Sunday, March 10, 2013

A (Cat) Funeral In the Rain [#52Weeks] (In the Category of Be Where You Are.)

My friend, Anne, was a cat purrson. (That is how we cat people spell it.) We had this in common from day one. Cats held (in my case hold) sway over our schedules, told us when to wake up and demonstrated all manner of reasons to nap. They acted as a bouncer, hissing at newcomers that didn’t pass muster, purring only with those who had sense enough to scratch ears and chin just right, sense enough to worship the cat. We both wrote poems about our cats. When the need to write took hold but all inspiration failed, for lack of muses, we wrote odes to our cats. Cats have owned me for my whole life, and I have always been really good staff to them, but I had nothing on Anne.

In Anne’s house, the door was always open. Or more correctly, the doors were always open, and I mean O P E N. And not just for the convenience of cats. Friends, family, thieves, any of us could access her house 24-7-365. Cats had free access to the back deck off of Anne’s study via a sliding glass door that stood 8” open at all times, regardless of the weather. Really, it was two blizzards before I convinced her that it was okay to shut the study door during a snowstorm, as the cats were far too intelligent to be out in that kind of weather in the first place. Never mind what the melting snow had already done to the carpet in that room.

Anne always had exactly three cats at any given time. When we first met in 1989, Anne lived in town in a neighborhood across the street from Virginia Tech’s student commuter parking lot. Edith, Edward, and baby Lillian, three gray and white domestic short hair tabby cats ran the house in town. Edward was older and passed away before Anne built the house in Ellett Valley. Anne and I fell out of touch during the move, although Anne had taken me to see the property shortly after she bought it. She could envision it all, the beautiful home that would be built around the tiny, four room shack that stood on the 7-acre tract of wooded hillside. I admit I had trouble seeing it.

We reconnected the following summer. I had not heard from her in weeks and I began to worry. I had left several messages that went unreturned. My last message went something like, “I hope you aren’t mad at me.” She called a week later, invited me over to the new house in the valley (it was stunning) and entrusted me with her darkest secrets (which I will keep) and the reason she had been out of touch.  (I’ll save that tale for another day.)

That afternoon at Anne’s kitchen table we cemented a relationship that would last twelve years in which we spoke or visited nearly every day. It’s also the day I met Marshall, the big black longhaired cat who had replaced Edward. Edith was now the lady of the house, baby Lillian had grown to an aloof adult who could only be bothered to say hello if you were eating a Wendy’s cheeseburger (which she would steal out of your hand…it got so bad Anne started buying a second burger to give to the cat so she could eat hers in peace).

Marshall was still a kitten when we met, but it was clear he was going to be enormous (paws the size of hockey pucks). Indeed, he finally attained 14 pounds, every bit of it muscle, and his shoulders stood nearly knee-high. He liked to greet visitors with a friendly head bonk on the shin, which, if you weren’t expecting it, carried enough impact to knock you over.  Marshall supervised Anne’s visitors, who were frequent. In addition to my daily stops after work, Anne also regularly received her friend and house builder, Michael, and any or all of the three tenants, college students (a brother and sister as well as the sister’s boyfriend) that rented the house next door, which Anne also owned and Michael had also rebuilt.

Friends and co-workers in the English dept. sometimes stopped by.  And there was the endless stream of college students who had figured out just exactly how cool Anne Cheney really was, outside of the English classroom and befriended her, a long list of “twenty-somethings” over the years that kept Anne invigorated and interested in contemporary music and popular culture, even if it was, as Anne would sometimes remark, somewhat bizarre to grow old in a town where more than half the population is always between the ages of 18 and 22.
Michael looking less than thrilled at another spontaneous house party.
The ebb and flow of these visitors was such that we became a group of friends, and we collectively called these visits tea parties although we were much more likely to be drinking Miller Light.  Some tea parties got out of hand, as drop-by visitors began to fill the kitchen (where we gathered in the early days) and became house parties. Anne would send someone out with her checkbook to buy more beer and pick up take-out Chinese food.  Marshall stood in a corner, keeping a stern eye on us all, ever mindful of the opportunity to score some spilled Moo Goo Gai Pan.

