Thursday, January 3, 2013

A New Year! (Regrets and Silver Linings)

Like Sinatra, I've had a few regrets, but too few to mention.

On the other hand, they can be worth mentioning. Because regrets are very powerful motivators. They are your conscience giving you a well-needed kick in the pants. Or a glaring roadsign demanding that you take the next exit. "This is not who you are!" it beseeches. "Come on, man! Take a different path. Pull it together. Honestly." Regret changes us.

Sixteen years ago I boarded a plane for Bolivia to volunteer in the Peace Corps. Three years later, like the thousands of volunteers before me, I left full of experiences and memories that forever altered me.

Most of those were very positive, but I had one very strong regret. It involved a pair of kittens.

Now don't get all worried. Nothing horrible happens, so you can uncover your eyes and keep reading.

I was renting my dilapidated property in a small town called Yotala for about $20 a month from a relatively well-to-do couple that lived in the city of Sucre, only half an hour's busride away. Like all properties in Yotala proper, mine was enclosed behind clanging metal gates and high walls made from oversized, crumbling mud bricks. Each property was its own secret world. Mine had old gardens that snaked around the small house in an overgrown, gnarled fashion, much the way I imagined Frances Hodgen Burnett's famed secret garden did. There were exotic lilies that sprang unexpectedly from weeds, and passion fruits growing sneakily up the sides of the house. (Passionfruit, I soon learned, attracted the scariest looking spiders you can imagine. About the width of a child's hand, hairy, and flat as a piece of thin cardboard.) Eventually, I planted a small vegetable garden way in back. There was a lemony/tangeriney tree back there too. (I never figured out what the fruit was but it made the most marvelous lemonade.) But other than going back there to occasionally harvest those goodies, I never had any need to visit that part of the property.

Now the landlords hired a tiny man to come in occasionally and look after the gardens. He didn't seem to do that much, but he was nice enough and having him stop by now and then forced me to practice my pathetically rudimentary Quechuan language skills. He was very poor and was always dusty. Even the skin on his finely wrinkled face was dusty. His wife was ... well ... a piece of work. I can't think of another way to describe her that would be pleasant. She too was tiny and she'd emerge every now and then on my property to scare the living daylights out of me, always shouting what sounded like insults, and hitting me with things. I never knew why she did this, but some unnameable thing about me royally pissed her off. She reminded me of those kitchen witches that graced many a home in the seventies and early eighties. A violent kitchen witch. Poor tiny man.

One day, towards the end of my first two years and right before I moved to La Paz to work directly in the Peace Corps main office, the tiny man brought two kittens to my property, one male and one female. I can't recall his reasoning, though he did attempt to explain once. I don't know how or why they came into his possession. I always guessed he kept them on my property because of his scary wife, but I never really knew. (Again, my Quechua was pretty bad. And he didn't speak any Spanish. Let's just say I improved at charades during those two years.) Regardless of his reasons, he left the kittens on the property and would stop in every day to feed them.

The kittens were terrified of me, which was initially surprising since cats and I tend to get on quite well. But animal abuse was the norm there, so they had every right to be afraid of an unknown human. People mostly kept cats around to keep the mice at bay.

The kittens stuck to each other in a protectively hunched, furry mass, and they fled whenever I showed up, usually scooting into the back yard where I was a rare threat. The tiny man continued to come by to feed them, and I'd throw them some food at other times of the day, just to fatten the poor things up a bit. They were so damned pitiful.

In my last week at the house, I came home and the female ran directly up to me, clearly upset. This was oddly out of character and I wondered where the male went. Maybe tiny man took him back? I began feeding the newly brave girl, but she always seemed very anguished. I assumed that she just missed her brother and was lonely. A couple of days later, I was trying to soothe her with soft pats and some more food, when I heard a strange birdlike call coming from the back of the property.  I couldn't imagine what it was. But I went to the back to investigate and the noise got much louder. The female kitten followed me anxiously.

And suddenly I knew. Her brother was back there. Something was wrong. I followed the noise to the very back wall, a fair distance from the house, and peered into a dry, abandoned water tank. There, looking up wide-eyed and frantic was the little male kitten, trapped and meowing with such loud ragged force, it shocked me. He'd been in there for at least two days with the hot sun baking his unprotected, parched body. He looked like a little furry, matted skeleton.

I reached down and pulled him out. He weighed nothing.

His sister was visibly relieved that I'd finally caught on, and she meowed along with her brother. As I held the previously skittish kitten, he clung to me, purring and shaking. I began to cry a little at this heartbreaking scene. They were just so starkly desperate. I carried him back to the covered porch, his sister right at my heels.

