Lost & Found

Exciting neighborhood drama! (Thankfully, not really.)

I was helping my neighbor Cathy look for her lost cat this weekend. Buster disappeared while they were out of town. He’s an inside cat, but was once a feral kitten, so he’s always interested in getting out. Some other neighbors were feeding Buster and Skittles, Cathy’s other cat, but they weren’t really cat people and didn’t notice that Buster had slipped away. And Skittles didn’t say anything, because he was eating both meals. (And, he is a cat and can’t talk, also.) A professional pet sitter was coming to empty the litter box and eventually noticed that only one cat would come to greet her. After a lot of back and forth over email with the various pet-sitters, Cathy’s husband Bill called me in as some sort of “cat expert.” He coached me through breaking into their house, and I searched the place top to bottom.

Buster was gone.

Cathy and Bill did what they could do from out-of-state, then left their vacation 12 hours early to drive cross-country and start the hopeful, helpless process of looking for a lost pet.

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This is Buster’s brother Buddy, the night before I took him to get his balls cut off.

Late last night, I was walking my dog, and I spotted a black cat with white feet–Buster!–leaving Cathy’ porch. Despite the late hour, I phoned her, and she came out to meet me. Turns out, it wasn’t Buster–Cathy had been watching silently from inside–but rather Buster’s nearly identical brother, Buddy. I’m pretty sure Cathy let her toddler name these cats.

Buddy and Buster are from a litter of four feral kittens that I discovered under my porch a few years ago. Before I could bring them in, their mommy moved them. We eventually pieced together that two kittens got squished by cars, leaving perhaps two survivors we could save. (Usually only 1 in 4 feral kittens survives to adulthood). Cathy set out food and was eventually able to grab Buster and bring him inside as a pet. And I was able to TNR Buddy: trap, neuter, and return him to the wild. I TNR’d 8 other cats as well (and also caught 2 possums, which are so cool!), becoming our neighborhood’s go-to Crazy Cat Lady in the process. Even though I have zero cats and 1 dog.

Anyway.

I talked to Cathy for awhile. They had been driving all day, then she searched for Buster for hours. She was despondent. There had been a Big Cat Fight in the neighborhood Saturday night. Usually this means one human woman screaming at another human woman about staying away from a human man. A bottle shatters, other people yell out their windows to shut the fuck up, some gentrifying stroller-mommy calls the cops, everybody runs, and then by the time the police roll through, they find nothing but shadows and silence. A long time ago, when my neighborhood was an open-air drug market, the cops referred to it as “The Hole.” Because suspects simply melted away in the alleys, closed-in porches, and homes of neighbors they’d known all their lives.

If a human being can disappear like that, imagine how easy it would be for a cat!

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If you let your cat outside, you are deluding yourself that it is not going to encounter street cats like this one–20lbs of matted fur, festering disease, and pure, unadulterated rage.

In this case, “Big Cat Fight” meant actual cats. This one was epic. I heard it, my dog heard it, she and I discussed whether to intervene, and then we snuggled further under the covers instead. Because it sounded terrifying. Turns out, our neighbor Jessie saw the whole thing. Jessie sees everything. He doesn’t work and has a recurring substance abuse problem, plus right now he’s undergoing chemo. (Colon cancer; so far he’s doing well, thanks!) Jessie’s house doesn’t have AC, so he sits in the doorway of his enclosed porch all day, every day, and long into the night. If you want to know what’s up, ask Jessie.

Two cats went at it in Cathy’s yard, one climbed a tree to escape, the other went up after it, then they both plummeted to the ground and continued to tussle. Jessie reported that one of the cats was black like Buster. I pointed out that 7 of the 9 cats I TNR’d were black, so in the end Jessie’s ID meant nothing. Keep hope alive! Still, Cathy feared Buster was critically injured somewhere, dying, unable to respond to her call. She was really tearing herself up about it.

It felt familiar to me, that dawning realization that the world is dark, dangerous, and fucking enormous. It’s a feeling specific to losing a pet to the Great Outdoors. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to lose a child.

Cathy was giving up hope, which kinda made me wonder about her commitment to this animal. There were so many reasons to be optimistic! I pointed out, Buster wasn’t a regular, indoor kitty. He had spent the first 3 or 4 months of life as a feral, so he knew how to be outside. And he had gotten out before. Eventually he would come around for food when Cathy would call to him. (Though it did take days.)