Years passed. Edith disappeared after living a very long life, and Louis kitten, a chatty Siamese, came to live with Anne. Marshall became the man of the house, giving the spunky new lad, Louis, a stern paw when required.  A few years later, Lillian, who lived to a ripe old age herself, died under a pine tree, where the neighbor found her. Anne brought tiny Lydia home the next week. Lydia preferred to sleep at the foot of Anne’s bed, a habit she maintained even after the tea parties moved from the kitchen to Anne’s bedroom so Anne could recline while she chatted. (Fatigue never really left Anne after the first breast cancer.)
Me snuggling Louis kitten on his first day home. Sadly, I can find no pictures of Marshall.
One day in 2001, Anne had to rush Marshall to the veterinarian; he was having seizures. My now-husband, Greg, and I stopped by after work to see how the kitty was doing (I think we were only engaged then.) While we chatted in Anne’s room, the vet called to say things looked very bad. Could she come right away? Greg agreed to drive Anne’s car, a new BMW 325i, and we sped to the animal hospital. Though only a few minutes away, we did not get there in time, and Marshall passed away as we were screeching to a halt outside in the parking lot. Anne asked for his body, which was returned in the same carrier she’d used to bring him in, a battered old cardboard number that the vet had provided some years back. Marshall’s size was such that part of his fluffy tail hung out of the top of the box. On the side, a cartoon cat looked up perkily with the words “Thanks! I’m feeling better now!” written beneath his paws.

Looking grim as she got back in the front passenger seat, Anne said, “Greg, drive me to McCoy Funeral Home.”

“Excuse me?”

“McCoy Funeral Home. Do you know where it is?”

“But why…?”

“Just do it.”

When we arrived at the funeral home, a viewing had just gotten underway. The front porch and foyer were filled with black-clothed, sad-faced people speaking in hushed tones. Undeterred, Anne got out of the car, instructed us to, “grab the cat,” and strode in while I struggled to get the cat carrier with Marshall out of the back seat. We were quickly ushered into a side room where Kenneth McCoy, who I will state right now is a class act, joined us after a few minutes. Greg and I stood bemused while Kenneth expressed his sympathies for her loss – he knew all too well how much Anne loved her cats. Arrangements were made; Anne said she’d call him later with a time and date, and we made our way through the mourners and back to the car, leaving Marshall’s remains in the very capable hands of the undertaker.

“I’m going to bury him in the side yard next to the angel statue,” Anne said as we drove back to her house. “Can you come to the funeral?”

“You’re going to have a funeral,” I asked?

“Well of course,” Anne said forcefully.

“Sure, we’ll come.” I caught Greg’s eye in the rearview mirror and nodded to him. “When is it?”

“I’ll let you know. I need to call Lindsey first.”

“Lindsey? You’re inviting him to the funeral?”

“No, I want him to cater the wake.” (Lindsey Coleman was the owner of Maxwell’s Restaurant, Anne’s favorite hang out.)
At Maxwell's in the lounge. I don't recall whose birthday it was (note the hat on Anne's head.) I inherited that Jerry Garcia sweatshirt she's wearing, and I still wear it today.
“Well of course!” 

The funeral took place on a Tuesday afternoon at 12:15 pm so that everyone could come during their lunch hour.  It was drizzling that day, late April I think. I remember the grass was vibrant green and the lilac hedge had just begun to put forth flower buds. I was startled by the presence of a backhoe in the side yard, and I paused for a moment to watch the operator put the final touches on a perfectly rectangular hole about 4-feet deep. Beside it sat a small white casket, the type you select to bury a human baby, but which I knew held the cat’s remains. I spotted Kenneth McCoy at his car, which was parked behind Anne’s BMW. He was dressed impeccably in a black three-piece suit with a deep maroon necktie. He pulled several oversized black umbrellas out of the trunk of his car and headed inside.

I followed Kenneth into the house and found Anne in the kitchen on the phone sounding shrill.

“No Lindsey, it starts at 12:15pm. I need everything here now!...well do the best you can. Bye.” She hung up the phone.  “Lunch is going to be a little late, but we’re doing the service first anyway. He’ll be here before we’re done.”

“It’s raining,” I told her.

“It’s okay, Kenneth brought umbrellas. Do you want to read a poem at the service or say a prayer?”

