My Life Lessons from the Stray who took up residence in a hurricane-battered Jaguar
Photo courtesy of Anita Lesko
It was September 15, 2020. I was keeping an eye on the news all day for weather updates. There was a tropical storm headed our way, but since it was the peak of hurricane season I knew there’s always a possibility of any storm to rapidly intensify. Sure enough, the storm grew into a strong Category 1 hurricane, then just before landfall it spun up to a Category 2.
I am no stranger to riding out hurricanes. Hurricane Ivan struck back in September of 2004, as a strong Category 4 hurricane, only a few mph under a Category 5. That was scary as all hell, as you sit helplessly listening to winds howling, feel the ground shaking as yet another tree succumbs to the powerful force of nature. Thoughts go through your mind wondering if you’re going to survive it all if the roof will get torn off the house, and what’s it going to look like outside when dawn finally arrives.
This time was very different. I developed PTSD and Generalized Anxiety a few months earlier in March 2020. Any little thing easily sets off the “anxiety cascade” as I call it. The feeling of suddenly not being able to breathe, as if a giant hand is inside my body grasping my trachea and lungs and squeezing as tightly as possible, shaking from head to toe, and uncontrollable crying. That can all last for hours, followed by total exhaustion from the massive amount of adrenalin which floods my body for hours.
Imagine if you were on an airplane, and it started going down. The pilot announces there’s total engine failure, and brace for impact. You see the ground coming closer…..you have the feeling of imminent doom. That’s the level of panic I experience every day. Over any little thing. Or even over nothing at all.
This has totally changed my life. I’m unable to do my job in the condition I’m in. Everyday mundane activities turned into overwhelming burdens. Life as I knew it was over. All that on top of the raging COVID-19 pandemic. This is the first time I’ve even been able to sit at my computer to write in nearly ten months. Full blown panic attacks have become a normal way of life, often devouring an entire day. Over something like trying to prepare a simple meal. I used to be a gourmet cook, that’s now a thing of the past.
As the wind intensity grew stronger on the night of September 15th, so too did my anxiety. Power went out in the wee hours. Light from a battery-operated lantern only served to create eerie shadows on the walls. Worse than the sustained 105 mph winds were the tornadoes which are frequently generated during hurricanes. It was around 5:15 am when a tornado came extremely close by the house. The walls and floor started violently shaking in tandem with the dreaded freight-train sound. There were huge crashing sounds outside but miraculously the house remained intact. By now I was literally wiped out from the agonizing fear all through the night.
When the first glimmer of dawn arrived, I went to the front door to venture out into the destruction. There it was. Just a few feet from the house. My beloved Jaguar totaled from the huge tree that crashed down upon it.Photo courtesy of Anita Lesko
I grew up very poor. My mom had to sew all our clothes herself, and all meals were made from scratch. We always had second-hand used vehicles that dad spent most weekends working on to keep them running. Luxury cars were only something I saw on television. I can recall the first time I ever saw a Jaguar, being driven by the Royal Family in England. It was that moment I decided that a Jaguar symbolizes the epitome of success.
As the twists and turns of life carried me along, in 1986 I got accepted into Columbia University to earn my Master’s in Nurse Anesthesia. I incurred over $150,000 worth of student loans once it was all said and done. Shortly after graduation, I took my Board Exam. A few weeks later I received that magic letter, which started out, “Congratulations…..” I felt like the biggest door to the world just opened up. There was only one way to celebrate.
There was a Jaguar dealer that we passed each day on the way to work. I always longingly gazed out the window at those beautiful, elegant cars as we drove by. This day was different. I knew as an anesthetist, I’d be earning enough to make the payments on one of them. Not a brand new one but a previously owned one.
I had my mom with me, who was shaking her head and rolling her eyes in disbelief that I was about to do this. So into the showroom we went, and there it was. The most beautiful Jaguar XJ6 I’d ever seen. Artic Blue, fawn interior, in mint condition, calling my name. They handed me the keys and told me to take it out for a few hours. That in itself was quite shocking, but not as much as the feeling of ultimate luxury of sitting behind the wheel. So this is what success feels like, thinking to images of the Royals in their Jaguars.
A few hours later we were pulling back into the dealership, and I was ready to sign on the dotted line. As a person who spent their entire childhood and teen years mucking out horse stalls, this seemed extremely surreal. I had been a working student at a big horse stable from age twelve to twenty, to earn riding time and lessons. My parents could never have afforded a horse or riding lessons for me so instead I worked for it. I eventually rode jumpers in big shows, going over six foot high fences, riding against those rich people who drove up in their Jaguars.
