This is a story of losing a cat and finding a community. The timeline? Fifty days that felt like an eternity.
It’s early January, South Bend, and our adult children, working remotely, quarantine and visit with their indoor cats. On January 4, a skilled worker checks in at the side door, and one daughter’s gregarious black cat, Hank, pokes out his head. The worker lunges to stop him. Hank twists through the stranger’s arms in a yowling panic, and vanishes.
What unfolds next is both personal and communal — unimaginable to me on that first afternoon, when we Google: How to find a lost cat. We search window wells and garages. We staple Lost Cat posters everywhere with Hank’s wide-eyed sweet face and my cell number. I post on our neighborhood Facebook page and Lost Pet sites. Strangers begin to offer prayer hands and advice. We put out Hank’s litter box, and tie our daughter’s well-worn shirt to our porch rail, a flag of sorrow.
Night falls, and no Hank. We’re stunned, our daughter is bereft. We feel responsible, and wonder if a cat will return to a house not his own, after a traumatic exit. The industrious neighborhood kids start up “Hank Hunts.” An envoy of seven-year-olds knocks on the door and spreads hands wide, saying: “We just wanted to see: How are you doing?” They offer my daughter a fancy foil-wrapped piece of chocolate and an iridescent “lucky stone.”
Those outstretched hands, so humane, remind me of an Atlantic Magazine article explaining the whole category of interactions we’ve missed during pandemic isolation — the “social serendipity” of casual conversations. Sociologists call these “weak ties,” but they build our social worlds, and we grab them like lifelines.
Meanwhile, the wider world trembles. The Capitol is breached, Covid numbers soar, and finding Hank becomes my singular focus. It’s the pandemic loss I cannot bear. My fierce neighbor, Cecelia, utters the sentence that becomes my mantra: “He must be found!”
My phone buzzes with helpers: “There’s a black cat on Belmont!” We set out with flashlights and sardines. “Black cat on Longfellow!” We cut over, boots thudding in the darkness. “Black cat in the alley” — in all the alleys it seemed. I have lived here 27 years and never noticed strays. Now, they multiply, like dashing ciphers in the final heartbreaking episode of the French TV series, Lupin.
After three weeks, we nick-name the Not-Hanks: There’s Shaggy Shanks, Scar Nose, Belmont Tiny, and Short Stack, the trim black cat who feasts nightly on Rose’s porch, a neighbor we can’t believe we’ve never met, we have so much in common. Dianne, around the corner, offers us a live trap, which we bait with tuna, only to catch a sweetly greedy possum, over and over.
Our community ties stretch: Mary Ann, from the Facebook group, texts every few days: “He’s smart! He’ll return!” A call from three blocks over; there’s a new stray in a driveway. We miss seeing the cat, but linger under the stars to discuss favorite perennials. These conversations move and tether me.
Snowstorms hit, temperatures dip to zero, and we focus only on offering warmed food and an outdoor shelter. Four weeks in, the night cameras we’ve set up show a promising wide-eyed cat. We shovel a path through drifts to direct him closer. We set alarms to refill the food bowls all night long. The cat locks eyes with me through a window, but bolts at an opened door.
Three more weary weeks of this cat circling, eating, and vanishing. I tug on community ties for more help. Teresa links me to Kira, and then to Missy who meets us in Goshen, in a snowstorm, to show us a drop-trap. Back home, we set it up, straight from Looney Toons, a wire crate propped on a stick. We thread the string tied to the prop-stick through a window. Just as the cat learns to eat under the wire canopy, temperatures rise and raccoons start competing for the food. That next night, we shut off all the lights and hunker, holding the trap string and a blanket. The cat appears. The string snaps. The trap falls and I hear: “Got him!” I rush out to cover the cage with a blanket, holding my breath. I coo to the yowling cat in the cage, who lifts wide-set green eyes to meet mine, and rubs against my fingers.
Hearts bursting, we bundle him inside just as Missy arrives with the chip reader. Our daughter’s on FaceTime when Missy sings out, “It’s Hank!” He’s slimmer, but glossy and unhurt, utterly his gregarious self, diving for snuggles. Through tears, I update all the community posts — HANK’S HOME! — and float on the flood of ecstatic responses.
That night, while Hank purred under my chin and stroked my hair with splintered claws, I dreamed up a front yard celebration that we held that Saturday — Caturday — to honor a lost cat, the social serendipity it took to find him, and the reminder of all the ties that make a community a home.
Music: "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" by Sarah Vaughan