Yesterday I began the story of Charles Howard, the miracle cat who defied all the odds to find his way back home. It is with much sadness that I now finish his story, because we did not have too much time together after his return.
CH and I were reunited at the very end of the summer of 2011, it was late in the afternoon and I can still remember the exact color of the sky that day. I remember how cool the concrete of George's front porch felt on the backs of my legs as I sat there and held him and can still see my blooming roses in vivid yellow that were across the street. Mostly, I remember the texture of Chuckie's fur as I buried my face in it and thanked every deity I could think of for his safe return.
Perhaps that was the day that everything changed for me, the day that I realized that miracles really can happen, I'm not really sure. What I do know for sure is that getting CH back made up for every crappy, disappointing Christmas and every unanswered prayer, well almost all of the unanswered prayers anyway. I've always been an optimist, you see, but that optimism dimmed appreciably after our daughter died and it took one goofy, fuzzy orange cat to restore my faith in life.
CH fell back into his old routine fairly quickly, reclaiming all of his favorite napping spots and squeezing his body up between my legs and the cabinetry while I prepared his food. He would put his front paws on the edge of the counter top and push backwards against me while looking up so that I would put down the food and give him a vigorous head scruffing before he ate. And he talked, he meowed and chatted with me all the time, I think he was telling me some of his road stories and of the kind people he met on his journey.
But mostly, Cheech just chilled out around the house. He still did some hunting and even brought in a live mouse so that he would have a fun toy, a classic Charles Howard maneuver that took us almost two hours to get the mouse out from behind the vitrine. One clear night in January, he killed a scrub jay and spent the better part of the night arranging his kill on the front walk so that my husband would see it clearly upon his return home. Clyde was duly impressed with offering, btw, stopping to congratulate the mighty hunter who was lounging smugly nearby.
February 13th was the last day I saw Charles Howard alive, I had already started writing The Last Prospector and it was one of those startlingly beautiful, clear valley days. My best friend called to tell me about a family emergency and that she was on her way to my house to spend the night before departing to Hawaii. CH didn't come in for dinner that night, I called and called for him, told myself that he was being scarce because we had company, but I knew down deep that he wouldn't be coming home again.
The next morning, we had a bit of time before I drove Tina to San Francisco, so we walked all around the neighborhood calling for Cheech. I was still pretending there was hope, I did not want my miracle to be over so soon. It was Valentine's Day, late in the afternoon and I had stopped at Popeye's on the way back from the airport for some romantic chicken dinner. I got out of the car, yelling out into the air to CH that I brought him something tasty and saw my next door neighbor Nat walking sadly out of her house towards me.
Sam across the street had found a dead fuzzy orange and white cat in her backyard that morning, she put him into a covered box and waited for me to come home. Things are kind of a blur after that, I remember looking in the box and seeing those achingly familiar strips and breaking down in tears on Sam's driveway and I remember the feeling of my heart slipping loose of it's moorings in my chest. I remember how quiet the house was, how alone I felt and the gush of tears that flowed out of me as Blue looked into the box and saw his dead brother with that look of confusion in his eyes.
The thing is that on the 13th, I was writing the chapter entitled 'Invisible Bridge, Invisible Lance', the part of Prospector's story about his beloved cat and how she died. It was unfinished when Tina called and I had dropped everything to be with her, so I had been thinking about that chapter on the drive back from SF. I didn't know what else to do with my grief, so I sat down and began to write. Prospector's grief about Willow is actually my mourning for Charles Howard, my way of keeping him alive in some small way, because that little cat gave me something that was bigger than the sky.
CH restored my belief in the possibilities of life and even his death can not diminish that. Technically, he was not the impetus for my story, but the entire series is an homage to listening to that little voice inside yourself, the one that always tells you the truth despite what the facts would have you believe. I believed in my little voice, I had faith and that faith was rewarded. I take a lot of comfort knowing that Charles Howard ended his life knowing where his home was, knowing that he was loved and wanted. I got the ultimate gift of knowledge, I could have spent my life only guessing and worrying about Chachi's fate, but I was blessed enough to be the one to bury his body.
That is the official end of the story of Charles Howard, fuzz man extraordinaire, but no story truly has a fixed ending. There is no telling now of the ultimate impact he had on my life and I can only wonder about the other lives he touched while he traveled. I might never know those kind people who fed CH or gave him a warm place to sleep while he was away, but I am desperately grateful to them anyway. I can only say here thank you, thank you, thank you because every one of you contributed to my miracle.