How a Cat Helped Her Hold on to Her Faith

She thought she was losing her son to addiction until a feline friend helped them all on the road to recovery. 

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Rippin the cat

Thud…thud…thud. Then one unearthly yowl after another. My eyes snapped open. It was the middle of night, but I was wide awake now. So was my husband, Lou. Wordlessly, we leapt out of bed to investigate.

At the foot of the stairs was a dark, familiar shape. Our son, whom I’m calling Sam to protect his privacy. I turned on the hall light. He had a pile of bags with him, and in his arms was the ugliest cat I had ever seen. Like Sam, she was scraggly and gaunt, with a lost look in her eyes. She shrieked at my two cats, Baby Cat and Soda, who responded in kind.

Sam gave us a curt hello before shutting himself and his frightened cat in the guest bedroom I’d prepared for him.

It’s just for a couple of weeks, I told myself. I could tolerate a strange cat in the house, especially if it meant Sam’s continued sobriety.

He’d called a few days ago to tell us he was moving back home to Pennsylvania and needed a place to stay. “I’m bringing my cat,” Sam said. “Her name is Rippin. I hope that’s okay.”

Rippin? I thought. What an odd name. I didn’t ask about it, though. I just assured Sam that he always had a place here if he wanted it.

But I hadn’t expected him to arrive in the dead of night in such dramatic fashion—any more than I’d expected him to spiral into addiction. The trouble started at the end of middle school, when Sam was 13. He fell in with a bad crowd. First it was marijuana, then harder drugs, like heroin. Sam went from being a sweet, thoughtful boy to a closed-off, angry young man. We put him in a teen drug treatment program. He saw countless therapists, even spent time in juvenile detention. Nothing worked. He would go through periods of high-functioning sobriety—he’d graduated college with a degree in special education and had even been recognized for outstanding work as a student teacher—only to relapse.

Sam was 30 now, and I wondered if he would ever be able to break the cycle of chronic relapse. Or would the cycle end as it almost had two years ago, the last time he’d moved back into our house? I’d discovered him sprawled in his room one day, unconscious, surrounded by spent needles. I shuddered to think of what would have happened if I hadn’t found him in time.

For now, Sam was clean. He’d recently completed a drug rehab program in Florida, where he had been living with his girlfriend. They broke up and he needed a fresh start. Sam promised living with us wouldn’t be permanent but just until he found a job and an apartment. I prayed he was right, but you get used to broken promises when you love someone who’s an addict.

I tried to give him his space. That was easy enough—Sam hardly left the guest room. We had our first conversation a few days after he arrived. It was brief.

“Mom, can we get Rippin a scratching post?” he asked.

When I stuck my head in his room, I could see why. One side of the new mattress had been completely shredded by the cat’s claws. Well, that explains the name, I thought, glaring at the mangy creature. She looked at me blankly.

Where did Sam find that muddy-colored thing? Lou and I joked that she must have wandered into Sam’s apartment from the Everglades. I could imagine what really happened. Sam always had a big heart, especially when it came to animals. As a boy, he would bring home baby birds that had fallen from their nests, or bunnies he’d found huddled in the tall grass behind our house. He would always plead with us to keep them, and Lou and I would have to tell him no. Sam wouldn’t have been able to resist taking in a stray kitten, especially one as pathetic as Rippin.

As the weeks passed, Sam stayed distant, holed up in the guest room with his cat, only emerging to use the kitchen. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what to do. Then one day, six months after Sam moved in, the police showed up at our door. They’d gotten a call from Sam’s ex in Florida. He had texted her, saying he wanted to kill himself. He’d also started using again. Because Sam had threatened suicide, the police had to take him to the emergency room. As they escorted him out of our house, Lou and I could only stand by and watch, helpless.

Sam didn’t come home from the hospital. He chose to go straight into another rehab program.

Lou and I were left to look after jittery Rippin, with her fingernails-on-the-blackboard screech. But once she came out of the guest room and settled into the rhythm of our family, she turned out to be a different cat. Her frantic cries mellowed into a gentle meow. The first time she jumped into my lap while I was sitting on the couch, I was so shocked, it took me a minute to start petting her. She leaned into my touch and regularly sought my affection after that. Even more incredibly—considering their rocky introduction—she began to get along with Baby Cat and Soda.

The changes in Rippin happened so gradually, I didn’t really notice until one spring afternoon when I found her napping on a rug in a patch of sunlight.

She was a far cry from the pitiful creature that had arrived in the middle of the night. Her muddy color had become a beautiful tortoiseshell, with shades of brown, red and gold. Her dull, matted coat was smooth and shiny. Her skeletal form had filled out and become sleek. Rippin woke and gazed up at me, blinking her big green eyes slowly and trustingly. That wary, watchful look was gone.

This cat was miraculously transforming. Did I dare hope that my son could do the same? Sam seemed to be making progress. He completed rehab and moved into a halfway house.

On Mother’s Day, Sam stopped by with a gift basket and terrible news: He’d relapsed and been kicked out of the halfway house. I numbly accepted the basket as he explained that he was living in his car and asked if I could look after Rippin for a little longer.

I had my own questions. Why haven’t you answered my prayers? I silently asked God. Where is Sam’s miracle?

It was only after Sam left that I looked at what he’d given me. The card was beautiful, signed simply, “All my love.” The gifts in the basket had been chosen carefully. They were all things Sam had known I needed: steak knives, a new can opener, a pretty dish towel. “Look closer,” God seemed to be telling me. “Sam hasn’t been lost to addiction. That thoughtful, loving son you raised is still there.”

Sam went to rehab several times. The fifth time was the one that took. He has been sober for almost two years and is working for a major health care provider. He and Rippin have an apartment of their own close to us.

Her “ripping” days are over. Now she’s a happy, healthy, affectionate cat—a reminder to me that with patience, determination and love, miracles do happen.

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