Here’s something I’ve discovered: When you’ve lived in the same place for a long time, everything starts to feel like déjà vu all over again (thank you, Yogi Berra).
The other night when I was driving home from work, I remembered another snowy December evening when I was doing the exact same thing on the exact same street — except on that night, a cat darted in front of me. I didn’t see it coming, and by the time I did, it was too late. I hit it.
Sick at heart, I pulled over and got out of my car. The cat lay motionless on its side, legs spread as though I’d hit it midstride.
I didn’t know what to do next. Leave it? That certainly seemed like the most sensible thing to do — and the easiest, too. The cat was clearly dead, and anyway it wasn’t safe for me to be standing there in the street as a winter storm raged. Also, I was bone weary — worn out by work and family. The best I could do was to give the cat a final resting place in a bank of snow and move on.
So I picked it up—and remembered my old cat, Sam.
Sam showed up at our house, full-grown, the summer I was 9. I was dying to have a cat of my own then, and Sam, a white cat with patches of black and orange on his triangular head and a striped tail that stood straight up, felt like an answer to a kid prayer. I campaigned ruthlessly so my parents would let me keep him.
It’s a BOY, I told them, thinking somehow that a nonbreeding male might be more acceptable to them and also thinking my parents couldn’t tell the difference between boy cats and girl cats. That’s why his name is SAM, duh.
In the end I wore my parents down. And six weeks later Sam gave birth to a litter of kittens behind the freezer in the garage. But that’s not the point. The point is I was crazy about that cat, Sam. And when she went missing, I was distraught. My parents were kind enough to drive me up and down street after street to find her. We never did.
So what if this cat in my arms had a kid like me somewhere?
I decided to start knocking on doors then, because you know how it is. Nothing says Merry Christmas like a stranger on your front porch in the middle of the night with a dead cat in her arms.
When I finally found the owners, things went from bad to worse. They lived in a small unlovely rental with cots in the front room where kids were sleeping. And there I was, telling the mom I’d killed the family pet. At that moment I wished more than anything I had followed my first impulse to just drive on. Still, I expressed my regret, offered to pay expenses and left my name and number.
Sucker, I said to myself.
The next day I received a phone call from the mother. Good news! Max was alive! And he was going to be fine! Clearly that cat had not used up all his lives. What’s more, the vet had agreed to work out a payment plan for Max’s treatment. The woman refused to take any money from me and wished me well. I never heard from her again.
I’m reluctant to tell this story because I don’t want to make myself out to be the hero. I wasn’t. If anything, whenever I think of that night, I mostly remember how very close I came to driving away without looking back.
What I also remember is this — how a young mother who was strapped for cash took that motionless cat in her arms and freely forgave me.
The wonder of that moment stays with me still.