When the World Stopped

The Pow Wow at Seattle’s Indian Heritage High School ran New Year’s Eve through New Year’s Day; it was an annual tradition. I couldn’t think of a place I’d rather be on the first evening of the New Year. The singing and dancing was moving toward the finale, still a few hours off. The arena was packed with dancers; brilliant colors flashing, feathers gliding this way and that. I was standing around one of the drums as they wailed their heartfelt song. Slowly, absentmindedly, I gazed across the dance arena and there, standing at the opposite side across a world of sound and color, was my housemate. In our two or three month association with each other this was the first time that I had told her specifically where I was going; any other day she would not have had any idea where to find me.

In that moment, as our eyes connected, time stood still. All sound and motion stopped. She had a look of horror and heartbreak on her face. I knew she was screaming but I could not hear her – all sound had stopped – the entire world had stopped. My attention was riveted to her lips. What was she saying? I knew I had to understand her but how could I? Then, everything started up again, slowly and outside of time, all in a quiet whisper, except for her voice.

I heard her words coming from some other world, “The house burned down! Hurry! Come with me! The house burned down!” She was screaming at me across the gymnasium, across the drums, across the dancers, and her words fell on me as a whisper, as a wail, as a scream, and finally as a dull, lifeless declaration. Then time sped forward and everything was racing by. The words became daggers that sliced through me until my brain and heart burst. I ran to her across that chasm and we who barely knew one another, momentarily held each other for dear life.

I rode home with her, my brain exploding. She was speaking but I could not listen. What she said, that the house had burned down, threatened to erase my entire life; I could not allow the information in. All I could think about was Tucker. Tucker: my cat, my companion, my closest friend, my indescribable connection to life. Had he been inside or outside when I left that day? He was all that mattered. All that mattered.

As we neared home, a sea of red lights flashing against the clear, blue-black, starry sky of an icy winter’s night announced the corner where we lived. Recently the weather had turned unusually bitter cold. Wet, rainy days were replaced with temperatures in the teens, and packed snow and ice on the ground for days on end. The lights pulsing on the glistening ice and snow were mesmerizing and also heralded a kind of danger that I had not encountered for a very long time. Fire trucks ringed the scene, but the sense of extreme urgency that I expected was nowhere to be seen. And. The house was still standing: that beautiful, old, sturdy, white, Victorian house was still there. On closer inspection, I saw that although it was still standing, it was almost completely gutted.

The firefighters were “mopping up”, as they say…moving around, and in and out, collecting equipment, rolling up hoses. It was over. As my eyes poured over the scene, my brain desperately tried to make sense of it, and then it flashed back to TUCKER. I attempted to run inside to find him and was blocked by men still wearing gas masks. “You can’t go in there – too dangerous.” I was in full adrenaline mode, had to find Tucker, and they were not going to stop me. It took several strong men to restrain me in my hysterical, grief-stricken state. Finally the fire inspector, and I bless him to this day, cautiously approached me. I was still firmly planted in a wild fierceness. Bravely, he wondered if he could assist me.

Somehow I was able to put words together to form a sentence, and made him understand that I had to look for Tucker inside that house. I could not leave without trying. He understood…he had a cat himself and said he would help me as best he could, within the confines of serious safety issues. “You can’t go in there without a gas mask on.” Again I made it clear that one way or the other I had to go in there. He agreed that we’d go in together. We had five minutes…the air was bad inside. Five minutes was all he could allow.

The downstairs was completely gutted from the fire. It felt like walking inside a dead body, somehow sacrilegious. Passing by the bathroom, I saw melted porcelain fixtures and my whole body started to tremble with the force of uninvited images that hooked themselves to that scene. He later told me his best guess was that the fire started in the bathroom, as clearly the heat was most extreme there.

I had been sub-letting the upstairs, which was more like an attic. As we were about to mount the stairs the fire inspector asked if I’d left the door at the bottom of the stairs open, or closed, when I went off to the Pow Wow. “Closed. Tucker did not get along with her cats (of which she had five).” “I bet that he ran out when they opened the door to get upstairs. I bet he escaped out that door and found some hiding place outside.” I couldn’t believe or disbelieve him. I was in shock.

Although the downstairs was completely gutted, the upstairs was not. That door was what they call a “fire break” – its mere physical presence caused a slight pause in the tremendous appetite of the flames, slender as it was, and limited the immense draft of the fire that was sucking out all the oxygen in the house; it’s probably what saved the structure.

