by Frank DeLoache
HUNTERSVILLE Carol Fleming has lost a lot in the past year. She lost her husband, Abdullah, to cancer. She lost her job, her income and her home. And in June, she learned, for the third time in less than two years, that shes once again lost her health to a relapse of her cancer.
But Saturday evening, Fleming got one of the greatest gifts she could have imagined. Friends from here and around the world helped reunite her with two of her dearest friends her cats, Tripod and Sahebah. No small feat since her pets had to come from Saudi Arabia.
Fleming fairly glowed about 9:30 p.m. Saturday as Cornelius resident Robin Byrd approached the security exit at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, holding the cats in their carriers. Fleming and the group of supporters found a secure area where they sat on the floor and played with the cats.
There were some tears, but everybody was just so happy, said Jan Scere, who leads Friends for Life Lake Norman cat rescue and helped plot the cats return to America.
Byrd, a Cornelius resident, and her companion, Capt. Ray Harris, had never heard of Fleming until a few months ago. But Byrd is vice president of Lake Norman Lucky Cats spay-neuter program and also a career flight attendant on leave from U.S. Airways. Harris is a retired U.S. Airways pilot and most recently lived in Dubai and flew planes for a family there.
Scere knew Byrd and Harris and their familiarity with the Middle East and sought their assistance. On Saturday morning, they flew to Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., met Tripod and Sahebah arriving on a flight from Doha, Qatar, on the Saudi Arabian peninsula, and then turned around and brought them right back to Charlotte.
Fleming has found friends all over the world in her time of need. Aafke Brouwer, a friend in the Netherlands flew to Houston, Texas, at one point to help her care for her husband and then helped raise the money to fly Tripod and Sahebah to the U.S. Nader Al-Wehebi, a friend in Saudi Arabia, drove the cats hundreds of miles from Riyadh to Doha, so they wouldnt have to change planes.
Members of the Lake Norman Breast Cancer Support Group met Fleming in December when she first came to their meetings. And they have adopted her since then. Friends like Carol White and Sandy OKeefe drive her to cancer treatments at Presbyterian Hospital-Huntersville, and White and her husband took her to the airport Saturday evening. Scere has spent many hours working with Byrd and arranging temporary housing for Flemings cats. Fleming cant keep them in the home where she is staying.
But Flemings smile is an act of will because she has seen more than her share of sadness.
After a 20-year career as a U.S. diplomat, she gave up her job to marry Abdullah Al-Ajroush, a top diplomat for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in 2002. Fleming served on the senior staff at U.S. embassies in India and Pakistan, where she and her husband met. But the U.S. and Saudi Arabia wouldnt accept diplomats from the two countries marrying one another. Too many chances for conflict since both had access to sensitive information.
Still, the couple made it work. They lived in northern Virginia for several years when Al-Ajroush was posted to the Saudi embassy in Washington. There, he got to know Flemings family and even learned to stuff stockings at Christmas.
In 2006, Al-Ajroush had been assigned back to Saudi Arabia, where he worked for the Arab League Department and directly for the Saudi royal family. Fleming found a new job as a private consultant to Saudi television. She provided an American perspective on international events and also directed and produced programs for Saudi television.
She also began writing a blog, an Internet commentary, on Saudi life from the perspective of an American who married into a Saudi family. She continues her blog today, and according to auditing agencies that track Internet data, she has the most popular blog on Saudi Arabia in the world.
Fleming knows her husband loved her deeply because he accepted her cats. Saudis, as well as most Arabs, are not fond of cats or dogs and do not keep them in their homes. They call cats street rats, Fleming said last week.
Fleming found Tripod by accident while playing golf in Pakistan. She heard a meowing sound as she walked down a fairway and knew a cat was injured. She found Tripod under a bush, his right front leg hanging by a thread. A car on the busy road next to the golf course had hit him.
She wrapped the badly injured cat and, since Pakistan does not have small-animal vets like America, found a Pakistani agricultural scientist. He was more accustomed to treating camels, Fleming laughs, but he saved the cats life after amputating the leg.
Sahebah was another rescue of sorts. Fleming, like all diplomats, lived in a villa with 10-foot walls and 24-hour security. But one morning she opened her door and found Sahebah waiting on her.
Everyone knew me as the crazy cat lady anyway, Fleming said. The guards swore they didnt know how the cat got past them. I think someone bribed one of the guards so it could happen.
When Fleming and Al-Ajroush married, he and his family accepted the cats. During meals, his 72-year old mother, MaMa Moudy, even liked sneaking food to the cats under the table.
Tragedy struck in 2008, when doctors diagnosed Al-Ajroush with a rare, aggressive form of leukemia. Fleming already had endured her own initial bout with breast cancer, and now she quit her consulting job to care for her husband.
In 2009, Saudi doctors said Al-Ajroushs only hope was a stem cell transplant, but Saudi hospitals isolate the patient for weeks during the procedure. So the couple decided to fly to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, where Fleming could stay with her husband in the hospital. Doctors thought the treatment went well, and the couple were preparing to return home last summer. So Fleming thought shed take a quick trip to Cornelius to see her son, daughter-in-law and her first granddaughter, who was just turning 1.
While here, she fell ill, and her son insisted she go to a doctor at Presbyterian, who found that her cancer had returned. At the same time, equally terrible news came from Houston. The transplant had failed, and Al-Ajroush had only a short time to live. He wanted to return to Saudi Arabia to see his family, but because of her cancer, Fleming could not go to Houston, much less Saudi Arabia.
In February, they said goodbye via Skype, an Internet video conferencing system that allowed them to talk real time. We never said the c-word. We spoke only of our wonderful memories and how much we loved each other and how we would see each other again, Fleming said.
Al-Ajroush died two days after arriving in Riyadh.
Now, Fleming is fighting her third battle with cancer, which doctors have said is inoperable and incurable. She has no income. In Saudi Arabia, a husbands pension is divided among family members. Saudi authorities cancelled Flemings health insurance after her husbands death, although they have promised to restore it and cover the mountain of bills. Right now, Fleming depends on Medicaid.
She wants to find a job and a home of her own. But equally hard, she missed her feline companions.
I want to find a place of my own, my own nest, where they can crawl up on my lap, and we can be a family again, she said.
Fleming, Tripod and Sahebah finally were reunited Saturday night, one step on her road to recovery. Shell visit them while they stay at Nadine Blacatos home in Huntersville.
Saturday was also the six-month anniversary of Abdullah Al-Ajroushs death.
I know he had a hand in their journey back into my arms, Fleming said through tears.
[VIA Carolina Weekly]