by Alison Townsend
Yesterday I planted flowers on my cat Jasper’s grave. Like most of my garden tasks this spring, I was late getting to it and the grave, which I’d covered with rounded white stones collected over the years on Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula, was choked with the kind of weeds that quickly inhabit disturbed ground: Creeping Charlie, dandelions, and plantain. Beneath the stones was Jasper.
Jasper was what my father would have called a “personality cat.” A sleek tuxedo cat, he’d run out to greet us, fearless in the midst of the barking swirl our pair of tri-colored collies, meowing loudly and complaining if he thought we gave them too much attention. Of all our six pets Jasper made me laugh, butting his head so hard under my hand he made me spill my tea or twining himself through my legs in those silky, S-shaped pirouettes at which cats excel.
It had been nine months since his rapid death from liver disease. There was nothing—not the emergency vet’s care at the animal hospital where Jasper spent his last week, not the intensity of my love—that could save him. I’d have taken out a second mortgage, sold my grandmother’s antiques, assumed another job on top of teaching, to stare into those green eyes for another five years or so.
I took a week off from work just to sit with his spirit. I stood before the pile of white stones beneath the mulberry tree, looking up through the branches until I saw the star that I thought of as his. I breathed quietly, stilling the din of my consciousness so I could hear what he has to say to me. “When you love someone who lives on a star,” Saint-Exupery wrote, “it is lovely to look at the sky at night.” And so I looked at the stars and listened, feeling like a young soul myself, awaiting instruction.
Jasper lies beside the grave of my husband’s sweet old dog, Ina, another black and white creature, a Samoyed-border collie mix who died in 2005. When Ina was dying of a slow collapse of the throat muscles, Jasper would lie in the hallway just outside our bedroom door. Jasper frequently positioned himself nearby, observing her with interest and attention. At first I thought he was bothering Ina, intruding on her when she deserved peace and quiet. I’d shoo him away or pick him up and carry him to another part of the house, settling him on the sofa with a green blanket he loved to snuggle in.
One night, as Tom and I sat on the floor beside Ina, stroking her thick fur, trying to soothe her and realizing we were approaching the time when we would have to summon her vet, Jasper reached out a long, white-gloved paw and laid it over one of Ina’s white with black freckled paws. “Oh, I see,” Tom said, smiling through tears, “Jasper is an old soul, an empath in-training.”
This reminded me of the time Jasper woke me one night early on with the intensity of his stare that pulled me up from sleep to where he sat beside me on the bed, regarding me deeply and intently, as if he were learning me, memorizing who and what I was. His human. I glimpsed something of his soul in those long, green moments when we’d gaze into one another’s eyes.
I hadn’t left Jasper’s grave completely untended. Early in the spring, before the weeds came, I’d planted forget-me-nots and sweet woodruff on the grave. But spring continued in its relentless way, and weeds gained the upper hand. I walked the slight rise to where Ina and Jasper lie on the hill overlooking the lake, armed with a trowel and gardener’s knife, prepared to set Jasper’s grave in order.
I’ve buried many animals, both domestic and wild, and had more than my share of human deaths. The most significant was my mother, dead of breast cancer when I was nine. For a few months after my mother died, my father used to take my brother, sister, and me to visit her grave every weekend. We’d stand in a circle in front of the pink marble bench with her name, Mary, chiseled into it in stern letters, holding hands and reciting the Twenty-third Psalm aloud. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” my father said, reaching back into his own childhood at the Old Welsh Tract Church and summoning the only thing he knew in support of a grief so large and uncontainable that it would, in years to come, annihilate our family, blasting us off into separate and lonely trajectories that now only rarely intersect.
When my father remarried, six months after my mother died, we stopped visiting the cemetery every weekend. I never saw my mother’s grave again, except in photographs my sister took nearly forty years later, when she made a pilgrimage there after my father’s unexpected death. In the photographs my sister, willowy in a long floral dress, kneels alone before the pink bench. There are no birch trees in sight, just my sister, arranging roses. In one, she tries to make them stand up. In another, she seems to have settled for fanning the bouquet out on the ground. The harsh July light falls over her long reddish-blond hair and pale, freckled face, revealing lines of strain. My sister radiates such vulnerability that it is difficult for me to look at the photographs.
Jasper’s is the first grave with which I have had an intimate and ongoing relationship, watching as it changed through the seasons. The white stones were first matted with fallen leaves, then covered by snow so deep I had to guess where the grave lay when I trekked out to visit it on frigid nights, then bare again (though stained by weather), and now clogged with weeds.