“Chances are,” I told her, “he’s somewhere nearby. He’s probably listening to us right now.”

In searching my memory for reference points that might comfort and inspire, I eventually pieced together the story of how my own cat got lost, and how we found her. I hadn’t thought about it in years. It’s kind of a funny story, if you know me, because I guess I haven’t changed that much.

This was back in grad school, probably 1996 or ’97, when I was dating Cheesefart but before I moved in with him. He had two cats, Hannah and Chloe, that were identical stripey tabbies with green eyes. They were gorgeous and fun and silky and wonderful, and Cheesefart and I had been together long enough that they felt like ours–not his, ours. But in reality, they were his, predating our relationship by less than a year. When Cheesefart dumped me for another woman, he refused to separate the cats, and I had no formal claim. Losing Hannah and Chloe made a devastating experience all the more so.

But the story of losing Chloe was years before the breakup. At that time, Cheesefart lived on the second floor of a subdivided rental house with no AC. The windows were crap and had no screens, so we used adjustable fold-out screens in them. The screens that fit most securely side-to-side were not very tall, but we preferred them because the cats liked to sit in the windowsills. Foreshadowing!

Cheesefart had a roommate named Crackbaby. That was really his nickname, and it was because he had some kind of facial tic and was very odd. He was probably on the autism spectrum, or maybe was just a quiet, brilliant weirdo getting a doctorate in engineering in his early 20s. The other thing I remember about Crackbaby is that all he ate were bowls of high-sugar cereal like Fruit Loops and Apple Jacks. And by “bowls,” I mean mixing bowls. And by “all he ate,” I mean, that is all he ever ate. We wondered with our friends if perhaps the facial tic was his body’s response to all the sugar.

Cheesefart went out of town and left Crackbaby alone with the cats. I wasn’t living there officially, but had keys and was over there a lot. And yet, it was uncomfortable if I dropped by when Cheesefart wasn’t there. So I played it cool. I stopped by under the pretense of picking up some baking pans, but really I was checking on the cats. I knocked, and Crackbaby answered. He peeked at me through a crack in the doorway, like he didn’t want me to come in. He offered to retrieve the pans for me, so I never made it past the door. I didn’t force the issue, because I knew what he was up to.

He had made the Great Nest.

There was another weekend, when we walked in unexpectedly and learned, to everyone’s embarrassment, what Crackbaby did when he had the apartment to himself. If he was confident we were gone for the day, he would take a sleeping bag, all of his bedding–sheets, blankets, comforter–and every pillow in the house, including the couch cushions, and make a Great Nest on the living room floor right in front of the TV. Then he would lay inside it wearing nothing but his underwear, eating nothing but chocolate-frosted sugar bombs from a mixing bowl, and watch cartoons for hours on end. Which is, in its own way, AWESOME! I love to think that Crackbaby is now a six-figure-salaried engineer living in a spartanly furnished $300,000 house somewhere. And his most luxurious weekends are spent this way.

Still, finding a grown man in his tighty-whities with his head in a giant bowl of cereal in a Great Nest is a little uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough, that I took Crackbaby at his word when he said the cats were fine. Because I asked him:

“How are the cats?”

And he answered, “The cats are fine.” So I left.

When Cheesefart got home two days later, he called me in a panic. “Chloe’s gone!” he cried.

I was shocked.  “What do you mean GONE?”

“She fell out the window, three days ago, and Crackbaby hasn’t seen her since!!!”

I was livid. That’s why Crackbaby didn’t want me in the apartment–he didn’t want me to know she was missing! That, you know, and his weird underwear nesting habit. In a childlike way that belied his actual adulthood, Crackbaby naively hoped that Chloe would magically return on her own so that he could pretend it never happened. But that was highly unlikely, for a very practical reason: Chloe had never been outside before, and her first foray into the Great Outdoors was falling out a second-story window. So how on earth would her walnut-sized brain ever piece together that the way home involved climbing an exterior staircase?

