I was ten years old the day my mother asked me to kill eight kittens. To be more specific, she asked me to abandon them – the whole lot of them – in a nearby park. I was to put them all in a box, ignore their confused mewling, and leave them out in the open air to wander and possibly get run over or starve or succumb to the weather or be eaten by larger animals. Being ten, I was no stranger to the harsh realities of my life, but this seemed an unnecessary and cruel addition to the long list of terrible events I’d endured up to that point.
“Mom, please,” I begged of her. “Please don’t do this. Why do we need to get rid of them?” The tears had already started. I wiped at my eyes with a shaking hand, my heart pounding.
My mother puffed on a cigarette and, like a movie mob boss ordering a hit, she snuffed it out in a nearby ashtray which was blackened from her chain smoking. She took a swig of Budweiser from a can and swung her hair back.
“They’re fucking pissing all over the couch. I’m sick of it. Get rid of them. The living room smells like piss. The apartment smells like piss. I can’t do it anymore.”
I cringed at the word “piss”. I wet the bed at that age, all the way up until high school. I took that as a sort of jab at me, not just a jab at the kittens. Perhaps she was trying to teach me a lesson, make me somehow stop wetting the bed. I, after all, contributed to the “piss” smell, I’m sure. I tried to reason with her, to give her alternate suggestions as to what we could do with them. She was having none of it.
My brother Gary and I coaxed all the kittens out from under the couch, from under our beds. Some were playing together with strips of newspaper, which made it even harder for me. I was choking on my own tears and I could barely see through them. Gary was crying, too.
We made the long walk with the cardboard box to the nearby park. The day was sunny but it was fall and the weather wasn’t as warm as I would’ve liked. Maybe in the summer they might have had a chance to grow up, be a little more independent, be a little more able. But it was fall, these kittens were born in a warm (if dirty) house and had never even been outside. Gary and I didn’t say much of anything to each other. We just cried and walked. Cried and walked.
When we reached the park, I set the box down on the ground and pet the baby cats. They were curious but unaware that we’d be leaving them to their own devices. They were unaware that we were leaving them to die out there. They scratched the ground, smelled things. They began to wander from the box little by little. I grabbed each one to my face, apologized, and kissed their foreheads.
The walk home from that park is still with me. How I felt, how low as a human being I felt, has never left me. If I think about these kittens, to this day, I will cry. I wonder how many of them made it. I wonder why I never thought to give the kittens away to someone, maybe leave them in an apartment building. Mostly, it was because Mom said to bring them to the park – and we wouldn’t want to make her mad, would we?
When we returned to the apartment, my mother didn’t acknowledge our pain. I was sobbing uncontrollably, as was my brother. He and I went into our room and sat on my bed, crying. One of our remaining cats came over to me, aware that I was sad and crying – and she tried to nudge my hand. She connected, purring, and I screamed at her.
“GET AWAY FROM ME!”
The cat, who loved me unconditionally and didn’t know what I’d done, recoiled but didn’t run. She looked unsure, as she had never seen this side of the ten year old boy who normally pet her for hours. My brother had the same look in his eye as the cat.
“I said GET AWAY FROM ME!” I picked up the cat around the stomach and flung her from the bed. She landed on all fours and scurried away, frightened and confused. I sobbed harder and broke down. My brother tried to comfort me, too, and I screamed at him as well. He left the room, and I had made him feel worse – just like the cat.
I don’t remember much after that except that to this day, I say “Get Away From Me” to everyone I interact with on a daily basis, but I do it in different ways. It’s not verbal, but I keep people at arm’s length, especially after the rough divorce I had in which I lost family members and mutual friends on my ex-wife’s side. Anyone who tries to comfort me or enter my inner circle is metaphorically grabbed around the stomach, as I did to the cat, and flung from my personal sphere – only to run away confused. There are special people in my life who remain even though they’ve seen that I try to do that to them and there are also special people in my life who I try extra hard not to do that to. It still happens and I’m not proud of it. In some ways, I’m still that weak-willed ten year old boy.