I dig and pull, the childhood injunction about being sure to get the weeds out by the root loud in my ears. I know Jasper is buried deeply enough that there is no danger of my encountering the by-now-beginning-to-decay top of the small, coffin-shaped cardboard box in which the vet placed his body. It takes a long time for the heat of life to leave a body, even one as small as a cat’s, and the box stayed warm for hours the day after the night Jasper died. It stayed warm as I held it in my lap on the way home in the car, as I placed it in his favorite spot in the corner of the sofa, and as I fell into an exhausted two-hour sleep beside it. It stayed warm for so long I had to look, had to see for myself there that hadn’t been some mistake, that he wasn’t still alive inside there. He lay on his side, wrapped in a fleece blanket printed with constellations and stars, a gesture so tender on the part of the vets and their assistants that it hurt. But I was glad to see him, the only sign of his last struggle, a slight grimace about his muzzle. I stroked his long, otter-sleek side, clipped a tiny tuft of fur to keep, and put the open box down on the floor beside Amelia, his calico sister. She paced a circle around the box, sniffing and looking, then walked down the hall to our bedroom with a kind of determined sadness. “She’s farther along in this process than we are,” the vet had said to me, and perhaps he was right. But what do humans know of the grief of animals?
We buried Jasper as humans have buried loved ones since the beginning of time, with the things we imagine they will need on their journey. Jasper went into the ground with a letter I had written to him folded between his paws, the ping-pong balls he used to love to bat around, and a sprig of catmint for pleasure. We wrapped the box in the fluffy green blanket he loved to lie on, wrecking its weave with his claws.
Tending a grave is meditative business. The sun shines. Doves call their dreamy and never mournful-sounding note. The hill rustles. I sit back on my heels, in a kind of alpha state, when something darts from beneath the high bush cranberry behind me. It is Baby, our twenty year-old matriarch cat who, despite slow renal failure, prevails. She runs up to Jasper’s grave, rubbing her head on the big stone that marks it, then walking back and forth across the grave itself, doing her cat ballet. Baby didn’t like Jasper, who tailed her insistently and curiously, following her everywhere when Tom and I first merged our households and pets.
For a moment I feel uneasy, recalling the aged corgi-beagle mutt of my childhood who went out the back door one summer night and never came back, afraid Baby is also looking for a place to die, the way animals sometimes do in the country. But she goes back under the cranberry bush, lies down, and then rolls on her back. I keep an eye on her. Populated by hawks, great horned owls, a family of foxes, coyotes and raccoons, this hill is fraught with dangers for an elderly, seven-pound cat, even in broad daylight.
I complete my work on Jasper’s grave. I still need more lady’s mantle starts, and I want to plant a couple red-and-orange coneflower cultivars, like the ones that grow on Ina’s grave. I finish and spill another pail of stones over the grave. Smaller than the white Door County rocks, these were river and tide pool treasures, chosen for their shape and color, their heft in the hand. One, given to me by my friend Sara awhile back, has a wavy blue line painted on it. I knew Sara meant it to represent the Wisconsin River, where she grew up, but the blue line reminded me of the sinuous movements of a cat. I put the stone in a special spot near the middle of the grave.
As I empty the pail, spreading the last rocks, something tiny, white and heart-shaped flashes past. I think it is a single petal from a multiflora rose but it is a pearly button, from one of my own Lanz flannel nightgowns. I don’t t know how it got there. I press it into the ground behind the rock at the base of the grave, planting it as if it were a seed.
I touch the stone at the base of Jasper’s grave as is my habit, almost as if rubbing his head and ears, pick up my kneeling pad and garden tools, my empty transplant pots and pail. “Kitty-kitty-kitty,” I call to Baby, raising my voice on the last couple syllables in her special summons. She trotts out from beneath the cranberry. I pick her up and walked to the house, her warm little body tucked under one arm, her rumbling purr a faint vibration against my side. “Goodness and mercy,” I think, recalling my father’s words so long ago at my mother’s grave. “Yes, goodness and mercy.”
About Alison Townsend
Alison Townsend is the author of two award-winning books of poetry, Persephone in America and The Blue Dress, and two chapbooks, And Still the Music, and What the Body Knows. Her poetry and essays appear widely, most recently in Brevity, Briar Cliff Review, Calyx, Chautauqua, Feminist Studies, Flyway, North Dakota Review, Parabola, Quarter After Eight, The Southern Review, and Zone Three, and she has a “Notable Essay” mentioned in Best American Essays 2014. Emerita Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, she has won many awards, including a Pushcart Prize and a literary fellowship from the Wisconsin Arts Board. Her collection of essays, The Name for Woman is River: Essays Toward an Ecology of Home, nears completion.