Salvation. A word I view with suspicion. When I hear “accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior,” I have to hold back a wave of revulsion. Though I know some people’s lives have been transformed for the good at revival meetings, for me, “getting saved” (which I did three times in different churches) brings up bitter anger at the adults around me and disappointment in myself. Each time, my “salvation” meant a child collapsing under intense fear, pressure, and manipulation, abandoning her true self in order to conform and be accepted. My real salvation came through therapy and therapeutic groups.
So when the writers’ group at the church I attend gave the prompt, “salvation,” I was stuck. Finally, I decided to write about literal salvation, saving someone from a fire, from an oncoming truck, from death.
The Salvation Story
Ironically, it was a Sunday. We sat on the concrete benches under a dead tree watching the daisies and finding snails until ten o’clock when the shelter doors opened.
The woman behind the desk discussed the cat selection. One prize beast displayed in a prominent glass box was double-priced, highly desirable, and it would go quickly. We glanced. Too large. And walked on.
In a further display room was a white cat with blue eyes, beautiful in a white-cat way, its fur as soft as a duckling’s. We read his statistics, not too old, not diseased, vaccinated, neutered. We wrote down the name. A possibility.
A larger room held several more cats, another white one which came to say “hi” and rubbed against our legs. His ears were notched and a long scar divided his head. Not pretty, he was definitely friendly. In the adjoining room, a small torty peeked out of the circular hole in a carpeted nook. We sat beside her and talked to her. She replied in a tiny kitten voice and blinked a greeting. When we reached in to pet her, she did not withdraw. “Can we pick her up?”
“Sure,” said the volunteer.
Gently we took her from her den. She draped herself across a shoulder and purred. She sat on laps and purred. She licked our hands. She got down and swatted a toy. She played and shared food with the scarred and scratched white male, but growled at a big wild caged cat. A year and a half old, she was smaller than all the rest, nearly kitten-size. Obviously not a purebred, she was ninety percent tortoiseshell with a splash of calico white on her paws and a dash of white under her chin, all off-center as if she’d been painted by someone in a hurry. Her belly was shaved and her ears looked shaved. She’d had an ear infection and been treated for fleas and worms, and only had half her vaccines.
We went back to the pretty white one and interacted. Not extremely friendly, but far from feral. A luxury cat.
Then we saw a long, beautiful Persian, gray and white, with huge movie star eyes and fur as soft as chinchilla despite all the mats that had been cut away, a beautiful shedder. Only half-grown, he slunk along the ground, lean like a weasel. A little spooky, he let us hold and pet him a bit before slipping quietly away. When he opened his mouth, what a loud sound. My husband and I looked at each other. It was really our daughter’s decision.
We returned to the torty. She purred and purred, squeaked and sat on our laps and never tried to bite or scratch. So little and tiny-voiced, she’d be like having a kitten forever without the curtain-climbing. We played with her a little more. The volunteer said she hoped we could decide soon because she had to help other customers.
Though Nikki was far from the prettiest, she was the one we chose. The volunteer put her in a cardboard box because, although we’d taken out our cat carrier, we never put it in the car. Nikki didn’t scratch or yowl or go crazy in the box, gave only a plaintive mew or two. We talked to her through the circular holes, and I held the box, warm on my lap. One of the shelter employees came by and asked which one we had. When we told her Nikki, she smiled and said, “You’ll like her.” Nikki was her favorite.
She was half price that day, a bargain cat. We couldn’t figure out why our top choice was half off. Maybe because she’d only had half her vaccines and one round of de-worming. Maybe because she had gingivitis, but what’s a little gingivitis among friends? I’ve had gingivitis too.
She has a new name now, Mimi, and all kinds of toys: a green ball and a cat-sized soccer ball she loves to fling and bite and chase, leather shoelaces and scratching pads and a catnip mouse; she’s an awfully good cat, never goes on the table while we’re home, only pulled one plant out of its pot, greets us in the morning insisting on her milk, loves to sit on laps and purr, sits by my daughter’s side while she does her homework, never runs out the door, joins us on the couch while we watch a DVD, eats broccoli and gets ecstatic over juice from a can of tuna.
Who shall be saved? Who shall be damned?
Seventy percent of cats at the shelter have to be euthanized. Who shall be saved and who shall be damned? We didn’t want to think of it that way. Who deserves to escape the burning fiery furnace? What do you bring as currency to buy salvation? Your suffering? That seems right, but suffering can create an abyss. That big surly cat growling from a cage might have suffered more than most, but we didn’t want her bites and scratches, her hissing and fleeing under the bed. Your good deeds? But how can we know the past from what we see in the present? Your love?
We were less than the saints who love with no thought of reward. In exchange for buying cat food and changing the kitty litter every week; in exchange for vet bills and paying someone to look after her when we were on vacation, we wanted love and affection. And because someone somewhere loved her and picked her up and petted her when she was a kitten, and fed her and talked to her and cuddled her and then lost her somewhere near Story Road, she was able to be loving and affectionate. And that was her salvation.
I sometimes wonder who her first owner was: a little girl? An old woman? Maybe even a teenage boy. And what were their circumstances? Maybe they moved to a new apartment that wouldn’t take a cat. Maybe she got out one night, was chased by a dog, and couldn’t find her way home. Maybe they got deported. It isn’t much and it isn’t enough, but whoever you were, thank you for saving this cat.