Nica Toña, December 8, 2014
When I heard that first meow, I knew we were doomed. My daughter loves animals. My daughter loves turtles. My daughter loves dogs. She loves anything that breathes. Her weakness, however, is a cat. Any cat. Fat, skinny, black, yellow, smelly, soft; it really doesn't matter but if you add the word "kitten" to your description of a feline, Camille will lose her mind. I remember when she was about 2 or 3 we were at my sister's house who had assumed responsibility of a feral cat and her kittens. She had trapped them, taken them for spaying/neutering and kept them current on their shots. She always had food on the porch for them and did what she could to keep them healthy and happy. What she was unable to do was tame them. One evening while searching for our little toddler Camille, we found her on my sister's porch. She was surrounded by the cats. They were climbing on her and sitting in her lap. She was speaking to them softly and petting them. It was a heartwarming and yet bizarre scene. The cats who had no desire to have human contact seemed completely at ease with my tiny child. It was at that moment we deemed her "the cat whisperer." She is 11 now and not much has changed. She has developed into a magnificent young lady with a heart full of love and hands ready for service to others. A few years ago she created a group for environmental awareness, "Camille's Cause". It is a movement to help clean the waterways of our world. She has a Facebook page, an Instagram account and a website. She organizes community clean ups. When I tell you she's magnificent I mean it. To a certain degree she comes by this honestly. Her parents are both nurses and that in itself says a lot about who we are by nature. We recently travelled to remote Nicaragua on a medical mission. After much consideration, we decided that taking Camille along would be a wonderful opportunity for her. We were right. She was exposed to so many horribly sad and terrifically wonderful things. She helped us organize our make-shift clinics. She assisted in exams. She played with the local children. She shed tears for everything that the people of Nicaragua didn't have and felt immense joy for the things that they did have. She was touched by the opportunity to serve. She was also keenly aware that even though there was so much to be done there was actually very little we could do. She felt to a certain degree what the adults were feeling: a sense of helplessness. And then we heard the meow. It was like the shot heard around the world. (Well, her world anyway.) And then she saw her. A tiny little yellow tabby cat right smack dab in the middle of the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. One scared little kitten and one infamous cat whisperer. By now it should come as no surprise to hear that a kitten who had no desire to be touched by anyone else at the hotel was immediately trusting of my daughter. Within the first 30 minutes the kitty was relaxing in Camille's arms. Within an hour the sweet little kitten had a name- Nica Toña. Within 2 hours, the two were napping in a hammock. At lunch, Camille ordered grilled chicken. Just as a parent would do, she portioned the meat and cut one half of her meal into tiny chunks for her new found friend. They posed for selfies, explored the grounds, played, and cuddled. If Camille wasn't carrying her, the kitten was bouncing behind her, elated to have found a sense of security. I could see it happening. A bond was forming and attachments were made by both. It was a classic moment in parenting. Do you allow your child to travel a path that you know will end in heartbreak or do you extinguish the behavior just to spare them the pain? I chose the first instead of the latter. I let her feel that joy. I did not intervene. In fact, I would say that a part of me experienced that joy with her. There is no greater feeling as a parent than to see your child happy; and boy was she happy. Happiness in its purest form is a precious thing. Children experience happiness much differently than adults. They do so without hesitation or reservation. As adults, we know that happiness is generally followed by a degree of pain. Whether it be due to tragedy, failure, or simply the fact that sometimes a memory just isn't enough. The knowledge of this often holds us back. But children do not have knowledge of any of this therefore they love without hesitation and live without fear. As the sun was setting on our last day in Nicaragua, dread was rising deep inside of me. I was looking forward to going to bed knowing that nothing separates us from emotion more than sleep. My hope was that Camille would retire to our room and that the kitten would find its way to her original home. I soon found myself to be the only member of our group left at the table. Camille and many others had gone to bed. I was so relieved. On my way to bed I have to admit that I looked around for Nica without success. My prediction had rang true. She had gone home. My heart felt a twinge of pain but it was nothing compared to the relief I felt as I was walking to our room. I had dodged a bullet. The kitten had left on her own. We could find comfort together in knowing that the cat had used the gift of free will to move on to her next location. Thank you Jesus. When I entered my room, I found my husband and my daughter soundly sleeping. I bent over my daughter's bed to kiss her on the forehead like I do on most nights. And then I felt it. Holy crap. You have got to be kidding me. Curled up in the arms of my sweet angel was that tiny orange tabby cat. As with most people in the world today, I pulled out my iPhone to document this moment in a photograph. Neither Nica nor Camille moved one inch when the camera flashed in the dark room. They were in deep slumber, tightly wound as though they had been together since the beginning of time. As I shared the picture on Facebook to update my friends and family about the situation on social media, i felt my heart beginning to break just thinking of what the morning would bring. Almost immediately comments of support and advice started pouring in. People trying to solve the apparent problem for me. I was given a website for a pet rescue in Managua and one of my friends was attempting to arrange a plane ticket home for Camille's little Nica Toña. It was all coming together. We would be able to make this happen and my child would avoid a broken heart. I almost believed it myself. It wasn't until the finalization of plans was happening that I realized we had one very large missing component: a pet carrier. Where could we get one? It wouldn't be in Las Salinas, we would have to wait for Managua. And still, where? I was willing to chance it. We would carry her in the van and then look for a pet store. We could make this work. It was all very exciting until reality set in. What if it didn't work? We would have travelled 3 hours from Nica's home in the country to a city populated with 3 million people. If we weren't able to get her on the plane, what would we do? Where would she go? Time was not on our side and the odds were not in our favor. The dreams of taking this sweet, innocent creature out of this unforgiving environment were gone. She would stay where she was. She would have to look for food on her own, fight diseases without immunizations and eventually go on to have more kittens to perpetuate the cycle or worse, meet an untimely death. You can't criticize a culture for not caring more for their animals. Things do not come easy for humans in Nicaragua and thus animals are often on their own. I would like to tell you that Camille was not privy to the hopes I had of rescuing Nica from her homeland. No matter the parenting lesson, false hope is simply cruel. I would never do that to anyone, especially my child. As we loaded our vans, Camille and Nica remained in each other's arms. Holding on to the last few moments they would have together. I believed that somehow the kitty also knew that their time was coming to an end. She nuzzled herself deep into Camille's chest as if to become a permanent part of her. When everyone else was preparing to leave, Camille was stealing a final moment with a kindred spirit. She fed Nica some breakfast, possibly the last easy meal the cat will ever have. With tears running down her face she kissed Nica on the head and told her that she would see her next time. Hoping, but not knowing if there was any truth to that. I held my broken daughter on the 3 hour ride to Managua, crying with her and talking her through her pain. She asked if we could send monthly care packages of food and toys to her sweet friend. She explained to me that the next time we traveled with GivingMore to Las Salinas she would be prepared to bring Nica home with her. She would have the paperwork completed and her carry-on would consist of an empty pet carrier ready to be filled with the part of her heart that this time she was being forced to leave behind. As I listened to her, wiping her tears as they fell, I saw a mirrored image of what I was feeling. Sadness knowing that although I had tried to make a lasting impact on Nicaragua it wasn't going to be enough. I also saw something else, though. Something that I had not found on my own but instead had discovered in the spirit of my daughter. It was such an honest and raw existence that I myself had not been able to grasp it because of my tainted, adult view of the world. It was simple. It was hope. Maybe we can actually make a difference, just maybe. So Nicaragua, please listen closely. We will be back. We will bring hands ready for service and hearts full of love. We will bring an empty pet carrier and maybe, just maybe Nica will be there waiting for us to bring her home.