Seven months into the pandemic one of our cats went missing. He’d disappeared a few times before but never for this long. It felt like particularly cruel timing, given all that we’ve already lost because of COVID. The aborted trips and performances, the time with loved ones, the missed family celebrations, the sad virtual 8th grade graduation ceremony, the underwhelming 20th wedding anniversary, the cancellation of summer camp (and, let’s be honest, of most of summer itself)….the hugs. We’ve been extremely lucky compared to so many others. But adding a missing cat to the mix was like pouring salt on a wound.
Our son, Wyatt, was particularly worried. Chester, or Big Baby (the nickname we gave him due to his impressive girth and somewhat helpless nature) is mostly his cat. He sleeps in Wyatt’s bed every night and (though he shrinks beneath the touch of most other members of our family) allows Wyatt to manhandle him in, frankly, traumatic ways. Wyatt flings him over his shoulder, flips him upside down, and dances wildly with Chester in his arms. Chester doesn’t bat an eye; his startlingly loud purr remains unbroken. His love of Wyatt is second only to his love of food. We adopted him as a kitten from the San Francisco SPCA and were told he was found starving on the streets. In the seven years since he has continued to gorge on food like it could disappear at any moment. When our twins, Ava and Ellie, were little they said that he had “homeless tummy.” And his belly lives up to the moniker. His favorite activities are eating, napping and snuggling with Wyatt. He doesn’t really contribute that much to the household. But he’s still our cat. And we were all distraught.
We posted notices on Nextdoor, placed Missing Cat flyers in mailboxes, and canvassed the streets of our neighborhood calling Chester’s name while we shook his food bowl, hoping to lure him out of whatever hidey-hole he might have been in. After the first few outings Wyatt stopped joining us. The prospect of another search during which Chester failed to appear was too depressing.
Was Chester having an adventure? Was he trapped in someone’s garage? Had he been gobbled up by a coyote? Would he show up at our front door in a few days, a few months…never? Should we grieve for him or hold out hope? His disappearance was what the psychologist Pauline Boss calls an “ambiguous loss.” A loss without closure. Those experiencing the loss are caught in a state of limbo, neither able to completely let go or to move forward. Our whole world is living with ambiguous loss right now. Will there be a vaccine? Will it work? Will loved ones who are sick get better? Will jobs lost be restored? Will families be reunited? Will we be able to touch one another again?
Fourteen days after he went missing Wyatt heard Chester’s signature squeak (he’s never had a real ‘meow’) through his bedroom window. He stepped out the front door and gathered Chester — skinny, frail, but alive — into his arms. It turned out that this particular pandemic loss wasn’t so ambiguous after all.