A guest kaddish with a guest “Kaddish” recording by David Mostardi
It’s a lesson I have to relearn each time: the hardest thing is the sudden deprivation of rituals. This is the last time Fuller will ever be on my lap. Friday was the last time Fuller played with his favorite catnip mouse. One minute he’s here, the next he’s gone.
Fuller, our handsome tabby cat, had been both losing weight and losing his appetite. One of his names was “Big Guy,” to distinguish him from his brother Gilman, the “Little Guy.” The weight loss snuck up on us, though: one day I picked him up and was shocked that he was lighter than Gilman. Blood tests suggested he was having kidney problems, so for two weeks we gave him subcutaneous fluids to flush out his system. We bought the yummiest kind of cat food to try and stimulate his appetite, but over the next two weeks his discomfort increased. His blood numbers were a little better at his follow-up exam, but an ultrasound revealed that Fuller had tumors on his kidneys and his liver. Cancer: the worst possible news. Suddenly, it was time to start thinking about when to let Fuller go.
When I got home from work the next day, Fuller was visibly worse. He was meowing strangely and couldn’t get comfortable. It was clear to me he was now in pain. I sat down next to him and cried until Arlene got home. I realized now that this was going to be much, much harder than I thought. We called our vet and long-time friend Carolynn, and arranged for her to come over the following night.
How do you spend your time when you know it is your cat’s last day alive? He can’t be made comfortable and has little appetite. So I simply tried to spend as much time with Fuller as I could. He had been spending almost all his time downstairs on the piano bench, but I was working from my upstairs office (driving into work was emotionally out of the question). So I took frequent breaks and visited him downstairs. But at one point Fuller hobbled upstairs and appeared by my side: his usual signal that he wanted to sit in my lap and rest his paws in front of my keyboard. I lifted him up into my lap and began sobbing again. This was our last keyboard lap.
When our previous cat Ariel died in 2002, we buried him in a quiet corner of the backyard and planted a fern above him. We decided to do the same for Fuller, so I went outside about two o’clock and begin digging next to Ariel’s fern. I didn’t cry while I was digging, I don’t know why. It was a dreary, foggy, drizzly day outside. Fuller’s grave was just under the eaves; half dry dirt and half muddy dirt. When I was done all my clothes were muddy too.
From five o’clock until Carolynn arrived at eight, I sat reading in a chair and Fuller lay next to me. Twice Fuller rested in his “Mr One-Paw” pose, like a sphinx but with only one paw extended. I want Carolynn to come, but I don’t want her to come. We adopted Fuller and Gilman when they were five years old, and they’re eleven now. Six years is not nearly enough time. What is Gilman thinking? He’s about to lose the closest friend he has. I want time to slow down, but then Fuller turns around again and tries to get comfortable. Carolynn knocks at the door.
We wrapped Fuller in a white towel. Inside I put Fuller’s two favorite catnip mice, “Calico” and “Treyf.” I carried him outside, laid him down and covered him up. We’d pick out a plant for him tomorrow. Amidst our tears, Arlene and I went to bed and held Gilman between us.
After breakfast, I put on my muddy clothes again. Arlene and I picked out a sword fern to put over Fuller. I carried out several bags of our gloppy clay soil and brought in several bags of compost. When I was all done with the planting and the trimming and the irrigation line, I spread the area all around with leaves from the Japanese maple, which are a perfect golden color right now.
I pictured myself finally getting out of my muddy clothes when an image leapt before my eyes. It was the imagery of the Avodah Service—that bizarre, oh-so-foreign yet oh-so-Jewish Avodah Service that we read only on Yom Kippur—where the High Priest removes his garments and washes himself between each ritual, then dons new garments in preparation for his next task. In that instant I knew how I would conclude Fuller’s burial. The cleansing ritual is for everyone, even the gravedigger. I would take off my garments, ritually immerse myself, wash myself and put on fresh garments. Fuller’s white towel now becomes his white burial shroud.
We don’t have a mikveh at home, but we do have a hot tub. Plenty good enough, I decided. If I were treating this as an actual mikveh, I could probably find some Jewish sages of yore that would agree that it really was a mikveh. As I took off my muddy clothes, it occurred to me that this would be only the second mikveh of my entire life: the first since the day I became Jewish, almost 28 years ago. All I could remember about that first mikveh was that I had recited the Shema and the Ve’ahavta. So I got in the hot tub, closed my eyes and recited the Shema and the Ve’ahavta. Then I went up and took a shower and put on completely clean garments. Fuller’s burial was concluded.
How to come up for air? Love. Hugs. Friends. Arlene and I went to see our friend Laurie later that day. Laurie has two dogs, and a third was staying the afternoon. I played fetch with Zola, scratched Nishka’s backside, and repeatedly shook hands with Annie. The boundless joy of a Labrador Retriever is a marvelous tonic. But when we get back home, Fuller is still gone. It’s going to take me a lot of time to get over this.
When we bring home a new pet, we do so knowing that we will outlive it. The day of sorrow will surely come. And yet we continue to invite these animals into our lives, because we know the years of happiness outweigh the days of sadness, and that our own lives are enriched.
Dedicated to the memory of Fuller the Cat, 1999 – 10 December 2010. Shalom, chaver.
The bellows-shake leit motif of my arrangement is an attempt to capture the sound Fuller made when he was playing kill-the-catnip-mouse, a favorite game of his. He would trot up the stairs with the mouse in his mouth while uttering a loud growling noise, “Look at me! I’m King of the Mighty Hunters!” Then he’d bat the mouse downstairs and do it all over again.