As for how she fell out a window… well, it’s one of those things where, at the time, I thought Crackbaby was a ridiculous fuckwit. But with maturity and hindsight, I can see that living in a ramshackle house with a couple, who were completely obsessed with their cats, was probably not much fun for him. Crackbaby just wanted to open the window wider, so he procured a taller adjustable screen from his bedroom and put it in the living room window, oblivious to the fact that it was wobbly and insecure. When Chloe leaned against it, right in front of him apparently, it gave way, and she fell out of the house with the screen. Crackbaby got to the window just in time to see her disappearing around the corner of the foundation, but by the time he got down the stairs, she was gone. (No idea if he was in his underwear, but… probably!)

By the time Cheesefart got home, Crackbaby had dismantled the Great Nest and taken to his bed. Cheesefart said getting the story out of Crackbaby was like pulling teeth; he was almost catatonic (LOL). We searched for Chloe a few hours, then I went back to the apartment to find a photo and start making “Lost Cat” signs. I stood in the doorway to Crackbaby’s bedroom and verbally eviscerated him as he curled tighter and tighter into a ball. The only part of the speech I remember is the great finish:

“If that cat has to spend another night outside, then so will you.”

I wasn’t kidding. We were walking the streets, knocking on doors, rallying the neighbors, doing all the pre-Internet things you do to look for a lost pet. And if those efforts didn’t bear fruit by nightfall, I was mentally calculating how long it would take me to dump all of Crackbaby’s belongings–all of his clothes, all of his cereal, and all the makings of the Great Nest–into the yard. I had no legal authority to do this, of course–he had a lease, and I didn’t even live there!–but I spoke with the terrifying moral authority of a crazy woman whose catbaby was missing. Crackbaby knew well enough to heed me, and he remained in bed, in the fetal position, the rest of the day.

As the memory of that event came flooding back last night, I conveyed all of this to my neighbor Cathy. With an eye towards indemnifying the kindly neighbors who accidentally let Buster out, I conceded that it wasn’t really Crackbaby’s fault Chloe escaped. But I was mad and wanted someone to blame. Cathy said her husband Bill was taking the worst of it from her, though he wasn’t even in the same state when Buster took off. Every story needs a villain, I guess, but sometimes there simply isn’t one. Cats just like to run away.

(Though, again, I’m sorry, but Chloe didn’t actually run away. She fell out of a second-story window right in front of a human adult, who did nothing to find her for two days, and also lied about it. That is not ok.)

We found Chloe not long after my outburst to Crackbaby, and how we found her is the whole reason this came up with Cathy. (Keep the following in mind, if you’re ever looking for a lost cat!) We were approaching Chloe’s disappearance like she was a person, invoking the geography of our neighborhood from the perspective of sidewalks and cars and property lines. The target search area was quickly enormous, as we imagined all the places she might have gone, as though she had set off on a Disney adventure.

But no. She was a cat, and she was terrified. We should have been thinking in terms of places to hide.

She fell out a second-story window, landed on her feet, because cats are fucking amazing, and then she hugged the foundation of the house as she ran for cover. We knew this, because Crackbaby saw her right before she turned left at the corner. At the next corner, I bet she stopped. Turn left again, and head through the day lilies, which provided an obstacle but no real cover? Or go right, 10 feet across open ground to the neighbors’ porch? She went right, slipped under the porch, then crawled to its furthest, darkest corner. And stayed there. (We caught a break in that it rained all weekend, so I suspect she never ventured out.) We didn’t see Chloe on our first pass. When we went back with a flashlight–always use a flashlight when searching for a cat, even in the daytime–the light caught her glowing eyes. Then it was just a matter of finding the right tone and the right treats to lure her out again.

Crackbaby got a reprieve, Hannah got her sister back, and I got a good lesson in how to track cats. I told Christine not to give up hope, that Buster was probably nearby under somebody’s porch.

“Get a flashlight,” I said. “And in the morning, start looking under every house.”

“Do you think I should get people’s permission to go on their property?” she asked me.

I was stunned. Here she was, a grown-ass woman and a human rights lawyer to bootwondering if it would be okay to look for her cat in other people’s yards. That is one way to go through this life. And then there’s me, Crazy Lady who threatened to evict a lawful tenant from an apartment I didn’t even live in!

“I wouldn’t,” I said gently. “Better to beg forgiveness, and all that.”

