I didn’t understand the unconditional bond of a pet until I opened my home to Salem. I had grown up with two cats, and I loved them with all my heart, but they didn’t need or love me the same way that Salem did. As she sits on my lap, I think back on the past 10 years of our journey, hoping that I can find the right words to honor her story. She is my shadow — my friend —my unexpected gift from the heavens; I wouldn’t have made it this far in life without her.
I don’t know the beginning of Salem’s story — I only know the beginning of our story. She appeared at the restaurant where I worked in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I showed up for my shift one day and the owner had discovered her hiding in the parking lot. We couldn’t tell her age, but she was tiny, and though she was covered in dirt, we could tell she was fluffy. She had a sweetness about her and in that instant, we all fell in love.
Every day we gave her food (homemade chicken salad was her favorite) and she stayed in the back of the restaurant. Little by little, we gained her trust. The owner was the first one to pet her — it took the rest of us months, but once she knew us, she considered us home. She greeted us in the morning and said goodbye in the evening. Knowing she was there made going to work less dreadful. I did love my job; the staff had become a second family to me, but the work itself was emotionally draining. Salem renewed my spirit. I connected with her soul, and though we were unsure of her sex because she hid it under piles of fluff, I felt strongly confident that she was a girl. She had the sweetest disposition — a gentle demeanor and deep down, I knew she was meant to be mine.
We tossed around names for her — Runner, Expo, a few other restaurant names that I can’t remember — but they didn’t suit her. To me, she was Salem and that’s what I called her. After a while, the rest of the staff followed and it became official. Since we lived in Winston-Salem, the name was perfect. Even if it turned out that she was a boy, the name could still remain.
Months went by and the seasons changed. Salem got more and more comfortable with us and her surroundings. Though mainly residing in the back of the restaurant, we noticed her venturing out by the front patio so she could commune with the fish in the pond. We thought it was adorable and her occasional visits further brightened our days, but we were afraid she would get us in trouble or get hit by a car. A restaurant was no place for a cat — we knew she needed a permanent home. More than that, she deserved a permanent home.
Our winter was mild that year so there was no need to hurry. Then, January came with its cold fronts. I was hoping the owner would give Salem a home since he had first bonded to her, but he was reluctant because of his allergies. No one else would step up and my fear held me back. I was afraid of not being a good cat mom since I worked all the time and money was tight. I didn’t trust that I could meet her needs — I already had two low-maintenance bearded dragons — and I was afraid she would need more than I was able to give. I was afraid I would fail, and I didn’t want her to suffer from my failings.
My fear subsided the moment I saw Salem defend herself against two other strays. She lacked the threatening meow needed to ward off predators, but she had the smarts to hide underneath fallen branches. It killed me to leave her that night, and I made arrangements to bring her home the next day. My fear had shifted — I was more afraid of losing her than taking her in. Though she put up a slight flight, the owner managed to grab her from under a car and place her in the carrier. Just like that, she was now mine. I remember driving her home in the rain — two scaredy cats you might say — but we now belonged to each other. She stayed briefly in the garage until she received her shots and was professionally bathed, but then she was home and our new life began.
I didn't know how Salem would adjust to indoor life, so I took it one day at a time. Since the size of the house overwhelmed her, she stayed in my room for a few weeks until she felt safe. Then she had free reign and enjoyed every room. Stairs, toys, carpet, cat food and affection were all new experiences. Once she felt safe in the house, she feared the outside. Every time I opened the door, she ran away as if afraid that she would lose her new home. As the spring months approached, I started to leave the back door open — creating the opportunity for her venture out without fear of being locked out. Soon enough, we were enjoying the backyard together. She loved to roam around the garden, watch the birds that flew overhead and sun herself on the patio. Outside or inside, we were each other's family.
We only stayed in NC for a few more months before heading to NY at the end of June. In the hopes of making some extra money for the summer months, I accepted a job with the intention of returning back to NC in September — but once in NY, my heart yearned to stay. The next few months were tumultuous — trying to lease my NC home, finding an apartment amidst the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, working 3 jobs, making new friends, packing up my entire house in 4 days, adjusting to life in a smaller space — but Salem made everything less daunting. She was happy as long as she was with me. She didn’t care about the size of our place or giving up the outdoor life because the amount of traffic made it unsafe. She didn’t care about the little things that often plagued my mind. All she cared about was being with me, and with her by my side, I learned to let go of things in my life that didn’t serve me. She comforted me when I felt alone, attempted to heal my wounds and helped me to stay focused on what truly mattered.
Since leaving NC, Salem and I have moved 4 times and our family has changed — grieving the passing of a beardie and celebrating the arrival of a new kitten — but our relationship has only grown stronger. We’ve had our battles — mine mostly emotional, hers mostly physical, but we endured them together. She helped me to accept life's uncertainties and embrace flexibility; I helped her to trust and feel safe. We helped each other to navigate and be less afraid of the world; together, we redefined what it means to be “home.” I know I will never have another cat like Salem; a cat who falls asleep in my arms, never fights at the vet, accepts car rides without howling in fear, takes medicine in any form like a champ, expresses herself freely with the tiniest squeak, prefers to eat and drink with her paw, follows me wherever I go even at the expense of my privacy or knows she was saved. She showed me the meaning of unconditional love and I treasure every moment I’m given. Every day I'm grateful for having found the courage to take her on my journey, and I now welcome the future with open arms. I saved Salem with the hopes of giving her a better life — never expecting that she would also save me in return.