When she was turning four, I asked her if she was sure she was ready to sleep in her own bed. She responded with a sidelong glance and a tolerant toss of her head. "I've done it before, Mama." Then she saw the look in my eyes that she will someday recognize as the pain of a tearing umbilical cord, and she relented. "But I promise I'll go back to your bed if the monsters come back under mine." She stuttered a little back then, and in the year since has learned to slow down her speech so that her mouth can keep up with her language, which is much older than her years. She wears gold butterflies in her ears, has learned a near-perfect plié in dance class; bestows equal adoration on Barbie, Dora and Spiderman; and when I blast the music of the Gypsy Kings through our apartment, she swings her hips with me as we go about our day.
I have two other children, both boys, whom I adore for their own reasons, but she is the child I cherish because I do not deserve her: the child I conceived during the decline of my marriage, against the odds of my age. In meandering through my mostly ordinary life, I have lived moments that have made me bow in reverence to the fate I was handed. It is the kind of homage people tend to reserve for exceptional fame or unexpected fortune. However, perhaps because I am too private to covet fame and very superstitious about gifts of fortune, I instead give profound homage to a fate that gave me this child, and then expand my spiritual debt to the universe that understands how badly I needed a daughter when it was clear that the child inside me would be the last one I would bear in this lifetime.
There is also a cat to whom I owe gratitude. This is mostly a story about her.
On a Saturday in July 1999, I made my weekly trip to the farmer's market in Syracuse, New York, the town where I was living at the time with my husband and our two sons. After finishing my shopping, on my way to the diner where I had lunch afterwards, I passed an appliance-size cardboard box in which two kittens were mewling, one more desperate than the other, her eyes wider, her clawing at the sides of the box more frenetic. I asked the teenager by the box who the kittens were. He said he had found five of them abandoned together behind a shopping mall and had placed the other three in homes in his neighborhood. The kittens had all been so little, he added, that he assumed they were newborns. I nodded and left, fully expecting that she and her sibling would be bagged by two girls jumping up and down and chanting: "Papi, please! Papi, please!" to a man who had a how-the-hell-am-I-going-to-explain-this-to-your-mother look on his sunburned face.
On my way back to my car from the diner, I passed the box again and only she was still in it. The girls and their papi, the teenager told me, had taken the other kitten. She tried to scurry up the side of the box when she saw me. I picked her up and she clung to the middle of my chest, a frantic, orange ball of energy that literally dug her claws into me. From one of the vegetable vendors I got a covered cardboard box with air holes around it and in it I took her home.
My husband and I had, by then, developed a mode of communication whereby we disagreed about everything we had not previously agreed to agree upon; we had not agreed to get a pet. He, however, took one look at my face as I lowered the mewling box onto the kitchen counter and saw a call to a battle I was not prepared to lose. He chose to skip the fight we would ordinarily have had and instead mumbled a mild: "Oh, you got a cat."
My sons were ecstatic. We named her Martha.
That Monday, I took her to the vet. She had fleas and earwigs, and she was seriously undernourished. The vet set her birth date at on or about May 1, which made her older than two months. I never want to know what life she lived during those months.
At the end of that summer, I turned 40. Friends of mine who knew I wanted a third child teased me that Martha was it. It was a reality check. I knew I had another child wandering the terrain of my soul, but, because of my age, I also knew that getting pregnant and staying pregnant were going to be trickier than they had been with my sons. Added to that was the fact that my husband and I were both in university, mid-way through advanced degrees; we were responsible for children, a mortgage and car payments. The stress was taking a heavy toll on our marriage. Another child was simply not an option.
Flash forward to November two years later, when both he and I had graduated with those advanced degrees, but our marriage was much farther out on the rocks than either of us realized at the time.
We had moved to eastern Pennsylvania that July because he had been offered the job of his dreams there. The exterior wall of the living room in our new house had a flap-covered entrance through which Martha could come and go at will. I remember wishing that my children lived in a world that afforded them that kind of freedom, wanting for their lives, I suppose, the joie de vivre that had drained from mine.
