*Art by Elizabeth Cassidy
Burying the Cat
by Teresa Sutton
I’m terrible with numbers. Through school I’m a mostly straight A student, even in mathematics, but with years separating the daily repetitions that stuck in my brain, numbers slip away from me. A dozen or so years ago, I realize I keep reversing numbers. When paying my property taxes, I catch myself writing $2,345.32 instead of $2,435.32, reversing the center digits 3-4. Same goes for the cable bill: $68.27 becomes $68.72. Being awful at numbers doesn’t mean I perform subtraction incorrectly, it means I often sequence numbers wrongly, more so when I’m tired. Correction: I’m terrible with number order.
I have an image of my third grade teacher, a kind nun, stored in my mind: she is leaning over me at my desk in the back of the room due to my last name starting with an “S,” near the end of any alphabetical list of surnames. I can hear her quietly whispering to me that I should slow down and look back and forth between the numbers I’m copying and the ones I’m writing to make sure they’re in the right order. She watches me work on the next three problems, prompting me, nodding yes, encouraging me. Dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia and other dys- words aren’t the jargon of the day. No one ever slaps a label on me. No one even mentions it again in my remaining nine years in Catholic school. I learn to catch my own mistakes. The early secular cure, the nun’s gentle whisper to attend to transpositions, works.
The problem of number reversals seems to extend into other areas of my life. I envy people who can recall the past in order and place events in their proper position on a timeline. That’s not me. One of my closest friends growing up is that guy. If I’m having trouble recalling a name or an event, I call him up. He remembers everything.
I’m trying to tell someone a story about my dad. He’s gone. Alzheimer’s. Heart. A terrible death. The story is a good one. It’s about love, but it’s about burying one of our cats. All the cats I’ve owned in my 60 years float through my memories, fusing together and letting go. Dates are numbers that transpose in my brain. This reversal of order thing stymies me relentlessly.
I can’t pin down the timeline. I’m trying to tell the story of my dad and the cat, but I can’t even figure out which cat it is. Even though I’m not a math person, I start to guesstimate, to put the past in order, not an easy task for me. Stories are my past.
After dad’s passing Jan. 17, 2016, I find myself thinking about him often. The one story that bubbles to the surface is my image of him burying our family cat. He’s soaked in sweat. I am too. Though he’s a corporate vice president for Bank of NY, a man who wears meticulous suits and wingtips everyday, he’s in scruffy weekend clothes with holes. We’re digging a tremendously deep hole beside the house. He wants to stop digging when we reach two feet. I’m so distraught, that in spite of the profuse sweating on both of our parts, he agrees to dig down three more feet. The hole is so big that we have to climb inside of it to finish the last couple of feet. He does all of this with a silent understanding that this, this reckoning, this act of settling things, is something I need, desperately.
That’s the image. That’s the memory. When it happened can’t be right. I keep thinking it’s summer because of the sweat. I try to pin it down and I think: It’s Jackson. Has to be that summer before college when I had an internship at the local newspaper and the family went to Southampton for a week. But that can’t be right because I didn’t get Jackson, an adorable puff of orange tabby, until my first year of college.
Back to the kind nun. Slow down. Look carefully. Except with a timeline, there’s nowhere to look. It’s an invisible thing stubbornly waving in a gust of wind. Step one is comparing cats. Our first cat is Gee-Gee; he’s a tough outdoorsy guy, king of the neighborhood, and one day he simply never comes home. I know it can’t be Gee-Gee we’re burying. I shout his name from the porch, I search our block and nearby streets, I leave food out—his favorite (people tuna in a can), I knock on doors to ask if anyone has seen him. Nothing. I can rule out Gee-Gee. I don’t bury him. I don’t see him again. He never comes home.
I can also rule out Pookey. She’s the last cat my father has in the house. Dad’s alone when Pookey’s there. My mother’s gone by then, demonstrating the impossibility that Pookey is the correct answer. Pookey’s 21 years old when she dies at the vet’s office. She’s a spunky old girl, who never likes people much. In fact, when my daughter learns to talk and I teach her what sounds animals make, I ask her what sound does a cat make and she answers, “HISSSSSS!” True. Pookey’s prickly until she gets old and finally enjoys having her long, silky black fur petted.
So that leaves Jackson and Noah. It can’t be Jackson. But it also can’t be Noah. Here’s the problem. The cat is the variable in the story and so is the season. When I dig deep into my memory, try to differentiate, my mind is stuck on burying the cat the summer after high school. I have an internship at the local newspaper. I’m missing the family vacation for the first time in my life. This is four years before both of my brothers die of cardiomyopathy. In fact, no one is aware that Jeffrey and David have anything wrong with their hearts yet. My parents had rented a house in Southampton, right on the beautiful Long Island seashore. I’m home alone for the first time ever. I wake up in the morning and Jackson, our sweet ginger and white striped cat, is curled up on the carpet near the kitchen. I call him and he doesn’t respond. I’m scared. I start crying. He looks healthy, freshly groomed, and soft curled in ball the adorable way cats do, except he isn’t breathing. I’ve never seen a person or an animal dead before. I call my parents the old fashioned way: rotary dial. Cell phones aren’t around yet. I’m home alone. Scared. Crying. Later my dad walks in the front door. I’m curled up on the living room chair in the corner opposite the cat. I couldn’t bring myself to go near the poor little guy.
My dad checks him. “He’s dead.”
“We need a box. We have to bury him,” I say.
My father comes back with a cardboard box and my eyes bug out. I say, “No,” plainly and simply, horrified at the thought of a cardboard coffin. “We need a real box.”
