Travels with Charlie

Travels with Charlie

After college, I was working in a small community hospital on the shoreline. On one warm summer night as I walked into the parking garage with several other nurses we were greeted by a small tiger striped cat. One nurse commented that she had seen that cat hanging around for almost two weeks. My heart sank. Just two weeks prior I had had to say good-bye to my childhood cat. I still had a bag of cat food at home.

The other nurses said good night and disappeared into the garage. The cat wrapped his small body around my legs, meowing at me. I sat down on the cool cement stairs and he jumped up into my lap, moved up to my shoulders and proceeded to turn himself into a living shawl. He draped his paws over my shoulders and rubbed his nose in my ear, purring contentedly. Well that was the end of that.

I piled him in my car and prayed the hour drive home that he wouldn’t attack me while I was driving ,causing me to run off the road because that was going to be very hard to explain to me parents. When I got home I decided to leave him outside, give him some food and hope he was still there in the morning.

The next morning, I got up earlier than usual, and caught my dad just as he was getting ready to go out the door to work. He got to the front door and there was the cat. “Karen, there’s a cat out here.” His voice sounding like he knew the whole story already. I smiled as innocently as I could and told him the cat was just there when I got home the night before. I think we both knew I wasn’t fooling anyone. I confessed to my mother what I had done. Her eyes went wide when I explained I drove the cat home and then she told me to get it to the vet right away to make sure it was healthy. The “can I keep it?” question was left hanging in the air.

The vet told me later that day that it was a healthy cat about a year or so old. He became “Charlie” and we became a pair. And although I will not say my parents fully embraced Charlie, they did recognize in him a certain un-cat like quality. If I left a room he followed me. If I sat down he jumped into my lap or wrapped himself around my neck. My parents tolerated Charlie because he made me happy and because they were most likely thinking that I had to be moving out at some point and I would take him with me.

Just after Christmas I took a job with a staff relief company. A friend and I headed to a small town in Maryland as our first assignment. Her two cats and dog didn’t exactly get along with Charlie and I am not sure he was loving the new set up but he tolerated it. Perhaps wondering what he had gotten himself into.

In June we moved to the Jersey Shore. This was not as much fun as one might think. The apartment was old and we were not very close to the beach and the one day I went it was so crowded I became claustrophobic and had to leave. Charlie, likewise did not enjoy this assignment since we were in more of a city and there weren’t too many places for him to roam.

The next move was a big one. In September we headed west. Just me and my trusty side kick. I signed up for a stint at Tucson Medical Center and on a bright sunny day I packed Charlie into my Jeep and we headed to Chicago where I would pick up my cousin and we would travel west.

When I got to my aunt and uncle’s condo outside Chicago I explained that I was going to take Charlie for a walk around their block so he could get himself acquainted with the neighborhood. My uncle looked less than convinced and perhaps was even thinking that I had become a crazy cat lady at the tender age of 25. The next morning when I went to the kitchen, sans cat, my uncle asked where he was and I explained I let him out in the middle of the night. I went down to the lobby and there was Charlie sitting outside the door. When I let him in he railed me all the way back to the apartment. Apparently not pleased that I had not returned in a timely manner to get him. The man sharing the elevator looked at me like I definitely was that crazy cat lady.

On our way to Arizona my cousin and I stopped in Taos, New Mexico and then Santa Fe. Charlie hung out in motel rooms and wandered when I let him. He made a good deal of niose in the car. He was proving to not be the best traveler on these longer drives.

In Arizona I had an apartment in what was called the foothills. I thought it would be perfect for Charlie but we were in trouble within the first days of moving in. Other people were complaining that he was “roaming” around and showing up on their little patios. I had to keep him inside which he didn’t appreciate. I lived on the second floor so I left my balcony door open so he could sit out there but there was a tree close enough for him to jump into and climb down from and I was in trouble again to the point of eviction so I had to shut the door and start just taking long walks with him. We spent hours walking through the neighborhood behind us. I even took him hiking. I am not sure he really enjoyed this activity.

When we left Arizona, I had originally planned to sight see on the way home but by the time the day arrived I just wanted to get home and I had a long drive alone ahead of me. I packed us up early and after a confusing stop by border patrol, they seemed to think I didn’t belong in the US, we were on our way. We stayed overnight in Amarillo Texas. It was pouring rain and I was thinking my Connecticut plates and the fact that I wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat might draw some attention but it didn’t.

We hit the road the next morning as the sun began to rise before us. It was all uneventful until we made a stop in Tennessee at a rest area. I let Charlie out to stretch his legs and he started sniffing around a sewer drain and in a dreadful moment slipped through the opening in the back of the drain against the curb and was gone. I sprinted to the drain thinking he had been pulled away by water or dropped so far, I would never be able to reach him. He was sitting on a cushion of leaves and making enough noise to wake the dead. I panicked because how was I going to get him out of the drain? I looked around me but there was no one else in sight. I had parked away from the main area so I could let him out. I laid down on the drain and stuck my arm through the opening, reaching and stretching for him. My face flat against the dirty grate, my white shirt turning black. I couldn’t reach him and the panic stretched up into my throat and I thought I might be sick. I was yelling at him to reach for me which in retrospect does seem ridiculous but by now we were a team. I couldn’t just leave him in a drain. My mind starting reeling with who I could call. Would the fire department come pull him out of a drain?

Near tears I begged Charlie to move closer. He batted at my hand and I managed to grab his paw and with a swift yank pulled him high enough to grab him with my other hand. I sat back down against the curb and hugged him with all the strength I had, my face covered in dirt and him meowing his discontent. At that moment two woman walked by. I tried to smile and said quietly, “He fell down the drain.” They stared but said nothing.

For the next two years, this was our life together. We lived in Georgia and South Carolina. He was my constant companion. Charlie was happy to be wherever I was as far as I could tell. He kept me company and I am pretty sure I would not have been so adventurous without him.

He adjusted to life wherever we went and when we landed back in Connecticut and stayed it seemed to make no difference to him. He adjusted to life with my husband and then even adjusted when we brought a puppy home. As the pack grew and a child was born he took it all in stride, always sleeping wrapped next to me, always the first one to greet me when I came through the door.

In 2005 he was killed by a dog. It was the worst thing I have ever witnessed. It gave me nightmares and left me bereft with a sadness that strangled me and kept me distracted and weary. My mother lost her patience after a week of my sadness but what my mother didn’t understand because she wasn’t an animal person, was that Charlie was not just a cat or a pet.

He was a gift. Truth is he wasn’t the only soul wandering lost in that garage, I just didn’t know it at the time. He allowed me to travel with a sense of not being alone. He was a member of my family. He was a best friend. He kept me company when I was sick. He purred in my ear when I cried after being dumped. He laid on my belly when I was pregnant even when his own body fell awkwardly over the hump. He curled in my lap when I nursed my first baby and he followed us around the block when we went for a walk. He slept in the baby’s crib, curled in a ball. Much to mother's horror.

That is what animals do for us. They love us unconditionally. They put us first and love us even when we are at our worst. They never say, “I told you so” or hold you accountable for things out of your control. The don't leave you when the going gets tough. It is this trait that makes them better than many of the humans we know. Animals give us their best and only ask to be loved in return. I am not sure what force of nature put Charlie in my path but I am, still today, grateful he came along for the ride.

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