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Buddy Buddha's Great Escape


A woman petting a white cat on a porch with a hummingbird feeder abover her

There is a moment when a long-held objective is achieved, and the barriers of caution relax. This is the most dangerous moment of all; they say most car accidents occur within three miles of a destination. So it was with our journey to South Ridge; after a lifetime of wrong turns, thwarted dreams and an odyssey of 4000 kilometers with five critters in tow, I gained my heart’s desire – but lost Buddy Buddha.


I was living in Alberta, having moved back home to care for my ailing mother. The prairie town where Jeb and I grew up had changed, and I'd changed too; but I was still the girl whose greatest dream of adventure was to live in a cabin in the woods with my high school sweetheart. Every day, with a pang, I passed the spot near the river where we'd parted ways all those years ago. Since then, I'd crashed a marriage and a music career, and was trying to re-invent myself as a nurse, but there was nothing I could do to save my mother.


As she slipped deeper into the darkness of terminal illness, the shadows of helplessness and sorrow fell upon me as well. Buddy became my salvation; a pure-white pure-bred Birman Buddha, his nature was of contemplation and calm - qualities I stove to emulate. The two words in his vocabulary pretty much summed up everything life can throw at you: “Ow” and “Wow.” Curling up close against my chest, purring, he had an uncanny ability to center me in a peaceful present, sending waves of equanimity through my heart chakra; without words, he told me that nothing you love is ever truly lost.


As time went by, I added two more cats to the household, to keep Buddy company while I was at work. Prissy Missy and the truly devilish Teeny were both rescue cats, utterly lacking in social skills, each requiring considerable training in matters of etiquette. “Ow,” said Buddy, who had no such deficits. He would have been happier to spend those hours alone, meditating; the others presented competition for my attention for which was too wise to compete. His original owner had seen fit to declaw him, an offence from which he’d never recovered.


a white cat in a garden

I would have loved to allow the cats outdoors to create a little space between them, but among the many by-laws at the cookie-cutter condo I'd dubbed "Pleasantville Prison" was the odious leash law, which applied even to cats. Missy and Teeny decidedly disdained this indignity, so had to be kept indoors most of the time. Buddy allowed the leash with graceful humility, but didn't need it. He never strayed from my side, supervising from beneath a tuft of catmint while I puttered in my tiny garden.


To provide the others some relief from their captivity, I instigated nightly pussycat patrols around the Prison while the neighbors slept. Teeny and Missy were overjoyed at this concession to their feline instincts, and they all quickly learned to follow my lead, without use of the dreaded leashes. Buddy was cautious, but came to relish these midnight prowls, sniffing and pawing and gazing around in wonder (“Wow”); but the concrete paths we travelled were a poor substitute for liberty.


After Mom's death, I became custodian to her dog Puppy, a creaky, arthritic terrier with no manners whatsoever. I'd become a cliche; a middle-aged single with passel of critters as a bulwark against loneliness. All I could foresee for the rest of my life was walking my four-legged family around the Prison until I outlived them, travelling back and forth to work, and living out my retirement alone. I thought of Jeb often, wondering what might have been. Through the magic of Facebook, I knew that he was living in the woods of New Brunswick, as far away from me as west is to the east. What I didn't know was that he was also single, and wondering too. One marathon phone call changed everything.


What man would want to take on a posse of needy critters, as well as a woman with a lifetime of baggage behind her? Jeb. Two of my cats are geriatric, I warned him, and one is a sickly hell-raiser. How on earth were we going to get them all across the country? But Jeb thinks in possibilities, not problems: “They’ll love South Ridge,” he said. “It’s all doable.”


He jumped into his big Chevy with his German Shepherd cross Piper and drove west in the dead of winter to help me pack up and sell the condo. Jeb had overseen many complex operations in his military career involving multiple bodies, dangerous equipment and exotic destinations, but Operation Escape involved challenges even he had never encountered - not the least of which was helping me to downsize my belongings. It took three months to get everything packed up or sold. All that was left was to move our new family East.


