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september 11, the day jack rescued me

jack-and-mom-by-erica-bergerI WAS GOING TO SKIP ANY MENTION of 9/11, not because it’s not on my mind, but it’s tricky: Today marks the 10th anniversary of one of the primary catalysts for my eventual exit from city living, for my withdrawal from the mainstream, and also the day that Jack the Demon Cat came to live with me.

man-overboardSEPTEMBER 11, 2011–Ten years ago today, I raced out of Manhattan after watching through my office window as the second plane hit the Trade Center. “Thousands of people have just died,” I said to my colleague, seeing the impact and the immediate flames. I don’t know where that came from, but it was how it looked to me right then.

Let this excerpt from my recent book, “And I Shall Have Some Peace There,” tell the rest of  the story of what happened next as I drove faster and faster north toward my weekend home, the place I now live fulltime, a story of finding some measure of peace and comfort even in unspeakably uncomfortable times:

FRANTIC AT THE BULLETINS and the chopper noise and all of it, I said good-bye [to the city] and hurried onward, farther north, as if there would be solace if I just kept running.

What there was instead was a large black cat, a cat I’d seen just once before but who was standing in the eerie, stunning sunlight of that day, who rolled delightedly in the warm driveway gravel of my weekend home and bared his belly as if we’d known each other for a lifetime, as if to say, Welcome home.  Our one previous meeting had been three months earlier, when in the middle of a birthday party I’d given for myself, a party with a boisterous group of forty-five margarita-filled adults spilling out into the yard in all directions from the tiny house, he’d apparently just walked in and shown himself to a real cat person in the group, who (a bit tipsy herself) had carried him inside to me.

I was at the stove, the oven door ajar, serving up still-hot shortcake biscuits with strawberries and cream at that very moment, engineering an assembly line of homemade dessert for nearly four dozen. There had just been a small mishap with the handheld electric beater, sending foamy cream-colored splatters everywhere, but people were holding out plates to get them filled, as if they didn’t notice the spray of recently airborne cream on me, the wall, the appliances—or simply didn’t care.  That was when I first met the black cat, and promptly asked that Susan, the person presenting him to me in the midst of this drunken, whipped-cream chaos, please get him out of here. I am, you see, not a cat person.

I am a bird person, and cats are a leading enemy of songbirds.  After collisions with window glass, which is the top killer of songbirds in residential environments, cats rate next on the lethal list, killing hundreds of millions of birds a year in the United States alone, says the Audubon Society. I have spent my adulthood reading about and watching birds as a passionate amateur hobby, if not an obsession, and making a garden specifically geared to welcoming them year-round. I know better than to want a cat here with me, unless it was a cat who wanted to live indoors, a truly domesticated cat, the couch-and-bed type. Did I mention how much I dislike pet hair on my floors and furniture and clothing?

This very large black and white male cat—a fur pattern for obvious reason referred to as tuxedo—being held out like a live offering in my direction from Susan’s arms was that tricky mix of wild and tame that I’d known in too many men already (always ones carefully chosen for their low body-hair count, I might add, so that at least that one thing about them would not rankle me, or cause me extra work).  Get him out of here. Of course, he never did get out, but apparently kept an eye on me, gauging the right moment to make his next move toward his version of domestic bliss. He was christened Jack a few months hence, when he joined me for good the morning of September 11 and parked himself in a wooden box on the back porch, basking in the deceptive light and warmth of that darkest of mid-September days. “Jack in the Box,” said Susan’s longtime partner, Harry, after she’d told him of coming back a few days later to find us—me, and this cat—still sitting out there with NPR playing on the boombox, trying to fathom the world’s new landscape.  And so it was: Jack.

Be grateful to everyone.

At nearly sixteen pounds, the vet called Jack “big boned” when Susan took him in a week or two thereafter, and in fact he was not fat but wildly muscular, built like a miniature black panther and with all the moves, lowering himself to ground level and waiting, completely still, sometimes for half an hour until the very moment to positively race and then pounce upon his prey with shocking accuracy. Owing to his evolutionary ancestors, Jack sleeps most of the day and hunts at night. Fierce as he is, I should have named him Huey (for Newton) or Bobby (Seale), perhaps; he has certainly caused a revolution in my life.  We also learned that he was about two years old, and had been neutered; probably, the vet said, a cat someone had not wanted anymore, a trade-in. Or maybe he had just grown sick of his old life and walked out one day.

