17 March 2014

Matt Reflects on Burying Our Cat

P.S. Your Cat is Dead

Between the neverending winter, and the upcoming soccer season tying up our weekends, we needed a change of scenery so we decided to take an overnight trip to visit some friends in Charlotte. There was the normal frenzy of packing and planning for travel.  Nancy came home and cleaned the house and I packed a change of clothes and called on our neighbor to check on our pets.  As we were walking out the door, Nancy told Isaac to feed the cat.  I remembered thinking that I hadn’t seen the cat in a few days.  This was not unusual.  Our cat Angelo preferred to sleep in the sewer on cold snowy nights rather than stay inside. (I couldn’t help but take it a little personally when he would howl at the door and pee on everything until we let him out into the snow, only to disappear down the storm drain.)

Isaac asked if I had checked her hiding spot, behind a recliner in the loft.  I went upstairs and looked behind the chair, saw our motionless cat and knew right away that she was dead.  I called her name “Miss Ophelia” twice to see if it would wake her up, this method proving successful on the many many times that I assumed that our dog had died only to find out that he was, in the words of “Miracle Max,” only “mostly dead”.  

After she didn’t respond, I announced, “She is dead.”

Nancy and Isaac both came up and confirmed it.  Nancy gave me the same look she had when Isaac asked what exactly the commercial for Tampax was advertising, a look that conveyed “I am the responsible adult most of the time, but you need to deal with this one.”

I knew the vet up the street offered cremation services, and already had their number in my phone (referring back to the time the dog was only “mostly dead”).  I am not going to lie.  I was as surprised as anyone.  We had been preparing Isaac for the dog’s death since we suspect he had had a stroke, is blind, deaf, senile, and those damn vultures circle whenever he goes out in the yard.   

Miss Ophelia was our retirement pet.  She was self sufficient, pretty, sweet, funny, and loved everyone (except neighbor cats and possums).  She was also seemingly very healthy, although in retrospect she had to have been about 15 or so.  You never know with rescue cats.  She was small and you could tell that her black fur was brown when she was in bright sunlight.  

In the last few years, I had grown terribly allergic to her, my eyes itching fiercely for hours, and my hands swelling up and sprouting red blisters if I touched something that she had been lying on.  But she was loyal to Isaac, often sleeping on his bed whether he liked it or not.    

I am not sentimental about bodies.  This is a function of being in the medical profession, and my religious upbringing.  When I asked my elderly grandmother if there was any music or scripture she wanted at her funeral, her response was “Do whatever the hell you want.  I won’t be there.”  

I donned rubber gloves and spread out some waterproof table covers that we use for surgical trays.  I picked her up, and the grief that was welling up was immediately superseded by the nausea from the smell.  

There is a bit of controversy here that will probably last in our family for years.  This is no slight to Nancy’s housekeeping skills, but there was a dead cat for somewhere between 2 and 5 days in the house without us noticing.  Nancy will claim 2 while Isaac’s version is 5.  

Isaac and I put the bag with the body in the back of the truck and drove up to the vet. It was a slow afternoon and the one receptionist was on a phone call, so we had to wait.  When another employee asked how she could help us, I explained the situation and asked how much cremation would cost. She looked it up on the computer and the cost came to $68.  

I called Nancy (who was home airing out the house) and she deferred to my wisdom.  I made a few calls and realized that there was no way we were getting rid of the cat cheaply.  (Footnote here….No cat is ever a “Free Cat”.)   

We live in a townhouse so don’t have 1) a yard or 2) yard tools to dig a hole.  I thought about calling friends to borrow either a bit of yard or at least some shovels, but couldn't reach any and waiting a few more hours was not an option.  Isaac, ever the pragmatist,  looked at me and said “Dad, if we pay $70 , we won’t have money for snacks on the road.”

So we drove to Home Depot to buy some shovels instead.  I asked Isaac how he was doing and he told me that he was holding in his tears until later.  I told him that he could cry whenever he wanted to.  He could be mad if he felt like it.  He could ask God “Why?” if he wanted to.  I told him that he may cry two weeks from now or not at all.  

We picked out two shovels and Isaac carried them through the store.  When he said “Two shovels?  We got ourselves a party!” my uncontrollable laughter teetered on the edge of tears.  I told him that it was okay to joke, too, to which he replied “Well….we are off to bury a dead cat!” in a fake cheerful voice.  I replied, “Easier than an alive one.”  He came back with, “Much less screechy.”  

As we walked into the woods near our house, he quipped “The time comes in everyone’s life when sooner or later they have to bury something in the woods.”  We found a spot and set to digging the hole.  He and I both dug until we had a hole that seemed more than deep enough.  

Isaac backed up to avoid the smell when I removed her from the bag and the wrappings (having heard my 15 minutes of dry heaving, he was reasonably cautious.)  We dropped her in the hole, said our goodbyes, a prayer and offered up “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.”

Isaac threw the first dirt in the hole and we set to finishing the job together.  

When we finished, he said “Our work here is finished.”

And I said, “And now the worms do theirs.”  

There are some of you who would find it disturbing to joke like this, but this is how my family chooses to deal with pain.  We name our fear, and then joke: not out of false bravado or a misguided feeling of invulnerability but a real sense that one day we will all be there, and there is nothing we can do about it.

I hope that Isaac appreciates how fragile and unexpected life is.  Death is ugly, but fearing it can make you waste your life.  I also hope he learns how to grieve in a healthy way -- by talking with people he loves and doing the work that needs to be done when someone or something dies.  

Strength and Honor,

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