The small streak of fur dashed into the shadows so quickly, we could hardly tell what it was.
“It’s a cat, Mom!” Jonathan shouted. “You have to stop! Stop the van, Mom!”
I pulled over against the curb. The children jerked the sliding door open and tumbled out onto the sidewalk before we came to a complete stop. They ran to the spot where the animal disappeared and inserted their arms and faces and curious fingers into the prickly green shrubbery.
“Be careful,” I cautioned. “You don’t know what it is!”
“Ow!” Faith screamed and jerked her arm out of the bush.
“Oh, jeeze, Faith! Get your hands out of there! It’s probably rabid!”
“It’s a kitten, Mom! Mom! I can see a kitten! Oh, Mom! It’s so tiny!” She scrambled on top a decorative stone wall that guarded a neat yard and peered in at the terrified animal. I looked around for the neighbors who might not appreciate my child climbing on their wall, but no one was home.
“She’s hurt, Mom,” Jonathan said from below, bending branches into unnatural positions to get a better look. The bush hissed at him. “I can see blood,” he added softly.
I bent over and looked into the branches. Something wild and fierce stared back at me with a fiery resolve to tear me to pieces if I so much as pointed a finger in her general direction.
“We’ve got to save her!” my children pleaded.
“There’s no way we’re going to get that kitten to come out, guys,” I reasoned.
But Jonathan was already climbing inside the shrub and Faith was leaning in from the top and before I knew it, I was holding a hissing, spitting kitten by the scruff of the neck.
She smelled like death. Yellow streaks of puss leaked down into torn and matted fur.
“She’s so cute!” my children exclaimed because they take no notice of details. “Oh, look how little she is! Can we keep her?”
We brought her home and stuck her under the faucet with a generous handful of antibacterial soap. Her eyes grew ten times at the sound of the water and she hissed like a rattler, but when she was all wrapped up in a towel afterward she looked tiny and frail, not fierce.
“I don’t know if she’s going to make it,” I said when I saw the depth of her injuries and the way the bones ran jagged down her back. “She’s so, so sick, and she hasn’t eaten in a long time.”
The children rushed off and came back with handfuls of cat food which they fed to her a piece at a time. She ate greedily between hissing.
She drank all the little bowls of water they brought to her too, although she could barely reach them and when she did, her neck leaked out the sickness that was inside.
“We are not keeping that cat,” my husband said when the kids told him that God sent us a kitten.
But then he looked in at her, huddled in the corner of a cardboard box, and even he had to admit that there was nothing to do but show mercy. That fragile, broken creature would not survive without it.
Days passed. All the hair on her neck and chest fell out, revealing a hot abscess. When she opened her mouth wide like a lion, no sound came out. Her entire throat was aflame with infection.
By some miracle, the kitten survived. She stopped hiding behind the washing machine and began to sleep with the children. She met our older cat.
“We have to find a home for that kitten,” my husband observed one day when the cat box was full and the cat food was nearly empty and we could hear the kitten sharpening her claws on the living room rug.
“We can’t give her away, Mom,” the children pleaded. But that was the deal all along.
That adoption fell through, and then another, and each time, the kids grew more and more fiercely attached to the swirly-furred kitten in our house.
“When I grow up, I am going to keep that sweet little kitty,” Paul whispered, cupping the kitten in his freckled hands as she squirmed to get away. He forced the kitten to sit on his lap long enough to sing her the love song he made up on the spot.
Watching it hurt. We had given up time and resources to save this kitten, and in exchange, it was breaking my children’s hearts.
But mercy is like that, isn’t it? It hurts. Mercy costs something, even when it’s a very small mercy like saving a stray cat.
The bigger mercies, like adopting children and rescuing prostitutes and loving the mentally ill, well, those mercies carry a cost that can crack a person right open. Often, it means taking the hurt and destruction—the brokenness—into your own home and opening yourself and your family up to the consequences.
I think about these bigger mercies and I wonder if it’s worth the risk. Is it worth the potential harm to my children to become a foster parent? Is it worth the rage to get involved with the fight against sex trafficking? Is it worth heartbreak to show forgiveness to those who don’t deserve it?
Because all I’ve done is rescue a cat, and even that has left me a little raw.
But then Faith comes up to me with the kitten in her arms and says, “Do you think the kitten would have died without us?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Hmmm. I’m glad we found her.”
“Even though we have to give her away?”
“Oh, yes,” Faith answers without hesitation. “We saved her life, didn’t we?”
It is the obvious answer to the question. We saved her life.
Mercy is worth that risk. Mercy is worth that hurt. We saved her life. There is no hurt that could take away that joy.
Mercy was worth it.