Friday, September 23, 2022

Life and Death and Life, Pt. 1


Everyone should have to dig a grave.

This is Dolores. Dolores showed up on our doorstep one day and won over Twin One (which frankly wasn't a major achievement, as Twin One auto-melts around most animals). Twin One convinced the House Manager (aka my better half) to feed and water Dolores, as Dolores was both tiny and skinny. The House Manager, despite her toughness, has a soft spot for animals as well, so meals were rendered.

After a couple of weeks, Dolores kept trying to get into the house.

This is Lucy. Lucy was our only cat at the time. We got Lucy before she was finished weaning, so she's always been a little territorial and neurotic. Lucy was very skeptical of Dolores.

This is Jake. Jake gets along with everyone.

So Dolores is in the house, and everyone adapts quickly (except Lucy, but we were expecting that).

The neighbor informs us that Dolores used to belong to some renters a couple of doors down, but they left her behind when they moved. Somewhere along the way, he reaches out to them and tells them we're taking care of her. They then call us to arrange a time to pick her up. I inform them in no uncertain terms that if they cared about her, they never would have left her behind. She is now well cared for and quite content, so they don't need to arrange anything. Dolores will not be going anywhere. They don't put up much of an argument.

 Dolores seems to be taking to the new digs, but she likes the closet in my office, AKA "The Dog Room" (where Jake's crate stays), most of all. Then one day, there's some commotion in the closet:

Yeah, that's not a closet, but you get the idea. Six new additions. The twins are enthralled. Dolores is occupied and committed. Jake is fascinated. House Manager is hard at work making sure all the little ones are placed in quality homes. I just want my closet back.

You may notice in the family photo Dolores has something going on with her lip. More on that later.

Soon, House Manager has all of the kittens placed but one: the run. Twin Two loves the runt (at least in part because he was undersized at the time, as was she). One of the Twins takes to calling the runt Achilles because he has a grey heel (H/T to their excellent school for the Greek mythology reference). Achilles morphed into Heelies, and then eventually into Heels.

This is Heels.

Soon, Heels began to grow. He's a little crazy, vocal, and hyper. He has a lazy eye, and he's a little simple, but he's fun. He also loves his mother...sometimes to the point of overbearance. Actually, often to that point.

Heels gets REALLY big.

This is Heels in a typical cockamamee pose while Dolores is trying to rest. Five minutes peace, Heels; five minutes peace.

Eventually things settle into a rhythm. Even Lucy eventually comes around.

Sort of.

So everyone has an animal at first, but eventually they all start spending time with everyone.

Dolores, however, is constantly trying to go outside. At first, I think she's wild. Then I think she's trying to get some time away from Heels' constant oppression. The House Manager, in her infinite wisdom, tells me Dolores just needs the stimulation of being outside. So we let her go outside, and she lets us know when she's ready to come back in, either by perching on our bedroom window sill and telling us, or by showing up on the front porch at the end of the evening, responding to our calls in a canine manner (truth be told, responding in a superior manner compared to OUR resident canine).

I mentioned her lip before along with the first family photo. After the kids were weaned, we took her to the vet to end her child-bearing obligations. While we were there, the vet informed us that Dolores had what they called a "rat ulcer". The condition is common and requires a round of steroids. No big deal. 

Except the condition never really went away. If we stopped the steroids, the rodent ulcer would come right back. Sometimes we could reduce the dosage and things would stay okay, but flare-ups would come and the vet would tell us to step the dosage back up.

No one could really explain why she had the condition, but we had to hold her and give her a pill most nights. From that vantage point, she was like a little baby, but a little baby who somewhere along the way had broken some teeth, had an encounter with an absentee father who (judging by the size of Heels) was probably double her size, and who had survived an outside existence for some time before we ever met her. Yet she was so agreeable, so smart, and so intuitive. It wasn't that she was domesticated; it's that she was savvy. Dolores was, and had always been, a survivor.

That status notwithstanding, Dolores died this week.

Today, I dug Dolores a grave and buried her. She was the second pet I've buried since our family has been in its current form. The first was unexpected and frankly a blur in my memories. This one, however, will likely stay with me.

I loved that little cat. I'll miss her deeply. But that's not the point.

Like many people, I view life and death as a continuum. Maybe it's a circle. Maybe it's a Mobius strip. Maybe it's a linear progression that just continues beyond the bounds of time and reason. I don't know. Maybe I'll come up with something actually transcendent during meditation or a dream or a drunken conversation or hallucination or while taking a dump. Or not.

But when we bury something (or someone), literally or figuratively, we are affecting a change in status. We are saying, "this person/creature/situation can never be the same as it once was." We then move (in the case of burial, literally) the remains of what once was into a new location. In the ground. In the water. Scattered to the winds. In a container. Mixed with the elements. But gone from the state with which they were previously associated.

And we move them under OUR volition, not theirs. It's an assistance; a send-off; a transference. Some might even call it a new birth. At the very least, it's an evolution, because what they once were is no more. Burial ascribes a new meaning on a being or status, and it's highly individualized and contextual.

When we attend a memorial service, we do so for a number of reasons. To honor the dead. To pay respect to a life and its contents. To support the bereaved. To meet social expectation (although this reason has sadly seemed to wane in modern American society). To face our own mortality. And perhaps to reinforce our own ideas about what happens when we die.

To actually participate in a burial, though, is more. One physically transports the remains. In a physical burial, one opens a space in the earth and places the remains into the earth. In the Catholic tradition, the burial act is part of the Rite of Committal. The body is committed into the earth, and the essence of a being's existence is committed into the hands of the Creator. There's a reason why a buried body is "laid to rest". It's a change of state, and the last thing we can do for a loved one. It is a surrender to helplessness, and yet also a challenge to continue.

Confronting the nature of "goodbye" in both physical and emotional terms is hard. Brutally hard, in some cases. At the same time, it's a recognition of responsibility. We're charged, if only by the sense of appreciation we have for the meaning of a life and the impact that life made on us, with a final act of duty and service and devotion. We put our friends, our companions, our loved ones through the door. And then we close it. And then we continue, carrying that experience with us; making meaning out of a life and the act of saying goodbye.