Tag Archives: Childhood

My Apologies to a Cat, God Rest His Soul

First of all, I never meant this story to be a blog post.  I’ve been trying for a few years–to no avail–to write a serious literary essay about this.  The trouble is that the odd mixture of hilarity, sadness, and just plain weird has made this difficult.  Now the time has come to admit that I’ve failed.  I’ve never particularly liked people who write about their cats or talk too much about their cats or–God help us all–carry around pictures of their cats.  It’s always struck me as somehow sad, as though this person has so little human interaction in their life that every time their cat licks its ass, it becomes a noteworthy occasion.  That said, I have trekked deep into the terrain of hypocrisy.  This is a cat story.

I wasn’t aware until one o’clock in the morning, on a summer night after the Animal Emergency Room veterinarian diagnosed Chang with terminal feline leukemia that there was such a thing as “kitty coffin.”  It’s not as cute as you would think.  Imagine a heavy, corrugated cardboard box, sporting the caption KITTY COFFIN, but also having a noticeable lack of pictures on it.  It was even shaped like a coffin, sort of.  For this, you pay an extra seventy bucks, plus the cost of euthanizing your pet, and, of course, the mandatory forty dollar fee per office visit.  I know this because while my stepfather stood in the parking lot of the clinic, smoking a cigarette and comforting my mother, I paid the veterinarian an amount of money that probably could’ve fed the cat for a year.

I did not want the kitty coffin.  Though I don’t consider myself to be especially miserly, there seemed something wasteful about it–not to mention tacky and unnecessarily morbid.  To me, the proper way to commit Chang’s body to the earth was wrapped in a burlap sack and buried in a section of the backyard where I planned to plant some nice perennials the following year.  My mother, however,  was heartbroken over the lost of this cat, and so I relented.  I even held the thing in my lap on the car ride back home.

Like dogs, all cats go to Heaven–except this guy, he’s fucking evil

Chang was a Siamese-Himalayan mix of which my mother was particularly fond; she’d had him since he was a kitten, and it was not uncommon for her to refer to this cat as her fifth child–possibly her favorite child.  After all, she never had to worry about the cat bringing home bad grades from school or getting caught smoking pot behind the neighbor’s garage.  If the cat killed a bird, it wasn’t that he was a bad cat–it was his nature.  Chang passed away the better part of a decade ago, but I still think about him from time to time, not because of the life he led, but because of the events that transpired after his death.

To some degree, I will always hold my aunt responsible for the idea of taking Chang’s paw prints before burying him.  It was her suggestion that by pressing the Chang’s paws into wet clay and letting the clay harden, my mother would have  a momento by which to remember him always.  As my mother was both artsy and sentimental, I suppose it appealed to her imagination to have a pressing of the cat’s paws hanging on the wall in the living room, somewhere between my baby pictures and the wedding photos.  You have to understand that in my family, it is still common–even in the 21st Century–for family members to take photographs of dead relatives in their funeral caskets.  These photographs are kept in the family photo albums and have, on more than one occasion, traumatized a child, who, sitting on a parent’s knee, found themselves unexpectedly face-to-face with a deceased grandmother.  “Her makeup turned out really nice, didn’t it?” the parent might say, and the child would feel a lingering ache in their chest as, inside, they died a little.  The practice, which I find  both morbid and distasteful, has led to my admonition that I intend to be buried naked from the waist down.

Remember: Grandma will always be watching over you–especially when she comes back as a vampire!

The problem with taking Chang’s paw print was that, in doing so, there was an unspoken finality in the act.  My mother would be admitting that her beloved pet was truly gone.  After purchasing the clay from a craft supply store, this was something that my mother was unable to accept.  Wrapped in a blanket, Chang’s body laid on a workbench in our basement, waiting to be printed like a common criminal, and my mother hesitated.  She procrastinated for a day, trying to gain her nerve.  And then another day.  And another.  Three weeks later, Chang’s body still resided on the workbench, a deformed and bloated state of his former self.  Fluids had begun to seep from the body.  My family begged my mother to make her peace and to allow us to finally put Chang’s body to rest.

