Eleven months ago, I lost something. Someone. Some cat, actually.
Baxter, a curmudgeonly, cantankerous cat that I spontaneously adopted from the local Humane Society, disappeared overnight. Bad pet owner, me. I let him outside at night. And, oh boy, I paid for it. I waited for him, checking the step repeatedly for his familiar bulk; I called and called and called his name; I made phone calls; I posted pictures online, in town, all over the neighborhood. I hung my clothing on the fence so he might get a whiff of my scent should he be somewhere in the area that was unfamiliar. I cut away the lower branches of all my pine trees to see if he was under there, injured and unresponsive. I went to my neighbors and demanded that they open their sheds and garages. I crawled under their deck. I beat the bushes in a nearby copse of trees and walked in the ditches along a nearby gravel roadway, searching, dreading that I might find his furry body, ravaged by a speeding pickup truck. All to no avail. He had vanished. Gone.
Rewind to two years earlier, to when I first acquired Baxter. On the way home from adopting him at the Humane Society, I knew I was in trouble with this cat when he busted out of the cardboard cat carrier that they sent him home in before we even got out of their parking lot. He wedged himself under my driver’s seat, no small feat for an extra-large sized Maine Coon cat, and yowled like a newborn infant every inch of the 25 mile drive home. I could feel him writhing under there, actually lifting me as I drove. When I attempted to extricate him from the car, he bit me; something he continued to do whenever I, or any one of my family, touched him on the body. We learned quickly to only pat him on or about the head.
We adopted two that day. We were told to reconsider our choices; that neither of these cats would ever adapt to a multiple-animal home. Where Baxter was bad-tempered and disagreeable, Izzy was sweet and beholden. She had been brought into the shelter as a stray, 9 months old, homeless, streetwise and, I dare say, would not have looked out of place with a cigarette hanging from her mouth. But she was grateful to have a new home, although she was use to the outdoors and unapologetic about it.
Baxter had been an apartment cat, never outside, very sheltered and confused even about how a door worked. Izzy, in spite of our best efforts, insisted on passage to the outside almost immediately. She knew her way around the street and was not about to be contained. For us, entering and exiting the house became an exercise in tactical manoeuvres. Picture Kato and the Pink Panther. Eventually, she got past us and we gave in. She came home faithfully every morning, usually accompanied by the catch du jour: a tasty mouse, vole, or bird…sometimes two in one mouthful. Then one day, when the moon was full, Baxter started asking to go with her. They had become inseparable at home and he yowled pitifully when she left him behind. I caved. I thought it was cute how he followed her around the yard, copying her moves and idolizing her. She hunted for him, bringing home her spoils for him; showed him how a self-respecting cat is supposed to live.
And then, one morning, Izzy came home alone. At first, we all thought it was a blip in the works. He was sowing his cat-oats and would join us shortly. But soon, we had to accept otherwise. All our advertising went unanswered, our phone calls were fruitless, and our early morning searches came up empty.
And Izzy mourned. She laid in the street for days, calling for her partner; meowing the most guttural, plaintive, heart-breaking sound I have ever heard a cat make. She stopped eating. She slept a lot. Like the rest of us, she had lost a dear friend.
After several months, we began to adjust to life without him. But he was not forgotten. I scoured Facebook, and all its cat news, always looking, zooming in on pictures of other cats, searching for similarities. I would visit my own pictures, making every effort to remember all of his colorations, growth patterns and traits. I called my local animal control guy often for updates on deceased animals. We’re pretty good friends now. I would drive all over town in the pre-dawn hours even, once, chasing through three back yards on the other side of town, after a tip from a stranger, only to find the cat was yes, a tabby but no, female and pregnant.
There was a possible sighting five months ago, in the brutal months of winter, three miles east of town. I was skeptical, it was an awfully far distance from home after all, but not entirely without hope. It was initially quite exciting to think that someone was sure enough to call, but I never heard anything more from them. I told myself it wasn’t him.
