Written by Casey Hersch, LSCW
This is the second in a series of posts about Casey’s experience following the loss of her senior cat Yochabel. Click here to read I Am Pawso: The Journey Begins.
After her senior cat Yochabel’s passing, Casey was convinced that she would not regain stability unless she adopted another hospice cat. Struggling with her own chronic autoimmune disease and childhood trauma, Casey believes her life purpose is to give back her own healthcare knowledge to help vulnerable senior cats. Instead, to her surprise, kittens were just what the doctor ordered. She began her journey with foster kitten Pawso, who shows Casey her new life purpose. Pawso not only teaches Casey how to live but has a very important message to share with the world.
All good things must come to an end.
Four years had passed since I said goodbye to my Hawaiian kittens. To this day, that special time still holds the spot as one of the most fabulously fun periods in my entire life. Even though I knew from the start that my time with the Hawaiian kittens was numbered, but since I had the time of my life, naturally I did not want it to end. I wanted to stay in my playful kitten land forever. Who wouldn’t?
I cried buckets when I said goodbye. I knew I had successfully given these kittens an excellent start to their lives. They were loving, social, fun, and dynamic beings who, in some part because of me, would add much joy and wisdom to the world. I had shown myself that even with a tumultuous childhood, I could parent kittens and not perpetuate a cycle of anxiety and trauma. Despite tears of love and mixed emotions, my heart expanded with admiration for animal rescue and foster volunteers who understand that loving and letting go is crucial in order to save more lives. Their courage and dedication inspired me.
My home seemed even quieter without the kittens than it felt right after Yochabel passed. The empty feelings deep inside of me quickly resurfaced. The Hawaiian kittens had given me respite from the consuming pain of grief and loss. Without their lively spirits, I returned to missing Yochabel and questioning my life’s purpose. I returned to obsessing about caring for senior cats in order to feel complete.
The late-night call from another animal rescue agency, once again, shook me out of my cycle of despair. To my surprise, the agency who brought me the Hawaiian kittens had recommended this agency reach out to me.
I did not need much convincing. The agency explained they were desperate. All shelters were busting at the seams with kittens and without fosters, there was little chance the kittens would live.
So again, I abandoned my focus on senior cat care and this time picked up two more mature three-month-old kittens. Secretly, I challenged myself to complete a full-circle fostering experience—through finding them an adopter. Clear-headed, I knew these kittens were not “mine,” and I held onto the hope that a senior hospice cat was waiting for me somewhere out there.
I wholeheartedly expected these new foster kittens to be very similar to the Hawaiian crew. Even though I felt a bit disappointed that I would not be raising four-week-old itty bitty baby kittens, a kitten is a kitten, right? I could still return to my playful kitten land and have another time of my life experience.
As I opened the carrier inviting my new guests into their foster cat room, the two kittens did not barrel out like excited bundles of joy. Instead, they stayed huddled in the back of the carrier, eyes so big they could pop. Surprised that these kittens were not as curious as my Hawaiian crew, I left them alone to see what they would do. Several hours passed and they both still remained in the carrier. The larger female kitten had inched her way to the door of the carrier. I seized this opportunity to interact with her, and she gradually allowed me to pet her. She even purred a little bit. She was slow to warm and definitely wasn’t ready to trust and bond with me. The other male kitten was half the size of his sister. Although he appeared frozen in time, his little body couldn’t hide his fear with its waves of quivers. I reached my hand gently toward him and he exclaimed, “no,” with a hiss that I never thought could come from such a tiny body.
Admittedly, our first night together was turning out to be difficult and certainly not fun. I doubted my decision to accept two new fosters. After all, I selfishly thought, “if kittens cannot be fun, then what’s the point of having them?”
Where did the fun go?
As the days passed, I waited and waited. The fun never arrived. When I entered the cat room, my two guests didn’t run to greet me, rub against my legs, or give me any indication they were happy to see me. I wasn’t the center of the universe as I had felt with the Hawaiian kittens. The female cat who I now called “Sissy” appeared to want me for one thing: food. While she tolerated my touch, she didn’t seem to enjoy human contact. After eating, she scurried away from me and started to groom herself. The rest of the time, she was content hiding, avoiding my lap at all costs, and seizing any opportunity to rebel against my structure. She didn’t run toward me, she ran past me, escaping my reach and zipping through the house until she stuffed herself into a perfect hiding spot for hours. I concluded Sissy’s will to escape from me was also a sign that she felt safer in the rest of the house.
Her little brother was an entirely different story.
