Driving early in the morning is like driving in the night. If you live at the end of Cape Cod, as I do, where you are buffeted by wind and snow and the kind of rain that seems like a bucket of water is pouring over you, driving early morning in the fall is driving in pitch black. Sometimes the stars don’t even come out. Even when there is moonlight, the fog and clouds can obscure the light. Coyotes large as German Shepherds follow your car with cool indifference from the side of the road and sometimes run alongside you for company. Fat nocturnal creatures amble across the road, as do foxes and wild turkey. Where I live, there are “Slow for Turtles” signs, but, as I found out too late, there are also “Caution Deer” signs.
I once had a schedule where I got up at four in the morning, and was on the road by 4:45, to catch the 5:55 to make my 8:00 class in Boston. The morning I hit the deer was a Wednesday near Thanksgiving, the day after the first of the batch of kittens I was fostering got adopted. I had begun volunteering at the local no-kill cat shelter the previous year, and after a case of ringworm emerged, the healthy cats had to be separated and lodged out from the ill ones. A mother cat and her four kittens needed a quick home, so I gladly offered mine, beginning in mid-September. How hard could it be? Feed, medicate, scoop, play. They had to be isolated in my studio to make sure they did not have ringworm, and after three successive tests proved negative, they moved into my apartment.
What I didn’t expect was to fall in love with the lot, each individual kitten with personality to spare, and a mother cat who was deeply content to nurse them long past their biological need. I played with the idea of keeping all of them, keeping some of them, all the while preparing, so I thought, for their adoptions. I was in Colorado for a reading when I found out that a guardian for the first kitten, Denim, had been found. “That’s great!” I said on the phone, ready to be stoical and generous, for he would be receiving excellent attention, and that was the main thing.
I was still taking in the news when my father called to tell me his brother had died unexpectedly. His daughter had gone to fetch him coffee, but, as my cousin told my father, her mother, who had died the previous month, must have told him that she’d fetch it instead. My father was inconsolable for a long time, but on the phone, he was philosophical. I had not seen my uncle in decades, but had heard stories about him all my life. I listened to my father talk about his brother, the surprise with which he received the news. I shelved the news away, not quite believing, and finished my trip.
I came home to find out it was Minke, not Denim, who was leaving the next day. The kitten whose name had been Mink, but who I couldn’t resist renaming with a long “e” so he became the namesake of a whale, the runt of the family, the smartest, and, I realized when my heart seemed to stop when I heard the correction, possibly my favorite. After tea with the (very nice) woman who came to pick up her kitten, I got up to retrieve Minke, who was hiding, and found him being bathed by his mother. It was a touching sight, and of course I ascribed meaning to it. Being the littlest, he was sometimes crowded out when his mother nursed the kittens, so to see him receiving this special attention seemed to me both a farewell and a protest. Ignoring my heart, I handed Minke over. I was my father’s daughter.
That night, it was only three kittens, their mother, and me in the house, and the next day, as I did twice a week, I set off to teach at 4:30 in the morning. Was the separation of this little kitten subconsciously on my mind so my reactions were slowed? Yet everything seemed so in focus that morning. I kept noticing the music playing from the iPod. As I drove by the stretch of water known as East Harbor, lovely in daytime, a blues song was on, “I am Blue” by Grant Green. I had recently bought the song for a class on “Sonny’s Blues” and didn’t know it well. I remember thinking how strange to be playing late night jazz club music at dawn. I mention the details because I think through the details, the events will make more sense.
At that time of morning, I’d pass only a few headlights going in the other direction. Past several towns, at Eastham, the two-lane highway divides into four lanes, but remains very much a country road, and the speed limit slows. I was driving a new car. My reliable, beloved maroon Honda Civic ‘92, which had been blessed by a priest at an Indian temple in NJ, which had gone to a Buddhist stupa in Colorado with friends but without me, began to fall apart in the damp of Cape Cod. The ’92 was my first car, stood me up through seven years of snow storms at high altitude in Colorado after a previous seven years at sea level in Long Island, and lasted two years on the Cape. When the AC conked out, I erroneously thought the defroster would be next, and, anticipating my coming teaching commutes to Boston, decided it was time to invest in a newer model. I quickly got a 2012 grey Civic on a Labor Day sale, with automatic windows and on-going monthly payments.
There are two ways I could look at the story. My ’92 maroon-red Civic had never been in an accident in my possession. When I first began to drive, at 38, I would play one of four cassettes to give me courage driving on the South Fork highways. In Colorado, I replaced the cassette player with a CD player, but mostly listened to the radio. This new car had a complicated music system that let me connect my iPod. The ‘92’s previous owners meticulously recorded oil changes and parts replacements in a steady blue script. Reading the small records book was like looking into a diary. After I filled out the book, I used a fat folder for all the work I had done on it over the years. This new car had one previous owner and a clean bill of health. So, either the new car saved my life that Wednesday morning, or I would never have gotten into an accident if I still had the ’92, it having been blessed. Magical thinking will only take me so far, of course, because no matter how much I wish it did not happen, the accident took place.
It was still dark. No one about me. On the iPod began my mother’s favorite sloka, hymn, if you will, sung by M.S. Subalakshmi, who we had met on her American tour back in the sixties. In her voice, you can hear the quiver of belief even as she renders the words with an affecting calm. Every evening in New Jersey, my mother plays it as part of her ritual to bidding the sun goodnight, welcoming the Goddess Lakshmi into the house as the streetlamps go on. Again, an odd coincidence, I remember thinking. Another evening song for the morni