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Friday, March 06, 2015

Requiem for Three Cats

The three white, plastic boxes were nestled into a larger brown, cardboard box labeled “office” with a black Sharpie and stacked among hundreds of other cartons in a moving van, along with more than two decades worth of furniture, household goods, and memories. Why, I wondered, was I moving the ashes of three dead cats halfway across the country?

DaisyBelle
Riley, Mose and DaisyBelle left us one by one over a span of three years. I always thought we’d gather the kids and ceremoniously scatter their ashes beneath the branches of a towering evergreen just beyond the backyard fence. We’d say a few somber yet loving words, recall their idiosyncrasies, and retell the stories of how our feline companions first came into our home. 

But life intervened. It seemed as if the family was rarely all together anymore and, although I thought about it frequently, I never quite planned the memorial service. We moved West and the ashes of three Kansas cats sat in a closet in Los Angeles for two more years.

Inspiration
One afternoon, my husband and I were hiking with the dog on a trail overlooking the Pacific Ocean high in the Santa Monica Mountains. We came upon a crude but touching memorial—a wooden cross, some beads and a framed picture of a cat. We vowed to return to this place and finally lay our cat clan to rest. So what if they’d never even imagined the ocean, much less seen it? It was full of fish, wasn’t it? Surely that would make for a heavenly feline resting place.

After all, DaisyBelle would emerge from a hiding place God knows where the moment I so much as removed a can of tuna from the pantry. How did she know when I hadn’t even opened it yet? Some kind of tuna telepathy or Starkist sonar?

She was the first to come and the last to go, finally cashing it in at 21. Adopted from the shelter on Valentine’s Day when our kids were 4 and 8, DaisyBelle was a calico who could be (like many of us girls) alternately bitchy and sweet. She’d been dumped at the shelter with a litter of kittens; once they were weaned, DaisyBelle was spayed.

She wasn’t quite finished with her maternal duties, however. On the day of her surgery, the shelter took in a litter of newborns whose mother had been run over by a car. DaisyBelle nursed those kittens as if they were her own, a story that so endeared her to us that we dubbed her the “La Leche Kitty” and forgave her quirks—like her hissy fits and refusal to embrace the dog and the boy cats who came later… and her habit of decapitating the birds, chipmunks and baby bunnies she left at the door… and her passive-aggressive habit of leaving the most odiferous turds in the master bath litter like clockwork as my husband and I got ready for bed.

Riley
Riley was the favorite. An orange and white purrmeister with the personality of a Labrador Retriever, he came when called, fraternized with the dog, and ate corn on the cob. He was a stray, rescued off the street by my friend Kris. Riley didn’t hunt and never met a stranger. He once entered a home at the end of our cul-de-sac through an open garage door and walked downstairs into a basement office. When the animal control officer went door-to-door on our block, Riley crossed the street and introduced himself, his collar bearing a tag with his name and our phone number but, regrettably, no city license. Busted! He was 11 when he died after a mysterious and incurable illness. Heartbroken, we carried him to the vet in a blue and green striped beach towel and loved him to the end, struck once more—as I had been when my dad died and when we had to put down a pony—at the emptiness of a body, how a living creature can be practically unrecognizable once the spirit has moved on.

Mose
Not quite a year later, Mose moved in. We named him after Mose Schrute, the beet farmer and cousin of The Office’s Dwight Schrute, but just as often simply called him Big Kitty. He was a fluffy bruiser of a cat that my mom insisted was a Maine Coon, although there were no papers to prove it. She’d inherited him from a neighbor and changed his name from Thumper to Liam. We took him in when she could no longer care for him and he made himself right at home, sleeping on the dog’s bed, demanding we run the bathroom faucet for him to get a drink, and breaching the so-called pet proof screen door into the back yard. He was an expert hunter although, unlike DaisyBelle, he kept his prey intact, depositing lifeless field mice at the door each day. He began to venture outside the yard, which proved to be his undoing because Mose had no street smarts. He dashed into the road one day meeting his demise courtesy of a U.S. Postal Service truck.

Closure may be overrated, but ritual gives me comfort. It gnawed at me that the cats’ ashes were sitting in a closet... that I’d dragged them 1,600 miles... that I’d never made time to properly inter them in the place where they’d been loved, where they hunted, where they lived their last days.

RIP, DaisyBelle, Riley and Mose. 
Seeing that kitty memorial on our hike had inspired me. So on a hot summer day, while our son was visiting from Chicago, we hit the trail. We brought along a backpack; inside were a spade, a framed photo, Riley’s red plaid collar, a brass Celtic cross, and three white, plastic, ash-filled boxes.  

Hiking until we found the perfect spot, we marked out our shrine with a circle of rocks and dug a hole. There were a few tears shed (mine) as we poured the fine, pale, sandy remains of our feline companions into the ground, but mostly we laughed as we fondly remembered their very best selves and the joy they had brought us.


We have visited our makeshift memorial several times since, always marveling that it has remained undisturbed. And despite having been co-mingled with her male nemeses, we’re pretty sure DaisyBelle would approve of her final resting place. How could she not love a place called Tuna Canyon?