We’ve been in a rough patch. The hardest part is that my father-in-law’s cancer has metastasized into his brain, producing a poor prognosis. Under the broad cover of that worry is a blend of more commonplace issues (Covid, parenting, winter doldrums) and some less commonplace ones (my husband and I recently discovered a hidden leaking oil tank buried behind a rental property we bought and we’re solely responsible for the massive job of cleaning up the resulting environmental contamination).
One frigid Sunday night, shortly after the shock of discovering the oil spill, we went to my in-laws’ house for dinner. My father-in-law loves our two Siamese cats, Django and Jubilee, so we brought them along as requested. Dinner was nice and felt reassuringly normal, apart from my father-in-law excusing himself at 7:30 to rest in bed. When it was time to leave, we packed up the cats and their litter box, and headed for home.
When we arrived, we stumbled out of the car how ever our winter gear would allow. Sam, 15 years old, carried Django; Nathaniel, 13 years old, carried Jubilee. We were shuffling along through the snowy backyard toward the house when I saw Jubilee jump from Nat's arms. Immediately, my heart froze. "Nat..." I heard myself breathe out, "Oh, no."
Jubilee is a sleek lilac point Siamese cat. This means she’s mostly white with little bits of silver on her face, ears, paws, and tail. She is an indoor cat and weighs eight pounds. Inexplicably, she had decided to run on a night flagged with an extreme cold warning.
We all searched. We all searched in the dark. We all searched in the dark for a small white cat against the backdrop of snow that covered everything on one of the coldest nights of the winter.
Nathaniel and Elizabeth, my 10 year old daughter, cried while they searched. I could see Nat lying flat on his belly on the ground looking under cars, not able to call Jubilee’s name. At 15 years old, Sam was not crying. But I knew the boy before he looked like a man, and I knew that he might be the most terrified of us all.
Fear mounted with each passing minute. The truth is we would not be able to find Jubilee unless she allowed herself to be found. I prayed she was not so spooked to have run far and become disoriented. I did not think she could survive the night in such low temperatures.
Hours earlier I had felt sick with worry about managing the cleanup and financial toll of an oil spill we hadn’t caused. But this was something else altogether. I almost nodded inwardly. “To whomever it may concern,” I silently said, “I appreciate the reminder of what matters. I’ll pay whatever you want, but not this."
Locking Django in the basement so he couldn’t get outside, we opened the front and back doors of the house wide open. We spread food and litter outdoors, familiar smells to help bring Jubilee home. We patrolled the street and the alley behind the house, calling for her as calmly as we could so she would not be afraid.
"Search the house, too, in case she comes back on her own," I said, thinking especially of Elizabeth, as this would give her a chance to warm up inside.
A good Samaritan helped us look for her, in spite of the biting cold. He was a neighbour up the street but I hadn’t met him before. "I remember what it's like when you're a kid and a pet goes missing," he said. I would later write him a thank you note for this spark of kindness.
It wasn't long before I was freezing cold myself. I went inside and changed into warm layers. I had a plan. I was going to sit on the front porch and call Jubilee’s name while shaking her food tub through the night. My friend told me this is what she did once when her cat ran away. After five hours, she said, he did return. He ran away in summer though. I had to prepare for a winter vigil.
I was bundling up in my bedroom when Nat came up the stairs and headed straight to me. His eyes were closed and head hung low when he fell into my side. "I'm so sorry," he sobbed. Normally, Nat avoids hugs and sometimes conversation with me. I held him up and held him close.
"I know, Nat. It's alright," I said.
From nowhere my husband appeared and shrouded Nat with his body while I held him. "It's not your fault. Of course it's not your fault! I'm going to find her. She's coming back," the words poured out. This is a difference between my husband and me, his ability to make a well-intended promise that may not be in his power to keep. I'm too literal for that. I watched him bundle himself up with more clothes and return to search the streets.
By now we had been looking for an hour and a half. It was almost midnight. My daughter met me in the hall. I told her to go to bed while we kept looking.
"Mom, I think she's gone," she said, through tears.
"Do you see me all dressed up like this?” I asked. “ I'm going to sit outside, for hours if I have to, and call for her. Andrea's cat came back after five hours. Jubilee's clever. When it’s quiet and calm, she could hear me and come back. I'm not ready to give up."
But Elizabeth couldn't take them in, these words that I still had hope in, even in my fear. Her small body stood straight and rigid. "I'm going to try to go on without her," she said in a stoical, quivering voice I hadn't heard before. I just hugged her, then she turned to climb the stairs and go to bed.
The rest of us continued to search.
A while later, when I was stationed on the front porch, I heard Elizabeth calling out. "Mom! Mom! She's here! Jubilee's here!! She's on my bed!"
She must have come back through our open doors and we missed it, looking for her elsewhere. I immediately yelled out to tell the boys. Nat came running.
Suddenly I heard a loud banging at the back of the house. I ran towards it and stopped short. Sam was stomping at the mechanism of the back screen door that held it open.
"Stop that! What are you doing? You'll break it!" I cried.
"I have to close it so she won't get out again!" he shouted back.
"She's not going to run out into the cold. Just close the door normally. Stop it!"
But he didn't. "We have to keep her inside!" he yelled. I watched helplessly while my 6 foot man-son kicked the door off almost all its hinges, until it hung sideways, connected only at the top. The broken screen door couldn't close at all now.
I gaped at him and the door. I think he apologized before rushing past me to see for himself that the cat was back. There was nothing to do except leave the broken screen door open and shut the main door to the house.
Finding my phone, I called my husband who was still searching the streets and alleys for Jubilee. "She's here. In Elizabeth's bed. She must have come in when we were out looking."
There was silence. "Ben, can you hear me? Jubilee is back. She's home. You can come home now."
Then I heard: "Oh, thank God. Thank God." At first I thought he was laughing with relief, but soon realized he had burst into tears. In our 20 years together, I could count on one hand the times he has cried like this. "For Nat," he said. "For Nat not to have to live with that, thank God." He hung up before I could reply.
That wasn't even the end of it. With Jubilee safe at home, I thought we'd all fall asleep in grateful exhaustion. I went upstairs. Then I heard yelling below. Sam was blaming his younger brother for letting Jubilee out of his arms. Nat bore Sam's wrath with relative restraint, as if we needed more evidence of his despair. Ben defended Nat by yelling at Sam. I descended the stairs to hiss at everyone to stop.
Finally, we unstuck ourselves from this emotional tar pit and got to bed, the only place that could hold our wracked selves.
We were still facing the environmental nightmare and Ben's dad might still be terminally ill. But that night, it was a cat that felled my family to its knees. If you have pets (such an inadequate word for the animals we love), then you know. If you don't, this is what it looked like behind the curtains of one household when the threat of losing its smallest heartbeat bared its teeth.
Carol Chandran was born in Malaysia and now lives in Toronto with her husband, three kids, and two cats. She’s a lawyer who recently resigned from the Department of Justice to extend her research and writing interests beyond the law. She is also editing several personal history collections, including her mother’s. Once a year or so, you’ll find her on the floor with her kids playing with kittens born from beloved Jubilee. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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