The Monday morning of that Thanksgiving week, as I did every weekday morning, I went to the kitchen to make my sons' breakfast. In the living room, which was off the kitchen, my elder son was stroking Martha in tentative strokes along her back. He said something was wrong with her and I went to see what he meant by that. She snarled when we touched random spots on her body, but she did not respond to our touching in any pattern that could help us understand what was bothering her, and eventually we gave up. She headed toward the staircase making it clear she wanted to go upstairs. He coaxed her up one step at a time and settled her in his room. We went about our day: school for our sons and work for my husband and me. I came home that afternoon before anyone else because I was an adjunct professor with shorter working hours than theirs. I called through the house for Martha to no response. I searched then for her and finally found her whimpering on the floor of the closet in my bedroom. I picked her up, cradled her in my arms and went downstairs to the living room where I sat down on the couch and settled her in my lap, she baring her teeth and snarling at me the whole time. I checked her again and saw nothing until I noticed her tail was flaccid. I lifted it to find that her entire rump was a ripped-open, bloody wound. I shut my eyes, stilled myself to recover from the shock, placed her in her carrier, placed her carrier in my car, and raced to the vet; she wailing, I weeping and apologizing the whole way.
After examining her, the vet concluded she had had her tail run over by a car when she was crossing the street. She had straightened up with the surprise and had been struck in the chest by the next car. Both drivers had driven off, abandoning her to whatever fate befell her. Her tail was completely dead and she had a herniated diaphragm. But despite that, she had found her way back home and crawled back into the house through the flap in the living-room wall and into my elder son's confused arms. She wanted to live, and my husband and I knew we had to respect her wishes for that. We agreed we would do whatever it took to save her life. We learned that she needed her tail amputated and surgery to repair the diaphragm.
Because no animal hospitals in our neck of the woods were taking surgery cases due to the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend, we had to drive her to the Veterinary Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, an hour away. She survived the operation and recovered fully.
Two weeks later, I found out I was eleven weeks pregnant. I had skipped two months and assumed it was because I was perimenopausal. I had not allowed myself the hope a pregnancy test—with the risk of a false positive—would have given me. One of my earliest cues in my previous pregnancies had been my body rejecting alcohol, and I had had a very sober Thanksgiving with girlfriends wondering if I was not drinking because I was pregnant. I had responded with quips about immaculate conceptions, given my deteriorating marriage, and explained my disinterest in partying as concern about Martha. It took my Ob.Gyn. sliding his ultrasound monitor across my belly and the image of my daughter, in utero, popping up on the screen to convince me that I was, indeed, with child.
The pregnancy happened against significant odds: my age, the state of my marriage, and a condition, diagnosed in the second trimester, called the Anti-JK Kidd factor. There was an incompatibility between my daughter's blood and mine that had my body, having not consulted with my soul, producing anti-bodies against her as if she were a foreign body that needed to be expelled from mine. It was a condition over-represented in South Asians, like myself, and Southeast Asians, but virtually unknown in the suburban Pennsylvania demographic I was living in at the time. It had my doctor begging to remove her as early as was tenable, so he could manage the condition and not worry about her life, and my husband and I agreeing because we could no longer bear how frightening that pregnancy had turned out to be. When she was born, though, exactly a month before her due date, she was flawless in her health and delicious in her beauty.
Call me crazy, but my theory about Martha's accident is that there was bad luck headed our way with my pregnancy and she took the hit, taking on herself what could have been life-threatening karmic punch to my daughter.
Two years later, my husband and I finally gave up on our marriage. He got Martha as part of the trade we made so I could have full custody of our children and return to Canada, where I am from. The following winter, his job required him to be in Europe for six months and he left Martha with friends of his who did not understand that she was special.
She ran away and was never found.
I will never know if she is still alive, but in my imagination, she has become a superpower superior to the ones in my sons' electronic games. My children have thrived in post-divorce. They are content, secure, loving, loved, quirky, and on-track in the way that only parents instinctively understand is important. I like to think that some of that I owe to Martha being out there in the universe, deflecting bad energy that might be headed their away.
My daughter wakes up within minutes of my having turned off the movie I was watching and getting into the bed, which was the first thing I bought myself after I divorced her father. "Did the monsters come back?" I ask as I lift her from her bed. She wraps her arms around my neck and her legs around my waist. "I miss you," she mumbles, her head tumbling back to sleep on my shoulder. "Me, too, Baby," I whisper, knowing that if she were awake she would protest that she is not a baby. I settle her in my bed, under the comforter she and I have shared since she was born. It is scored in places where Martha, as a kitten, had ripped it; the amateur stitching of my mending resembles scars.