We can’t predict what will imprint on us. Memories, colors, flashes from childhood that last a lifetime. But standing here, three thousand miles and twenty some odd years away from it, I remember. A friend’s house. A place I could go as a teenager. With doors that were always open. To me, to us. A whole gang of goofy, gangly teens. Boys and girls. In good times and in bad.
Winter. Twenty years ago. On the phone…
S: (with urgency) Hello? Mr. Carney? It’s Shannon Brazil.
Mr. C: Hi, Shannon.
S: I need help. I found this pregnant cat–
Click. Dial tone.
Redialing. Then on the phone again…
S: Mr. C, I think we got disconnected.
Mr. C: Did you say you have a pregnant cat?
S: Yes! I need help–
Click. Dial tone.
Mr. Carney hung up on me. On purpose. An hour before calling the Carney home I happened to be walking by a drug store where a pregnant calico cat had just been put out on the street. She rubbed against my leg. Purring. I stopped Old Mr. Drug Store Man as he started up the stairs.
S: Hey. Who’s cat is this?
Old Mr. Drug Store Man: She’s been living in the basement, but she can’t stay there anymore.
S: This cat’s about to have babies.
Old Mr. Drug Store Man: Yeah, exactly.
S: (aghast) But it’s snowing!
Old Mr. Drug Store Man: Go on and take her home then, kid. Merry Christmas.
When my father saw the cat he nearly hit the roof. This time he was putting his foot down. For real. No way, no how was he getting roped into a pregnant cat situation no matter how I reasoned, argued, pleaded. He reminded me of all the empty promises I’d made about not taking anymore lost animals home. Cats. Dogs. Snakes. Turtles. Crows. Enough.
S: This is the last time! I promise.
Dad: You say that every time. NO. And that’s final.
S: If the cat goes, I go!
Dad: (waving) Goodbye.
Thrown out on the street during winter break from college. I had no where else to turn but the Carneys. There were three girls, plus the mom, plus me, and the cat – a persuasive bunch. For most of high school and beyond there were dozens of us who were in and out of the Carney house. Showing up at their door with a starving, meowing, hugely pregnant cat seemed kind of normal. Mr. Carney shook his head when I arrived with the cat-in-a-box. The pull-out sofa was made up. The girls all gathered round, agreeing I did the right thing. And the cat was set-up in another room upstairs, because at the time I was swollen-face allergic to cats.
Mr. Carney said I could stay for one night only, but I didn’t tell my father that. I told my dad that Mr. C said I could stay as long as I like, because adding another cat to their two cats and two dogs (and maybe a couple of bunnies) was no big deal to him, because he was the nicer dad by far, and because he had a Coca-Cola fountain in the living room, and told jokes, and never yelled, and let us listen to music real loud, and had introduced all of us to Elvis. I couldn’t believe my father let me back in the next day. But I lived up to my end of the bargain and found a home for the cat before she delivered, and then found homes for her four kittens. For years I joked with Mr. C about the time he hung up on me at the words pregnant cat.
I flew back to Boston from Los Angeles years later to see my family and my long-distance boyfriend over the holidays. Too many loved ones, too little time, but I was determined to introduce my boyfriend to the family that had meant so much to me when I was a teenager. We sat at their dining room table laughing. Played music, worked the old soda machine, shooed the dogs away. It was terribly important that they meet. I couldn’t say exactly why. But a couple of days later after endless lay-overs and no cell phones I arrived at my apartment in West Hollywood to the phone ringing off the hook. It was one a.m. My boyfriend was on the other end.
One of the Carney dogs fell through the ice that day. Mr. Carney died saving the dog’s life. New Year’s Day, 1996.
It still seems unreal. It still makes no sense.
On the days leading up to every new year I always think about Jimmy Carney. I think how much he meant to all of us, how generous he was, how all of these strangers came out of the woodwork when he died to tell stories about the ways he’d helped them. I think of how his three daughters grew to be amazing women. And how their mom never for a single second stopped being his wife or stopped loving him even after all of these years. I think of how proud he would have been of his eight grandchildren. It makes me think that my own family won’t be here forever. It makes me remember what’s important.
This time it was 3:30 a.m. when these thoughts returned to me. I was on staycation with the kids at the Embassy Suits in Tigard, Oregon. I couldn’t sleep. And I had this song in my head: I Wonder by Rodrigues. Which sent me back to those few short years when I was a curious teen, notebook in hand, my whole life ahead of me. When I had a place I could go. Where the doors were always open. And Jimmy was still alive. And suddenly in that hotel room in the middle of the night it became very important for me to write his name for all to see. I couldn’t say exactly why. But some of the old friends joined in. And we posted to Facebook. We love you forever, Jimmy. Thank you.