We climbed the stairs into a bizarre scene of a space that was not gutted by fire, but only barely spared. As we entered the attic I became hysterical as I called out for Tucker. I had never quite settled in to this room, so there was no furniture other than a mattress on the floor with boxes randomly stacked here and there along the walls. Tucker was nowhere to be seen. But I had come to search for him, and search I did: I began picking up boxes that were taped shut, as if somehow he could be hiding underneath one of them, flattened into a cartoon-like image of himself. I could, in some compartment of my brain, grasp the level of insanity that was driving my actions at this point. This is when the inspector pointed out the blistered walls, proof of the intense heat that had existed in the space, only hours ago. The walls of the stairs and my attic room were blistered but not burned. He said those blisters told him that the upstairs had been about three minutes from flash point, meaning that if the fire had burned for three more minutes the whole house would have flown apart in a firestorm.

A chill racked my entire body.

The inspector yanked me out of my insanity when he placed his hand on my arm, and said gently, “It’s time to go; Tucker’s not here. I bet he ran out the door when the firemen opened it and ran right through the fire. I bet he made it out alive.” His grasp was firm, as were his words. I could not find the strength to move the muscles in my body but somehow walked down the stairs and past the melted bathroom fixtures. He gave me his card and said to call if I needed anything. Soon enough they were all gone. She and I were alone with ourselves, with each other, with a skeleton of a home.

I had never been able to comprehend images I had seen of people wailing over the loss of loved ones at a funeral and had never heard such a sound in person. Through my deep connection to this nine-year-old male cat named Tucker, I came to know about wailing. In my life, I had learned that the safest posture was to be quiet and mostly invisible. But now, deep and heartbreaking wails began flying from the center of my chest. They took on a life of their own.

I could not bear not knowing what had happened to him. Each night after work, I went back to the house. It reeked of acrid smoke, yellow tape still draped around it declaring, “DANGER – FIRE LINE – DO NOT CROSS”, although the tape was beginning to crack and flap around in the cold north wind. The ice storm persisted. I would bring what winter clothes I had, along with a blanket or two secreted out of a motel room, so generously provided by the Red Cross. In the stark, silent and crystal clear freezing night I would walk around to the back porch of the house. No matter what time I got off work, no matter how I felt, I went there every night.

It would always start the same way. I would wrap up in a blanket, and initially, to keep warm, I would hug myself. First, I would whistle for him. I had one particular whistle that was our sign. Each long, lonely night I would whistle for him, always followed by a cold silence. Then I would begin calling him in a singsong voice: TUHHH-KURRRRR, TUHHH-KURRRRR. That always gave way to rocking and sobbing and then finally wailing that just poured out. Even in my deep grief there was a part of me that was poking, “Shhh! You’ll bother someone with all your noise!” I bow deeply to what came through me in those long, lonely nights. Tucker gave me a tremendous gift: I was beginning to learn how to grieve.

Finally one night I had a dream about him. It was the first and only dream. It was more like a nightmare, because he did not look well. In fact, he looked more like he was dying. In the dream, he was curled up on his “doctoring towel”, a threadbare, maroon bath towel that I always used when he needed medication or care for a cut or a wound. In the dream, I was so happy to see him, but as I got closer I saw that he was not in good shape. He was missing teeth, his fur was dry and bare in spots, and he was skin and bones. I awoke out of the dream and at first thought I had received a sign that Tucker was alive, but as I began to remember the details I wondered if I was receiving a sign that he was gone, or close to it.

That night with even greater resolve I again returned to the back porch to find out, one way or the other, good news or bad, the fate of my old friend. I fell into the wailing. In the midst of that deep, middle of the night, I whistled for him. It was a quiet whistle as by then I was hoarse. “??? What? Was that a cat?” I heard it again. But there were a lot of cats in the neighborhood, including several of my housemate’s that had escaped the fire, were still alive, but too traumatized to allow anyone near them. “There!” I heard it again. I whistled and there came another meow in response. Again a whistle, again a meow: plaintive, small-voiced. I could not allow myself to think that it might be Tucker…it was too risky for my broken heart to even imagine such a thing. But, there it was again and the sound was slowly coming closer. It shifted and was coming from some place high up and to my left. I whistled again and clearly heard a pitiful meow way up high. The sound had moved up onto the roof of the garage next door. One of my neighbors heard me outside and hollered, “Lauren, is that him?” “I don’t know!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!?????????????????” I yelled back.

