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The cat who saved me

The cat who saved me
The cat who saved me

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I have had cats since I was a boy, and all of them were wonderful, but one of them left a mark on my life forever.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:


A Special Presence

Almost 15 years ago, I was in bad shape. I was divorced, broke, drinking too much, and living in a dated walk-up next to a noisy bar. (It was only minutes from my young daughter, it had a nice view of the bay here in Newport, and I could afford it.) The local veterinary hospital was a few doors down; they always kept one or two adoptable animals in the window. One day, a gorgeous black cat, with a little white tuxedo patch and big gold-green eyes, showed up in a small cage. I stared at her for a while. She stared back patiently.

I wasn’t taking very good care of myself at that moment, so I decided I couldn’t take care of a cat. I walked on. For weeks, the cat sat there. For weeks, we stared at each other. One day, as I was deep in my cups, I took a walk with a friend and co-worker who also happened to be my next-door neighbor. “You look at that damn cat every day,” he said. “Just go in and get it.”

So I did.

The cat was called “RC” and she was a stray, but her preexisting spaying and good health showed that she’d once had a home. Now she was the queen of the animal clinic: Because of her gentle temperament, the staff would let her out of the cage after hours, and she would sit on their desks while they did their paperwork.

I picked her up. She looked at me as if to say: Yeah, I recognize you. You’re the doofus who stared at me for weeks. I signed the papers and took her home. She was fluffy and black-haired, so I decided I would name her after Carla Tortelli from the show Cheers; thus, she became Carla T. Nichols. She explored the apartment quietly for a day or two, and then, one afternoon, I found her on my bed, stretched out on her back, paws up, purring. Yep, she was saying. This will do.

I was still deeply depressed, but every night, Carla would come and flake out over my keyboard as I struggled to work. That’s enough of that, she seemed to say. And then we would go into the living room, where I would sit in a chair and Carla would sit on the armrest. (We’ve now both seen almost every episode of Law & Order.) Slowly, she added routine to my life, but mostly, we had lots of hours of doing nothing—the quiet time that can feel sort of desolate if you’re alone, but like healing if you have the right company.

Soon, I started to see daylight. I met a woman named Lynn. I laid off the booze. I got help of various kinds.

Lynn started to come to the apartment more often, but Carla gave her a full examination before bestowing approval: That cat was not going to let some newcomer waltz in and wreck the careful feline therapy she’d been providing. Finally, Carla climbed on the pillows one morning and curled up around Lynn’s head. Okay, she was saying. Lynn can stay.

Courtesy of Tom Nichols

My grade-schooler daughter was the other regular visitor, and Carla immediately decided that she was hers as well as mine. This was a cat who clearly had experience with children, and showed a kind of shepherding instinct whenever kids were around. She’d stay with them and circle them; she’d let them pull her tail and clumsily pat her head and other indignities most cats won’t tolerate. She loved kids, and she especially seemed to love mine.

Lynn and I soon realized that this was no ordinary cat. I’ve had smart cats, and some who were lovable but not very bright. Carla was not a prodigy, but she had a unique presence that even strangers on social media could see when I posted clips or pictures. I can attribute this only to an emotional intelligence, the bond that some animals have with people that lets them suss out who’s who and how we might be feeling. If you were sad, or sick, she was there. If the human vibes were happy, you could hear her purr from a room away.

Eventually, Lynn and I bloomed from friendship into love. Slowly, I put my life back in order, and Carla clearly thought that me getting on my feet was mostly her doing. It wasn’t that simple, but I will say this: A man blessed with a concerned doctor, a dedicated counselor, a wise priest, a few good friends, and a great love in his life can overcome much. But a man with all of those and a marvelous cat can really cover a lot of distance.

I finally bought a house, and Lynn and I married. Just as she had done with the apartment, Carla inspected the new digs and said: I approve. Instantly, it was her house.

For more than a decade, it was the three of us, and Carla became Lynn’s friend even more than mine. Much like a dog, Carla would trot around with Lynn during the day, and come if called. She would even wag her tail. (She would find this canine comparison insulting, of course.) When I would finally get up—I’m a night owl—Lynn would bring over a cappuccino and Carla would invariably accompany her, waiting for me to scoop up some foam on my finger for her to lick. Then my wife and her pal would go back to their day.

Carla had a remarkable sense of time and schedule. When I would teach in Boston, she’d sit in the window at the time she knew I’d return. She would show up at the same time every night to escort Lynn to bed; later, and always at almost the exact same time, she would meow at me until I carried her around on my shoulder while locking up the house. (Unlike some cats, she liked hugs. She would have sat on my shoulder all day if I’d let her.)

And although she had a bowl of food available all day, we shared our human dinner with her in a daily ritual. Carla would rouse from her afternoon nap and find us almost at the moment the clock struck five, with a look that asked: What are we having today? Is it steak? I like steak. Or chicken? Chicken’s good too.