Several weeks passed before the little boy kitten came within one foot of me. He hid most of the day until meals, and every time I tried to touch his fluffy, delicate, spotted coat, he snapped his teeth at me or swiped his long, needly claws. At every check-in with the rescue agency, I commented that the “little boy is not a pleasant kitten. Finding an adopter who will look past his unpleasant behaviors is going to be difficult.” After all, aren’t most people looking for fun, playful, and cuddly kittens?
Turning difficult situations around
Thankfully, I didn’t hang out with negative kitten thoughts for very long. Sure, I was disappointed that I wasn’t having fun. However, I still had compassion for where these kittens came from and where they needed to go. My sincere empathy and deep desire to understand why people behave the way they do also applied to these kittens. I drew strength from one of my primary life coping skills: turning around difficult situations. As I chose to shake away my bad feelings and turn them around into something positive, I committed to shifting my perspective and approach toward these foster kittens. I had been unfairly comparing my new guests to the Hawaiian kittens. I knew I had a really easy first-time fostering experience. Everything went so perfectly. Most of life doesn’t flow that easily. My judgment, expectations, and disappointment clouded me from seeing the unique personalities right in front of me. I needed a restart.
First, I decided if the kittens were not fun, I would entertain myself by associating them with something else that’s fun for me: Latin Ballroom Dance. Therefore, I named the female after the dance Samba, and the little boy, Pawso, after the dance Paso Doble.
Second, I awakened from my fantasy and accepted that just like no two humans are the same, not all kittens are playful and fun. Kittens have problems, too, just like the rest of us. I had a job to do: socialize the kittens and prepare them to find a loving home.
As I set aside my unreasonable expectations, I opened myself up more to the kittens. I had a lot of problems as a child. I was chronically ill and suffered from anxiety. I had adverse childhood experiences that made me cautious, fearful, over-stimulated, and survival oriented. Pawso, like me, had obviously suffered some trauma, or what I call, Adverse Cat Experiences. Pawso required patience, attunement, and most importantly, a nurturing and customized environment that made him feel safe enough to grow into his best self.
I even saw Samba in a new light. One afternoon, I heard Samba howling from another room. While she meowed when she was hungry, this meow was different. Racing through the house in search of her cry, I could tell she needed my help. She found me first and made sure I followed her into the laundry room. She kept screaming at me until I finally saw Pawso. I, too, screamed when I saw him hanging by his neck between two metal bars on my treadmill. Obviously, he had been exploring, climbed up the treadmill, lost his balance, and got caught by his neck as he started to fall through the gap.
I carefully reached my hand toward Pawso, afraid his fear of me would cause him to panic, drop further into the gap, and crack his neck. I softly spoke as I slowly repositioned him. Hooray! He broke free! Instead of running away from me, he paused, confused, but alert. Our eyes met for a brief moment before Samba ran to his aid, licking him, and nuzzling against him. Clearly, Samba was the mother in their relationship. I surmised that she had spent her first few months of life protecting and caring for her smaller, less adaptive brother. Even though she was merely a kitten herself, she had grown up quickly in order to care for herself and Pawso. Samba simply had no time to receive love. Play was the last thing on her mind. She had to eat and rest in order to conserve energy to take care of her brother! She, too, was in survival mode.
It’s not all about me
As if I weren’t already struggling with the obvious challenges, I had to accept that I, like Pawso and Samba, was also in survival mode. As I ended my kitten fantasy, I also had to end the fantasy that my husband, Scott, was embracing this fostering experience. Truthfully, he never wanted to be a foster cat dad to begin with. He just wanted me happy. However, his fear that his home would become overrun with kittens magnified the more I appeared to accept Pawso and Samba. He stressed me with ongoing reminders. “Casey, you know these kittens are fosters. They are not your kittens. Don’t get too attached.” Not to mention, he continued to proclaim himself as a dog person, not a cat person. He clearly did not understand cats, and most of the time I just felt sorry that he had never known cat love as I had. In the days that followed, my acceptance of Pawso and Samba expanded as my tolerance toward Scott shrunk. How Scott and I dealt with our “temporary children” together would continue to evolve and shift.
Stay tuned as I Am Pawso continues next week with Shake and Turn, Grow and Learn.
About Casey Hersch
Casey Hersch, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker, author, animal rescuer, and Latin ballroom dancer. She uses holistic and resilience-based models to help children and families cope with trauma, stress, and illness. Her upcoming children’s rhyming book I Am Pawso: A Cat Teaches Kids Ways to Turn Around Difficult Situations (Fall 2023—Amazon,) is about her foster turned adopted cat, Pawso. The book is a collection of Pawso Practices that reduce stress and encourage healthy choices. Casey lives in California with her husband, Scott (I Am Pawso illustrator), and her cats Pawso and Samba.
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