I thought about it for a moment and pictured myself standing in the rain by the open grave praying over a cat casket. I started to giggle and suppressed it. “Poem.” I said. “Which one?”

“The one about Marshall, of course.” (I've included it at the end of the post.)

I knew the poem. Years earlier, in 1995, Anne had edited and published a collection of poems written by herself, local area poets and writers (myself included), and the students of her “Literature of Rock and Roll” class. The collection was titled Dead Snakes, Cats and the IRS: Poetry of Rock and Rebellion. (Lewiston, New York: Mellon Poetry Press, 1995). She handed me a copy of the book, the correct page marked with a sticky note.

As the drizzle turned to outright rain, we gathered in the side yard next to the 6’ tall concrete statue of an angel that Anne had purchased after she had finished the last radiation treatment. Kenneth held an oversized umbrella over Anne’s head as she gazed mournfully at the backhoe operator who was now on his knees in the mud gently heaving the casket into the hole.

The tenants (the brother and sister) stood under a second giant umbrella. Five or six other attendees had provided their own umbrellas. Michael said a prayer of thanks for Marshall, and I could hear the bubbling mirth in his voice. I didn’t risk looking at him and instead stared at the copy of the poem I held. When he finished, he signaled me, and I read the poem, concentrating on enunciation and nuance, afraid that I would crack up laughing at any moment.  Umbrella-less myself, I felt rain begin to flow down my neck, not much, but cold. I concluded; Anne wiped a tear (unusual for her…Anne did not generally permit displays of emotion in herself or anyone else).

As the rain let up slightly, we returned to Anne’s kitchen where Lindsey was still setting up New York deli style sandwiches, mustard potato salad, fruit salad and something salty and crunchy that I don’t recall. It may have been pretzel sticks. He looked panicked as I walked in.

“That didn’t take long. I thought I would have a few more minutes to set up.”

“It’s a cat funeral, Lindsey,” I said, opening a package of paper plates and stacking them  next to the sandwich platter. “There wasn’t much to say.”

Anne came in a few moments later and beamed at the spread. Lindsey took his leave, and we ate a hasty lunch, all of us wearing identical bemused looks and holding back the urge to burst out laughing when we made eye contact with one another. I can’t speak for the others, but Greg and I howled with laughter and wept tears of hilarity all the way back to work.

Anne replaced Marshall with a Persian kitten named Jesse. Her cancer returned not long after. About two years later, after Anne had passed away, I met with an old friend of Anne’s who happened to be acquainted with the artist that bought Anne’s house from the estate. Michael had left a few of Anne’s coffee mugs in the kitchen (all her mugs were cool designer cat-themed mugs) as a bit of a house warming gift, but the new owner had returned them to Anne’s friend, who wanted me to have one of them. I was pleased to have the opportunity to pass on the information that had been bothering me since the house had sold. I had been planning a visit to introduce myself and warn the new owner.

“You see,” I told the friend, “If they decide to build in that side yard or do any excavating, they should know that about the casket. They should know it contains cat bones, not those of a human infant. I expected her to look puzzled or surprised or ask me whatever did I mean?

Instead she said, “Oh did she do that at the Sweeney Road house as well? I went to two cat funerals when she lived on Hutchinson Drive.”

I suddenly understood the absolute professionalism and class that Kenneth McCoy displayed. (He’ll get our business when the time comes.) He’d done this before, buried Anne’s cats.  He truly got that they were her “people,” often her raison d’etre. To Anne, a full blown cat funeral didn’t seem silly at all, and especially not for Marshall, the man of the house.

Me sitting at the foot of Anne's bed during one of my many thousands of visits. Those were some of the best hours of my life, and I think my face shows it.

[In case you are wondering, after Anne died, Jesse kitten went to live with a friend of Mike’s who had time to keep him brushed. Lydia came to live with Greg and I, and her name is now Tweeter. She’ll be 14 in April, but she’s showing no signs of age. Louis, the Siamese, fared poorest of all. The tenants took him, but he kept returning to the main house. He eventually relocated to Anne’s hometown in Alabama to live with Anne’s brother, John. He disappeared one day, never to be seen again.]

Copyright by Estate of Anne Cheney. All rights reserved.

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