Cats in the Gap (A Memorial Essay)
Rituals of Death
It’s 93 degrees and the sun is relentless. It’s hard to dig in the dry Colorado dirt, but I’ve done this before. I know I’ll need the rubber mallet and a tent stake to pry out the rocks. I’ll need the square shovel to shave down the sides, making room for the box, and the big shovel to carry out the loosened dirt.
The sharp shovel cuts through the tree roots, and I feel every blow and break. The roots, sheathed in red, scream a painful mess of color into the soil. I don’t know which tree I’ve severed, lilac, elm or fir, but I know how it feels.
We called Snowball the Last Cat Standing. He lived the longest of the three and a full year from the time of the first cat’s death. Spot, the first, died traumatically, under the bed. He died that way because I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to arrange a peaceful death for him and I didn’t know how to cross that bridge into the inevitable march into the loss of my three beloved feline companions.
After Dave died, the cats were what remained of my family. The loss of a husband means the loss of an intimate world, the world that remains in the house when night falls and the doors are all closed. It means the loss of a haven because the house fills with ghosts. Every object is a memory and the gap between what was and what is hovers over the home like a storm cloud.
The cats filled the gap. Dave was gone, but they remained through all the transition and trauma.
Without them, I am on my own. My link to the safety and pleasure of that time in my life is gone. New cats prance around the house and sleep in the bed. They are adorable and comforting, but rootless, strangers with no tie to the past.
I knew this leg of the journey was coming. For months I had eyed the tiny graveyard with dread, knowing someday soon a third and final grave would be needed. And then, expected but almost without warning, that time came.
Somehow, it’s especially hard to lose Snowball. I rescued him 16 years ago in a parking lot, where he was trying to eat a potato pancake. He’s never tried to eat one since and I know he was hungry. I had waited a long time with him that day, uncertain, reluctant to leave him. A shy cat, he eventually chose to trust me enough to jump into my car and let me take him home.
I’ve taken that trust seriously and took him to the vet because he seemed to be having trouble breathing. I had promised him I wouldn’t let him suffocate like Spot did. Unlike Spot, I wouldn’t let him down.
I can’t shake the memory of him trustingly walking towards me that morning, slowly on his arthritic legs, as I sat on the bench in the graveyard where I’d buried the others.
Despite wanting desperately to spare myself the journey, somehow I didn’t let him down. We had a nice morning, waiting for the vet’s office to open. We sat together outside in the coolness of the morning air. I petted him. I talked to him. He looked at me, straight in the eyes, as if he knew too, and at 8:15 AM, he let me put him in the carrier.
When Dave was dying, part of the ritual asked me to forgive him for everything I might need to forgive him for. Now I need the dead to come back for a minute and say, “Hey. It’s okay. You did the best you could for us. You even buried us with your own hands. We’re alright. It’s okay to let us be where we are. It’s alright for you to focus on the living.”
But I’m afraid of ghosts and they don’t come. I dig the graves, hold the funerals, write the memorial essays and do whatever I can to honor them. Once someone is gone, all you can do is honor the memory, straddling the gap between the living and the dead. Every homecoming feels like a head on collision when I remember again that Snowball isn’t here.
A homestead cat deserves a homestead burial, with a grave full of my tears and sweat and a favorite toy showing how much we loved him. I wish I could have dug Dave’s grave too. As always, I dig all afternoon, burying the body by nightfall, wishing I could go too. But I can’t. It’s not my time. I don’t have a ticket for that trip and no matter how left out of my family I feel, I can’t get one until it’s my turn.
Graphic credit: By Bonnie Simon, KittySnails with Snowball and Kitty