It was Susan, who helps me in the garden and who in my city years was also the de facto caretaker here, whom Jack regarded as his owner, I think, at least at first, and to this day only Susan has ever done the vet appointments, tossing him into the pickup (no pet carrier or cage will ever know this cat) in the same madcap way she pulls him around on her tarp through the garden, a pile of trimmings or weeds and a heap of doglike Jack. She calls him Pum-kin, no “p” discernible in the middle. I call him something else: I call him Potentate.

In our years together this animal, himself an offering I’d at first refused ( do not look a gift cat in the mouth? ) and then inadvertently adopted, has brought me many offerings. There have been mouse ass-ends, tail attached; mouse ass-ends, tail missing; mouse tails, no ass attached; moles and chipmunks, limp but outwardly undamaged (not good eating, apparently); young rabbits and possums, their spines slack, with portions of their fuselage missing; the distinctive furry tails of countless weasels (an animal I wish he didn’t have such a taste for, as important as they are in keeping order in the native food chain); and so many parts whose origin was unknown—gizzardlike hard bits, occasional smears of whole intestines, and mostly just not-yet-quite-dried pools of red blood on my green back-porch floor.  Merry Christmas?  Did I fail to mention that I have been a vegetarian for more than thirty years?

And yes, of course, the marauding carnivore that is Jack had even delivered the occasional bird, and once or twice in the first years together, one of my beloved frogs.  We have not always done so well, wild man Jack and I, Jack the Demon Cat; there have been dark days between us, days when we did not speak. I was, after all, the Accidental Pet Owner, and (remember) not a cat person.

And he had been living in the woods before we dubbed him Jack. Alone in the woods [like I am now].

“I heard that black cat who’s been hanging around the woods is with you now,” Deb, one half of the cat-loving couple who live a steep and rugged mile’s distance up the adjacent road, said later that fall. News of my liaison, my broken resolve to live forever petless, had spread. People here have multiple serious pets with a purpose—barn cats, or mousers; dogs that hunt or retrieve fowl—and also farm animals. I had none, and was happy that way. “He was up here for a while,” she said, “but then he disappeared, and we saw him darting in and out of the woods down by you all these last months. We wondered where he’d gone to lately.”

When we pieced it together, it seems that apparently Jack-to-be had been fending for himself for probably half a year or longer, with three or more of those months spent watching me: the house with no animals, the place where he could maybe make a go of it. He had lived in a wild tangle of second-growth forest and adjacent field that is also the domain of bears and coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions—and to a lesser issue if you are a cat the size of Jack, of deer, gray and red foxes, possums and raccoons, porcupines and skunks, weasels and woodchucks, and every manner of smaller vertebrate and many species of snakes.  He had lived on whatever moved and wasn’t bigger or rougher or faster than he was.

And so from the glimpse on my birthday in June to the 9/11 morning in the driveway and into the wooden box out back, and then, before long, into a whole cottage of his own (a heated shed behind my house that became Jack’s, cat door and all), before winter wrapped itself around us that year, my days with Jack began.

Reprinted from “And I Shall Have Some Peace There,” copyright 2011 by Margaret Roach.

Postscript:

BLOODLETTING HAS ALWAYS BEEN n one of Jack’s trademarks. It was many years, at least the first seven or eight together, before he stopped attacking me and drawing blood, seemingly for no reason other than to show who was boss.

Then, after a middle-of-the-night injury one year ago this month inflicted by some prey he thought he’d subdued but hadn’t quite—the first nick of his long, violent hunting career—Jack had to stay inside for a month while a shredded paw healed after surgery.  It was the first time he’d ever spent more than a few hours in the house, a bit uncomfortable for both of us.

