The Cat-astrophic Cat-alyst

posted by Janet Garey

It’s been nearly six years since that dreadful night, but to this day I still can’t catch the slightest whiff of smoke without reliving the moments that nearly drove my world asunder.

My daughter, Amanda, and I worked for a company that scored standardized tests; she, a computer whiz kid, oversaw the technical logistics of various projects; I did the actual hand-scoring of both English and Spanish examinations. Under rigid deadlines and grateful for an opportunity to earn bountiful overtime pay, we willingly worked 18-hour days, oft-times weeks on end, with infrequent breaks to go home, care for our animals, grab a few hours of R and R, then return to the grind.

It was a Thursday; I remember that detail only because it meant I’d be missing a first-run episode of ER. We were both hungry, grumpy, tired and irritable, dismayed that the stacks of tests kept growing instead of decreasing. Resigned to our need for financial input, we plodded on.

But then, with no warning, I felt a sudden, inexplicable urge to leave. Call it karma, coincidence, sixth sense or ESP, something told me to leave immediately. GO HOME. NOW! Unable to define the eerie sensation, but powerless to ignore it, I literally dragged Amanda to the car and sped toward our house, totally disregarding speed limits, barely pausing at red-lit intersections as that vague, but insistent feeling poured through my every fiber.

At the stop sign four houses in advance of our residence, a smell of smoke became evident. One building closer, it turned nauseating. By the driveway, a stream of noxious fumes visibly streamed from beneath the door and a red glow back lit the front windows. Our house was on fire.

Coldly, dispassionately, we leapt into disembodied action – that’s how we Garey women always approach emergency situations. Amanda, still painfully recovering from a hideously fractured leg, sprinted to a neighbor, requesting an immediate call for assistance from 9-1-1. With total disregard for our personal possessions or safety, I opened the door to, if possible, extinguish the flames and survey the damage, begging an endless chant of “Oh, God, please let the cats be all right. Please let them be okay. Please, God, help me, help me, please.”

An interior alarm shrieked, the only sound discernible other than a crackle and hiss of fire. I’d later learn that the inferno centered in the kitchen; the hood above our stove had disconnected, falling, then striking the control buttons, thus setting a large eye upon which stood a cast iron skillet containing oil to its highest heat level. After a time, the ferociously smoking shortening caught fire, eventually enflaming everything nearby. (Further investigation also indicated that the entire incident most likely had been relatively short in duration; had flames been present the whole time, the house and its contents would have been engulfed. I still wonder if the whole horrible event began precisely at the exact moment I experienced that mysterious precognitive moment.)

Repeating my hopeful prayer, coughing, retching, gagging from the smoke, tears and mucous drenched my face as I gratefully observed that the doors to the various closets, main bathroom and Amanda’s personal portion of the house were closed, leaving just my bedroom as the cats’ only possible refuge. Unfortunately, that large space posed a major problem, what with its abundance of boxes and bags awaiting an upcoming yard sale, a massive walk-in closet jam-packed with clothes, shoes, random containers and other storage paraphernalia, plus a number of bookshelves and dressers. Dominating the clutter was an enormous California king-sized bed taking up a full half of the room. With all of the electric breakers thrown and no flashlight at hand, I was shrouded by total darkness.

And then I heard it, a muted, mewl coming from the farthest corner beneath the bed. Contorting myself into a freakishly, impossibly flattened form and aided by the crook of the cane I use during my most arthritically-challenged moments, I hooked the first object I could discern and dragged it toward the safety of Amanda’s waiting arms. Gasping through smoke-filled, already asthmatic lungs, Amanda flew outside to deposit the frantic Daizee into our car, then returned, accompanied by a half-dozen neighbors to form an impromptu, flashlight-bearing, rescue brigade.

One by one, the other six members of our feline family were taken to safety – Gizmo, Michael Crawford, Dusty, Pumpkin, Tangie and Charlie – none injured or apparently traumatized. Our house was in shambles, but everyone was safe.

As firemen made sure no danger remained and set up enormous fans to dispel as much smoke, ash and residue as possible, emergency medical technicians checked Amanda’s and my breathing. One especially kind-hearted man, an older, self-admitted animal-lover, examined the cats, quietly murmuring gentle sounds as he brushed the soot from their coats, cleared mucous from their noses and held a small oxygen mask near their faces “Just to be safe,” he explained. (Firefighters are our heroes!)

The days that followed were difficult for all of us. Despite extensive repair, replacement of the stove and a paint job provided by the company which manages our rental property, we were in trouble. Financially unstable, we had no insurance to cover our losses. All we owned – books, decor, my paintings, photographs, needlework, computer, music, collectibles, the bits and pieces that make our house a home, even the clothes on our backs – was damaged or destroyed by the insidious smoke and soot that oozed its way through closed doors. Materially, we lost everything.

On the other hand, we discovered that we had EVERYTHING. Total strangers provided shelter; friends offered solace. Co-workers contributed their hard-earned wages toward replacing our furniture; a local dry cleaner volunteered to salvage our clothing. Churches of diverse denominations stepped up to offer a variety of services ranging from food donations to emotional counseling. And once life resumed a semblance of normalcy, Amanda and I decided to use the incident as a catalyst to become more involved in social service by making ourselves voluntarily available to help other families who might find themselves in similar situations. Most recently, toward this end, we founded MiddleTennesseeFree_4_All@yahoo.groups.com

As for the felines, if anything, the event drew them closer as a pride, a colony made more cohesive by their shared experience, as evidenced by their shift from selective solitude to a group-centered preference in sleeping, eating, and ordinary hanging out. They also became ever more affectionate and attentive toward Amanda and me, a subtle, constant reminder that together, through good times and bad, the Garey Gang can survive and learn from ANY cat-astrophe.

Born in NYC, NY and raised in Miami, Fla, Janet now lives in Nashville, TN. A professional journalist and environmental educator, Janet is an “AARParrothead” devoted to a variety of community-based projects, which she either developed or supports in service of Planet Earth and all creatures great and small. Janet, her daughter Amanda, and her granddaughter Alexandra rescue and find homes for hundreds of stray or abandoned cats simply for the joy and love they give and get from their feline family.

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Have a look at my web site for ideas about the work I've done. I look forward to hearing from you about your next project, the Internet, the environment, or life. www.barenose.com

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