By Ihla Nation
Originally printed in the Winter 2009 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Nation, Ihia. "Thinking Aloud: Stray Lessons." Quest 97. 1 (Fall 2009): 30-31.
He looked like a black-and-white Buddha. A peaceful face with chubby round cheeks rested on a pyramid-shaped body. The spiritual lessons he taught me built an ethereal bridge from the Chinese proverb about saving a life and forever being responsible for that life to the Beatles' "instant karma's going to get you." Patience, compassion, unconditional love, letting go, and forgiveness all pressed into my soul by this stray Buddha cat suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.
The life of a stray felt all too familiar to me. Divorced, both parents dead, estranged from siblings, I was on my own, seeking food and shelter for my son. Somehow I thought that if I could make the life of a stray cat better, perhaps the universe would repay me with asylum from the vicissitudes of life. Rescuing strays became spiritual service. I rescued twelve stray cats in two years. Sometimes I did it right. I found them homes or took them to the Humane Society. Sometimes I didn't—for example, the stray I gave to a kind lady without checking out her background. A year later I was horrified when the woman was on the nightly news because the county authorities had rescued eighty cats from her house.
When I moved to my new condo, I left no forwarding address for felines. Trying to relieve the suffering of every stray that crossed my path was too painful.
For three years none found me. But word gets around in the cat world and somehow they began to reappear. From my deck I could see a mama, daddy, and four kittens left to suffer any weather on the patio of the condo across from me. With little knowledge of the great cosmic lessons about to befall me, the cat social worker kicked into gear.
I stuck my head over the waist-high fence. Dried bread and spaghetti thrown on the cement were the only nourishment I saw. The kittens were nursing from their emaciated mother. So each day I sneaked over and put food and water outside the fence for her. I watched as the kittens got bigger and bigger and bigger, and wilder and wilder and wilder. I made several attempts to get the owner to do something before they were old enough to scramble over the fence. She took action. She moved out and left all but the mama on the patio.
After unsuccessful endeavors to get animal control to trap the cats, I borrowed their equipment to do it myself. I wanted to take them to the Humane Society, where they had a chance of getting a good home. I didn't feed them for twelve hours, so they were hungry and easily caught. All except the black one, the daddy. He sneaked into the trap, ate, and escaped. After the third try, I was convinced he didn't deserve incarceration and possible capital punishment for having the misfortune to end up without an owner. The trap went back to the police department.
The Buddha cat kept coming back to the scene of the kidnapping, looking for his family. The new tenants chased him away. I felt terrible. I put food outside the patio. Over several months, I moved the dish to the bottom of my steps, then inched it up to the first landing, and finally, right in front of my door. I put a box out with a blanket so he could be warm. All the comforts of home except security.
The slightest move or unexpected noise sent him frantically scurrying away. If I opened the door when he came to the landing to eat, he took off like a dart shot from a gun. So I stood at the screen door talking to him in a soft, easy voice, "Hey, guy." I loved that cat who never had a proper name.
He maintained dignity in spite of the insecurities of his life. He kept himself clean and neat. Other cats were treated nobly when they came to eat out of his dish, and he only fought back if he was attacked.
One day he disappeared. After several weeks, I was sure the coyotes had gotten him and tears splashed in his dish as I put it away. One morning I woke to loud meowing at my front door. There he was, thin and gaunt, but deprivation and suffering apparently made him realize I wasn't so bad. If I got down on my hands and knees and slowly pushed open the screen door, he wouldn't run away. Finally, he let me reach out and pet him.
But it had to be done his way—holding the screen door open with one hand, leaving an escape route in case he got spooked, and kneeling down to his eye level. Eventually he stepped inside my door for a dose of love. I never saw a cat who wanted love as much as that one. One night I coughed, and he ran out so fast the door dropped on his tail. Instant karma got me. For two weeks he wouldn't come near me.
He loved my cats and wanted to be friends with them, but they, being from a higher caste in the cat realm—good parenting, never-missed meals, and no suffering—would come sniffingly over. When he tried to rub against them, all he got for his goodness was a whap on the side of the head and a view of their snooty tails as they ran away.
I began to worry about what would happen to the black Buddha when I had to move. My landlord sold my condo and I was moving a block away. Maybe I could get him to come with me. On the last day when he showed up to eat, I opened the door to let him in. When he saw the place was empty, he bellowed and frantically opened the door. I picked him up thinking I could get him in my car, but he leapt out of my arms and flew several steps down the landing. My heart dropped, cracking like an egg on the kitchen floor
I went back several evenings hoping to see him. I left a trail of dry cat food all the way from my old place down the street and around the corner to my new place. But he didn't follow it.
Let go, the universe whispered. Why is life so unfair, I demanded? Why didn't this wonderful cat who wanted a home more than anything get to have one? Let go echoed in my head. Finally I did, praying he was warm, dry, and fed. Once or twice I thought I saw him around the old neighborhood, but when I asked the neighbors, they said they never saw him again.
Now I live in a new home, but I still wonder about the Buddha guy. He taught me acceptance, compassion, letting go, and dignity in harsh circumstances. He taught me forgiveness for the original owner who unconsciously discarded five living beings and for myself for abandoning him a second time. And he taught me that every living being deserves patience, love, and kindness.
Ihla Nation is a freelance writer who lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she has been designated primary caretaker by her housemate's cat. She has an M. A. in religious studies and a B. A. in social work.