The Permanent Ink of Remembrance.
Every year around November 1st, I get to thinking about all my dead relatives and pets.
I promise myself I’ll make a Día de los Muertos altar for those who’ve crossed over, but when the day rolls around, I’m always grading a tsunami of student English papers, and it doesn’t happen. This year’s no exception.
My mother got me interested in the Day of the Dead. She’s long been a fascinated collector of items typically found on Day of the Dead altars throughout Latin America. Her collection of Milagros, Día de los Muertos dioramas, images of skeletons and skulls, papel picado banners and wooden skull masks called calacas proudly decorate the walls of her living room each autumn.
When I asked her about what draws her to the celebration, she brightened and said, “The fact that your loved one is not truly dead until he or she is no longer remembered by a living person.”
Last night, I dreamt of my father. His black hair, slick with Brill Creem, looked just like it did in the 1960s when I was a girl. Dressed for work, he wore a tie, short-sleeved shirt, and slacks with a crisp seam down the front from my mother’s iron. You need a vacation and more money, he said, pointedly. He revealed his plans to send me around the world. Handing me a plane ticket, he whispered: It’s time you get away. I wake up, momentarily disoriented; I am sure I can smell his hair, feel his kiss on my forehead.
But it’s just Edgar, my gray-seal-of-a-cat, completing his waking ritual, paw lightly grazing my cheek.
My cats and dogs are buried in the broken backyards of houses where I no longer live. I wonder if anyone’s discovered those bleached bones, the sleeping carcass of our standard poodle, or my older brother’s cat, curled up like a fist, tail tucked under her. Snow Berry. Sheba. There are others. There are many others.
Snow’s sister, Dum-Dum, for one. I remember the softness of that dog’s licorice-colored fur even though she died when I was only seven; I can’t forget the sky blue pick-up truck that killed her out by an onion field in Walla Walla. The farmer who hit her brought her home to us; he helped my father carry her out back where they dug her grave, slipping her quietly into the ground.
I heard Nana’s voice one last time the morning she died, saying, “Manda, get me a glass of water.” While Momma left the room, she died; finally freed of the breast cancer that soaked her very marrow. I hear that people do that. Leave while we are not in the room.
Pets, too. Louise-cat died of a stroke the week I started teaching at Arizona State. That week, I worried my mom had gotten a terminal diagnosis because she wouldn’t pick up the phone. I called and called. When I eventually reached her, she said, “I didn’t want to ruin your first week.” All I could think was I didn’t say goodbye to that little Tortoise the day I left for Phoenix. I didn’t say goodbye.
I stand at the refrigerator perusing my cat family scattered there in a hodge-podge of photos, magnets, and glow in the dark letters spelling out their names. There are two photos of Stanfield taken a few days ― maybe a week ― before he died. I reach out and touch them. I can still feel his silky fur, his ruff, the curve of his spine ― all of it the color of coffee with lots of cream.
Stanfield’s plume tail, trailing a mixture of fine white and strawberry blond fur, looked like an ostrich feather. It had a life of its own, even as he lay dying, thumping and flopping and curling in on itself, a physical sign of his frustration with losing the use of his legs. He watched me, from a small pile of towels I’d arranged to elevate his head, eyes the color of leaves changing from green to gold. By then, he’d become nothing but a ragged pelt stretched scarecrow-loose across a skeleton. I stroked his face that final day―such a good boy―every bit of the way.
For the days leading up to his death, I cleaned him with warm washcloths, wiping away the urine and excrement stuck in his fur. Three days prior, when he lost the use of his hind legs, I considered taking him in to the vet, but decided against it. He wanted to be with me. And so I sat on the floor beside him, whispering and chanting prayers into his ear.
Next year, I’ll do it. I’ll cook rice, beans, pan de muerto: sweet egg bread shaped like skulls, rabbits; I’ll cut an armload of orange marigolds; I’ll burn cobal, incense, and candles. I’ll offer prayers for each being I’ve lost, haunted as they walk the rooms inside my head.
I must do these things. I’ll remember my cats – especially the ones carried off by coyotes living in the woods behind Momma’s house. OJ. Boo. Thelma. Button. The list got longer every one of my mother’s 32 years in that house.
Stanfield’s death came two months after my boyfriend and I broke up. For weeks I couldn’t ― I wouldn’t cry. But Stan changed all that. Cradling him on my lap that last morning, stones of grief surfaced in a torrent. I held him and told him I loved him over and over until his breathing slowed, and then finally stopped.
The last time I’d been in the room for a death was Nana’s, forty-three years earlier. As Stan’s body cooled, I wrapped him in a floral beach towel, and placed him in a shipping box that once held Christmas ornaments. Edgar― the closest thing that Stan had to a brother― gingerly walked into the bathroom, peeking at his body. Ed’s pupils widened as he sniffed the pile of towels where Stan had been convalescing. After a long moment, he tried to get into the box with him. He looked sad as I covered his body for the last time and shut the lid.
An hour later, my friend Stephanie picked me up. In the car on the drive over to her house in Chandler, I sat with that box in my lap. Since I lived in an apartment then, she’d kindly offered to take Stan. Her boyfriend dug a grave in the hard packed soil of her backyard. That’s where my boy sleeps now, under a Bird of Paradise, no doubt mummified and desiccated by the desert heat.
Whether cooking or washing up in my kitchen, I stand at the sink, hands in hot soapy water, fur, tail, and whisker lacing between my bare calves ― a reminder of the way cats and dogs, but cats in particular, tether me to daily life. My home would be a desolate place without them.
Portraits of Daddy hang in the entryway to my office. Sometimes – usually for only a moment or two – I forget he’s dead. I forget because he still talks to me in my sleep; he still stands next to me, frozen in this river of time stretching back into my childhood, his image pressed flat under glass. He still lives in me.
My cats lounge in a semi-circle around me as I sit at my writing desk. Finn drapes himself over the back of the chair. Emma lies on her back, her soft belly exposed, large paws curled over her chest. Edgar sleeps, mushroom-small, on the window seat. Elvis naps under the couch. If I move to another room, within minutes, all four will follow me.
They are there, sitting between the words, the letters, as I fill my notebook, pulling language from the air.
“Our pets greet us
When we cross to the other side,” I say
Knowing this will comfort my mother
Her animal companions
Her constant familiars
Light her days
I imagine a room of soft light
And the sound of a small stampede
As dozens of cats cross to meet her
Tails up, faces expectant—calico, Manx,
Tabby, tuxedo, marmalade
They rub their faces against her warm legs
As though they never left her―*
Día de los Difuntos. Day of the Dead. Día de los Angelitos. All Souls’ Day. Día de los Inocentes. All Saints’ Day…
Every year, the same thing. I remember the beings I love.
I feel that love tattooed onto my skin, carved into my marrow, my bones. Its permanent ink marks me in remembrance.
*Poem excerpt from, “Tributaries,” by Shavawn M. Berry.