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The last two weeks, I’ve looked out the window what feels like 500 times, waiting and watching for the cat to come home.

She went out at night, like she had 500 times before.  Most every day, for six years, she went outside for a while then came back, a few hours or a maybe a day later, her little round white face popping back up by the patio door, her mouth opening in near silent meows that couldn’t be heard through the glass.

One day last spring, she did not come back for a day and a half, and I was worried.  I walked along the woods behind our neighborhood, calling her and watching the bushes for a sign of a rustle.  Then, just like that, she came trotting out from the brush, her tail in a happy question mark, ready to be scooped up into my arms and carried home.

She always loved to be outside.  It was where she was happiest, ever since she was a kitten.  She did not catch birds or chase mice — she just seemed to like the freedom, even long before we brought home the dog.  All our previous cats had been indoor only, because letting them outside seemed too dangerous.  But there was no question with this one; to keep her locked up would seem cruel.

We knew we took a chance that her life may be a shorter one, but wanted to make it a happier one.

She was always my garden companion all spring, summer and fall.  When I went out to plant or weed or prune, she would trot out of the woods and come wind around my ankles, waiting for a pet from muddy hands.  Then she would wonder about, and keep me company.  For years, I think we were both hiding outside from noisy children…  In the years I ran my outdoor children’s portrait business in my backyard, she would sometimes come “help” with the shot, and some families had portrait proofs with the cat in them.  Surprise!

She had a reluctant yet softening relationship with the dog.  She had an on-again, off-again relationship with Buster, a male stray that courted her so often we gave him a name.  Buster, the cowboy of stray tomcats.  Oddly, that first night she was missing, I saw Buster for the first time in three months — he startled me in the dark yard as I scanned the rainy night, walking with my flashlight.  He froze with that deer-in-the-headlights look, which I’ll probably now always think of as a cat-in-the-flashlight look.  I whispered “Do you know where she is?”, but he was no help at all, a cowboy cat of few words.

So, I have kept searching, walking not just the perimeter of the woods but all through the brush and branches and along the creek, looking for any sign of her.  I emailed neighbors with a photo, asking if anyone has seen her.  I put up flyers at the vet office and in surrounding neighborhoods, and knocked on doors of people I don’t know asking if I can search the woods behind their houses.  I know there are coyotes that roam the neighborhoods here.  I know that a Yorkshire Terrier disappeared from his nearby wooded backyard three nights after Kitty was last seen.  I know what I find in the woods may not be pleasant.   That is the image that haunts me most.  But I’ve thought for two weeks that if I could just find something, I could stop hoping and stop watching and stop listening for a tiny squeak of a meow at the door.  Since that has not happened, it is now time for me to just let go.

Some well-meaning friends have suggested that she might have always lived a double life, and has had a second “home” that she visited on a regular basis when she stayed out all night before.  Maybe That House just switched to the canned food she was always begging for, so she ditched us with our dry kibble.  Maybe They decided that she should be kept inside at their house from now on, because she is so beautiful and they did not want anything bad to happen to her.  That’s a happier story, and really all of life’s stories are up to us to write.

Someday, maybe I’ll be able to pen one of those heartwarming tales of the pet that disappeared for a long time, and against all odds found its way back home after many adventures and mishaps along the way.  That would be a fun story, but I am going to stop crafting that one in my head, at least for now.  It is time for me to say goodbye.