Grabbing some change,  I put him down and ran to the butcher, where I bought a half a pound or so of cow's meat (a whole other story that I'll go into on another day). I returned to the front gate and could hear the meowing on the other side as they wailed against the five minutes of abandonment. I reemerged into their world and they followed me to the kitchen, tripping over each other to be closer. Cutting the meat into tiny pieces, I put the food and a bowl of water in the shade and sat down next to them. The girl ravaged the meat (I'd already been feeding her for two days, but she was still a skinny minny). The boy, however, ignored the bowl and plate. His one concern was crawling up my pants leg with his weak little claws. I pulled him up, realizing that he wanted to be held. His only desire at that moment was astonishingly not food or water, but feeling safe, loved, and protected.

So I held him for a very very long time. And soon his sister, now finished eating, jumped up too, and they fell asleep purring in my lap as the sun went down. They refused to leave my side.

The timing was terrible. I had to leave for my new post in La Paz and bringing two cats was not in the cards. I packed up my belongings with a heavy heart. I was sad, of course, to leave my town and the good friends I had made there. But I was very upset at leaving this new pair of friends that I had become very attached to in such a short amount of time. Would tiny man and his strange wife take proper care of them? Tiny man might. I had doubts about his wife. But what could I do?

The kittens followed me to the door, meowing. I hardened my heart and walked out, patting their heads a final time, wishing them luck, and assuring them that everything would be okay. They weren't my cats, after all. One can't solve every problem.

My good friend Margarita drove me and my few possessions to Sucre. There I spent the next two nights at my city home, which I shared with several other volunteers, getting ready to move to La Paz. I couldn't get the kittens out of my head, though. Were they okay? Would the boy get stuck in the tank again?

Finally, after losing enough sleep over it, all logic left me and I resolved to go get the kittens and bring them with me to La Paz. If they weren't allowed on the plane, I'd just take the 24-hour bus ride with them. I'd figure it out somehow. I'd get the paperwork needed to bring them home with me to the United States, no matter what it took.

I hopped on a truck back to Yotala carrying a small box with a blanket inside. I was excited to retrieve them and my heart was at peace now that I was finally doing the right thing. I hadn't returned the key to the owners yet, so I let myself back through the gate and called to the kittens. They didn't come. I searched every inch of the property, continually calling them.  I even checked the well. They were clearly gone and the place was empty.

Regret filled me. Why why why did I ignore my instinct to care for them? Why did I ever leave them? Now I had no idea where they were, as I didn't know where the tiny man lived. I had no idea if they were being cared for or if they were left to fend for themselves. I can't believe tiny man would ever intentionally harm or desert them. But I had to wonder at their quality of life with his wife around.

Regret is a tough thing to swallow. I've never forgotten those two kittens. They've probably passed on by now. I adopted my current kitties, Kaci and Sergio, less than a year later (after I'd returned home to the States) and they're both fourteen now. Cats don't tend to survive as long in Bolivia.

I can still picture them at that gate, trying in vain to follow me outside. If I could manipulate time, I would have taken them with me without a second thought. I would have followed my heart and let the details work themselves out.

I hope they made it.  I hope they had some happiness in their lives. I hope they forgave me.

But that intense regret changed me. When I see an animal in need now, I don't turn away, no matter how inconvenient it might be. I always stop. I always do what I can to help.

And since going vegan, I've noticed my empathy for humans increase as well. I don't walk past homeless people, pretending not to see them as I once did. Even if I have no money or food, I'll always smile or say hello. If I see a child that looks lost, I go to them immediately.

I don't say this to throw on a halo. Only to reflect that regret, as painful as it is, has a huge silver (non-halo) lining. Regret is our deepest self outlining the borders of who we are. Never pass here again, it warns. This isn't who you were meant to be.

I never have to give it a second thought now. Regret has molded me into a stronger advocate for others. I don't have to sit and reflect, "Remember those kittens? Remember how that felt?" It's deep in my cells now. It's become part of who I am. I no longer hesitate.

The experience isn't unique. We all have moments, some regretful, that define us. They're not pleasant, but they are powerful. 

It's hard not to wallow in what we have done. Or perhaps worse, not done. But if we can turn regret on its head, and let the experience serve us, then it's almost like a second chance, isn't it? And that's pretty great when you think about it.

So I raise a glass of bubbly to you and your regrets. May they allow you to continue to become who you were meant to be.


  1. Alright Suburban Snow White, I'm going public with this, so apologies in advance for any blushing:

    I've always known you as a great writer - your intelligent, accessible style is totally without pretention, and you totally speak from the heart. But I found this entry particularly moving, particularly the part about regret. I seriously question anyone who has a "no regrets" feeling about their lives, because most of us looking back DO wish we had done or behaved differently on occasion. Regrets are not wasted if used in the way you presented them here. Well done!!