At first.
jack with book 2Then he caught on: on-demand meal service, lots of upholstered furniture to plunder and add to his territory, not one but five pod-shaped cat beds beyond that (me=sucker), central heating. Why leave? He didn’t, except to use the rest room (and no, litter boxes are not for this cat—he will let you know, like a dog, when it’s time. You had better stay alert.)

These days, it is Margaret who spends time in Jack’s shed—which is now my office.

All my household furniture is covered in sheets and towels—my only shred of self-defense against the new tenant.

And most of all:

I am a cat person, or at least a Jack person, and immensely grateful to this once-wild beast for the comfort and distraction he has provided me every day of the last tumultuous decade.

May each of us on earth find some but of solace, and love, in this crazy spinning world. May each of us find at least a little peace.
jack at attention

  1. Nadine says:

    Handsome cat, and a little wizard too, knowing you needed reassurance and comfort in that terrible time. Cats are like that, they have a sixth sense.

  2. Dianne says:

    I think many of us turned to our children, our dogs or our cats on that day, as a reminder of innocence and a reminder of hope, something we so desperately needed from that day and the days to come. Beautiful story, and like they say, you never own a cat…a cat owns you.

  3. Jeanne says:

    Jack’s arrival on that day was no error, no coincidence. Intuitively, he’d been circling the doorway to his next divine assignment–waiting for an opening (be it window or open-topped box by the back door) to begin blinking its signal light–calling out “It’s now, it’s time.” to make his move… ultimately to soften your heart. I had a similar experience with a calico. The examining vet on the day of adoption said she was about 5 years old, had been spayed, was limp in my arms with no claws on her front paws. Incredibly, someone had chosen 3 days before to drop her in a parking lot–sealed up in a cardboard box. Two days before that, I’d prayed to God for a companion to replace my beloved 19 year old tortoiseshell female who’d passed away naturally a year prior. Grieving the loss of a furry partner takes time. I’d crossed all the 1st hurdles (her ‘would-be’ 20th birthday, Christmas, Halloween, Easter) without her and just realized, suddenly one day, that I could live with litter boxes, fur on my chairs and black slacks and endless hours of being her one-and-only ticket to comfort again. So I stopped in the middle of what I was doing that day and petitioned God to bring me a cat (or kitten) preferably calico (so at least the fur I’d be cleaning up would be pretty). And to knock on my skull at just exactly the ‘right time’ for me to move–to find her. Little did I know that God loves to answer requests in the NOW. On the day that I found my calico (later named “Annie who lives in walls”) I awoke with a certainty that I needed to go to the local shelter (and did not know the address at that point) and never suspected that it’d take all the love I felt in my heart that moment when I first saw her——-and so many tons more!!——–before we were truly co-companions in my house. She had none of the bad habits my 19 yr old tortoiseshell exhibited. No. Not Annie. She had the more unusual kinds of odd behavior. And MORE. But I was a cat person clear through to the bone since birth. And I was NOT going to give up. Sooooo glad that I didn’t. Because Annie became a silent witness to psychic phenomena that I was witnessing in my houses after we became ‘one’ in soul and purpose. She confirmed that my ‘woo-woo’ gifts were growing. I treasure every lesson she taught me. And with love, I let her go when we discovered she had cancer 4 years ago. Cats are wise. They follow divine instruction to a “T” (in your case TOMCAT). Loved your story. Thanks for sharing with us all.

  4. linda says:

    Awww. Sounds like Jack knew what he was doing when he adopted you Margaret. He looks a lot like Midnight, a cat from my past. She was mostly an indoor cat, except for the time she disappeared for two weeks after sneaking out the back door a few days after we moved. She reappeared just as suddenly two weeks later, a little thinner and worse for wear, and never wanted to go outside again, thankfully for us who missed her while she was gone, and for the birds in the neighborhood. We have become a dog household since those days, accidentally when my daughter rescued twelve Lab-mix puppies and found homes for all except George, my sweetie pie. He knows me well, senses every mood, and is generous with comfort whenever I can use some. He’s an old geezer now for a large dog, and increasingly, my best reminder to live in the moment.

  5. Tammy says:

    Cats rescue us if we let them. Thank you for this post from your wonderful book. My cats have been my angels throughout my life and I plan to let them and provide me with their unconditional love and allow me to give back all I can!