It was Buddy I was most concerned about. Fourteen years old with a kidney condition, he was delicate enough that I’d briefly questioned the wisdom of bringing him at all – but the alternative was unthinkable. I knew that Puppy would be happy anywhere as long as I was nearby, and that the other cats would adjust easily. Missy was a tough little Himalayan who, despite her advanced years, loved to explore. Teeny, who’d spent a couple of years in a shelter cage and had chronic immune issues, was always pushing the boundaries - of condo life, and of her housemates.


But Buddy was given to routine, to quiet, to the slow soft comfort of being stroked. All he'd known since he was young were the confines and predictability of condo life. How dare I disturb his peace? Six days and nights on the road, a different hotel room every night – what if one of the animals got out somehow, got lost? There was no way I was going to crate them for six days. The only answer was exposure therapy. So in the weeks prior to the trip, all the cats got car rides – lots of them – first separately, then together, for longer and longer periods. To Buddy, the car always meant a trip to the vet, but treats and extra attention gradually relieved his anxiety. The other cats had no choice but to accept their harnesses and leashes; there was no way we were going to risk a mad dash from the car.


a white cat, cardboard boxes and a a cat tree in the background

Of course, all the animals knew there was change in the air, long before we left. Things kept disappearing; first plants, then knickknacks and wall hangings, books, blankets, and lamps. The closets emptied, while a pile of cardboard boxes in the middle of the living room grew. On moving day, we locked all the cats up while workers cleared the condo of everything but their litter boxes, beds, feeding bowls, and our suitcases and bags. Buddy slept in my open suitcase the night before we left, though. He was taking no chances of being left behind.


Finally, everything was packed but the critters, and there was nothing to do but hit the road. Buddy and Missy had the better deal, as they were travelling in the back of my Ford Escape, which I’d transformed into a relatively comfortable replica of home – complete with cat beds, cat grass, scratching post, litter box, and toys. Things weren’t as good for Teeny. A notorious bully, she couldn’t be trusted in close quarters with the other two cats, so was relegated to travelling in the truck with Jeb and the dogs, to their mutual chagrin.


Jeb said she spent the first few hours meowing piteously, circumnavigating the cab relentlessly and occasionally having to be shooed out of the footwell. For a while she tortured Piper in the back, and then eventually gave up and settled on the console between Jeb and Puppy with her little face in her paws.

two cats in the back of a car

Meanwhile, to my relief, Buddy had curled up beside me and gone to sleep, happy just to be close. Missy was having the time of her life, fully absorbed in the sights and sounds around us. Wide prairie vistas opened on all sides, grain elevators went by, cows munched, and great flocks of birds chased each other across a canvas of whipped cream clouds. She leaned up against the window, purring and trilling and waving her paw as the world went by.


Every few hours we’d stop on some quiet side road and put the animals outside for a sniff and a little movement. Puppy and Piper delighted in the many unfamiliar scents and sounds, and got used to the routine quickly. Buddy and Missy stayed close to me as they had during our pussycat patrols - but predictably, Teeny always attempted to dash away, and squirmed desperately when put back in the truck.


Our first overnight was a success, in a pet-friendly roadside motel. The desk clerk asked no questions, and once the animals explored the room thoroughly, they curled up and went to sleep, relieved to be stationary. The next four nights were more fraught. Some places, though “pet-friendly,” had restrictions on the number of animals allowed; we blatantly lied and resorted to subterfuge, which mostly worked, and asking for rooms far from lobby sightlines.


One night, we were interrogated by the desk clerk who wanted to know the name, age and breeds of our “dog and cat” (only two animals were allowed) and asked for a 250$ deposit against possible damage. There was no outdoor access to our room, and no way to get our menagerie past the desk unobserved. It was too late to find other lodgings; no problem, said Jeb.

He asked for a room on the main floor at the back of the building. We pulled up to the window, which we were mercifully able to open, and spent a frantic ten minutes loading litterboxes, beds and critters in through the window, while keeping our heads on swivels to monitor for potential tattletales. Success!


