21 May 2019
by Charles McGuigan
I have become many things over these past forty-eight hours—a coffin maker, a gravedigger, a grief counsellor, a headstone fabricator. Even a priest. The acquisition of these skills, which I never apprenticed for or ever desired to perfect, has left me queasy and dizzy as if I’ve just stepped off a boat recently tossed on heaving seas.
This story begins more than thirteen years ago, on a rainy and chilly Saturday afternoon, a Valentine’s Day, just four days after my daughter Catherine Rose turned ten. We were sitting in the car, parked in front of a towering façade of mortared brick. I turned off the windshield wipers, then cut the engine.
“You ready, sweetie?”
“Yes,” said Catherine. I watched her in the rearview mirror, so small, seat belt strapped across her chest, hands folded in her lap.
“Just take your time deciding,” I said. “We’ve got all the time in the world today.”
The rain had let up considerably, so we didn’t bother with the umbrella tucked in the well behind the backseat. We walked briskly across the parking lot, dodging puddles, mounted the steps, pushed through the front door of the Richmond SPCA, and entered a large and sparse lobby. A woman at the reception desk led us into a room filled with cages. Her hair was blonde and fit her head like a swim cap. She opened one cage door after another, reached in, picked up a kitten then lowered the small animal into the cradle my daughter made of her folded arms.
They were all adorable, and Catherine would hold each kitten for a few minutes, petting it and listening to it purr, before returning it to the woman. We must have looked at fifteen kittens over the next hour, and each one was cute and playful, but none of them struck that vital chord with my daughter. We were on our way out, standing in the lobby, when Catherine noticed a tall, free-standing cage with a single piece of driftwood in its center. Near the top of that little tree was a lean black cat that had lodged itself between two forked branches.
“That’s the one,” Catherine said.
The woman who had shown us the cats seemed ecstatic that Catherine had selected this particular kitten. She ran her finger along the edge of her ear, carving a curve in her cropped hair. “She’s the oldest one we have,” the woman explained. “She’s been with us six months. She was born last June.”
And then Catherine had to sign several papers, promising she would always take care of the kitten. It was a kind of formal adoption procedure, and in the space for the pet’s name, Catherine penned the word SOPHIE in large and legible block letters. I never learned why she chose that name, but her choice would prove to be prescient and fitting. Sophie, a word of Greek origin, means wise and skilled, and over the years, our cat would demonstrate time and again that she possessed both wisdom and skill in abundance.
What drew Catherine to Sophie and Sophie to Catherine I will never know. Perhaps it was because Sophie was somewhat older than the other balls of fur at the SPCA that morning. Maybe it was that Sophie was in the tall upright cage by herself, perched in the lofty crook of the driftwood tree. My daughter has always been a tree climber, and I would often find her sitting up in a maple tree at the end of our block with an open book in her hands.
It also might have been the cat’s solid black coat with just one small white spot on her chest. Later, we would learn that not all her fur was black. There were chocolate brown highlights throughout it. You could see the brown only in direct and brilliant sunlight. “Sophie’s a Bombay cat,” Catherine would tell me one day.
I think, though, it was the eyes. They stared into one another’s for a long time without blinking, for several minutes, at least, and all the while you could hear Sophie’s loud and distinctive purr. Catherine’s eyes are green as Sophie’s, a trait our daughter shares with both her parents.
On our way home, we stopped off at Fin & Feather and bought a litter box, kitty litter, food, a bowl, two catnip-stuffed mice made of felt, and a wicker basket with a cushion that would serve as a bed Sophie never used. Laps were always her preference for catnaps, and nights, for the long sleeps, she would curl up next to Catherine, and they would slumber, face to face, sharing the same air.
At that time, my children shared a bunk bed I had built the summer before, a massive structure made of two-by-sixes and secured by six-inch lag screws and carriage bolts. I fashioned the ladder of two-by-threes and one-inch dowels, and each night, after Catherine had climbed up to her loft, while Charles settled in the bunk beneath her, and as I began to read them a story, Sophie would enter the room, and deftly climb the ladder, her tiny paws claw-gripping each rung as she ascended. I’d never seen a cat do that before, and it became a nightly ritual that lasted many years, all the way up until the day Catherine moved into the dormitory called Rhoads Hall at VCU just a couple miles south of our house in Bellevue. After that, Sophie took to sleeping with Charles. As soon as I began reading to Charles, Sophie would leap into the single bed that had replaced the bunk bed and curl up against his back.
As much as she loved the indoors with her family, Sophie loved being outside even more, and we made the decision long ago to allow her to freely explore the world at large. Sophie, even from the youngest age, seemed to understand that our yard from alley in the back to curb in the front, bounded by Newport to the west and the yellow house to the east, this small rectangle planted with trees and bushes and flowers, was her world. She explored all of it, and every morning, the moment she rocketed out of the house, Sophie would walk the perimeter of the property along Greycourt and Newport, but never the alleyway. She would patrol this L-shaped border two times each day, and every so often would encounter a neighborhood cat, whom she would quickly scare off. Other times she would confront a dog walking down the sidewalk with its owner just behind it. Regardless the size of the canine, Sophie would sit in the middle of the sidewalk and wait for the dog. As the dog approached, Sophie would stand up and her back would arch and her hackles would rise and she would swiftly raise her paw and swat the dog right in the face, and she would not back off. I had seen her do it one time to a German shepherd, ten times her size, and the dog retreated with tail tucked between legs, and I apologized profusely to the owner.