  6. Bernadette B. says:

    When you look into the eyes of an animal, we see our own souls and the Eyes of GOD. Jack is just what you needed and is there for just you. He is beautiful.

  7. T says:

    Your Jack sound like my Cat Boo.. I working in the garden for a few weeks and seeing this little guy.. I thought he was a neighbors cat. He was mysterious here gone and back again. Then one day my mother and I were in the garden and I could hear a cat crying looking and looking until I could see him.. this a young cat.. When I saw him in the garden he was catching crickets and eating them..I discovered he was starving. I started feeding him. As I fed him I would reach out to touch him.. after about 3 months I could actually touch and pet him.. Still here, now about 7 … Yes he is the boss you must ask to pet, touch etc. or yes he will draw blood.. He comes in the dog door onto my enclosed back porch at his own time and dislikes to be shut in.. except for the winter when he lives in the heated garage and lets you know when he wants in and out. Very much the boss.. but a relationship I would never have missed..Thank you for all your stories..

  8. Katherine says:

    I have five cats- my husband was a dog person before I met him and we started amassing cats together. Each has his or her own tale of happenstance but I would not want to be without any of them. They bring joy, laughter and love in our every moment with them.

    They are all full time inside carts. When we argue the cats come over and each of us takes a cat – arguments are much softer and over quicker that way :)

    Love comes in all shapes and fur colors- all of mine happen to be tuxedo!!! :)

  9. Mimi says:

    Funny, it’s also been 10 years with us and Mimine, an abandoned female who chose us although my spouse had allergies. She visited from mid-summer of 2001 and put on the charm. By late summer she was getting to thin so I started to feed her. When he went on a business trip she spent a few days inside with me and we so enjoyed each other’s company. I checked for symptoms when he returned: none. She was so well behaved, and for some reason, my spouse was not allergic to HER! It was a sign!

    This past summer she became very ill and spent a week hospitalized, I could not stop crying all week. She’s much better now and we have a new routine that includes medication and checking her blood sugar twice a day and injecting insulin when needed but compared to life without her, it’s such a small sacrifice.

  10. ricki says:

    Our best pets find us. Thinking we were “dog people”, it has always been cats who wriggle into our heart-space, each with a totally unique personality.
    ‘Man on Wire” is a wonderful documentary film of the tightrope walk between the twin towers and the lead-up and aftermath. Thanks for the tip about Petit’s book.

  11. annzee says:

    I loved reading this excerpt (can’t wait to get my hands on your book) and also reading the comments from others re: how their cats found them (got me a bit teary-eyed). We adopted, from a cat rescue organization, a 5 month old Maine Cooncat (not sure if she’s 100% but she’s gorgeous) who is now 15 and has brought us lots of laughter with her very odd habits (galloping around the house like a bucking bronco after using the litterbox is one). My husband has always loved Tuxedo cats so I know he’ll enjoy reading about fabulous Jack. What a handsome cat. So glad you two found each other ;>)

  12. Martha Jackson says:

    Margaret,
    when I first saw the opening lines of today’s email column I was afraid to read it for fear you were announcing that something had happened to Jack. What a relief that you were just marking the 10 year anniversary not only of the tragedy in NY and your decision to move to the country, but also of the beginning of your life as a cat person, no matter how reluctant! Jack and you rescued each other, is how I see it, and hurray for that.

  13. Debra Patterson says:

    Ah, these sweet spirits. It is amazing that they they give so much more than they take … a lesson we humans could spend some time thinking about.

