I was avoiding going home.
I had to leave the office at three in order to take care of some business on the main campus. I drove out there, parked in the parking lot of Borders so that I wouldn’t have to pay the six dollars parking fee in one of the campus parking lots, and walked. It took fifteen minutes to walk to the office where I had to take care of my business. Then I walked back, went into Borders, and bought three books that I had been thinking about all day. I didn’t need any new books, of course. Jennifer and I had just spent the weekend moving about a hundred books and two bookcases from the living room downstairs to the spare room upstairs, the room that will eventually become our library. We had spoken over the weekend about the fact that we have close to three thousand books, many of which we should probably get rid of, but I have a hard time letting go of anything. Books included, even if I’ve never read them and probably never will.
I bought the books anyway. I wanted to browse more but I had promised Jennifer I’d get home before her so that I could start digging the hole to bury Rebecca.
I took the back roads home, because they’re more relaxing than the highway.
Why have I been crying about this? I’m not sure. Rebecca was Jennifer’s cat, after all, and had been part of Jennifer’s life eleven years before I showed up. Rebecca used to sit on the back of our couch where we were sitting, feet folded under her, eight pounds of cat, glaring holes into the back of my head with her sharp green eyes. Sometimes I’d pick her up in one hand and hold her above my head, with her feet and her tail dangling, and she’d look around the room, curious about what else might be happening that she couldn’t see from all of two feet lower down. She was the only cat I could do that with; none of the other cats would put up with that sort of indignity. Either that, or they’re just too heavy.
I never found the knack of carrying Rebecca, though. Jennifer could pick her up and carry her around for quite awhile, but I never did it right; I’d pick her up and she’d start to squirm and wiggle around, and if I didn’t put her down — carefully, of course — I was in serious danger of being scratched.
I thought about these things driving home. I wondered if I should put away her water bowl by the sink when I got home so that Jennifer wouldn’t come across it later on. Immediately, though, I forgot the idea.
Pulling into our driveway and opening the garage door, I thought that perhaps Jennifer was making a joke. She’s not given to practical jokes, especially not tasteless ones like this one, but for a moment I found myself desperately hoping that it were true. Of course it wasn’t.
I parked my car in the garage, left my briefcase and my workout bag and the three new books from Borders on the passenger seat, and got out. I stopped long enough to grab the shovel before going through the house to the back yard with the flower bed where we had decided to bury Rebecca. We had chosen the flower bed because Rebecca had loved rolling in the dirt, and it’s right next to the grass that she loved to munch on during the very few times that she went outside. On a more practical level, though, the dirt in the flower bed is softer and much easier to dig in than the dirt anywhere else in the back yard.
To get to the back yard, we have to go through the kitchen. In the kitchen is the freezer where Jennifer had put Rebecca in the morning, in a cardboard box. I didn’t want to look at it, but I had to, just to know how big I had to dig the hole. I opened the freezer door, and saw the box on the shelf under the ice cube trays.
My God, she’s so small, I thought. The box was barely larger than a Kleenex box. I lifted it; it was about the same weight as the cat that I had used to dangle over my head. I opened the lid just a little, and saw the tuft of a scraggly tortoiseshell ear. I hurriedly closed the box and put it back into the freezer.
At work during the day, I’d talked to a couple of people about the specifics of burying pets. I’d never buried one before, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I don’t know what I could have been missing, though. I think I just wanted reassurance that I could do it right.
The flower bed in the back yard is a raised one that Jennifer and I had made about a year ago, lugging three tons of rocks for the wall and five tons of dirt for the filler, stone by stone, shovelful by shovelful. There’s a big empty spot near the edge where the flowers had never taken hold, and Jennifer and I had decided that this would be the best place for Rebecca. I started to dig, going by my memory of how big the box was.
At some point in my childhood I must have picked up the notion that when a loved one dies, they’re still there somehow, cold and dark and alone and confused. I know it’s stupid, but there it is. And it still seems to me that when burying a pet, they should be buried with a favorite toy or something like that to offer them some comfort: a favorite towel, a blanket, or something that smelled like one of us. Jennifer and I had talked about this, and had decided that we’d bury Rebecca with a twisty tie, or the plastic ring from a milk jug. Those were the only toys Rebecca would ever play with (though God forbid anyone catch her playing; if she was seen, she’d stop immediately and walk away from the toy as if mortally embarrassed to have been caught playing).
Halfway through the digging, I went inside to take off my sandals and put on my athletic shoes, which would make the digging easier. Jennifer came home while I was changing shoes. We talked for a little bit, then she went to the freezer and took out the box with the cat in it. She opened the lid and gave Rebecca one last stroke on her head. Then we went outside together and I started digging again.
“Is it going to be big enough?” Jennifer asked me.
“Yeah,” I replied. “If it isn’t, I don’t mind digging a bit more.”
Jennifer weeded the flower bed while I finished digging the hole. The fill dirt is about two feet deep; beneath that is the hard, nearly inpenetrable soil that we had built the flower bed on top of. I told Jennifer that the hole was done, and waited there while she went inside and got Rebecca. I asked her if she’d put any twisty ties or milk jug rings in the box; she said she hadn’t been able to find any.
I scraped a bit with the head of the shovel to make sure the bottom of the hole was flat, and we slowly lowered Rebecca into it. Then we started to bury her, and that was when I couldn’t keep in the grief any more. I could either hold back the tears, or I could bury the cat. I couldn’t do both at once. So I put the dirt on top of her and I cried. We put no marker on her grave; we’ll always remember where she is.
When we were done and I had finished tamping down the dirt with the flat of the shovel, the dirt looked like nothing had changed. We had done a good job. I thought briefly about watering the spot, just to help settle the dirt down a little more, but that part of me which is still hanging on to the image of the lost, lonely, and confused animal in the dark hole didn’t want her to get wet. Not now. Rebecca hates to get wet.
Hated. Past tense.
We went back inside and fussed around in the kitchen. Jennifer saw Rebecca’s water bowl by the sink, the one I’d thought about putting away but then forgotten to. We both started crying again. The other cats kept their distance.
Jennifer went to bed early, but I stayed up late, writing and reading and watching television and trying not to think about the cat that we had just buried. I laughed at Family Guy and Futurama on the Cartoon network, puzzled over the first chapter of the novel I’m currently reading, tried to concentrate on the short story I’m working on.
At midnight I finally went to bed. My thoughts always storm around in my head between the time my head hits the pillow and the time I fall asleep, and I tried to focus them on my short story. I couldn’t. I kept thinking about Rebecca and the other cats, and the fact that we’re going to have to do this at least another six times in the coming years.
I couldn’t handle it, and I found myself crying softly again.
I have a hard time letting go.