On the day that we finally buried him, my mother went into the basement with block of clay.  She was the only one of us who did not gag from the smell, as though her love for the cat shielded her from such things.  She took his paw, which was curled to his chest, and gently pulled, but to no avail.  In the three weeks that he laid in our basement, Chang had stiffened into a furry mannequin.  The body had cooled to touch, and it was impossible to tell that he’d ever be alive.  My mother pulled harder at his paw, desperate for a single print.  There was an audible snap as the leg broke, and my mother recoiled.  Sickened, she dropped the clay and asked us to please hurry up and bury the damn thing.

My stepfather and I buried Chang on a hill in the backyard, in a spot right outside the kitchen window–unfortunately nowhere near where I had had any intention of planting a garden.  I tried to hold the Kitty Coffin in a seemingly dignified manner as my stepfather dug the hole.  With a bad back and a cigarette habit, he was ill-equipped for the occupation of grave digging, and was soon struggling and out of breath.  I offered to dig for a while, but he persisted stubbornly.  Finally, he snatched the Kitty Coffin from my hands and stuffed it into the hole, but the grave was too small to accomodate the casket.  Unfazed, my stepfather, a heavy man, stepped on the coffin, pushing it into the ground with his foot.  The box collapsed and we could hear the crunch of the cat within.  I nearly laughed and vomited at the same time and, from the kitchen window, my mother called out, asking if all was well.  My stepfather didn’t respond.

In addition to the clay with which to take Chang’s paw prints, my mother had purchased a sheet metal cut-out of a cat to use as a grave marker.  For the rest of the time that I lived in that house, when looking out through kitchen window at night, the silhouette of the grave marker in the moonlight created the illusion of the cat digging its way out of its grave, intent on seeking some horrible revenge.  My stepfather stabbed the marker into the ground and began feverishly shoveling dirt into the grave.  Again, my mother called from the window, asking if everything was alright.  For reasons that I never understood, I began to sing.  I had a pleasant tenor then, and in that moment I sang out the words to Swing Low, Sweet Chariot for all I was worth.

“You’ve always had such a pretty voice, Douglas,” my mother called from the open window, and she listened and hummed along to that gospel tune, secure in knowing that all things work out in their appointed time.

Estrogen

I was raised in a home with seven women, all of us living together in my grandmother’s house.  I’m talking about two sisters, a foster child, a cousin, an aunt, a mother, and a grandmother, all co-existing in a three-bedroom millhouse with only one bathroom.  Obviously, there was some bed-sharing going on and the concept of privacy was about as strange as a mosh-pit at a Kenny G concert.  On the boy’s team, there was my father and me, drowning in an ocean of estrogen.  The odds were against us from the start.

Now, every year, quite literally, dozens of women from my family gather together for Christmas and Thanksgiving and wonder why, at twenty-five years old, I’m not married, with a gaggle of children running around.  The answer is simple.  I’m terrified of women.  I’m not saying that these women treated me badly for being a boy; they treated me like a little prince.  But any guy who has ever wished that he had seven women that treat him like a god has never taken into consideration that God has never really had all that much say in how Man worships Him to begin with.

Unfortunately, I can still remember the first time that I realized that there was something unnatural about living with this many women.  I was potty training at the time, which I’m sure is traumatic enough for anyone.  My mother believed with all her heart that a child learning the proper way to take a dump was a family moment—not to mention a Kodak one.  In the evenings, when everyone had gotten home from work or school, she would place the potty in the center of the living room—where everyone was sure to have an unobstructed view of my little, naked baby ass—and she would demand that I sit on the godforsaken thing and go poo.  Child abuse laws in those days weren’t nearly as effective as they are now.

I learned how to take a crap with an audience of females cooing and pointing and making comments like “Aww, look at his little thingie!”  This is the sort of thing that can cause lifetime problems with erectile dysfunction.  At the time, my father was sitting in the corner of the living room, in his favorite rocking chair, his head leaned back, staring up at the ceiling as though willing the sky to open up and swallow him whole.  Through the course of middle and high school, when showering after gym, I would be struck by the horrible mental image of someone thrusting a finger at me and proclaiming “Aww, look at his little thingie!”  And I’d think to myself, Is this what sex is going to be like? Years later, my father and I would sit on the front porch of his house, talking and enjoying a cold beer in the scorching summer sun, and I would remind him of the incident.  My father would set his beer on the ground, lean over and embrace me, and say “God help me, I’m sorry, son.”