My last post was about the power of being reasonable. It has its time and place. And then there are situations that call for crazy and relentless. In my mind, a missing fur-baby qualifies.

Cathy stayed up another hour, walking the streets and alleys in search of Buster. She finally embraced her inner Crazy Lady and sent the call into the night: “I’m here, and I won’t give up on you!”

Buster heard her. He came home, mewing for breakfast at the back door, a few hours later. He’s fine.

 

Tips for Finding a Lost Cat (or Setting Traps for TNR):

  1. Think like a cat! They hug walls and foundations when they travel.
  2. Look under things. You cat is not traveling; it’s hiding!
  3. Keep calling out. Your cat is probably nearby!
  4. Cat-bait Pro Tip for setting traps: KFC. Srsly.
  5. Keep a good, clear photo on hand, in an obvious place, in case you need to make signs and send out emails.
  6. Get to know your neighbors! They might have valuable intel.
  7. Microchip your pets, put breakaway collars on cats, and for chrissakes, spay/neuter your animals!
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The Stray

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The driver in front of me was uncertain and plodding as he or she cautiously navigated a windy, two-lane road strewn with potholes and slicked with rain. As we approached the light, I hoped I would be the only car to go straight, the only driver undeterred by the rain, flash flooding, and an unlit road. Sure enough, the other cars broke right and left, and I forged ahead into the darkness: a rural, wooded stretch that I love to drive for its twists and turns, its clever delivery at the far side of the city in record time, and, sure, I admit it, its potential for mayhem.

I was perhaps only two hundred yards into my shortcut when I saw something light-colored dart in front of me. My mind flashed on, then eliminated, the possibilities: fox, cat, giant rat. Too furry, too clumsy, too big.

It was a dog.

I slammed on the breaks. As my car fishtailed to a stop, I saw that it was a 15-20 pound mix from what I call the “bedroom slipper” family of breeds–Bichon, Shih Tzu, Pekingnese, Maltese, etc. Its light-colored fur had grown completely over its eyes, and it looked altogether like a frazzled mop or unkempt wig skittering across the road.

But no, it was a terrified dog trotting in that way new strays do–a quick, nervous gate designed to create the appearance of having someplace to go, when really, they have no idea what to do next–the doggy equivalent of fronting. The fact that this dog was out in the rain crossing a road after 10 PM suggested to me that it was new to being alone in the elements. My own dog, a shelter mutt, survived for weeks in the woods as an abandoned puppy, and even now she retains vestigial traces of what she learned there: sunset is the time to find a place to hide, and pure darkness is the time to stay there.

In the seconds it took for the car to skid to a stop, I reconnected briefly with a former version of myself–the bleeding heart, the rescuer. I opened my door as the dog darted back into the oncoming lane, oblivious as to whether there were more cars behind us. Thank god there weren’t, or I might have gotten us all killed.

“Hey puppy,” I called in my sweet, doggy-come-hither voice.

It kept on going. Then there was a fraction of a second’s pause, when I had to decide my next move.

I ditch the car in the middle of the road. I step into the rain and continue to call out. The dog looks over its shoulder at me, then keeps on going. I go back to the car, move it to the shoulder, and grab some of my dog’s treats. I chase the stray into the waist-high weeds, where it lets me get a little closer, but not close enough. I draw it into the tall grass by the side of the road. I keep calling, it keeps slowing. We do this dance for half an hour. Cold and soaked and filthy, we eventually connect, I eventually win its trust to pick it up, I take it back to my car where–oh, shit, that’s right, I have my dog in the car. Holding the stray in one arm, I move my dog to the front seat, make a training lead out of my dog’s leash, and clip the stray to the back seat, hoping it won’t strangle itself to death on the drive to… Right. Where am I taking this dog again???

I knew what would happen, that by pursuing the dog I was committing myself to potentially days of hassle, as I tried to find its owner or get it situated in a no-kill shelter. I didn’t have it in me. I got back in the car and drove away.

I tried, but only a little. The old me would never have given up. My heart used to be so full and tender that I would never let an animal go. But over the last 20 years, it’s happened more and more.

The mewling I maybe heard, but didn’t investigate, because the last thing I needed was a basement full of feral kittens to re-home.

The dog I maybe saw at 70 MPH on the highway that I might have chased for an hour while my own dog sweltered in the car.