The next morning didn’t go quite so smoothly, as the hotel had filled up overnight, and was full of nosy people coming and going. There was also a lone staff member in the parking lot picking up trash, doing such a slow and thorough job we wondered if he was perhaps stoned and avoiding other tasks inside. We tried to wait him out, sneaking cat beds and critters down the busy hallway one by one. Eventually, we gave up and loaded the rest out through the window beneath his very nose. What was he going to do? We were blowing town!


A man driving a truck with a cat beside him

Animals, like people, can get used to anything. As the days went by, they acclimated to long hours in vehicles followed by different hotel rooms, which nonetheless had a predictable sameness. There were some tense moments, as when we had to drive through floodwaters in Northern Ontario, and a few moments of panic when I lost Jeb’s tail in Ottawa. But every mile took us closer our destination.


On one sunny afternoon, as we were driving past one of the Great Lakes, Jeb suggested we stop for lunch. There was a rest stop up ahead, with a picnic table and a tantalizing pathway framed by shimmering leaves heading towards the shore. Even Teeny seemed to relax here, blinking and stretching out on the grass along with the other two cats.


The day was so bright it sparkled, a light spring breeze sending crystalline ripples across the water in waves. Popcorn clouds floated by. I couldn’t resist that little path – not far to the water’s edge, I entered the leafy tunnel while Jeb kept watch on the animals. When I got to the shoreline, I looked down and there was Buddy at my feet. He was staring across the vast expanse of water, eyes wide, watching the waves. He’d never seen a vista like that in all his fourteen years, and it showed. He was transfixed.


He dipped his paw in the water, perhaps trying to catch a sparkle, then looked up me. “Wow,” he said. I agreed with him completely. His tail twitched and his eyes glittered and I saw for a moment the cat he could have been, the cat of his ancestors, cats that lived on mountainsides and caught fish for dinner, who tended monks in their temples, imperious cats that feared nothing, not even evil spirits. The wildness had been bred out of him, but a spark of it remained. Buddy was no dummy. He knew beauty when he saw it. Maybe he would like South Ridge after all.


On our last stop, the motel owner treated us to a twenty-minute lecture on the dramas she’d endured admitting animals into her domain – advising us that none of them were allowed on the beds, and that if she found one cat hair, she’d be pocketing the 300$ deposit we were obliged to provide. That’s when we decided to make the last stretch a marathon, without the planned stopover in Quebec.


It was a long, hot day; all of us were tired of semi-trucks and motorhomes and roadside pull-outs. As we neared our destination, the roads narrowed and traffic thinned to a trickle, then disappeared altogether. Forested valleys filled with a lovely purple haze I was too tired to appreciate. I kept thinking, surely, we must be almost there. Spring run-off had made the final stretch of road an obstacle course of potholes, jostling and alarming the exhausted animals; my God, I thought, we really are out in the sticks. Finally we pulled up, under cover of darkness, to the little red house on the ridge.


“We’re here!” I told the cats. And they seemed to realize that this stop was different; there was no urgency in our arrival, only a palpable sense of relief. A rainstorm was blowing in; we bundled everyone inside quickly. There would be time enough later for exploration, I thought.

After feeding everyone, Jeb and I fell into bed, exhausted. But I couldn’t sleep; I was too happy.


After forty years of regrets, we’d made it. Jeb and I were finally together; the animals and I had escaped Pleasantville Prison forever. I listened to the sound of rain on the roof, the wind in the great spruces surrounding the house. The cats were restless, too; so I got up took them all outside for a short patrol, trusting Teeny without a leash for the first time in five days. We circumnavigated the house just as we used to circle the Prison: Teeny in front, Missy next, and Buddy taking up the rear, everyone paying attention to everything, including me. The cats were alive with excitement; but it was too windy, rainy and dark to go far.


I couldn’t find the porch light, but for a few moments we sat on the steps, listening to the wind in the spruces and trying to take it all in. We couldn't see the hundreds of miles of Acadian forest that surrounded us; but we could sense its power and majesty. For once, there was no fighting among my crew; they were wide eyed, but calm. Finally, I gathered them up, one by one, and deposited them back into the house, before falling into a deep and dreamless sleep.


