by Christina Penza

The recovery workers sorting through the rubble at Ground Zero could not have anticipated finding signs of life. Not now. Not weeks after the life-altering attack had shaken the soul of America and left us clinging to our collective strength. The rescue operation had long since become a recovery mission, a daily determination to uncover what could be salvaged to comfort those who had lost the most treasured people in their lives.

But there, floors below the spot where stunning towers had once punctuated the New York skyline, a small creature was breathing, barely. A mother cat had somehow crawled into a box of napkins in what had once been a restaurant. She had chosen the location wisely. At some point, amid the shattered concrete, mangled wires and deadly dust, she had given birth to three kittens.

Accounts differ on who named the foursome. Either rescuers or the vets who later cared for the cats, called the kittens Freedom, Amber and Flag. The momma cat was christened “Hope.”

Many New Yorkers offered to care for the kittens. My mother wanted the mother cat. But it would be months before Hope could become a member of the household. She had pneumonia. Her eyes were swollen shut, Her hair badly burned. Her survival uncertain. The vets helped Hope to battle repeated infections. Her life was a daily question mark. But this barely four-pound kitty had managed to protect her kittens on the spot where the worst of mankind had delivered death sentences. This kitty was going to live.

A few weeks into December 2001, Hope came home. She would become, by far, my family’s most precious Christmas gift. My Mom, an avid animal lover, had prepared the house to welcome her new, brown tabby.

Hope continued her recovery. She seemed like a normal, happy cat with the sweetest disposition. Yet her few quirks were unusual – even for a cat, unless, of course, you knew her past. For the first several weeks, she would enter each room of the house, stop, sit and study the ceiling before proceeding on. The sound of the doorbell or house alarm would send her racing for the cellar. There, she would jump onto a table, then up to the heating pipes, cowering in the space between the pipes and the ceiling.

It was eerie.

But overall, Hope had a very calm and comforting cat life. She would spend long, lazy days in one of her several cat beds and sometimes play with her hanging toys.  On occasion, she would make the trip across the kitchen to swipe at “J.D.,” our small, maltese dog. It was, after all, Hope’s home. Though she had several cozy spots to choose from, at night, she and her cat buddy, “Miss Muffet”  would climb onto a blanket on a wooden table and sleep side by side.

After a few initial stories, the public heard nothing about Hope. It was not for lack of trying. In a family of journalists, publicists and poets; Mom refused to let anyone write about Hope publicly. As the anniversary of 9/11 approached each year, I would broach the subject with the usual journalistic vigor, “It would be nice to let people know what happened to her,” I’d say.  “What a feel-good story it would be.” My Dad, a longtime television journalist, looked at me with a mixture of pride and amusement. He was glad that I had the guts to ask, but could not believe that I was trying it again. Mom remained firm. Hope had been through enough. No one was going to update her story.

That is until today.

We lost Hope at 6:30 this morning.

In September, the vet diagnosed her with pancreatic cancer. It is a rare condition in cats. One can’t help but wonder whether she was one more victim of that day’s life-threatening legacy.

Yet somehow, the words “Hope” and “victim” do not fit comfortably into the same sentence. Through her resilience, Hope embodied the very spirit of survival. Those who rescued her, cared for her and loved her, showed us that men, whose hearts are twisted with evil, can never trump the best within us.  And though she is gone, she is a daily reminder that we must never lose Hope.

(Christina Penza is a veteran TV journalist and C.E.O. of Attorneys‘ Edge Productions, a settlement documentary firm for attorneys. She divides her time between New York and Los Angeles where she lives with her own rescued tabby cat named Bugsy. She is the daughter of the late New York television journalist, Ralph Penza.)