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One of my earliest memories is of being woken up by my dad in the wee hours of the morning to be shown a glassy-eyed baby something, staring at me from behind the glass wall of an unused terrarium.
As it turned out, one of our many cats had brought in a flying squirrel, and my dad had managed to save it from an untimely demise. We took it outside to our giant oak tree, watched it spread its tiny winged arms, and it was gone.
Such was the way of life in our home. Animals of every species or creed were taken in at their moments of need and released or adopted when the time was right.
An African fighting chicken likely to peck holes in your shins. A cross-eyed Siamese with a habit of walking into walls. A baby crow, who after some nursing, took up residence on top of my mother’s head as she painted. They all joined us for a time. My playhouse became the crow’s new barn-sized nest.
Fast-forward ten years, and my sister and I now have an apartment of our own. We don't have the sprawling backyard we once had, but we have room to take in cats, so we do -- fostering shelter animals for the Humane Society until they can find what is called a "forever home."
Our first charges were a nursing mother and her watery-eyed, stick-of-butter-sized kitten. The mother gave up nursing prematurely, so it was self-mixed, heated bottles of milk replacement almost with the frequency of a human baby. Many nights, I fell asleep with a round sleeping kitten and a pool of milk on my clothes.
Another kitten had been dropped off anonymously at the shelter a week before. Her grey fur was filthy, and she had a wound on her tail. She was lethargic and scared to death of people.
Over the weeks, we cleaned her, extending hands out to her almost in slow motion and coaxing her out of the closet.
A month later she was unrecognizable, an active jumping bean with a clean, waxy coat and a little too much hunger for food and life. I'd be sleeping and hear a crash; she had knocked over another box or bowl of something.
Between the mess, the noise, and schoolwork on very little sleep, I often questioned my commitment to fostering. I spent long nights waitressing, and I often slept with a pillow on top of my head. Sometimes I'd go to my boyfriend's house to avoid it all.
But just as it seemed to become unbearable, we got the relief we had been craving. The kitten was offered a permanent home.
Our relief was soon replaced by sadness and nostalgia. Even with urine-stained carpets, food all over the kitchen floor, and sinks full of used bottles, the hardest part of fostering is letting go.
Genevieve Ludwig is part of WAMU's Youth Voices program in partnership with Youth Radio and D.C's Latin American Youth Center.