Then came the day she literally saved my life—and Lynn’s.

My house was built in 1956, back before the local authorities in my small town enforced bothersome things such as building codes and safety regulations. Some genius had decided to balance the fireplace with wooden shims (which were hidden behind bricks). Over the decades, they burned away and dropped hot embers on floor beams.

The day after Christmas, six years ago, Carla jumped on our heads in bed. Wake up wake up wake up.

We figured she was just being testy about breakfast. Lynn headed downstairs—but, strangely, Carla stayed in the bedroom. A moment later, Lynn was back: “I smell smoke.” I grumbled and went two floors down to the basement, where I was startled to find a small lick of flame shooting from a ceiling panel. I grabbed our kitchen extinguisher and sprayed it; smoke gushed from the ceiling. I was minutes from being dead. I ran up to the kitchen just as the smoke alarms finally tripped on. We called 911.

Lynn dashed back upstairs looking for Carla, and there she was, calmly sitting on the bed. I told you to wake up. I wasn’t kidding. They stayed safe in the car while I ran around in the winter cold, my panic growing as I watched the fire department battle a fire that destroyed almost a quarter of my home.

The fire marshal later told us that if Carla hadn’t bought us that extra time, the fire—which hadn’t immediately tripped the smoke alarms, because it was caught between the floor and ceiling—would have broken through and engulfed the house (and us). He told us that cats are usually casualties of house fires because they hide out of fear and can’t be found in time. Carla, however, alerted us and then waited for us to come get her.

While the house was being repaired, we all spent a month in a hotel. Carla would tell you that it was the best time of her life: her people, a bed, food, and a litter box—all in the same two rooms? Kitty nirvana.

My daughter grew up, and Carla started sleeping in her room, as some cats will do once the kids they love go away. Grandchildren arrived; Carla adopted them. Our schedules changed as we all got older, and Carla began checking on me in the mornings if I wasn’t awake by a certain time. She also developed some separation anxiety: If one of us left the house or traveled, Carla would stick to the other one like a furry hunk of superglue. I don’t like this. I want to be with you both. I liked that hotel thing; can we do that again?

And then came the warning signs. Carla started to lose a lot of weight. She developed thyroid and kidney issues. The light began to go out of her eyes. The night before I took her back to the same small office where I’d found her, I made a fire—she’d become a big fan of those as her arthritis worsened—and she climbed in my lap. She purred and bumped her head into my face, and then she went and sat quietly nearby as we watched television, just like the old days. It felt like a goodbye. I think she knew.

The next day, our vet confirmed that there was little more we could do for Carla without tormenting her. I held her on my shoulder one last time as they gave her the first shot. Lynn and I stroked her head and whispered to her during the second shot, and our tears soaked her fur. And then she was gone.

We haven’t yet gotten used to a house without Carla in it. Like many who’ve lost a pet, we both still think we see her out of the corner of our eye. I still automatically look into my daughter’s room to see if she’s there. We still expect her at dinner, and Lynn still waits for her to come and say: Time for bed, let’s go. Eventually, we’ll welcome new animals into our home, and I’m sure we will love them. But Carla was a little friend unlike any I’d ever had—and I doubt I will ever owe another cat the debt that I owe her.

Related:


Today’s News

  1. The United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a resolution that says that Palestinians qualify for full-member status at the UN. The U.S. voted against the measure.
  2. A federal appeals court upheld the conviction of Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser, for defying a subpoena from the House January 6 committee.
  3. Yesterday, Stormy Daniels finished her testimony in Donald Trump’s hush-money criminal trial; the judge also rejected a second mistrial request from the former president’s lawyers.

Dispatches

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Evening Read

Tanned skin with pale smiley face drawn on it
Illustration by Gabriela Pesqueira. Source: Dimarik / Getty.

Against Sunscreen Absolutism

By Rowan Jacobsen

Australia is a country of abundant sunshine, but the skin of most Australians is better adapted to gloomy England than the beaches of Brisbane … A 1980s ad campaign advised Australians to “Slip, Slop, Slap”—if you had to go out in the sun, slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, and slap on a hat. The only safe amount of sun was none at all.

Then, in 2023, a consortium of Australian public-health groups did something surprising: It issued new advice that takes careful account, for the first time, of the sun’s positive contributions … “Completely avoiding sun exposure is not optimal for health,” read the groups’ position statement, which extensively cites a growing body of research. Yes, UV rays cause skin cancer, but for some, too much shade can be just as harmful as too much sun.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break

A microphone sits on top of a mirror
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Daniel Stier.

Listen. In the latest episode of Radio Atlantic, our staff writer Charlie Warzel describes what happened when he cloned his own voice.

Read. All Fours, by the interdisciplinary artist Miranda July, is a female-midlife-crisis novel filled with estrangement, eroticism, and whimsy.

Play our daily crossword.


Stephanie Bai contributed to this newsletter.

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