I thought attempting to commit suicide would always represent the most difficult time of my life. Inversely a year after I survived that, started traveling, and ‘found myself’ the last thing I expected was to hurt so much again.
Let me take you to 6 months after I relocated to Nova Scotia. At this point, I was at peace for perhaps the first time in my entire life. I didn’t yet have much in the way of belongings besides my dog Navi (who took up most of the Jeep) in Canada, so once American Thanksgiving 1 rolled around I decided it was the perfect time to visit family and in concert move my effects up.
Truth be told I didn’t miss a single material item back home (well, maybe just my winter jacket). What I really had in mind was reuniting with my best-est buddy in the whole world, a little orange tabby cat called Ojay 2:
I left my little ‘Tigger’ in Pennsylvania with family because I was far from settled early on in Canada. I showed up into Nova Scotia’s tourist season without a plan (I hardly ever do have one) and this meant relocating homes very frequently to all ends of the peninsula and accompanying Cape Breton island. I don’t regret the disorganization; being a nomad forced me to learn about every area in this beautiful province. Later on, I secured a tiny little cottage for the slower winter season.
I flew home and Dad and I were set to drive a uHaul truck the thousand miles or so back up together. What I didn’t realize when I walked out my cottage for the Halifax airport is that I would not return for almost a month, and that I’d never be the same again.
What I didn’t realize when I walked out my cottage for the Halifax airport is that I would not return for almost a month, and that I’d never be the same again.
Warm feelings aren’t something I’d normally associate with an arrival in Newark, NJ, however the sight of my Dad’s familiar car brought a huge smile to my face. We talked the entire way home, contrasting the depressed me last time in Pennsylvania who many times couldn’t think of single thing to share with my family. My Mom, Dad, sister, and her husband and I had a special dinner next day. It was the first family occasion in forever wherein I wasn’t secretly masking sickening internal pain.
It was the first family occasion in forever wherein I wasn’t secretly masking sickening internal pain.
After time with family and the truck loaded, Dad and I took off behind the big wheel on a Sunday night eating our pumpkin pie in containers my Mom packed for us (which still warms my heart). We made it all the way to Boston as 2am rolled around, deliriousness telling us we should stop for the night. Needing only a bed, I booked a random Motel 6 outside of the city. (You probably already see this going downhill!) Right before we stopped I remember Dad telling me a story that had me laughing out loud, something he’s really good at and I missed. If only I knew 30 minutes later I’d be far from humor, trapped in a harrowing new reality.
While checking in something terrible happened. Not to me or my Dad, but to Ojay. As I was sliding his carrier off the passenger seat he pushed open the zipper with his head enough to burst out. In what felt like slow motion I watched him jump over to the drivers seat, down onto the floor, then out the door into an incongruous triangle-shaped patch of woods in between the hotel, an interstate, and some railroad tracks.
We stumbled through mud, bushes, and railroad with the dismal light of our iPhones for hours. It was hopeless. I remember Dad pleading with me to go inside and rest until sunrise. I finally resigned, though it was merely lying down staring at the ceiling for a couple of hours.
I hope I never the rest of my life feel how I did that morning. In daylight my heart sank walking out of the room and actually seeing where we were. Our motel was connected to an IHOP restaurant in the front, and the woods to the back left were more unpleasant than I realized – a patch of trees and bushes filled with mud, garbage, and the intense noise of traffic. To make matters worse, active railroad tracks ran across the north side. It was as vast as it was unsightly and Ojay could be anywhere.
This depressing sight would become home to me for the next three weeks. My Dad and I tried on our own for four days to find him, grudgingly extending our stay at the awful motel. After almost a week we were facing a breaking point since my Dad needed to return to work on Friday. As much as he loved Ojay, he was more worried about getting me up to Canada with the full uHaul.
I knew deep down that I couldn’t leave Ojay, but I didn’t want to disappoint my Dad. On the fifth day, after some tough discussion I reluctantly climbed into the truck in tears and we drove north. I cried my eyes out the whole way. After a blurry 30 miles I managed to find the courage – and a break in the hysterical tears – to turn to my Dad and force him to turn around the truck.
I remember telling him “to me being an adult means accepting responsibility for decisions, and that I’d accept with the one I’m making here and be the one to handle the consequences.” Which meant leaving me in an unfamiliar place with a truck full of everything I own.
