The miracle in the pattern


So, I got my lost cat Max back after almost two months on his own in the wild.  It’s the kind of happy ending you don’t want to talk much about, you just need to melt into it.  Strangers are moved by such an ending to send good wishes on social media.  It earns over 1,000 “likes” when published in the newspaper and is popular enough in print to, with facts suitably garbled, get on TV news.   And when it happens just before Christmas, and on your birthday, it’s nothing but a live-action cliche, so it’s best just to be quiet and let it speak for itself.

However, I spoke to a reporter and thoughtlessly wielded the word “miracle,” which of course became the story.  I started it, but I’m agnostic on miracles, finding the true and actual working of the natural world plenty mind-blowing without getting super-natural on it.  But “Christmas miracle” is easier and more fun than a delightful series of perfectly natural events that yielded one of many possible outcomes.  When we can’t see or understand each step in the process, we have mystery.  And when an especially dramatic or hoped-for outcome results from the mystery, we might just have a miracle.

There’s some good mystery in Max’s story.  You can start with the prosaic: where the cat was and what he was doing for seven weeks, how he got that wound on his foot and avoided frostbite on his extremities during long periods of temperatures below 10 degrees.  I ponder these questions casually now and then, but they can’t hold my attention long.  We know too much: he was somewhere between where he got lost and where he was found; he was hunkered down or he was traveling; he stepped on something or got his foot caught somewhere; he snuggled into small crevices or someone’s outbuilding and tucked his nose and toes into his fur.  It’s too easy to construct any number of unsurprising stories, so my mind wanders.

The mystery I love is the one leading to the moment when I collected the half-dead cat in my arms.  It should not have happened.  There were infinite ways for it not to happen and, instead, this single, inexplicable thing did happen.  It’s mysterious and, because it resulted in a death-defying moment on a significant date, it could be a miracle.

You can’t see the extraordinary without knowing some of the details.  After weeks of trying to lure Max out of hiding in the vicinity of our house, I posted his story on in a last ditch effort to bring neighbors in to help me.  A couple days later, a woman on Nextdoor messaged me that her son saw a cat that looked like Max in a neighborhood called Lake of the Pines at about 6 p.m.  More than a mile and a half from our house.  We ran up there and looked around in the dark, finding nothing.  Three days later, a man on Nextdoor said he saw an orange cat in the same spot the woman had seen him, at 3:30 p.m.  He snapped cell phone pictures and they definitely looked like Max.  Back we went to search around again, with flashlights this time.  I set two live traps with tuna and two game cameras to snap photos of whatever came along.  Nothing came along in 12 hours.  But the next day, another woman posted that she saw a cat like Max a couple houses down from the first sightings, this time at noon.

I was now convinced that Max was alive and spending time in a defined area within my reach.  Even so, he was painfully distant.  Localized as the sightings may be, Lake of the Pines is a cat-hiding haven composed of large lots in a dense Ponderosa Pine forest.  It’s like a mountain campground populated here and there with large, expensive homes.  Feral cats, which Max was imitating mightily, are known to wander territories more than a mile in diameter, so he might not even be in this particular forest but could be anywhere within such a radius at any given time of day, with no guarantee of repeating visits to the same precise spot for my convenience.  By nature and for stealth, he was probably most active between midnight and dawn.  In his survivalist mindset, he was going to be highly skeptical of people, including me.  The most likely way to get at him was through lures and traps, but neighborhood dogs and raccoons were going to enjoy my bait and scare my cat away.  Besides, many cats, feral and domestic, will not come eat the tuna fish we carefully set out and will under no circumstances step into a live trap box.  I heard several stories of lost cats in feral mode appearing nightly on game cameras in their own backyards, casually bypassing every effort to catch their attention as they went about their business in tantalizing proximity.  Max had not touched anything I’d set out in 49 days.

But I had one ray of hope — Max was showing himself during the day, earlier and earlier in the afternoon, making him more accessible.  And there was one technique I had not yet tried.  The cat folks call it “simply sitting.”  The idea is to place yourself casually outdoors for long periods, as if looking for a cat were the last thing on your mind.  Without the intense and predatory energy of searching, you might seem acceptable to your cat as something non-threatening and even appealing.

