Garbage Cats

Garbage Cats– that’s what we called them. The women who lived in the housing compounds at King Faisal Hospital and Research Center in the 1980’s called them garbage cats because they lurked around the big green dumpsters positioned along the perimeter of the compound. We’d toss the remains of our dinners into these dumpsters, and the cats would leap into them as soon as we’d toss. They’d dig around for shreds of edible chicken, fish bones, and whatever else a garbage cat could scavenge.

Hospital housing rules forbid the residents from bringing cats into their homes, and when the cat population became noticeably larger, we’d see a truck prowling around with two men and a large net. We never knew whether the cats were put to death, or taken out to the desert and let loose.

Most of us originated from countries in which cats did not run feral or dig in garbage. We liked cats; we knew them as pets, quiet and graceful, worthy of care and a place in the home. 

Naturally, we felt sorry for Saudi cats, and did bring them into our homes whenever they could be coaxed inside. We named them according to their physical characteristics.

A black female with a white patch on her face, became a favorite of my roommate Irene, and was named Blackie, naturally. Irene bought proper cat food for Blackie, and took her to the vet for shots and worm medicine. She was going to have Blackie spayed, but the vet discovered that the cat was already pregnant.

Irene, the consummate cat lover, tried to find homes for the unborn kittens. Blackie grew fatter, and we started to wonder where females cats go to have kittens in Saudi Arabia. We never did find out– one day Blackie did not come home to be fed and cuddled, nor did she come the next day or the next. Irene worried about her, hoped she hadn’t been collected  by the hospital cat-catchers, or fallen under the wheels of a car.

Two weeks passed. “Blackie is sure to have had her kittens by now,” Irene said as we stood outside and looked down the road from where Blackie usually approached.

“Any sign of Blackie?” Irene asked daily, and I said, “No, I’m sorry,” daily.

One weekend morning, we stood at the door, discussing our plans for the evening, when Irene became distracted by a dark spot moving towards us along the road. We both stopped talking and watched. Yes, a cat was approaching, running, not walking. It was a black cat. It carried something in its mouth. It ran fast, between us as we stood at the door, into our home and up the stairs. It was Blackie, but what was she carrying?

We ran upstairs behind her, and found that Blackie had chosen my bedroom from the available three, entered the closet, dropped her bundle in the corner, and ran back out as fast as she had run in. I was afraid she’d brought a dead bird, but she’d brought one of her kittens!

It was a tiny, whiny thing, shaking from weakness, blind because its eyes weren’t open yet, and poking its nose in the air, looking for milk, we were sure. I ran downstairs to get a bowl of milk and a small spoon. As I started up the stairs again, I was nearly tripped by Blackie, who zoomed past me with another bulge in her mouth!

She deposited the second kitten next to the first and ran out as fast as she had run in.

Ten minutes later, she brought her third kitten, and ran back out as fast as she ran in.

We did not see Blackie again for two weeks.

In the meantime, I had to feed those little mewing creatures morning, noon and night, with an eye dropper because they couldn’t even lick from the spoon yet. I put them in a shallow cardboard box with some sand, and had to clean it every day. Then they got mobile and crawled out of the box. Then I told Irene she’d better find homes for those babies quick or I’d turn them out to fend for themselves at the dumpster.

Irene thought I was cruel, but Blackie hadn’t entrusted her with the kittens; she’d entrusted me, and I was stressed. I worked ten hours a day, with a break at noon, which had to be spent running back home under the midday sun to feed them and straighten their box. Those kittens were alone entirely too long for anyone’s good. I could not allow them to live in my closet much longer.

Irene did find three women who agreed to look after a kitten apiece, against hospital housing rules, of course, and I was relieved. Blackie resumed coming and going as usual, but never showed the least shred of interest in her kittens. Irene babied her and resumed buying special cat food for her, and I always wondered why Blackie gave me her kittens. Why did she chose my closet and not Irene’s to make a home for her infants? Why hadn’t she mothered her own kittens?

To this day, it is a mystery. Irene took in other garbage cats, and I adopted a skinny tabby with the greenest eyes I’d ever seen. I named him Jade, of course, and I’ll write his story another time.




If Worry Could Fix Things…

One day last year, while my parents were vacationing, I ignored a leak from the bathroom on the second floor of their home. A day later, the leak exploded and drenched two walls of the kitchen downstairs. I developed a migraine rather promptly. When I told my father, he said, “Don’t worry. The walls can be fixed.”
I nearly cried from guilt and worry, and then he said, “If worrying could fix it, I’d encourage you to worry more.”

That was typical of my father’s gentle way of making things right. For all his harsh words and strict standards over the years, he’d always had a charming way of soothing something that seemed unbearable.

I recall the night Ginger, my pet hamster, died. I was ten years old, and we’d been out, shopping, perhaps, but when we returned, I remembered that I hadn’t fed my hamster that day.

I went into the basement, where I kept his cage, and found his furry body curled up in his favorite corner. He seemed asleep, but his back peaked with a rigidity I’d never seen before. I reached into the cage and grasped him gently, as usual, but his body was stiff and cold. I dropped him and screamed. My father heard the scream and started screaming himself. He thought I’d encountered a burglar or worse.

I ran upstairs and yelled, “Ginger is dead!” and then felt guilty for causing my father such a scare. He’d been watching TV in the living room.

I cried, and could not go to bed, so I sat on the sofa close to Papa. He put his arm around me, and told me about the night his father died. I don’t remember the details of the story, because I was so impressed with the fact that my father did not cry while he told it, even though I could see he was still sad after all those years.

I said to myself, “If Papa can bear the death of his father, I can bear the death of Ginger.” I also realized that someday I’d be in his position. Someday I’d have to bear my Papa’s death.

That thought caused me to cry again, nearly to the point of choking, and to snuggle into my father’s side as if to pin him there next to me forever. How would I be able to bear Papa’s death? My ten year old heart didn’t know.

I asked myself that question periodically over the next forty-seven years, and never learned the answer. My father died on March 9, 2008, at the age of eight-seven, and I still don’t know the answer. A part of me has died, but not the part that contained my father. That part lives in my heart and half my DNA. His spirit still speaks to me and to everyone else he touched, and there are many of us.

Now I worry that when I stop crying, he will die yet again. In the meantime, I will ask myself not to worry. If worrying could fix things, I’d encourage myself to worry more.