  14. Pat says:

    Thank you Margaret for your insightful and very sensitive post. My husband and I live with our 3 dogs and we are also “bird people”. I have been raising small exotic parrotlets for the past 20 years and we also run a “seedbank” for the wild birds all winter long. I never dreamed a cat would come into our lives, but a black and white female did almost 15 years ago when we lived in Arizona. Did I mention she was pregnant at the time? Double trouble. We housed her while she had her four kittens and raised them. I had never seen such a devoted and patient mother. We found homes for her kittens and had her spayed and then let her back outside thinking she would return to her original home. She got bit by another cat and suffered an infection and needed medication twice daily and had to stay inside again. Needless to say, we kept her inside from then on and she was so content with her comfort and our family. She never once bothered our birds and quickly let the dogs know that she was there to stay and she was the “boss”. Mutual respect ensued from then on. How unusual was that? My husband named her “Ms. Kitty”. We had the MOST wonderful years with her. She developed cancer this past July and we had to put her to sleep. A part of us went with her. Difficult to write those words with crying.
    When I look into my dogs’ eyes I feel their unconditional love, overwhelmingly warm and comforting. When I would catch Ms. Kitty’s eyes staring at me and I looked back at her stare, I would experience a sixth sense happening – a connection like walking that tightrope that Philippe Petit set out on to connect the twin towers. A sense, a new world calling that we humans rarely venture to. It’s hard to explain but she knew and sensed so much and she conveyed it in her quiet way. When she was dying, she let us know and her eyes said good-bye. We will always feel blessed and forever grateful for her “finding and adopting us”, and for all our beautiful animals that have come into our lives and enriched our souls. I love sharing the earth with them. Yes, I guess even for that little scamp chipmunk who out-smarted me and ate my sunflower seedlings this year. Well, okay, maybe not grateful for him, but his antics sure makes me smile. Lucky for him, he never met our Ms. Kitty.

  15. nancy nichols says:

    This Sunday’s installment with Jack’s story and linking to Phillipe Petit’s phenomenal performance between the twin towers has made this remembrance day very special for me, so many thanks. It’s a fine thing to grow a garden where one can take refuge and nuture this crazy thing we call our lives as well as help us tend our plants. Thank you for soothing our souls and providing that much appreciated bit of peace.

  16. Dixie says:

    Always love your stories of Jack and how he has stolen your heart. We “rescued” a tuxedo kitten (he CHOSE us!) off the Oregon beach a few days before 9/11, took him back to WA with plans to find a home for him, then found such comfort in caring for him, an innocent affectionate feline, while watching the media coverage of 9/11 that we soon realized he had stolen our hearts and never forget his arrival into our family. An indoor cat, his “mouse” is an old sock he carries around our house. Bird feeders are always within his view and he loves “talking” to the birds.

  17. kathy says:

    Great cat, great story. A stray female cat with her kittens adopted my family a few years ago and they have become our gardening buddies. I never thought of myself as a cat person but I can’t imagine a day without them around.

  18. Carole Clarin says:

    Although I’ve already seen “Jack” in person, and read your book, I must add a comment. When our dog, yes I’m a dog person, was very ill, my daughter adopted 2 cats-to help both her and her 3 year old daughter, have some sort of animal replacement. That was 7 years ago. What makes this especially interesting is that 1, the female looks so much like Jack and is also big and 2, the male, a tabby, sometimes acts like a dog-he comes to greet those he knows and can’t get enough attention, a real lover. In addition my son also has a cat, who happened to walk into his wife’s life before they were a couple. So, my husband and I, have both become “cat lovers”!

  19. Pat says:

    Lovely story !
    I too am not a cat person and live with a cat . Handsome Harry and I became roomates a few months after 9/11. Difficult situations are (for me) eased by the calm and grounded nature of pets. Often I would find myself huddled into the corner of the sofa and watching the updates of the attacks on TV. The next moment I would sense a giant newfoundland dog pressed to my side and the cat purring deeply in my lap .Okay , inhale…….exhale ……

  20. Marty says:

    Margaret: Ok, I must get the book. I love this story of Jack, weaving his way into your heart. He is a very handsome Tux too!

    You saved his life that day when he ventured up your drive, and he, has I don’t doubt brought you more peace than you ever imagined.

    I don’t grow up with cats but dachunds, but rescued my first cat 35 yrs ago, a little 6 mo old black make Manx in Oct with a frost bitten ear. That was the start of many rescues and a lifelong love of the mysterious feline.

    Do you autograph books for purchase?

    Thank you for a tempting introduction to your journey with Jack and peace in the woods and gardens of your home.

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