We drove back down to the motel and arranged Dad a rental car get him home for work and his own responsibilities. Before he left, Dad ran over to Home Depot while I continued to search in daylight and bought me a fancy flashlight which would become my staple over the next few weeks. It still makes me smile when I look at it.
As my Dad drove away more tears formed in my eyes when I remembered back on the way up him talking excitedly about how he’s going to treat us to a lobster dinner just me and him, and how I’d introduce him to friends at my regular bar. Instead I was homesick in a lonely place and I now felt like I lost two of my best friends in different ways.
Instead I was homesick in a lonely place, and I now felt like I lost two of my best friends in different ways.
As one piece of luck would have it during an otherwise ill-fated time, my best friend from high school and his wife lived an hour from where I was stranded. I called him out of the blue and sure enough the door was open. My despairing daily routine for the next few weeks became sleeping in his attic, working on my computer in the morning, then hopping into the lumbering uHaul truck and driving it an hour commute down the congested Mass Turnpike to an unfortunately familiar grim Motel 6 parking lot woods.
My despairing daily routine for the next few weeks became sleeping in his attic, working on my computer in the morning, then hopping into the lumbering uHaul truck and driving it an hour commute down the congested Mass Turnpike to an unfortunately familiar grim Motel 6 parking lot woods.
The truck had now turned into a mobile pet recovery operation. I would throw it in park, walk around back, slam up the gate, and reveal a collection of poster-board, markers, cans of tuna, catnip, markers, and boxes of staples. Flyers were spilling all over the interior seats as well.
I felt like I was doing something, but I knew I needed more than just a few posters. Mom was busy at home all this time trying to figure out how to help, and she discovered people online who assist rescuing lost pets professionally.
I was crawling underneath a pile of railroad ties, shining a flashlight inside and doing my best “squeaky voice” impression for Ojay when my phone rang. The MA number ended up being one of the rescuers, Amy Garbino. I knew from the instant I talked to her I wouldn’t be alone in this anymore. Amy worked in the Massachusetts court system during the day and spent spare time running what I call a ‘missing pet detective service.’ Not only was she skilled with know-how and experience of actually finding real lost cats, she provided me with all kinds of support including wildlife game cameras, poster materials, and even scent trail dogs.
My daily routine was now more advanced but equally depressing. I would navigate through the woods to 7 points charted in a radius around the hotel, painstakingly position cameras (securing them to trees with bike locks since it was a dangerous area) and prepare “food stations” at the focal point with mackerel and sardines. I’d wrap a grocery bag around my hand and rub fish oil all over tree branches to carry the smell. (Dogs get all the credit, but cats have an underrated sense of scent on par 3)
Amy taught me if Ojay came out it would be at night. The cameras were triggered by infrared motion sensing and wrote to local memory cards, so the results were a mystery until I trampled through the woods the next day with my laptop. Time after time I’d pull the memory card, lean against a tree, and watch black and white footage praying for a sign of hope. Amazingly enough, the cameras worked well, and so did our food attractions. There was always footage of nocturnal activity – mice, squirrels, possums, and many ferrel cats. None of them Ojay though.
I kept trying this regimen day after day for three weeks. Every so often I would meet Amy in a Target parking lot and she’d re-supply my uHaul with more posters and supplies. Aside from cameras, together we covered every telephone pole in the area with signage. I took it a step further by handing out fliers door to door, literally, in over 150 homes. Motel 6, McDonalds, Walmart, and Hannaford grocery stores all threw my signs into dumpsters before I even left the premises .
One day in the middle of it all I was hopelessly walking down the street with a stack of fliers when I ran into a kid and his dad playing hockey in their driveway. I was excited just to see anyone outside in the cold, let alone hockey going on. I approached them with my message about Ojay but also mentioned my love of the game. In a thick Bostonian accent the father invited me to take a few shots on the net with the boy. I’ll never forget how that little gesture made me feel a tiny bit warmer inside an otherwise cold and empty place.
There was also the day when the police tracked me down. Someone in the neighborhood reported the uHaul truck and me wandering around as suspicious activity. I was in such a tired and depressed state of mind I forgot a stack of posters and my staple gun on the sidewalk; the police found them and called my cell phone. It took me well into the conversation to realize they were looking for me and not Ojay.
As Christmas approached it was becoming clear my effort was nearing the end of the runway. Every door I knocked on or person I stopped would express sadly that they already knew about Ojay and were looking. I always said that I would never leave without Ojay, but at this point I was running out of plan, and my dog Navi was up in Canada all this time bouncing between friend’s houses.
