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.
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.
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.