Today I remembered one rainy Saturday a few years ago when I was heading to a funeral but needed to bury Richard M. Nixon in my backyard before my toddler found out she was dead.
That’s a lot in one sentence. Let me explain.
My late husband, Richard, left me many things, but the most precious was a long-haired tortoise shell kitty cat. Her name was Nixon. Richard Milhouse Nixon, to be precise.
For a long while after he first adopted her from the shelter, he never really gave her a name–just called her Cat. He was going out of town and his neighbor agreed to keep an eye on Cat. When she asked the cat’s name, she was disappointed to hear that the cat didn’t have one. She picked at Richard about it. Because his friend was super liberal, and he was a smart ass, he said, “Fine. The cat’s name is Richard Milhouse Nixon. Please be sure to say, “I love you, Nixon” every time you snuggle her.”
He adored that cat. She helped him get “in” with my family because you know how some families ask, “Do you go to church?” or “How do you vote?”…my family asks, “Do you have any pets?” You can’t hang with the Garretts if you don’t have some shedders in the house.
Nixon lived for several years after Richard died, but eventually she got narrow in the hips and her gums didn’t look so healthy and her bags of groceries disappeared (that’s what Daddy called those sags of flab under a fat kitty’s belly). Nixon declined quickly. She died in her sleep and I found her one rainy Saturday morning curled up near the fireplace.
I was already feeling blue that morning because it was the day Athens would say goodbye to Randy Bewley, a musician, artist, father to two boys, and beloved of my friend, Robin. Randy had died very suddenly and it had been a sad sad week. And now Nixon was dead on my hearth and Vivi was due to wake up any minute. Crap.
I wrapped Nixon in one of Richard’s old bath towels, one that still had his name tag sewn on it from summer camp, then hid her in our bedroom. I whispered to G that I needed him to get Vivi out of the house so I could bury the cat without having to explain it all to her. He bundled her into some warm clothes and they headed out for pancakes.
It was pouring cold rain. I put on the purple raincoat that I had worn on all of those European adventures with Richard then I clutched his poor dead cat to my chest. After a quick stop in the tool shed for a shovel, I made my way down the hill to the beech tree beside the river–site of our pet cemetery. Huckleberry Finn, my big white Greater Pike Hound, walked at my side. I couldn’t keep an eye on him and focus on digging a cat grave, so I locked Huck inside the fence. He sat on his haunches to watch what I was doing.
Well. I started digging a hole and the deeper I dug, the sadder I got. Nixon had Richard’s heart, just like I had once. She was the something he had loved and I had loved. She was part of our little family and now that last link with him was gone. I settled her light body into the earth. I ripped up a few pieces of English ivy from the riverbank and wove them into a heart shape that I placed in the grave with her.
It was time to say a few words. There in the streaming rain, I thanked her for being a sweet and faithful kitty. I told her how much he had loved her and how when he had to be away from her those last few months, I recorded five minutes of her purring and he would lie in his hospital bed and listen to it when he felt afraid. I told her that I was sorry she didn’t get more time with him.
And then I sat in the rain on my haunches and I sobbed. I wailed. I keened. I didn’t worry about any of the neighbors hearing me. I didn’t worry about whether I looked crazy or not. I didn’t care. I cried as hard as I could. For Nixon, for Richard, for Randy, for Robin, for myself. For the whole damn sad world that seemed to be crying along with me.
Then from behind me, I heard a plaintive sound I had never heard before, like a harmony to my grief. It was Huck, still waiting for me in the rain. He threw his head back and howled at the gray sky. Three long slow howls, like a wolf under a full moon. I had never heard him make such a sound and he’s never done it since.
His howling startled me out of my own fit. Our eyes met through the fence. He stood up and wagged his tail slowly at me with a look on his face that seemed to say, “Are we done? Or once more?” I couldn’t help but laugh and something in my tired heart cracked open with the wonder of his howl. Such a wild animal thing, such a mystery, right here in my backyard. I told Nixon goodbye one more time, filled in the grave, then walked back up the hill with my dog right by my side.
So why do dogs howl? I looked it up. It’s not because they are sad. According to Cesar Milan, dogs–and wolves–howl to tell a lost member of the pack where they are. A wolf who has wandered too far will howl to say, “Ummm…you guys? I’m out here alone” and another wolf howls in response to say, “You’re OK. Come over this way.”
I think that’s exactly what Huck was telling me that day. He heard a member of his pack howl because she was afraid and feeling lost, so he howled to say, “Over here. You’re not alone.”
My dad died yesterday. He spent his life tending to the little creatures of this world, the raggedy abandoned dogs like Huck and the pampered kitties like Nixon. One of my friends reminded me that all dogs go to heaven, and I laughed to think about how busy Dr. Garrett will be saying hello to thousands of old friends.