It took me ten years to pay off the student loans, and five years to pay off the Jaguar. I babied that thing like you couldn’t believe. I wouldn’t even take it out if it LOOKED like it was going to rain. It was only for tooling around town on Saturday mornings where we lived in Buck’s County, PA. That Jaguar was mainly a trophy of my success that I accomplished coming from extremely humble beginnings. It became a very sentimental thing because that’s what mom and I did for fun, just drive around in it. After she died in 2013, that car became even more precious to me.
With the wind still roaring, I rushed out the door to that Jaguar. In the gray glimmer of dawn’s early light, I saw shattered glass everywhere. The massive tree lay silently on the car. The sunroof was caved in, the doors bulging outwards on the passenger side, just shattered. Totaled. My beloved Jaguar. Trees down everywhere, several precariously looming over the house ready to go down the rest of the way. There was the sound of chainsaws in the distance. The air was filled with the scent of pine and wood from mighty trees snapped in half like toothpicks. The ground displayed a green carpet, from every leaf stripped from their branches from the raging winds throughout the night.
Suddenly I heard a faint meowing. Here came Jack, the one-eyed stray who hung around the house going on two years. Jack was too wise to succumb to stepping inside a have-a-heart trap, so he simply got fed every day at the front door. When it got cold out I put a cat bed inside a big box thinking he’d go in it. Never. I tried many things to help him stay warm, none of which he was ever interested in.
Jack proceeded to jump up on the tree which now rested atop the Jaguar. He looked bewildered, having just gone through the storm. He walked back and forth on that tree, meowing and looking all around.
All my insurance needs are through Allstate. For the Jaguar, I had a wonderful agent named Robb. He was awesome, especially at a time when you are so drained from such an event. Robb made me feel like family, and I told him he exemplified the Allstate motto, “You’re in good hands with Allstate.” Because my Jaguar is over 30 years old, literally an antique, it took a while for the company to determine the value. I was happy to get enough to cover the tree cutting guys which took a total of six days for everything. By the time they finished the tree cleanup, the place looked desolate like the surface of the moon. Fourteen trees in all.
After they cut the tree up off of the Jaguar, they covered it with a blue tarp. And that’s how it has sat in the driveway since September 16th. Allstate wanted to tow it away for me, to which I quickly asked if it were possible to keep the vehicle. It was too much of an emotional attachment for me, especially now with my PTSD/GA. They agreed, with a deduction for keeping it. I simply couldn’t part with that vehicle, despite the condition it was in now.
A few months went by and Jack finally settled down, still waiting each morning and evening for his meal to be served. One day I was out for my daily walk which helps to calm me down. I was walking past the Jaguar when I heard Jack meow. I stopped, looking around. Still hearing him, something caught my eye inside the vehicle. There was jack, in the driver’s seat, looking out at me. Somehow Jack figured out that if he crawled under the tarp he could get inside through the caved-in roof. I went back to the house and found a small rug to go put inside the car. By the time I came back out Jack was patiently waiting for me at the front door. I gave him his can of wet food and fresh water then proceeded over to place the rug inside the Jaguar on the driver’s seat. I returned back to the house.
Several hours later I went out to look in the Jag. Yes, there was Jack all curled up on that rug. When he heard me he sat up, just looking at me with that one blue eye. Jack finally had a home. A warm place to sleep and feel safe. I felt very overwhelmed, with a flood of memories of my mom and our good times in that car, but also how my life is right now. Not being able to work, dealing with paralyzing anxiety, just going through a hurricane. But I felt peace and happiness that Jack finally had a home, the one-eyed stray cat who took up residence in a hurricane-battered Jaguar. It was that moment when I realized what success truly is. I always thought it was the degree you have, the job you work at, and how much money you earn. That’s what society taught me to believe along the way.
Success, now, has a new meaning for me. It’s a combination of two things. The feeling of making a difference in the world, no matter how small it may seem, and getting joy from bringing happiness to someone else whether a human or animal. The other meaning is best said by Jon Bon Jovie: “Success is falling nine times and getting up ten.”
The PTSD and Generalized Anxiety knocked me flat out. But I got back up. Taking it one day at a time.
Thank you for reading my post. It has taken me the whole day to write it. I had to stop several times when I started to shake and hyperventilate. But I kept going. This is a big accomplishment for me.Photo from Shutterstock
One-Eyed Jack was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.