Most likely, you've heard of Gabriel the angel. But have you ever heard of Gabriel the cat?
One was a biblical messenger from heaven and the other ... well, it's a story that may give pause for thought.
It was Christmastime 2010 when a roaring fireplace could barely quell the chill of an Iowa winter -- or warm the emptiness in a mother's heart.
"I was very close to my son Christopher," said Liz Fisher, a former Tri-City resident now living in Spokane.
"He died when he was 28," she added, remembering the tragic loss almost seven years ago.
Especially fragile with grief during the holiday season that year, Liz, her husband Joe and daughter Catherine, had flown to Virginia to see family, returning just before Christmas. It was on their way home from the airport that Liz felt drawn to stop at a small "mom and pop" pet store. Why she made the request after hours of travel remains a mystery to her, even to this day.
"I want to make it perfectly clear, we're not getting any animals," Liz said she told her family as they entered the store, knowing they had an elderly cat waiting at home.
But as Liz strolled past the cages, one tiny kitten came to life, playfully engaging her with heartfelt meows.
"He started talking to me, sort of a conversation back and forth, and the next thing, there I was, buying a cat," Liz said with a smile.
The immediate joy she felt over their new pet was soon eclipsed when she and her husband arrived at the house to find their beloved old kitty, Soxie, had died. Weary from their trip, they said final goodbyes graveside in the icy cold while the fading light brought tears and rekindled grief.
It wasn't until Liz snuggled on the couch with the crying little kitten that she felt a gentle peace begin to infuse her heart, she said. Nestled under her chin, the gray ball of fluff had quieted, purring softly, as Liz pondered a name for their newly adopted pet.
"Finding Neverland" was playing on TV -- not a Christmastime movie -- and the little cat slept while both Liz and Joe were lost in their private thoughts.
But suddenly at the sound of one character's voice, the kitten roused with a huge meow.
"Right when Gabriel spoke in the film, he woke up and cried loudly, like that's my name," said Liz about the well-remembered moment. "So, right then we named him Gabriel."
In the days that followed, there was no doubt in Liz's mind that Gabriel -- sometimes called her "angel Gabriel" -- had arrived when she so needed comfort in the midst of great sadness. The lingering grief from losing a child, the death of her longtime pet, all weighed heavily on her spirit -- until Gabriel.
"I don't know how to say this," Liz said, her voice betraying concern about how her next statement would be perceived. "But I feel like my son, Christopher, who passed away, sent this cat to help me heal."
Similar to the biblical angel Gabriel, who brought messages from heaven, this innocent cat felt to Liz like a messenger bringing healing and happiness to their home that bleak winter. However, this family wouldn't be Gabriel the cat's only mission.
Three years later, Gabriel and the Fisher family were living in the Tri-Cities, delighted to be back in the Northwest. Their summer vacation plans in late June included a stay at their lake home in Florence, Ore. Joe and Gabriel would travel early in the week and Liz would join them on the weekend.
But in the first days after Joe's arrival with the cat, Liz received a distressing telephone call from her husband. Gabriel had gone missing at the lake.
"I've never had a connection with a cat like I have had with Gabriel," Liz said with emotion as she thought back to the loss and how she felt. "He disappeared in Florence and we searched my entire vacation. I couldn't give up hope."
Fliers with Gabriel's photo were posted of the missing gray-striped feline to alert distant neighbors, local veterinarians and the Humane Society. But eventually, even optimistic Liz had to return to work.
"My love for Gabriel was so strong that I couldn't believe my little fellow would have left me," she said about her precious cat. "But as weeks went by, I also realized we may never be reunited."
No one heard from Gabriel from late June until early August. No phone calls, no sightings, no tips on where he might be. In the heavily forested area by the lake with an abundance of predators, the chances that a cat could survive -- even a good hunter -- were slim.
What Liz needed was a message of hope. It came six weeks after Gabriel first disappeared.
A woman who wanted to keep a stray cat had taken the extra measure to check for a microchip in his neck. A query to the Fisher family came from an Oregon veterinarian who had followed up on the microchip information.
"My husband didn't want me to get my hopes up," Liz said as she reflected on how long Gabriel had been missing. "But I was sure it was my cat."
Once it was confirmed, there was celebration and Gabriel was brought home. And that's when Liz learned some of the backstory from the gracious woman who had found him -- and loved him too.
Janene Kibitt, who lives three miles from the Fishers' lake home, had spotted Gabriel in her front yard on the very day she was grieving over the loss of two cats in one week -- one that had died that day.
"Silly, maybe," Janene said in a Facebook post, "but it was helpful for me in my grief to imagine that this stray cat was possibly sent by Sally and Lucky (the cats) as a sign or simply to bring some joy during an unhappy time."
It was another cat-delivery message of comfort at a time of great sadness.
And the name Janene had chosen for the gentle gray-striped cat during its 17-day stay?
A perfect name in keeping with the reassuring message the cat had brought her.
A coincidence? Certainly, paws for thought.
(Lucy Luginbill is a career television producer-host and the Spiritual Life editor for the Tri-City Herald. In her column, she reflects on the meaning of her name, "Light Bringer." If you have a story idea for Light Notes, contact her at email@example.com.)
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