Female number seven, my Aunt Lori, moved in when I was five years old.  She had just gone through a particularly nasty divorce and my grandmother was never one to turn away a family member in need.  After her failed marriage, Lori developed an obsession with children and, more than anything, she wanted a little girl.  You would think that, between my two younger sisters, she would have her choice of little girls to play with.  But, this wasn’t the case.  One night, when my father wasn’t around to stop her, she started out by painting my fingernails a deep purple color.  “Isn’t that so pretty?” she asked.  I don’t know about pretty, but I thought it was pretty cool.  It made me look like I had monster hands, just like on TV.  So, I went along with it.  Before long, she had me in full make-up and wearing the little, white flower-girl dress that my cousin had worn to her wedding.

“Oh my gawd!  You look like a little doll,” Lori shrieked as she admired her handiwork.  She had taken me into the bathroom to stand in front of the full-length mirror on the back of the door.  I was a little offended at that point.  After all, I was a boy, and boys don’t play with dolls.

“Well, what do think?” she asked.

My first reaction was to start crying, but I stood there for a moment, studying my appearance.  I thought I looked, well, sort of pretty.  My dad didn’t think so.  When he came in and caught a glimpse of me, he wore a pained expression as though he had just received a swift kick in the testicles.  That night, the two of us stood under the glare of the sixty watt light bulb in the bathroom while my father scrubbed my face with a rough cotton rag and a bottle of Dawn dish detergent.

“Damn women gonna try to take your balls of next,” he muttered.

“Daddy, are you mad at me,” I asked.

My father gave me a tired smile and wiped his own face with the rag, leaving a streak of make-up across his forehead.

“Naw…you’re still my little man.”

By the time I was six years old, my parents had divorced.  My father moved out of the house and I was left alone to the devices of a flock of women who seemed to be turning synchronized menstrual cycles into an Olympic sport.  This is not an exaggeration—there was a marked calendar on the bathroom wall over the toilet tank.  Just above the economy-sized box of tampons.

It’s a strange thing for a six-year-old boy to discover tampons.  Tampons were an unholy relic, mysterious in design, serving functions of which I knew not.  I just knew it was a lot of fun to jam the tampons into the water faucet of the bathroom sink and to see how long it took for the pressure to build up enough to shoot the thing out like an unlikely missile.  I would stand over the sink, feeling like the captain of a submarine, saying, “Ai-ight, gentlemen, you may fire at will.  One time, my cousin, Dana, walked in and saw this.  She started throwing tampons at me, chanting “Dougie’s gotta vagina!”

“I do not!” I shouted.  I didn’t know what that was, but damned if I had one.

Hearing the noise and figuring that Dana and I were fighting again, my grandmother came striding into the bathroom, brandishing her favorite weapon: the flyswatter.

“What in the world is going on in here,” she demanded.

“Doug’s playing with tampons,” Dana informed her gleefully.

My grandmother gave me a strange look.  Apparently, this is not what she had expected to hear.  I still had one of the sodden wads of cotton clenched in my fist.  I didn’t know what else to do, so I held the soaked sanitary product out to her.

“I’m sorry, mamaw.  I think it’s broken now.” I said.

Terrified, I braced myself for a butt-whipping that never came.  My grandmother grunted, then snickered, and finally broke out laughing until tears were poring down her face.

“Ah, Lord,” she said, wiping her face with the back of her hand.  “I love you, but you’re full of shit, sometimes,”

I swear I haven’t played with a tampon since.

It was around the time my mother remarried that people in our house started going their own separate ways, forming their own sub-families.  With my mother’s marriage came a stepfather and a stepbrother.  I like to think that our combined masculine powers repelled them like vampires shying away from a crucifix, but I’m probably deluding myself.  After we had parted ways, I started to miss the ladies.  Not the dresses, but the familiarity that comes with so many people living in close-quarters.  At Christmas and Thanksgiving, we reminisce and say, “Good times, good times” and, when they hound me about marriage and children, I tease them, telling them that living with so much estrogen had probably made me sterile.  But, sometimes, I do think about what it would be like to have a son of my own, to tell him to honor these women that love him so much.  I wonder what it would be like to hold him against my chest, to gaze into eyes that are a reflection of my own, and to say, “Aww, look at his little thingie!”