Cats in the Gap (A Memorial Essay)

Rituals of Death

Jul 31, 2012 by

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

About the Author

Bonnie Simon Has Written 35 Articles For Us!

I am an urban homesteader in Colorado Springs, CO where I raise chickens, make my own yogurt and am learning to grow some food, all within sight of downtown in a 1950s era neighborhood. I am starting a small business designed to fill the gap between local farms and local dinner tables.
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  1. We aren’t crazy at all. Somehow we’ve gotten the idea that they are “just cats” or “just dogs”, as if the role they play in our lives shouldn’t mean anything.

    Thank you for commenting. I like to know there are others who know what this feels like. I’m not alone in this boat.

  2. Cobacrtr

    Thank you….I was a few days shy of 16 when my mother died after a year’s battle against cancer. That first summer with just my dad and I, I brought home an adorable Golden Retriever puppy I named, Tonka (“Dances W/Wolves” had just come out!). Training her, walking her and all the puppy things, kept me sane that first long summer and for all the tough times that followed the death of my mom. 12 years later, just as I finished my very first day as a traffic reporter, I came home to find Tonka collapsed on our landing, barely breathing. I drug all 80lbs of her to car by myself. 2 more days and $1200 later, I had to make the hardest decision of my life. She had a blockage, wasn’t getting better and I at 25, I barely had enough money for me to see the doctor, let alone try a surgery she wasn’t likely to survive. All of a sudden, my furry, blonde lifeline was gone and the world was a scarier place for it. 20 years have passed and I still have not been able to spread her ashes. Other much loved dogs have come and gone, but the loss Tonka remains one of the toughest for all she represented for me. Thank you for reminding me that we aren’t crazy for appreciating what our animals bring to our lives and for aching over the loss.

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