Moira and I became family the first week of July in 1999. She was about four months old and had been returned to the shelter twice already. Both families had said she was too much to handle.
This is true.
It was never my intention to "handle" her or make her mine. She set me straight on the first day and let me know that she wasn't my cat. She belonged to herself. I could be her person, though.
She died in 2016, less than one month shy of her 17th birthday. She made sure that she died her way by hiding out under our bed. Moira didn't want to be close to anyone. She didn't want to be held or soothed. She died as fiercely as she lived.
Because she wasn't mine, I knew cremation wasn't the right thing for her. She didn't want to be kept. So we put her in the freezer we used for dog food.
I know. That sounds crazy. I needed time to figure out how to honor her body and give her bones a resting place. She stayed in the freezer for three years.
It's not that I forgot about her. It's not that I didn't want to have a ceremony for her. I felt stuck, and the more time that passed, the more I felt unprepared.
Today I dug a hole. I walked through our forest, looking for a place that was nearly hidden. She wouldn't want a marker or anything conspicuous. I chose a spot beneath a laurel bush, where she often liked to nap outside. A plant that symbolized victory seemed like a suitable partner for her.
Max came to help.
I cried as I dug. Of course I did. Not heaving sobs - just modest rivers of salt on my cheeks.
Then I made my way to the freezer, and once I reached the bottom of the stairs my tear ducts launched into overdrive. I had to wipe them away so I could see clearly. I rounded the corner, and with the freezer in my sight I gasped. The air felt like it was cutting my trachea on the way to my lungs. Knives. Blades. Sharp pain.
It's been three years, I thought, and still this brutalizes me.
Moira's body had a shelf to itself in the freezer. My husband, The Man, had wrapped her in two garbage bags. I hadn't seen her since she crawled under the bed the morning she died. I couldn't bring myself to see her body.
I carefully lifted her body from the freezer, unsure of how I would "handle" her. I felt her tail in my right hand, curved like the handle of an extremely large teacup. My nostrils flared as I pursed my lips and slowly closed my eyes. I was touching her body. Through two layers of plastic, I was touching her body.
What is the best way to carry the frozen body of a cat? I have no idea. I still don't know. I balanced her across my two forearms with my palms to the sky, carrying her like a tray. Like I was going to serve tea with my teacup handle of a cat tail.
I was surprised by how numbing this was. Her body was cold. Frozen, you know. Was it the temperature that numbed me?
I took her body to the front of the house and laid her on a tree round we use as a chair. She was completely flat on her right side and being rigid, her body clanged a bit as I set her down on the wood. I winced. Was I being too rough?
After feeling how long she was, I picked up my shovel and dug into the earth to extend her grave. She would need more space. Sssssshk. Sssssshk. The dirt whispered as I parted it, and the roots of surrounding life groaned and snapped as I lowered the handle of the shovel. More dirt onto the pile. Then clay. That seemed deep enough and long enough.
It was time. Time to unwrap her.
Removing the first bag required that I "handle" her. I had to touch her body, even if it was through the plastic, and I wondered how she would feel about that handling concept. I could feel her feet and her angular, elegant face. The second bag was easier to untie, and I pulled it back from around her head first.
Oh, Moira. Moira, Moira, Moira.
I saw anguish. I saw in her face what I heard as I sat on the bed just after 6:00 a.m. I kept the light off because I knew she wanted her space and privacy, and I couldn't bear to leave her alone. I had to be with her, even if that meant just being in the room. Her death sounded like it was painful.
I've written about this before, and in case you haven't seen anything else about her death, an unassisted death was the most appropriate choice for Moira. We didn't want her to suffer or experience pain, and yet we also knew that the stress of receiving assistance with death would be it's own kind of unbearable torment for her. She was also a terrible patient, and the chances that our veterinarian could safely administer the medications for euthanasia were, uh, not good. We all agreed on that.
The rest of her body was as stunning as I remembered. Her fur was soft and long. I missed feeling it on my face and spitting it out of my mouth. I rested my hand on her side, being careful not to touch her belly (that wasn't allowed). I marveled at the fullness of her tail. All this time my lips were quivering and I knew something bigger was coming.
I bent in half, with my hands pressing back against my thighs and my spine rounding into a sine wave of grief - first arched up and then dropped down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Drool flowed from my open mouth, and I went from being surprised by that to sucking in enough air for the next choking sob.
This was not easy.
Time had not made her death any easier. Looking at her body right in front of me - touching her fur, seeing her face, admiring her frostbitten pads - brought everything back. Probably because I didn't have the courage to be with her body three years ago.
I thanked her. I thanked her body. I committed to returning her body to the earth and not keep her, because she was not mine.
Max returned. He approached her body cautiously and sniffed her face and paws. It looked as though he wanted his eyes to be as wide as possible so he could take in everything. I looked toward the house and saw Wean sitting at the threshold of the open front door. I am certain he nodded at me; then he stood and turned to find a soft place to nap.
A round of deep breaths helped me gently place Moira's body into her grave. I didn't shroud her because she wouldn't have stood for that.
That first shovel-full of dirt. Whoa. I moved the shovel back and forth over her body, hoping to lightly cover her. She was never, ever dirty. Ever. It was surreal to see dirt in her fur. Her beautiful, striking tortie marbles of tan and black and warm, rich brown. The last time I would see her.
I drove the shovel blade perpendicular into the ground and used the handle to support the weight of my upper body. My spine once again wanted to roll through what felt like an endless sine wave. I lurched and arched and hunched and drooled and wept.
I wanted it to stop. I wanted to stop. I wanted to be finished, and I know I will never be. Moira's death and her absence will be with me always. More importantly, so will her life. So will the relationship I have with her.
The rest of the dirt sssssshked on her body to fill her grave. I added stones to the top as a practical measure to discourage any interested animals, and I promised that once decomposition was well underway, I'd remove those stones to keep her space as unmarked and inconspicuous as Moira would like it to be.
I'm Shannon, and I love and am loved by four Great Danes, four cats, and one horse (four Danes, one cat, and one horse are no longer walking this earth). Here I'll share stories of my adventures in grief photography for companion animals, my own grief journey, and thoughts on caregiving.