My sister helped me take out localized Facebook ads 4, and Amy said she would keep up the search. With an empty heart I packed up the uHaul, threw away the remainder of my posters since I couldn’t bear to look at them anymore, and headed towards the border.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, on a snowy Saturday night, three hours of abusive interrogation at the border later, I was denied entry to Canada. It was entirely my fault for not preparing the immigration process properly, but I didn’t know better at the time. I drove the uHaul in the snow at midnight to the miniscule town of Houlton, Maine and booked a hotel over the phone.
I didn’t know what to do. My best friend was lost, I was not allowed to enter the place where I felt at home (and made into one), and my dog Navi was up there. The old me would have given up or became suicidal again, but some how, some way, I wanted to fight this time.
I dusted myself off and started all over again the next day. I rented a storage locker in Maine, emptied the entire uHaul truck into it myself, returned the truck, took a taxi to a rental car facility, and packed only what I desperately needed and headed for the border again.
By some grace, albeit after I was beaten up emotionally, they allowed me to enter for two more months and then I was forced to leave. I was a shell of myself during the always introspective holiday season. On Christmas, since I didn’t know anyone well enough to interrupt their family plans, I went to see The Last Jedi since movie theaters are one of few things open then.
I still remember walking out of the cinema alone into a cold quiet night in Halifax. As a major Star Wars nerd I’m already very emotional after seeing a Saga film, and combined with the holiday season I started assessing my life, where I was, and what’s happened. I was tortured by losing my best friend and not knowing if he was alive or what horrors he was feeling. Further, I knew I had to leave Canada; just when I found ‘home’ it felt like I had to give this dream up. Was my entire journey a failure?
Fast forward to the end of January, 51 days since Ojay vanished. 51 days where my inside hurt constantly imagining what he was going through. Every single time I touched the night air it chilled me to the bone inferring how it must feel to Ojay, if he was still there. Or picturing his body frozen in the woods, loneliness and fear the last thing he knew.
Bless my Dad, because I’ll never forget him always correcting me, saying “Not IF, but WHEN” every time I would mention finding Ojay. I didn’t really believe him, but he was right.
It was a Tuesday and I was about to walk out the door and go to the Halifax Provincial SPCA. I volunteered twice a week as the “Cat Cuddler,” wherein my buddies there helped me more than I did them. My phone was on my desk as I got ready, and I could hear it buzzing and buzzing. I’m never one to rush to it, but by the third call attempt I figured something important was happening. I saw it was a Massachusetts number; as soon as I answered so were my prayers.
A young person who worked in a logistics warehouse right across the railroad from our infamous motel reported to his manager that he found a cat which matched a telephone poster he saw every day on the way to work. He pulled the poster off the pole, brought it to work, and compared it side by side with who they found and called me.
I never knew this would come in so much handy, but I always joked how Ojay has a “golden toe” – all white paws but a single orange toe on his front foot. It turns out that as impossible bad news is to wrap your head around, good news can function the same way. I was beyond words, truly happier than if I won the Powerball lottery. After all, I’d have traded the winnings for him.
Many nights alone up on the railroad tracks back in December I would look up at moon, blurry from tears, and ask why this was all happening to me. Finally overcoming a long traumatic and hurtful past, why did this happen when I was just starting to be myself? I believe now it did so for a reason. There is a strength I’ve developed from this nothing could have ever given me. Everything I used to be afraid of – work, deadlines, travel, performance, social settings – they now seem easy compared to the torture of losing my best friend and the uncertainty of the pain he was going through.
Every night I come home, I pick up Ojay and hug him until whenever he wants to be put down. I’ve held and talked to him more than I’ve done anything else over the past year. I tell him always that he is MY hero. He truly is my best friend in the entire world, and all I could ever need.
Canadian Thanksgiving is on a Monday in Early October. ↩
As for this name, he was born on the horse farm I used to work at. I was always the one who took care of the cats, and Ojay developed a special bond with me and would follow me everywhere and climb on me. The children who hung around named him “O.J.” after me (my unfortunate nickname from my Dad is “Oscar”). I give him a unique word on his own as to not be associated with a Bronco driving murderer. ↩
Thanks to Mallory we reached over 50,000 people in the surrounding area where Ojay was lost. All of the messages and comments, it’s the first time I ever liked anything (pardon the pun) about Facebook. Moreover, the people around Boston really love their animals and cared so much. ↩