The wounded bird I surely saw as I was on my way to meet friends. I calculated: put my dog back in the house, find a box, find the bird, collect the bird, find a wildlife rehabilitator on a Sunday, deliver the bird…  I had theater tickets. People were waiting on me.

“Yes, a cat or car will get the bird tonight,” I reasoned. “But we’re not going to run out of robins any time soon.”

Old Me would be appalled. Time, mud, theater tickets, standing people up, the maddening complexity and hassle of trying to resolve the intractable problem of the stray–I used to be undeterred. I didn’t care what it cost, how long it took, who else was inconvenienced.

There have been many easy saves–dogs with tags that you can return within a day–over the years. And many hard ones too.

There’s the kitten my friend and I lured out from under a shed at a garden party, then re-homed after a lengthy campaign of signs on bulletin boards in literally every vet’s office and pet store in town.

There’s the 9 feral cats I TNR’d after I failed to rescue 4 kittens from under my porch. It wasn’t my fault–their mama moved them, and we didn’t know where to until it was too late: two kittens splayed lifelessly in the gutter after being hit by cars. A neighbor took in one of the survivors, and I managed to trap and neuter the fourth, along with 8 other ferals in the neighborhood. I am very good at trapping wild cats, by the way, and accidental possums too!

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Apparently it’s a perennial question, but at least now the Internet can help. Shelters are overloaded, though, so PREVENTION is the best option: Please spay/neuter your pets!

There were the two dogs I picked up at the side of the interstate as my friend John and I returned home from a road trip to Branson, Missouri, where we practically invented hipster irony in the summer of 1994. John was furious. I nearly killed us, then I brought two elated but flea- and tick-infested dogs into my Civic hatchback, then I delayed us further by procuring pet supplies and making phone calls to shelters–not easy, in the days before cell phones and the Internet. A few days later, I delivered the dogs to the Humane Society in my home town, where I made a hefty donation (for me, anyway) with the understanding that the dogs would be quarantined, then put up for adoption. A week later, when I learned they had been destroyed, I was devastated beyond description.

And then there was Jessie. Sometimes I rescued people too, especially elderly people in distress. They are unlikely to murder you if you give them rides, and doing so on very hot days might save their lives. I was staying with my sister after my first year of grad school, and my summer career plans–barista and professional dog walker–had fallen through. During the day, I would bum around the city, then I would pick my sister up at the train and drive us both home. If I didn’t show, she would have to walk a long, hot mile in her work clothes. She appreciated it when I made it. She did not appreciate it when I didn’t. And since I was living in a group house for very little money at her invitation, I felt obliged to accommodate her needs.

That day, it was about 1000 degrees and humid, so I spent the afternoon cooling off in an airy, downtown art museum. Just before closing, I used the restroom near the lockers. As I came out, there was an old, old woman fussing with the security guard. She was in her 80s, stooped from osteoporosis, and dressed tidily in the flowing layers of a lady artist. As I recall, she was wearing a floppy sunhat that, like her, must have been fabulous back in the day.

It quickly became apparent that Jessie had lost the key to her locker, which contained her purse, which contained her wallet, and she had no way to get home until she found them. The security guard was not-so-patiently opening every single locker in search of her belongings. It was a fascinating little drama, because the guard was clearly unconvinced that her purse was in any of the lockers. Suspenseful! I decided to see how it played out.

I was also acutely aware that it was hotter than blazes outside, and this old woman did not seem capable of making her way to the exit, let alone to an outer suburb. I was worried for her.

Eventually they did find her purse, and the guard took his leave. I followed her out of the building and into the harsh sunlight, where she looked around as uncertainly as any stray. She had no idea which way to go. I approached and asked if she needed help.

Over the course of the next hour, Jessie and I got to know one another as I addressed her immediate needs and tried to figure out where she lived. She was a widow and an artist and had painted President Franklin D. Roosevelt from life, she said, though years later I could discover no concrete evidence to support such an astounding claim. She was also hungry (that I could believe) and dehydrated, so I procured snacks and water. As we sat in some shade, I tried to make a plan to get her home. Since I was unfamiliar with the buses,  I suggested we take the train to my stop, fetch my car (and pick up & drop off my sister), then I could drive Jessie the rest of the way. But she was reluctant to go with me, and she could not remember her exact address, just the name of the complex she lived in. She preferred the bus, and I demurred, being 23 and reluctant to impose my will on an actual adult. We wandered around from bus stop to bus stop trying to find one that seemed right to her. Eventually we found what she surmised was the correct bus, and I waited with her until it came. I helped her board, I paid her fare, then I asked the driver if he could make sure she got off at the right stop.

