UPDATE: I am overjoyed to report that, 39 days later, we got our sweet Harlequin back! Thanks to everyone who helped look for her.
I sit here on a sunny afternoon, listening to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, shelling peas from my garden and thinking on love and loss, renewal and the courage to continue.
Both of my most recent personal tragedies have come in springtime, and both have involved my cats. (And yes, I am well aware that in the pantheon of personal tragedies, I am extraordinarily lucky that the loss of pets is chief among them. It could be far, far worse.) Paka, my One True Pet, died unexpectedly in March of 2010, and now my sweet Harlequin is gone. She escaped from her carrier at the veterinarian’s office a little more than week ago and has not been seen since. We’ve done everything to try to find her, and since the vet is just 2 1/2 miles from our home Holly and I are still holding out hope.
It is the not-knowing that cuts so deep, leaving me in limbo. When Paka died I was inconsolable. She was that pet, the one we all have who utterly crushes us when she or he dies. For most people that trauma happens in our teen years. I dodged it until I was 40. But a pet going missing is something else entirely. I now find myself gray, slightly dead inside.
Harlequin was no pampered princess. She was a quasi-feral cat for her first three years; we did not give her full indoor privileges until Paka died. In the five years since, however, she has been my constant companion. Our bond was iron. We were, well, like two peas in a pod. All this gives me a glimmer of hope that she is still alive, can fend for herself — and is somehow making her way home.
Until that day, or until I give up that glimmer of hope, I endure.
Food, turkey season, fishing, mushrooming — all the things I love about this time of year — all have become pale and meaningless to me. I ate a single handful of Fritos the day Harlequin escaped, and little more in the ensuing days. (I did learn that slugging down whiskey on a two-day-old empty stomach is not an ideal situation, one I do not recommend.) Three days after she disappeared, I ate a strawberry, one of my favorite fruits. It tasted like ashes.
Cooking was out of the question. We ate out, and I specifically avoided all my favorite foods for fear of permanently associating them with my grief. I did slip and order a Ballast Point Sculpin IPA on the second night of our search, and it tasted like skunked Miller to me. I have no idea when I’ll be able to drink it again. Hopefully soon.
Holly and I spent four days searching from predawn to late at night, posting signs, talking to people — my town of Orangevale has been overwhelmingly nice, I’d like to say — staking out known cat spots, setting traps and trail cameras, visiting every shelter, SPCA and animal hospital in a 25-mile radius. And then I collapsed.
I slept a great many hours. When I awoke, I immediately checked our back door, where Harlequin normally waits for us to let her in. She was of course not there. I knew this before even leaving bed, but I had to check. After a strong cup of coffee and a search of the area shelter websites, I walked out into my garden.
My garden is where Harlequin and I first met, among the peas.
I don’t grow peas every year, but I did in 2007 when a little kitty a few weeks old started showing up under the vines. I’d never seen a cat like this. Long, regal face, tuxedo front. White boots, a white, vertical line on her nose and a “catler” mustache. It was love at first sight, even though she would not let me touch her for a month.
For several years, Harlequin was my outdoor friend, killer of garden voles, rats and the occasional warbler. We fed her when she looked skinny and let her do her thing when she looked plush. She loved to lurk under tomatoes and squash, within my rambling patch of cardoons and deep in the long grass at the back of our yard like a tiny panther. But it was the peas where we first met.
As it happened, I grew peas this year. I plant them in November and let them overwinter, so they’re all ready before the heat of our May and June. Harlequin, as was her custom, used the vines as a lair. Now she is gone, but the peas remain. As I shell wave after wave of them, I can’t stop myself from staring out the kitchen window looking for her. Still, the simple act of shelling peas, rhythmically cracking open the pods, running my finger down the center to send the little peas pattering into my bowl, gives me some solace.
Each day is a little better. I feel color and life returning to my soul, slowly, although I can still see the abyss when I stare into it, when the house is quiet. I look for Harlequin each day. I try to remain positive, or at least stoic, about her loss. I even cooked a little yesterday, fresh peas with some bits of cured meat and rice. It was good.
I will, of course, endure. And I will laugh again, enjoy my favorite beer and food again, and yes, even love another kitty again. Life renews, and after each sorrow I find myself savoring the next sweetness all the more because I know it will end too soon. The shadow frames the light.
After Paka died, Harlequin took care of me. But even as she did, I understood that one day she too would break my heart. So every day, after she woke up at the foot of the bed, came over and licked my forehead to say good morning, ate a little and stood at the back door to be let out, I would pick her up, hold her close and hear her purr. A minute or two later she’d stir, letting me know it was time for her to start her day. I’d let her down and open the door, wishing her luck — knowing that each day could be my last with her.
And then, just like that. It was.
But Harlequin is not dead. I feel it in my bones. She is out there, somewhere, probably chasing rodents and hiding from people and cars. All I can hope is that someone sees her, or, better yet, that she finds her way home. And if she does, her garden will be there for her.