Monday, December 27, 2010

"A Christmas Miracle"

It all started with a crumb-laden muffin paper I had thrown out onto the driveway for the birds. It made me smile to see them later, flying off with torn bits of it in their beaks like prizes. There was a larger piece, too heavy for flight. It was this--and probably the bird activity too--that attracted the "street cat." Glancing out to watch the birds, I found this cat intently licking the paper. Then I took notice of the cat: drawn and distressed. I realized its intent was born of desperation, the desperation of starvation.

I usually don't feed strays--or if I do, I try to sneak the food to them in such a way that they can't be sure of where it came from. With my soft heart and its weakness for kitties, I'd have a Hemingway houseful in no time, if I let myself. Feed them and they're yours, I've always assumed. But this was an exception. Here before me was a homeless, starving cat living out in freezing temps--just shy of Christmas, no less: the situation tugged my heart strings for sure. I would break my unwritten rule, that's all. I took an empty cat food can from the recycling, filled it with kibble, and put it out by the tree next door, just beyond my driveway.

The cat was nowhere to be found when I laid out the food, having fled at the sound of the opening door. Back inside, I watched for her. Before too long, she did return.

Each day she came a little more quickly, and looked a hair less desperate. By about day four, I think, she even started leaving food, versus licking the bowl clean of any scraps--and the driveway too--which she'd been doing at first. I had my challenges, with the neighbors' pets finding the bowl, with trying to provide water for her that wasn't frozen or too cold to drink. I managed to get a good meal and drink in her each day, and I was pleased about that.

When I started to observe her path, I saw her slip into a neighbor's garage through the gap between the door and the floor. It was a relief to know she had shelter at night. One very sunny day, I saw her lying in meatloaf position against the south side of a neighbor's house, soaking in the warmth--the most peaceful I'd seen her.

This was all well and good, but it couldn't go on forever, I knew that. Christmas Eve, I talked about the cat with friends, asking advice, telling what a simple grace it felt to feed her. Christmas day, I talked to another friend about the garage-turned-shelter. There had been talk of a blizzard coming. Would she get blocked in or blocked out by the snow?

"The cat will be fine," he told me. "She'll work it out."

Yeah, I told myself. The cat will work it out. But I was not convinced.

By midday the next day, the snow had started to fall: right on schedule. I had a few bad pictures of the cat that I'd taken through the window around day two, I think. As the snow flew, I decided to use them. I posted one on my Facebook profile, along with a query: was anyone looking for a new feline companion? I inquired. I had also sent a couple, with a note, to a cat-loving neighbor-friend who has a reputation for feeding stray and feral cats.

"Seems I'm the primary food source since 3-4 days ago of this starving kitty," I wrote. "Do you know this cat? My first experience with 'remote' care of a stray... [A]ny tips for how to do this are welcome," I wrote her. She had a tip, alright, and she phoned me to share it.

"Have you seen the postings around the neighborhood?"

"Yes," I told her, but I wasn't sure what she was getting at.

"There are two different cats missing. One is gray, but the other is a dark tabby. It could be this one. There's a color photo on the flyer..."

As she spoke, I started to feel very stupid. A synapse fired that had not fired the entire week previous. I'd seen a Lost Cat poster at the end of my street--weeks ago, in fact. I'd even read it, took a look at the photo. Then I did what I routinely do when I see such a poster. I thought, "coyote," and never gave it another thought.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Here I was, coming down with a cold and very happy to be indoors in that weather, with no place to go, but as soon as my friend mentioned the flyer, I knew what I had to do. I threw on a down coat and hood, snapped it up to my nose, zipped on my boots, and set out. I needed only circle the block before seeing the poster. It was a color photo, as my friend had said. It was the poster I'd read weeks before. There was a resemblance, for sure.

"Does not have a collar or tags," I read. "Six digits on both front paws." That clinched it. I'd noticed those thumbs on day three. I ripped the page down, careful not tear the phone number and email address on it, then got home as fast as I could, berating myself the whole way. "You are such an idiot," I kept saying. I was horrified at my own stupidity, realizing that this cat could've been spared many days of hunger and fright and maybe danger had I only put it all together sooner.

I called the number, got a recording, and left a message. I emailed too, attaching my bad pictures. And then I waited. What if they were away for Christmas? Would the cat freeze to death in that garage overnight? This was a nor'easter coming, with high winds already blowing. I was worried. But I didn't have to be.

The call came within the hour. The woman thought that this might be her cat. She would send her son Michael right down. They lived a street away.

I walked out to the road, and I saw Michael coming. I waved; he waved. It felt like a scene you'd see in a movie. The storm was bearing down. We trudged over to the garage. I hadn't succeeded in reaching my neighbor to get permission or access, so Michael called the kitty from under the door, trying to coax her out. Then it occurred to me for some reason that the door mightn't be locked. I checked the padlock and sure enough, it was turned to the closed position but not locked. I lifted it off, and pulled the door wide. Michael called into the dim. Only when he got no response did I realize that I couldn't even be certain she was in there. I started to wonder what to do if she wasn't.

It was night. We had only a bit of streetlight to see by. He looked up--we both did, at the same time, or so it seemed: a bulb with a short string. We needed light, we both realized. I turned to my right and saw a switch. I tripped it on and light flooded the space. That's when he spotted her. She had started forward in response to his familiar calls, but then retreated--on account of me, I gathered, so I stepped back and out of sight. Still, eager and curious, I peered around the corner to see what would happen.

"That's her," he said at last, and my heart leapt. This was really happening. This kitty was going home. Her weeks-long trauma would end. She would be warm and safe inside for the storm.

When she came close enough, Michael picked her up. "Oh, I'm so happy," I said, on the verge of tears, on the verge of enormous relief. I asked him if he'd let me know how she was doing after a few days, then I watched him walk off with her into the driving snow, into the night.

My phone rang a few minutes later. It was Michael's mother again.

"Kathryn, I cannot thank you enough... We'd just about given up," she told me. "I hoped I would open my door on Christmas morning and find her there..."

"It's a Christmas miracle," she said finally. Because for her, it was--and is. I understood. Or I could begin to understand. I've had lost kitties come home, though not after six weeks' time. Not after living on the street in the dead of winter. This was an indoor cat. She'd gotten out. Then she'd gotten lost. Even one street away, she didn't know her way home.

I still can't quite believe it. One, that my mind never made the connection between that poster and this cat. And two that this cat could have been "lost" so close to home. It all seems so improbable, but it's true. And I won't soon forget it.


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