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A Better Man

A Better Man

One of the most memorable lines in recent cinema history was from the movie: “As Good As it Gets” with Jack Nicholson starring. The line was: “You make me want to be a better man.” This was one of the most romantic lines and also most significant. It was to me.

Today.

Years later, I happily wake up in good condition after a two-day bout with food poisoning. Probably the first time in my 50 years I was brought down so hard. Bad lamb kebabs. My health basically fine except for some kidney stone challenges, my finances not great but not in emergency status, I was feeling pretty good and on my way for a modest breakfast at McDonald’s to start my day.

As I bounded down the stairs toward my awaiting motorbike, the unmistakable sound of a kitten in obvious pain echoed in the halls. There’s something about a kitten’s plea for rescue that goes directly to one’s compassionate response system. When I reached the first floor, under a broken down vehicle and sheltering itself from the oncoming drizzle sat a calico kitten. Tiny head looking up at the world. Screaming in his own language: “Mom!” a thousand times as loud as he can. Barely 4 weeks old and not sure footed yet, he looked so alone. People walked and drove by. I stood for a minute. ‘I don’t like cats’, I reminded myself. I’m a dog lover.

There are countless cats in my neighborhood. It is hard to know where they come from or where they disappear to. But there seems to be an endless stream. So I told myself. This was to lessen the guilt I was feeling for leaving the little guy and heading off to my Egg McMuffin without him. Thinking that he would be gone – scooped up by his mother – before I got back, I enjoyed my breakfast with barely a second thought of the little kitten near my home.

When I got home, it was a different story. The cries were there but more intense. I looked for him, but didn’t see him. But I heard the cries and they made their mark. I was almost hooked. I went up one flight then looked out the window as a neighbor descended. As the neighbor exited, he couldn’t see the kitten either. But he looked. The cries continued. I stood and waited and watched and wondered what to do. Suddenly an old lady emerged from the downstairs apartment. She reached into the 2 foot deep gutter full of nasty sewer water and pulled the kitten out. Looking like a drowned rat, the kitten stopped crying for a minute. I think he was happy to be alive. The woman mumbled something in Chinese about ‘mother cat’ coming back and went back in her apartment. The kitten crawled back under the vehicle.

I made a mental note to check back later then went upstairs to do some work. An hour later, I listened from my home and could hear the kitten through the closed door. I almost felt like it was destiny. This kitten is calling me. If I don’t do something, it will be my mistake. I’m not the only one in the world to help and this kitten isn’t the only precious life that needs saving, but right here, right now, I am being called. It could be circumstances, it could be God, it could be the great kitten spirit, it didn’t matter. The switch in my mind was flipped and I had to act or I was going to pay a heavy price deep down inside. I wanted to be ‘a better man’.

But, first, I wrestled. I wrestled with a line-up of grisly characters that the world wrestling federation has yet to dream up. They all were fighting me and demanding I ignore this call for help. The first was the undeniable fact that I don’t like cats. Powerfully and instantly trumped by the kitten’s forlorn call and the cutest little face you’ve ever seen. Second monster comes calling: I know nothing about cats, haven’t the knowledge, skill, disposition, experience or infrastructure to help at all. This one quickly trumped by the fact that a 7-yer-old can take care of kitten. The third nasty fellow to boldly block my rescue was huge and powerful. He reminded me that I was working full time to build an international organization that helps people do charitable things. This was my contribution. If I wasted my time on every little screaming kitten that came along, I’d never do the really big things I was working to do. Thousands or millions in Africa may die because I couldn’t be true to my priorities. Trumped without contest.

These ogres and all other possible challengers lost before they ever came to bat. For one simple reason that I really don’t know. All I can say is that this seemed mine to do. After a while, you just don’t argue in your mind anymore about certain things. You don’t care about the reasons for or against. Logic and practicality don’t matter and you don’t even care if your decision is considered wrong by someone or something. You’ve made up your mind. You somehow ‘forgot’ why. You just passed the debate point and now it was time to act or regret it forever. I acted.

I grabbed a towel and went downstairs and grabbed the kitten and bright him upstairs. He seemed basically healthy, but I’m no expert. My mind strangely went back to the Nicholson movie again. Jack’s character is also a writer and is forced to take care of a small and cute animal that he normally detests. Like myself, he lives alone and is terminally married to his work. When this intruder arrives, he springs into action and awkwardly tries to accommodate the obviously out of place guest. In the movie, Jack tells the dog, “there’s no dog food around here, you eat what we eat!” as if a condemnation to intolerable rations. Then he proceeds to bring a platter of roast beef out of the refrigerator and begins to slice pieces for the dog. I couldn’t resist saying the same line as I took fish out of my refrigerator and prepared Dory filet for my tiny guest.

As luck would have it, ‘Fracas’ wasn’t having any Dory filet today. Mother’s milk was the only thing he wanted and I was in short supply. I grabbed him, wrapped him in the towel and took down to the local pet store. A nice woman there inspected Fracas, said he seemed healthy and prescribed some food in a can and some dry food I could add water to that would be cheaper. I got both. Fracas immediately took to the canned stuff – the expensive stuff of course – and I was wearing a bigger smile inside than I had worn in quite a while.

Enough about the cat.

I learned some lessons today that I forgot and some I had never learned before. We are compassionate creatures. We need to give. All this talk about how good it feels and it’s better to give than to receive, it’s all true. But we forget. And even if we remember, there’s always the monsters. The ones that stand in the way with all kinds if very practical and very important reasons to ignore the calls for help. And if it weren’t for the constant screams of this little kitten today, my action would have been stopped by the first monster. I guess it was the cries for help that echoed in my hall. The ones no one else yet responded to. The feeling that I felt inside that came from somewhere that told me in no uncertain terms that this rescue was mine to do. Too bad. Too bad.

Too bad that every day, there are 22,000 human children that die unheard by all of us. That’s one every few seconds. To save one of those human lives would be easier than my story with the kitten today. It doesn’t require adoption and the main infrastructure is in place. It just takes that magic switch to be flipped inside of us. It takes an open and willing heart. It takes a constellation of circumstances – some that we can control and others we cannot. But it will sooner or later come down to one thing. ‘me’. When we feel the unmistakable certainty that it is ‘mine to do’, all the ogres are defeated. We only need listen to our heart. I did today – against all sound logic – and I’ve had my richest day in a very long time. I wish that same joy for you.

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