Two weekends ago, on my way into the city for a shoe-shopping expedition, I spotted a dead cat with tabby markings on the side of the highway just south of town. I got about 30 yards past it before I hammered on the brakes, reversed down the highway and got out of my car to turn over that corpse and stare someone else’s lost hopes straight in the eye. I got back in my car, relieved, weepy and sickened, thinking that I might be losing my mind. Stop, I told myself. Just stop.
I rarely answer my phone if I don’t recognize the number. But, the Man/beast is away for the weekend, visiting a friend in The Pas, so when the phone rang, I answered, even though I was extremely busy trying to empty my sunroom for an extreme makeover in two days’ time.
“Is this the Baird residence?” A man’s voice. Sounds official.
“Yes. It is.” I’m pretty sure that I sighed, resignedly. In all honesty, I confess: I thought it was the RCMP. They were calling to tell me they had the Man/beast in custody/in the drunk tank/in the hospital/in a body bag…a throw-back reaction to his drinking days.
“Have you recently lost a cat?”
I know that I am silent longer than I should be. That is not a question that I am expecting. Recently? No, not recently…
“Yes…?” My heart is not doing what a heart is supposed to be doing. Is it even beating?? And why is it so bloody hot in here? The room is tilting. I know what is coming…
“Is his name Baxter?” he asks. How would he know that?
I am on my knees in my sunroom. Screaming into the phone. Crying. It is not pretty. Every moment of the past eleven months is twisted up inside of me and balanced on a single, tiny, tenuous pinpoint of hope.
“ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME??” I shriek at that poor man. “TELL ME THAT YOU ARE FUCKING KIDDING ME!”
I don’t remember much after that aside from the sound of him laughing. Somehow I take down the address, his phone number. And somehow I drive the 22 miles that Baxter had travelled on his four giant, soft, Maine Coon feet, through the toughest of winter months, to the near-and-yet-so-far neighboring town. I cry all the way there, likely a danger to everyone on that roadway.
The By-Law Guy meets me there, at the pound. All I am thinking is that Baxter, my big, beautiful, grumpy guy is inside that squat, brick building. The Guy opens the door and insists I go in first, ahead of him, into a long hallway lined with kennels on both sides. I look side to side as I go down the animal equivalent of The Green Mile. This is the last stop for many strays. I hear The Guy chuckling behind me, amused by my anticipation. He calls out into the myriad jungle of cages, “Baxter!”
I hear a squawk.
The Guy pushes past me and reaches up into a small kennel.
There he is. Baxter. Alive. That pinpoint of hope explodes inside of me like a Roman candle. I see fireworks behind my eyes.
The Guy takes him out of the kennel, talking nonsensically about I-don’t-know-what. He turns to me with that over-sized bundle in his arms. I say what I have always said to him, to my cat, to my Baxter.
“There’s my Big Boy…”
He lights up like a Christmas tree. He leaps from The Guy’s arms into mine, like a Titanic survivor lunging for a lifeboat. He squawks and complains and rubs his head on my face. He bites me. It is really him.
I made The Guy go to my car to retrieve my carrier kennel while I pressed my face into matted, smelly fur and sobbed and wiped my nose on my cat. There was some discussion about his own pet-related story, but I have no idea what he said. I signed something, but I don’t know what it was. I remember offering him everything I owned, but he said “no charge”. We parted ways as though we were family members, with hugs and smiles, waving out the window and honking the horn in jubilation. I will never see him again, but we have experienced a profound moment together, one of utter and complete joy and elation. He has brought me such happiness…Are we lovers? Almost, if sharing an intimate moment of personal bliss counts as such…
Baxter is now back in our home, resting atop the sofa, like he never spent a moment away. What I wouldn’t give to have him tell me of his adventures, in a language that I can understand. “What have you seen?” I would ask. “Who has been kind to you?”
Today he will go to the vet to have the clumps of matted fur removed and be given the once over and receive his shots. Life will return to its normal, delicious rhythm with Baxter in his rightful place, loved and cherished maybe that little bit more, for what we have gone through, with and without him. Never again will we laugh about that vacant look on his face or joke about how stunned he is. He has survived an untold nightmare of homelessness, one that I am not sure that even I could have lived through.
Most do not get what we have been given. We are the lucky ones. And we are so grateful.