matters were quiet and complacent, the fourth piercingly and unrelentingly strident, which I attributed to its blindly — and I mean this literally — wandering far away from its mother and out of the box, where it yowled and its mother looked concerned, not quite sure of what to do. I kept putting it back, commenting to my daughter, Tired of Being Youngest, “This one’s going to die if it doesn’t stop wandering away.”

As it happened, it did die, but not because it wandered but because it just stopped — stopped yowling, stopped striving, by next morning stopped breathing, leading me to wonder if it had been yowling for more reason than just being intrepidly stupid, and if the mother never stirred herself to rescue it because she knew it was better not to.

So small. So innocent. So beautiful even in drab grayness. It lay in my hand, sleeping a deeper, more permanent sleep than its littermates, which it looked just like, but it wasn’t, not anymore.

Tired of Being Youngest wrapped the body in a soft pink cloth, then dug a tiny grave beneath the maple tree, where nobody will inadvertently plant tomatoes. She covered the top with rocks (to discourage the dog), and ended the ceremony by strewing the surface with flowers.

Yes, it was an ugly, unwanted gray kitten from an uninvited cat, and there are three more that look just like it still in the box. But for a brief moment it was alive and loud and outwardly normal — a promise of life enigmatically aborted at the point when it had just begun.

And this promise of life, and then absence of it, awes me because life is a precious, awesome, mystical and mysterious thing, something I have no power of granting or taking away but can only mourn and marvel.

Life is a gift.

Carolyn Henderson is a freelance author and writer of the lifestyle column, Middle Aged Plague ( She is also the manager of Steve Henderson Fine Art (