I awoke to the sound of rain on the roof – and piteous meowing. Outside the window, there was Missy, indignantly stomping around the perimeter of the house, demanding to be let in. What??? She must have slipped out the door last night as I was bringing in one of the other cats. Teeny was meowing for her breakfast, but where was Buddy?


Nowhere.


Not in the yard. Not under the porch or the car. Not in the spare room. Not in my suitcase. He too had slipped out somehow, in the dark.


Buddy always came when I called, but he wasn’t coming now: wherever he was, he was out of earshot – or dead. I’d brought him all this way only to lose him carelessly in a strange wilderness thousands of kilometers from home. A sickly stream of icy panic was stealing through my veins, but I tried to stay calm. “Jeb! Buddy is missing!” I yelled.


He threw on his clothes and we went outside to look for him. Trees and thick brush surrounded us for miles in every direction, except for the road; I ran out there and paced for several dozen meters in each direction, dreading the sight of Buddy’s lifeless body having been hit by a car. But there was no sign of him anywhere.


Jeb and I crashed through the forest in separate directions, searching and calling. I tried to cover the ground in ever-widening circles, but couldn’t believe how thick the brush was – scratching my skin and clothes, obscuring the view in every direction. I almost got lost myself. When I’d imagined exploring the woods around the cabin, I’d didn’t think it would be like this.


“Well, I don’t think it was a coyote or a fox,” Jeb said, when we regrouped. “There would be, uh, blood and hair . . .” I shuddered. I suggested he call animal control; there was no such thing in this neighborhood, Jeb said. There was nobody around but us, and all the wild animals of the forest. Buddy had no claws, had never encountered real danger in all the days of his life. I’d brought him to this. It was all my fault.


“Let’s try driving down the road,” said Jeb. “Maybe he’s hiding in the ditch.” I knew that even if he was still alive the sound of a vehicle would only frighten Buddy deeper into the bush, but I’d begun to give up, considering how I was going to recover from this debacle. How was I was going to manage my guilt, to shield Jeb from the depression I knew was to follow? I would never be able to think of coming to South Ridge without remembering how I’d lost Buddy: he was the sacrificial lamb on the altar of my dreams, for which I’d proved myself unworthy.


“There he is!” Jeb shouted. He pointed down an overgrown trail branching off from the main road. Way up the path, a tiny spot of white fur crouched against the earth, with great trees swaying overhead. Buddy stared towards us, frozen, as I jumped out of the truck and raced towards him, calling. I gathered him up and buried my face in his soft fur. “Buddy,” I said. “Ow,” he replied, reproachfully. Ow, indeed.


*


three cats walking down a forested road

Buddy survived only two seasons at South Ridge, before he, like my mother, succumbed to his illness. Over the summer and fall, we made many pussycat patrols into the woods together, but he never again roamed far on his own. He preferred to supervise as I gardened, or pace the path around the little meadow of wildflowers in front of the house. I discovered a small circle of stones there, where somebody had made a planting years ago, now overgrown. Jeb said it was the place where he always spread the ashes of pets who had passed on. That’s where we spread Buddy’s ashes, too, after he died.


I was wandering there, on Mother's Day, when an ephemeral streak of white flashed across my peripheral vision. I could hear his voice clear as a bell: “Wow,” said Buddy. For a moment, my heart contracted. I'll never hold Buddy again; nor will I ever again feel the radiance of Mom's smile, except in memory. Staring at that little circle of stones, I thought of the long hard road that took me away from Jeb all those years ago, and all the time we wasted apart. We have only a few years left to us; soon, like Buddy and Mom, we too will be dust.


But then, a familiar sense of equanimity flowed through me, and I returned to my peaceful present. Buddy's Buddha's magic was at work, once again. Against all odds, Jeb has been restored to me, and we are living our youthful dream together. It's not too late to put some roots down here at South Ridge - catmint for Buddy, and some roses for my mother. Someone will enjoy them, after Jeb and I are gone. Nothing you love is ever truly lost.


a refrigerator magnet with the words "Who rescued whom?"

Buddy Buddha's Great Escape: Leslie Alexander Copyright 2024

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