My beloved cat Chuck died on March 23, 2013. He was 12, and he had been diagnosed with small-cell lymphoma a month earlier. A few weeks after his death, in the middle of April, I got the call that his ashes were ready for me to pick up at his specialist’s office. They were sealed in a box and tucked in a weird little gift bag — worst gift ever, that — tied with a corkscrew of ribbon. Beside them I found a drawstring fabric bag that held the ghoulish quick-set plaster paw imprint an assistant offered to make for us when we brought Chuck in to be euthanized, and that was presumably pressed after his death, given that he slipped away in my arms after the injections.
The plaster memento, like my cat’s medical file, said Charlie across the top; I never noticed the mistake because I was so distraught when I first brought him to the specialist. I always thought I could argue this point, Chuck isn’t really dead because you never knew his real name, like someone who tries to talk their way out of a breakup on a technicality. I’ve never taken the paw print out of the fabric bag, or even the gift bag, in our apartment. I get an occasional urge to walk across the street and fling it into the East River. It sits up in my closet behind my jewelry box, beside Chuck’s ashes, which sit beside Jude’s ashes. (Jude, our younger cat, died at age nine of kidney failure in 2009.) I don’t think they’re going anywhere.
When I was a little girl and one of our family’s cats died, we’d scatter his ashes somewhere near our house in Southern California. Juniper, for example, went to my mother’s bed of roses in the front yard; it had been one of his favorite places. My husband and I have never had a yard in New York City, and Jude died when we were about to move from one neighborhood to another. I didn’t want to scatter his ashes in the old one because it felt too much like leaving him behind; I didn’t want to scatter them in the new one because it would be foreign to him. I actually went all the way to the Isle of Man on the off chance that it might seem right to scatter our little Manx’s remains in his supposed country of origin; it didn’t. When Chuck died four years later and I got a second box of ashes, I didn’t even bother to hem and haw about where they would go. I just added them to what was turning into the dead cat collection in my closet.
I used to wonder whether said collection meant something is wrong with me. I wished I could believe that I’ll see my cats on a rainbow bridge in an afterlife (I don’t), or take comfort in something like the mourning jewelry you can make with a loved one’s ashes (I wouldn’t), or even fling that terrible paw print into the river (I’m getting closer on that one, at least). Then I read a letter Marcel Proust wrote more than a century ago to his friend Georges de Lauris, whose mother had just died.
Now there is one thing I can tell you: you will enjoy certain pleasures you cannot fathom now. When you still had your mother you often thought of the days when you would have her no longer. Now you will often think of days past when you had her. When you are used to this horrible thing that they will forever be cast into the past, then you will gently feel her revive, returning to her place, her entire place, beside you. At the present time, this is not yet possible. Let yourself be inert, wait till the incomprehensible power … that has broken you restores you a little, I say a little, for henceforth you will always keep something broken about you. Tell yourself this, too, for it is a kind of pleasure to know that you will never love less, that you will never be consoled, that you will constantly remember more and more.
I remember mourning quietly when Chuck was about 10 years old, thinking that our time together was probably half over — the first cat I ever knew, the one my parents adopted in college who watched over me when I was a baby, lived to be nearly 20. I burned with anger when cancer took Chuck just a few years later; he was stolen, disease was stealing my cats from me. I thought perhaps anger was keeping those little boxes in my closet, and that when I let it go I would be able to let go.
I think Proust’s phrase is the right one: There is something broken about me. Most of the anger has burned away, but there’s no consolation for losing my boys; I’m not going to love less. I will keep their ashes until it feels right for them to be somewhere else, and if that never happens, well, all right.
That said, Proust’s point about remembering more and more is well taken. I cringed the first time I used a pet name on Steve that had been Chuck’s and only Chuck’s, always, or so I would have thought. Then it happened again, and again, and I realized I was just addressing him as a loved one. If in doing it I remember what I’ve lost, well, remembering is a kind of loving, too. That kind of broken is okay.