One day, riding in the passenger seat on Route 80 in New Jersey, I screamed STOP! Then I jumped out of the car to redirect a disoriented great white egret wandering the four-lane highway back to the river. When I got back in the car my friend said I was crazy.
I have a thing for rescue. Put in certain circumstances I act before I think, especially when crises involve animals. I can't help myself. It's a reflex. It's an impulse that springs from the primordial soup of my past.
If pressed to explain I'd say my parents had a contentious relationship. My mother was angry at my father for a long time, with good reason. She stuck with him, but stuck it to him, frequently. Her contempt made me want to scoop up my dad and put him in a safe box; to rip him from her curled furious claws and her fiery tongue. I was too young to understand what happened between them but I developed deep empathy to protect someone who "looked" like the victim.
No amount of therapy alters visceral feelings. When employed artfully rescue returns the favor with supreme happiness. Take the man I married. We were childhood friends who lost touch and reunited in 2000. We were both divorced. I was mostly healed. He was reeling from an emotionally and financially bankrupting marriage. He likes to say I found him in a basket on my front doorstep. That I took him in and saved his life. The feelings are mutual. I finally learned how to trust a man.
Not long after we were married my dog became deathly ill. He was given six months to live. I walked around in a fog of disbelief. Ten days before he died I found a six-week-old kitten scratching at the scarred December concrete for a drop of water. I put him in my coat and took him home. His sweet faced pulled me through the dark death of my dog.
They say a rescued animal knows it has been rescued. That it feels a special gratitude. There's something to that.
In the frigid winter of 2003 my husband and I flew to Siberia in a harrowing snowstorm to bring home a baby girl whose mother had left her with only a name: Yulia. We called her Julia. At seven months, she had alabaster skin and dark, slightly-slanted eyes. Though we rescued her from an ammonia-scented orphanage where she slept blanket-bound in a tiny cot alongside nine other unwanted babies, it is she who rescued me. She gave me motherhood.
I love the last scene in the film Pretty Woman. Richard Gere, who is afraid of heights, climbs a ladder, flowers in hand, and completes the fairy-tale story of the prince rescuing the princess. He says, "So what happens after he climbs up and rescues her?"
"She rescues him right back," she says.
The punch line of this modern-day Cinderella story is true. Rescue is symbiotic. It seals a firm love connection.
When I identify a victim -- whether it is a person, an animal or an environmental vulnerability -- a Don Quixote madness springs from my bones. Which brings me to the story of an old farmhouse perched on a mountain. In 2004 after a long and wrenching struggle to leave Manhattan and move to suburbia I looked at houses for sale. I had one caveat: I wanted a house in move-in condition.
One January day a realtor took us to a clapboard house that had been on the market for five years -- five years! during the era we now historically refer to as the age of "irrational exuberance," when everything was snapped up and bought, if for no other reason to flip. Not this house. No one wanted it. It was a leper. Left for dead. Lookers were put off by its broken windows, fire-damaged slanting floors, sagging ceilings, rusted kitchen appliances hanging by hinges, cobwebbed encrusted corners.
Even after the realtor pushed the ice-jammed door open she winced as though she had made a mistake showing us this house. Quick to recover, she said she had more listings and we should move on. "STOP!" I said. It was too late. I was entranced by the massive brick hearth, light trickling through skylights in the vaulted ceilings and woods that stretched as far as the eye could see. It was as though the deer frolicking in the snow right outside the windows had been put there specifically for me.
"I'll take it," I said.
She said I was crazy. "This house is a money pit!"
Even my husband looked miffed, at least for a moment. He soon recognized that look in my eye when my windmills begin turning. He could see my imagination powering up to rescue this 150-year-old fragment of history.
And so I rescued (and restored) the house, and as the story goes, it rescued (and restored) me right back. I've never loved living anywhere more than I do this old house.