Today is Leo’s three-week birthday, the day he’s supposed to cross more milestones: using his litter box instead of me and my t-shirt and a warm Q-tip, eating gruel instead of sucking on a bottle. So many directions and anti-directions are on the Internet and to be found in animal hospitals and among friends; a thousand splendid options present themselves to me like garden gnomes. I don’t trust any of them.
I don’t even trust myself, especially after last night.
There I was, having put Leo through his routine on the eve of this significant birth date: bottle feeding, burp, more bottle, poop, pass out under the warm towel. I was going out for sushi with Manfriend as usual on a Saturday night, and was less worried this time than I was last week and the week before.
Then, upon a glance, I noticed that I’d been feeding Leo puppy food instead of kitten food for the last two days. The cans look exactly the same, except for the puppy on one, the kitten on the other. I’ve spent the last 24 hours reminding people of Dennis Quaid’s baby twins being overdosed on Heparin when they were newborns; I feel that much remorse and fright. Am I killing my kitten?
I wake him up. He responds. He’s been slow to wake these past few days; I wonder if it’s the puppy food. I put the dagger that I was about to thrust into my heart down, and pick Leo up. He seems fine. We bottle-feed, poop and pee, and he doesn’t complain when I put him back into his warm towel box.
But I am wracked with shame, and my sleep sees to it that I remember one of the most shameful episodes of my life.
I am sixteen, living in Pennsylvania with my parents, my pregnant sister, and her four year old boy. I have a sense about taking care of little ones, all based on demonstration. I saw my older sisters put diapers on their children; I learned to do the same. I saw my mother with her watchful eye on my nephew, and I tried to follow suit. I knew what needed to be done when it came to taking care of a baby.
But one day, probably a day I was wishing for my driver’s license instead of having to babysit my nephew, I climbed into my dad’s pick-up truck and took it out of gear, or released the brake—I don’t know. I can’t be sure. I just know the truck moved about four feet down the incline of the hill we lived on and came to rest again against our front curb. Throughout this motion, I hoped against hope that my nephew had not been playing under the tires when the truck moved down the hill.
I wasn’t supposed to be in the truck. I jumped out and looked for my nephew; he was playing safely near some neighbors’ trees. Thank God.
I was spared.
But several days later, a new crisis erupted: my nephew had mimicked my motions, gotten in the truck, and released the brake. He and the truck went careening down the slope of our street, crashing into some trees and our neighbors’ garage. When it all started happening, it was Sunday morning and we were making eggs and getting ready for church. I was doing my hair in my room.
Either my mom or my sister screamed first, then my dad went running outside in his boxer shorts, down our steps, down the street: my father. Miraculously, my four year old nephew was still sitting behind the steering wheel, the bed of the truck buttressed by pine trees. If it were not for the trees, my nephew would have kept going down that embankment, and neither of us could have lived with that.
I’m at the animal hospital at 7 a.m. I walk through the emergency door; no other doors are open. I have tried them all. I want to break into this place and get cures. Fuck them for selling me dog formula. Fuck me for not taking best care of Leo.
I drive home with cans of kitten formula, wondering how I’m going to turn this and kitten kibble into gruel. It’s not as easy as it sounds. I make a big batch and my older cat Sara tastes it: must be good. I scold her and go in for Leo.
My dad is 78 today. Leo is three weeks. I’ll be 44 in four days. I’m still not good with numbers. I put a few drops of mineral oil in Leo’s kitten formula so he might poop more. I put tiny plates of gruel and water in places where he can find them, but then I take them away so he won’t drown.
I continue on with my day: cleaning house, grading papers, checking on baby, but I’ve broken my own heart again.