Dad goes to his tool bench in the basement, an old upright piano cut in half with a board nailed across it to create a work surface. Dad’s workshop is filled with scrubbed out peanut butter jars filled with nails, screws, nuts, bolts sorted out by size and type in an ocean of jars. After he passes away, the worker from the 1-800-GOT JUNK company comments that he’s never seen anything so meticulously organized. He says in an admiring voice, as he opens up each individual jar and empties it into large trash can rapidly filling with scrap metal to be resold, that my dad must have been “the real deal.” I agree with him. Pieces of wood in all shapes and sizes line the walls. There are bits of copper pipes in buckets, fishing equipment on racks, dozens of power tools stored inside the boxes they came in when purchased stacked on shelving, and a bright red vice. It takes my dad less than half an hour to craft a cat size wooden coffin.
We go outside with Jackson inside the box swaddled in a soft towel, one of the good ones that my mom is later not pleased we used. We choose a spot close to the house and start digging. At two feet, my father, sweat running down his face, shirt sticking to him, sits back thinking we’re done. I shake my head holding back tears. I don’t have to argue. I simply state that we need a very deep hole that would ensure that anyone who might live in the house after us would not dig up poor Jackson’s coffin with a rototiller, if they wanted to garden here. And in the sweltering, blistering heat of the midday sun, we dig and we dig, my father silently checking in with me to determine if the hole is deep enough yet. We take turns standing in the hole when it’s too deep for the shovel to reach bottom and we dig from the inside. When we hit about five feet, I relent. It looks pretty deep. I’m almost swallowed by it. When I climb out of the hole and look down inside of it, it’s dark. It’s deep enough to protect Jackson. Dad lowers the box to the bottom. I cry, as he throws shovelfuls of dirt on top of the box. I cry, as I add more shovelfuls.
My daughter questions me and then corrects me when I tell her this story that I had tried telling a friend.
“I remember Jackson,” she says.
“Wait, how could you, if he dies before I went to college?”
Then I realize my mistake, but it doesn’t add up. I apply a bit of logic: it couldn’t have been Noah, no, because he dies the month before my brother dies and that’s during my senior year at college and it’s winter. The story of Noah’s death, I remember clearly. It’s a nightmare. It’s burned into by brain. My brother David is diagnosed with myocarditis and hospitalized Nov. 3, 1979, and later cardiomyopathy. He is in and out, mostly in, the hospital for the remaining four months of his life. Noah is David’s cat. He adopts him from the Humane Society and names him for the biblical Noah because he’s chosen to be saved. David is critically ill and no one is sure if he should even be told about the death of his cat. My parents consult the doctors and they don’t want him upset. His heart is failing. It could make things a lot worse. My brother is smart. He knows something is wrong and is upset that no one is telling him. After a few days, he’s told. It does get worse and then even worse than that a few weeks later when he’s put on an experimental drug as a human test subject and has a stroke and dies a few days after that.
I ask my son whether he ever met Jackson and he verifies what his sister says. Then I remember when I buy Jackson for $5.00 from a pet store in Albany, NY, where I’m a freshman in college. Clearly, Jackson didn’t die before I got to college, since I didn’t buy him yet and since my children aren’t born until 1984 and 1987. I do have an internship the summer before college and I do stay home alone, but neither of my brothers is sick yet. And Jackson isn’t the cat who dies. I check with my childhood friend with the steel trap memory. He confirms.
David goes into the hospital in November and dies in March. It’s winter. Noah’s funeral is in February. But the sweat in the story is real. I remember. The noon sun is real too. And wouldn’t the ground be frozen if it’s Noah who has died and we bury him in winter? Why would I have been home alone, waking up to an empty house, if it wasn’t summer? Since there are only the four cats, I can only deduce that it is Noah buried in the lovely, handcrafted wooden box five feet under in the backyard, though there is a margin of error in play.
Why am I alone in the house, an occurrence that’s extremely rare? Where are my parents when Noah dies? Where’s Jeff? My other brother, Jeff, comes down with the same illness: cardiomyopathy. They both have it, but the doctors don’t know yet that it’s genetic. No one before them has died of it, except maybe my mom’s dad. He dies at at 42 of something to do with the heart. Almost 40 years later I learn that they have a broken DMD gene. It’s Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy, a kind that attacks only the heart. It ruins the heart muscle and it’s incurable still. He’s hospitalized and diagnosed three weeks after David. He’s in and out of the hospital too. Jeff lives long enough for doctors to talk about a heart transplant, but he dies waiting for one since there are only three hospitals in the country that perform them in 1980.
I’m alone because my parents take turns spending every waking moment with my brothers. They divide their time, keep vigil night and day. I do this too, but not as often as my parents. I’m alone because my brothers are in two different hospitals and my parents are splitting their time between them. Neither Mom nor Dad ever recover. The hole needs to be deep for reasons I don’t care to remember. The cat is my first death and my brothers, ages 17 and 19, are close to their deaths. And my father’s supportive silence is powerful in a different way when I look back on it.
I don’t know about you, but the nature of my memory is that I store images of important moments. I tell the story of those moments, which makes them real. But they are free floating; they are nothing more than an approximation. A third grade nun could easily be a fourth grade nun. The truth is: there is a nun. She stands over me, just as I remember. I don’t recall her face, only her gentle voice. Analyzing further, sweat can transform a memory into the summer before college when my parents and brothers vacationed without me in Southampton. Summer makes more sense. Two cats blend into one. And who would want to connect the memory of burying the cat as an eerie foreshadowing of the death of two brothers? Memories don’t easily settle in the correct place on my timeline. I have to pin them to each other, cross associate events to make them flow, but it doesn’t solve anything. Even now they are transposing and affixing themselves to new spots on my timeline. Sometimes I catch my own mistakes; sometimes I have to make three phone calls.