On a summer afternoon in 1971, while Nixon was bombing Cambodia, I watched a bomb fall through the skies above my Winnetka, Illinois, home.
It was small, but plummeted to earth like an anvil after it was struck in mid-flight by a baseball I’d hurled straight up into the air.
It was no bomb.
It was a bird. One of the hundreds that called our backyard home and happened to be unlucky enough to intercept my projectile. The bird hit the ground with an ugly thud, like words that have flown from my mouth that I later regretted.
I ran over to the bird, crying, and prostrated myself before it. Its little heart beat wildly inside its chest for a few seconds, then the bird fell still. I was sure that I’d killed it. I removed my T-shirt and gathered it around the bird as if to make a nest – or a funeral pyre – and then I bowed my head, unable to face my accidental carnage.
Rarely have I prayed as hard as I did that day. All I wanted was for that sweet yard bird to spring out of its stupor, dart its little head around and wing back up into weightlessness.
Half an hour passed. I ignored the dinner bell to continue my silent pleading for a miracle. I promised God that I would give up baseball and girlie magazines if the bird lived.
Then, I heard fluttering sounds. Before I knew it, the bird bolted upright and zoomed off like the Starship Enterprise.
From that day forward, I promised myself that I would always tend to an animal in need. As for the other two promises . . .
Many decades passed without the opportunity to make good on that promise.
Then came last Tuesday.
Driving up to my Encino condo complex at about 6:30 in the evening, I spotted a squatter on the front steps.
I’d never seen her before, yet she lay sprawled across the tiles as if she’d always belonged there, like she was just waiting for kin to come home.
I parked the car and walked out of the garage to join her. Somehow, I knew she would not run away. She was too tired. Or was it that her desire to trust trumped her fear of being abandoned yet again.
“Meow,” she cooed and meekly lifted her head. Patches of her fur were matted and she smelled a bit like the disheveled handyman our neighbor uses for odd jobs, but I didn’t care. I pet her frail frame and she soaked it up like a Swedish massage. She had no tags. No collar. No name I could call her by.
I walked back into the garage to fish my cell phone from the car. My newfound friend followed, squeezing through a five-inch square grate of the garage gate. Now I knew whose paw prints were pattered all over the roof of my car.
Kitty barely made it to my feet before she collapsed in a heap. Seconds later, she tried to get up again and fell back down.
Upstairs, I knew that Lilly, our Boston terrier, was waiting for her daddy to come home. Mommy had left her at 2:30 in the afternoon to brave the valley freeways to work in Pasadena and would not return until at least 9:00. Lilly was due for dinner and her evening walk. Both would be delayed. There was a life at stake.
As a total virgin with stray pets, I called my friend and co-worker, Jana, who is well-versed in pet rescue. Ironically, Jana was trying to snag a stray bunny when I called.
The best bet was to take my newfound friend to the local shelter and put a “hold” on her while shelter workers tended to her medical needs. After several days, and if no one claimed her, she would be available for adoption. My wife and I would get first crack, one we would sadly have to pass up for Lilly’s sake. If no one adopted her, I would again be notified and given the option to “pull” her from the shelter and search for a foster home. This I would gladly do.
The closest shelter was East Valley, home of none other than the innovative and immensely successful 4 Days 4 Life foster event during the most recent 4th of July weekend.
I gathered my limp-as-a-ragdoll friend and plopped her onto the passenger seat. As I turned onto Ventura Boulevard, she meowed and padded up onto the dashboard. A sudden merge onto the 405 Freeway North and she slid off the dash, claws bared, onto my waiting hand. The pain from those scratches was – and still is – exquisite and sweet.
Kitty was a chatty road companion. Perhaps someday I’ll wake up from a dream and understand everything she meowed to me.
At the shelter, Brita kindly assisted us: “I have to. There’s no other life I want,” she said. I nodded. Brita assured me that Kitty would be examined immediately by an on-site vet and given medical care, as needed. I sighed with relief and sadness as I left the shelter.
An hour later, Brita called me to update her status. My friend is a brown tabby, about 10 years old, with a severe case of dehydration, nothing that gentle IV fluids won’t cure.
For now, her ID is A1574770.
Chloe is a nice name, I mused, but her name is not mine to choose.
Whatever her new name is, it will be a song that rises into the heavens each time it is uttered. Up in that rarified air, I imagine that her name will mingle with the birdsong of my youth.
As of today, I don’t know when I’ll bring myself to wash those precious paw prints off my car.