Cats, poems, Viking funerals

All unsuspecting, I was reading the Sunday paper in the sunny nook by our back door, looking out occasionally to admire the sky’s brilliant blue. Our cat, Flashlight, howled to be let in, but when you admit her she howls to go out again immediately, so I stalled and she wandered off. I should have been reading a hundred-plus job applications, having foolishly volunteered to head the department’s search committee, so the article about Lee Harvey Oswald absorbed me with improbable intensity.

The ordinary murmur of a car passing, then a thump, and I looked up to see a dark SUV speeding off. Suddenly I was on my feet, yelling for Chris. I’m not sure how, but he reached Flashlight before I did. I must have slowed down when I came close; she looked bad. He pulled a blanket from our station wagon and scooped her up. I grabbed keys and phone, told the kids what was happening, and hopped behind the steering wheel, Chris scooting awkwardly into the back seat with his arms full. I was sobbing and trying to drive and scan the phone book for the vet’s address at the same time, which even I began to realize was not smart, so I pulled over only two blocks from the house and said, “I don’t know where to go, Chris. It’s Sunday. Everywhere will be closed.” I called the vet to see what advice their phone message gave about emergencies. As I was writing down the number, he said, “She’s dead.” It had been fewer than five minutes.

In most ways, Chris and I respond differently to crises. He rushes in to be the grown-up, for one thing, and horror-struck, I let him. Today we both cried at the shock and the pity of it, but guilt kept twisting tears out of me, and for him it was anger at that driver who just kept going. Despite the differences, though, both of us began working frenetically. He covered up the worst injuries and invited the kids to pet her and say goodbye. He then dug a hole in the fiercely resistant red Virginia clay, not far from where we buried our old cat ten years ago. I put away Flashlight’s food and water bowls, disposed of the stained blanket, made lunch for the kids. He delivered a report to the police while I vacuumed like a demon. We each kept stopping to say how strange, how awful, and to see if the children wanted to talk or be hugged. Only an hour had passed.

I started an elaborate dinner of barbecued ribs, October beans, broccoli rabe, and biscuits. He tried to finish his emails and call his mom and then decided a run was a better idea: what a warm golden day, with a high breeze. I read five applications and thought all the candidates seemed like wonderful people, most not suited for the position but surely they deserve a chance…then abandoned Interfolio, melted chocolate chips into almond butter, and spread the salty goo on chunks of banana. And now, of course, I’m writing, because books, food, and putting sentences together are my main consolation for any hurt.

I don’t want poetry today. I’ve never yet wanted to read a poem at a funeral, though there are distinctly unpoetic things I’ve wanted to say, sometimes. Poems bring order to pain, and who wants tidiness just then, in the middle of those first, blurry minutes and hours and days? On the other hand, isn’t that why I started cleaning house, to make order through fidgety effort? Or is effort itself the key, because it prevents thinking?

Last night, Chris, my son, and I went to see Thor 2, which is more entertaining than the reviews would have you believe, although the plotting is horrendous.  I leaned over in the middle of a Viking funeral and whispered, “I’ve changed my mind. That’s the ceremony I want. Flaming ships.” On the way home, we reminisced about my slightly demented response to my father’s death. He had a brief and wildly inappropriate military send-off and while alternate closure seemed in order, there wasn’t an obvious religious solution, given his impiety and ours. So I looked into Norse ritual, drawing on his Swedish heritage, and gave Chris and the kids some colored paper and age-appropriate beverages. Each of us wrote messages to my father and folded the bright squares into boats. Finally, we gathered solemnly around the toilet, lit the little ships on fire, and set them on the water. When they dissolved into black ash, I flushed.

That felt ridiculous, and satisfying, and right. Of course, it wasn’t “closure.” I dream about my dad from time to time and continue to write about him. Each time I fold a line into a stanza, though, I’ve made something out of badness. I wish there weren’t such a large supply of badness in the world, but there it is. My mother called as I was drafting this with more news of illness and injury. There’s infinitely worse stuff out there, beyond the small pool of light my kitchen casts into November darkness. We’ll always have some grief to usher out to sea.

Poor Flashlight, wherever she is. May I have more patience with everyone’s craziness from here on in.  We all deserve more kindness.

7 responses to “Cats, poems, Viking funerals”

  1. Hard to “like” this post, especially having been through this with two different cats during the past 25 years. Give some kindness to yourself, Lesley. Keep folding lines into stanzas, and thanks for this post.


  2. Yes, saying ‘like’ is for your writing, not for Flashlight’s demise or your pain today. I am so sorry. I’d love to talk sometime in more detail about your Viking ceremony. I did a similar thing with a piece of beach glass when we spread my mother’s ashes at sea.


  3. It’s such a hard thing–I can’t even start to say how hard. Our cat died one November, too, and this just always seems to me like the month for new grief. Please take care of yourself, Lesley. Do whatever works. Sending love to you and hopes for peace and healing. I’m sure Flashlight knew you all loved her.


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