“OH MY GOD!” I shouted as I saw the silhouette of a quivering, fuzzy creature up on the roof. “TUCKERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!! Is that you?” By now my neighbor had brought a ladder, and another had a bag of cat food. Carefully, the ladder was set to the edge of the garage roof. It was a long climb. Whoever this cat was, it was terrified and skittish, but. It was also purring. Loudly. Tucker had a VERY loud purr. Slowly I climbed the ladder with a handful of dry cat food in one hand. As I finally reached the top of the ladder, perched at the bottom edge of the roof, I could see the cat standing, huddled, up at the roof ridge. It was as far away from me as possible, but still in plain view. IT WAS TUCKER! And he had all his teeth and all his fur and all his limbs. HE WAS ALIVE! His tail was quivering, and he was so, so incredibly skinny, clearly starving. And terrified.

He knew who I was, he wanted to come to me, and he wanted to eat the food that

was in my outstretched hand. He’d take a few steps toward me, and then scrunch back to his safety, out of my reach, at the peak of the roof. I had definitely learned my lesson about rushing traumatized cats, when, a few days after the fire I had tried to catch one of my housemate’s cats who struck out at me in fear. I kept talking to Tucker, whistling softly under my breath.

By now, several neighbors murmured around the base of the ladder. THIS was a MIRACLE, plain and simple. It had been twenty-five days since the fire. The ground was still covered with ice and snow. Where had he been all that time? Finally, miraculously, courageously, he came close enough to lick one of my fingers with his rough tongue. Purring, purring, purring, he’d grab a crunch or two of cat food and then run up the roof and out of my reach. Slowly, he’d settle closer, but not too close. Eventually he curled up in my arms against that cold, hard ladder. I was weeping, everyone around me was weeping and they could still all hear him purring from the ground. Carefully, I gathered him in my arms and he let me hold him. One rung after the next, I maneuvered my way down the ladder holding him with one arm, clinging to the rails of the ladder with the other. He weighed next to nothing. And, he was still purring, purring, purring.

A friend generously loaned me a car and somehow I found my way to a 24-hour, emergency, veterinary hospital. I held Tucker gently in my arms. He was so slight I was afraid of hurting him with any amount of pressure. We walked into a waiting room filled with people with horrors etched across their faces. Tucker was still purring. Loudly. As we entered, all of the mostly tear-filled eyes were upon us. I sat down on a hard, cold, grey metal chair and Tucker curled into a small ball of tan and white fur.

He began to drift in and out of sleep, purring softly and then loudly as he’d move between sleep and awake. Shortly after we arrived a receptionist came to inquire about our particular trauma. She could not believe her ears or her eyes and over the course of the next couple of hours, each member of the loyal staff that worked those long and often heart-breaking night shifts there at the emergency clinic came to feast their eyes on Tucker and I.

We were like a newlywed couple on some sort of bizarre honeymoon. I sat there with him in my arms and he just purred and purred and purred. All through the night, one by one, each staff member would come and taste a bit of our great, good fortune, drink up a bit of our love, to quench their thirst from so many tragedies, one after the next.

Eventually he was examined and given fluids for dehydration. As I sat in the hard, grey chair with him purring away in my arms, here’s what they theorized: as our dear fire inspector surmised, Tucker must have run out that door when the firemen opened it, right through the fire…THROUGH the fire. The pads of each of his toes were cloaked in brand new, delicate pink skin, which the doctor told me would have taken about three weeks to form, after being so badly burned by the fire. As he escaped, he ran out into the below-freezing night, right across the ice and snow and his burns were iced down – one of the simplest treatments for burns. He then imagined that Tucker holed up somewhere, in some safe place, waiting for his feet to heal up enough so that he could walk again. He reckoned that the night I found him might have been the very first night that he was able to put pressure on that new, tender skin.

Finally we were released from emergency care and I smuggled Tucker into my motel room. I placed him on the bed and held up the bedspread so he could crawl under it. He had become such a small little guy that there was hardly a lump where he was curled up under there. He purred most of that first night. I closed the room-darkening drapes, hoping that I would finally be able to have a good long sleep. When I awoke the next morning, it was not morning. It was well into the afternoon. I opened the curtains and could not believe my eyes. There was an insane wind and rainstorm going on outside. It looked like a hurricane, and I later learned that it probably was, technically, a hurricane. I, we, had slept through many hours of that storm, soundly. Since then, it has been named the Inauguration Day storm, as it was the day that Bill Clinton was first sworn into office. It was also the first day of the next part of Tucker’s and my life. Late in the afternoon I got a phone call (when the power and phone service came back on) that my rental application had been accepted for our new home and we moved in, one week later.

Here’s another gift that came: it seemed that somehow I, too, had been given another chance, a new life. Starting over, I was profoundly aware of the impact of each and every thing, and person, for that matter, that I brought into our new home and although all these years later, that initial clarity has blurred, there is a certain way that I still consider what AND who I bring into my home. It’s the fire that brought that to me.