“On or off,” he charged dismissively.

“What?” I said, completely flustered.

“On or off?” he said again. I realized he meant me.

“Ok, but can you just make sure she…”

On or OFF!” He was nearly yelling as he cut me off.

The driver was clearly a no-go, so I quickly turned my attention to the sweaty commuters spread before me. “Could somebody please make sure this lady gets off at [such-and-such stop]?” I pleaded.

Silence.

“ON OR OFF!” the driver bellowed once again.

I quickly did the math: If I stayed on, I would end up in a far flung part of the city with this old lady, entirely unsure of where we were going. If I ever did get her home, I would then have to find my way home as well. I didn’t have enough cash for a cab. And with every passing minute, my ability to retrieve my sister from the train station receded as a possibility. I could only imagine her wrath if I failed her on such a miserably hot day.

I got off the bus.

My sister was home already, and furious, by the time I arrived. I was desperately worried about Jessie, that she might collapse in the heat and die because I had abandoned her on the wrong bus. (I would search her name in the obituaries for weeks after, but I never found it.) I was so upset, I poured out the whole story to my sister. She listened but was unmoved–only exasperated with me for making her walk home.

In a way that’s inconveniently trite for this essay, my sister settled firmly on dogs as her metaphor du jour. Old people who can’t take care of themselves should not be venturing into the city, she lectured me. Because “it’s a dog eat dog world out there.”

And then, with a patronizing weariness that was tremendously unflattering to her 26 years, my sister concluded:

“You can’t save every stray dog in the world.”

She said this, without irony, about an 80-something year old human woman. I think about that statement now, as we argue over how best to serve our mother, an old woman who has lost all independence and who–if she ever starts to wander–will require the kindness of strangers to find her way home again. But that night, in the summer of 1995, my mother’s illness, our parents’ mortality, even our own middle-age seemed further in the future than jet packs and time travel. The issue at hand was this: a selfish, naive, hopelessly idealistic little sister needed a lesson in what mattered.

I left that conversation horrified–and certain. Jessie might not have painted Franklin D. Roosevelt from life, but she certainly drew a clear line between my sister and me. “Maybe you can’t save every stray dog,” I told myself. “But you can try.” I quietly vowed that I would never give up on my impulse to care, to help, to save; that I would never privilege propriety and deadlines above service to vulnerable creatures of all kinds; that I would never be like my sister.

And yet here I am. I let a sad, scared, soaked little dog run off into the night, because its fear of my gentle hand was convenient to me:

It was late.

My primary commitment was to my own dog.

I just had my car cleaned.

I couldn’t be less a person I respected when I was 23 if I supported legislation to legalize recreational whale torture. I look back on that girl and marvel at how strong and dumb and powerful she was, at how little she knew and how much she cared. She thought she could change the world, even just a little. Now, two decades on, the world remains all aleak, as though no one lifted a finger, ever. She’s tired and tied-down, but not by things that matter: a mortgage, work deadlines, and unsavory obligations that keep her tethered like a yard dog. Yet, with no kids, no husband, no boyfriend, not even an Internet date on the horizon, and a family tangle of sadness and recrimination–in her relationships, she’s untethered like a stray, trotting nervously at the social margins in order to create the appearance of direction and purpose.

“I have a life,” says the stray.

I have people, I’m not out here all alone.

I don’t need to be rescued.

It’s the lie stray creatures tell themselves when they are too scared to accept the lifeline right in front of them. That dog slipped into the darkness as though it never existed. Jessie waved to me from the bus window before disappearing without a trace. Marie looked over her shoulder one last time before she left for good.

Every minute of this life, we perch uneasily on the brink of catastrophe and at the cusp of salvation. We are all rescuers and rescued alike. Somehow I knew the world at 23, but now I am learning it all over again. There is no line between saving and being saved.