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Today I want to talk about mistakes. I’ll share one of mine. There are many to choose from – and this story certainly isn’t the worst of them – but it’s the earliest mistake I can remember, and one that led me, for decades afterward, to view myself as the villain in my story.

When I was a kid, our cat Rosebud had a litter every spring. This, I believed, made our family very popular in the neighborhood because we were the givers of free kittens. But Rosie’s last litter (the one that convinced us to have her fixed) was born in a cardboard box that was tipped on its side, sitting on the porch. It rained for days, and the litter was washed into the woodpile.

I remembered there had been five kittens, but we only found four. My dad pulled them from the wood, saying things like, “Oh, little fella.” There was only one I could reach. It was so bony, I thought it would break if I pulled hard enough to dislodge it. Dad moved the log above it, and I took its fragile body in my hands, watching the tiny pulse of its heart and the fleas milling over its thin fur.

Dad set the kittens beside Rosie to see if they would nurse, but Rosie only growled and walked away. Sadly, this is not the worst part of the story. The worst part is always when I enter the scene and make some sort of decision. And here, the trouble came when I believed I could feed the kitten condensed milk if only I could pry open its mouth.

I won’t go into the gore or the reason I decided I needed to use a screwdriver. The short of it is that I had desperately wanted to save the kitten, who was likely not savable. But my way of saving the kitten created such a disastrous scene, what could I do in the end but bring the limp kitten back to its mother? Rosie carried it off and left it under a bush.

This was the beginning of a long lesson on the difference between what I wanted to believe about myself and what I actually was. Later that day, my dad packed the other three in the cardboard box. I found my kitten under the bush and held it because it was still warm and almost lovely. I tried to think of a name for it before Dad took it from me. I was still trying when he drove off with the whole box of them.

Sometimes friends heal your old wounds without realizing it. My friend Brian, who knows this awful story, did just that when he drew this picture for me.

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How about you? What’s your story? And you don’t have to share it here. I just think this is at the heart of what writers do. You often turn to the most uncomfortable emotions, and you let yourself stay there a while. Think on that, and then go write.

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Susan Henderson SUSAN HENDERSON is the author of UP FROM THE BLUE (HarperCollins, 2010) and founder of the blog, LitPark, a literary playground for writers.

7 Responses to “Mistakes that Changed Us”

  1. Eric Bosse says:

    Thank you for sharing this painful story, Susan, and thank you for choosing to omit the gory details. That might have felt like a brave choice–in fact, my impulse might have been to write it out for the sheer visceral impact of the scene, the moment–but you’re just as brave not to go there. All of its power is still there, but you’ve spared your reader the trauma. It is a small choice, but you didn’t make the mistake this time around.

    I’m fascinated by the theme (my book will be called Magnificent Mistakes), and you’re wise to locate critical self-reflection at the heart of what writers do. Too often, I forget that. I appreciate the reminder.

    Love the drawing, too.

    All best,
    e.

    • That’s something I think about a lot as a writer, and before that, as a counselor– how do you tell about trauma and do it justice without traumatizing the listener. It’s an interesting puzzle… all gray areas.

      Your book title is fabulous.

  2. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    What a beautiful gesture and drawing from your friend!

    As adults, it’s easy to condemn our actions as children. In your case, your intent was to help the kitten–but the method you chose was not done with malice. My guess is you were sad about the kitten’s death at the time, but trauma compounded itself as you got older and understood more.

    There’s some healing in perspective. I wrote a piece that’s coming out in a Buddhist magazine early next year about my shift in compassion for insects and small creatures. The summer I was eight, I killed insects even though I “knew” what I was doing and even liked them. I don’t know what that was about. But since then, I’ve grown increasingly compassionate to the extent that I will go out of my way NOT to kill something now.

    Your last paragraph triggered a lot for me in relation to my second novel. There’s no getting around it, but man I still wish there were.

    (The launch approacheth!!!!)

    • I love the drawing, too. And your words are very wise about how trauma can get compounded by what you add to it with your adult mind. You’ll have to link the Buddhist article for us when it’s out.

  3. Billy Bones says:

    “…the villain in my story.”

    Plenty to make one cringe in your story, but that’s the line that really caught my eye. I can’t square it with the very caring person who writes these wonderful posts. Anyhow, I’m glad you no longer see yourself that way.

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