It seemed my best chance was to go to Lake of the Pines and spend many hours where Max had been seen.  Strolling, sitting, talking on the phone.  Making myself apparent.  And now I could do it during the afternoon instead of on the graveyard shift.  The sightings were growing closer together and earlier in the day.  I felt some urgency to get on that wave, so I planned to take the afternoon off the day after the noon sighting.  Which happened to be my birthday.

I came very close to not going.  I had just started a new job and had almost no vacation time.  The chances of my crossing paths with him were infinitesimal, I told myself.  If I could commit to do it for days and days in a row, maybe, but just once seemed futile.  And what was I going to actually do up there for hours and hours?  If I saw him, how would that get me any closer to catching him?  I was just about talked out of it.

At the last moment, I decided to go anyway.  I recognized if I didn’t, I would always wonder what might have happened.  Knowing would be better than not knowing, even if it were an uncomfortable, disappointing afternoon.

I put on clothes I had worn before to amplify my scent. I rubbed catnip on my jeans.  I collected cat treats and kibble.  I loaded up books and a journal and water and snacks.  I did not put a cat carrier in the car, protecting myself from that one gesture of irrational hope.

I drove to Lake of the Pines.  For the sixth or seventh time, I silently thanked the helpful neighbors who not only reported Max sightings to me but gave me the code to access their tony, gated community.  I pulled in to the spot where I had parked on all my visits, planning to start by strolling up and down the road until I was tired.  I put the car in park and turned the key.  Glancing out the window, I saw Max sitting in the grass.

He was lying on his chest, feet tucked under him, in the sun.  Out in the open, wholly exposed.  In the grass not twenty feet from where I parked my car.  My mind emptied itself, leaving a single, breathless focus.

I feared he would bolt when I got out of the car, so I opened the door slowly and started talking to him.  I stood up slowly.  He stayed where he was.  I talked to him as I came slowly around the back of the car.  He stayed were he was and let out a small meow.  Cursing my disorganization, I took the risk of turning my back to open the passenger door and grab a few treats.  He stayed.  I took a few steps toward him, talking, then got on my knees.  I crept forward.  He stayed, continuing to meow at me.  I stopped five feet away and held out the treats.  Max got up and came to me, ducked his head to eat, let me pet him.  I grabbed his ruff and pulled him toward me.  He didn’t resist.  He let me put him in the car without twisting and fighting.  I collapsed into the driver’s seat, completely outside myself.

The story then becomes wonderful and mundane again.  The vet visit, the recognition of and treatment for his extreme emaciation and weakness, his apparent relief and contentment to be in human hands again.  The gradual improvement.

The heart is filled by the outcome, as the mind continues to visit the central mystery of how Max and I ended up in the same spot at the same moment when there was no logical reason for it to happen.  I needed to find him to end my miserable uncertainty.  He needed to be found — at 50% of his starting weight, he was not going to make it much longer.  But, as much as we might wish otherwise, our need isn’t an explanation, only a circumstance.

Human brains are hard-wired to make patterns and meaning.  And, thereby, miracles.  Not only is Jesus’ face appearing on a piece of toast something our brain does to us automatically, it fills us with a much-needed sense of awe and purpose.  A day with Jesus on your toast is a much better day than one starting with random patterns of darker and lighter cooked bread.  My brain can’t turn away from finding Max on a day I almost didn’t show up, in a place he should never have been, on my birthday, just in time for Christmas, not long before he was going to die, because it’s uber-satisfying.

A miracle isn’t required to explain that Max and I found each other.  It happened in the confines of the natural world, so it was natural.  He was increasingly showing himself in daylight because he was starving and knew he needed help.  He had seen me park my car in that spot repeatedly, or smelled me there, so was attracted to the spot.  If I had chosen not to go that day, he might have waited for me on another.  Or a neighbor may have found him and he may have been ready to go to that person.  My outreach efforts would have connected that person to me. The date of my birthday and proximity to Christmas are abstractions that don’t matter.  I know these things.

But I can choose to enjoy the otherworldly face on this piece of toast.  Before we found Max, there were many times we wondered if we should give up trying.  Persistence with success is heroic, while persistence without success is insane.  And a knife’s edge of luck between.  I brought Max home, so all that went before and all that happened at the crucial moment is imbued with glory.  It could just as easily have been otherwise.  But glory and miracle don’t come along all that often, so I’ll take it.  As if watching Max slowly gain weight and appreciate his warm safety isn’t satisfying enough, I’ll borrow more by admiring the pattern of events, turning them this way and that to see all the possibilities.  And setting them out for others to do the same.