“She’s just overly protective of our house,” I said.
“That cat’s crazy,” the shepherd’s owner said.
I nodded, because, in a way, he was right. Sophie, believed she was the size of a panther and utterly invulnerable, yet some of the dogs she attacked could have swallowed her in a single gulp. She wasn’t hostile to all dogs; some she would welcome, including one called Joy.
Sophie was also a relentless hunter. Outdoors she would prey on moles and voles and shrews, and, at least once, a young rabbit, whose life we managed to save. Mainly though, Sophie hunted birds. When she spotted a bird, invariably a starling or an English sparrow, Sophie would crouch low, hidden behind the tall grasses in our front yard, and her tail would begin to flick, and she would slowly crawl, her entire body flattened to the ground, and then suddenly, at just the right moment, would bolt forward and pounce on her quarry. She could have been a lioness stalking her prey on a distant savanna. Sophie may have hunted in part for sport, but she also ate what she killed, licked it to the bone with her sandpaper tongue, leaving behind only feathers and beak and claws. With the small mammals she consumed, all that was left after her nourishment was a tail.
Where the Fan has roaches, Bellevue has camel crickets. Before migrating here from the Fan, I’d never really seen one of them before. They can be fairly large with antenna longer than their bodies, and when you encounter one, it will hop up onto you. They’re not broad jumpers, they’re pole-vaulters, and more than once I’ve brushed a camel cricket off my chest. When the first frost comes, they begin moving into our living quarters from the basement. As soon as Sophie became a resident in our home, the camel crickets were gone. They would still make their annual appearances, but it was always short-lived because they served Sophie as both indoor sport and snack item. She hunted down every one of them, would play with them for a time, and then, when they seemed unwilling, or unable, to play her cat-and-mouse games any longer, Sophie would munch on them contentedly. Their legs would sometimes become tangled in her whiskers.
Sophie possessed a duality of nature mirroring a human being’s. She could comport herself regally as a queen, her posture perfect, her steps measured, head lifted high. But her wildness never left her. If she spotted a bird through one of the three lower window panes of the front door, she would scratch furiously at the glass, like squeaky chalk on a blackboard, until the door was opened and she was free to be her wild self once more. That was the beauty of her. Which is the same with humans. When we tell stories about ourselves or others, they’re not about the times we acted conventionally. Those stories are downright boring. The ones that shine are those that illustrate the inherent wildness of our species, when our actions are not governed by societal norms. It’s when we shed our constraints, and act out of instinct of one sort or other, that we become interesting, or at least memorable.
Our black cat, in so many ways Catherine’s familiar, was low maintenance and seldom wore jewelry. There was a time that we fit her with a collar that contained a single miniature sleigh bell. The idea was that the bell would tinkle when Sophie approached an unsuspecting bird and give it time to fly off and avoid death and consumption. Somehow or other, Sophie removed the bell. And the next day she removed the collar, which we would find years later under the front porch steps. We tried, on a couple occasions, to get her to wear an ID tag, a little brass wafer with her name, address and phone number. But she would figure out how to get rid of the tag and the collar within a day or two. So we gave it up.
Sophie was never excessively needy, and was only vocal when she needed something, whether it was to go outside or to come back inside. And she would always let us know when she needed more food or water.
She was extremely intelligent, and early on learned the mechanics of hinged doors. As long as one was ajar, Sophie could slide her inverted paw in the gap between threshold and door, and pull it open, then close it behind her.
Over the years, we’ve hosted scores of parties in our home on Greycourt Avenue, and Sophie would always socialize, but when she’d had enough of our guests, she would retreat to the kids’ bedroom, and shut the door behind her.
Whether or not there was a party in progress, there has always been music in our home, and music of every description, whether it was Tupac or cuts from The Capeman, the Lumineres or Mumford and Son, Bach or Dylan, the Rolling Blackouts or the Avett Brothers, Beethoven or Slipknot (Charles loves metal), Jimi Hendrix or John Prine, Louis Armstrong or Norah Jones, Patsy Cline or Ray Charles.
As with our home’s other inhabitants, Sophie also loved music. A month after Sophie joined our family, Catherine noticed how she would sit on the back of the couch in our living room, her back to us, while she faced one of the two windows looking out over Newport Drive, and listen intently to whatever music was playing. Nothing particularly spectacular in that—all animals seem to respond to music. Here’s the thing though: Sophie, when situated on the couch in this fashion, became a feline metronome. Her tail wagged in perfect time to whatever was playing. If the tempo of a certain song was fast, her tail flicked back and forth almost convulsively. If the tempo slowed to a crawl, her tail would follow suit. This would happen every time she sat on her couch perch and music poured from the speakers.
Sophie was a constant presence in our home. She would lead the way to the kitchen for her morning meal or her evening meal, and spring up to the window seat which served as her dining room table. Wherever she led you, Sophie would weave between your walking legs. And that sometimes caused trip ups.
Over the past two years, Sophie had become a little slower. She slept more, was not prone to leaping, and gave up hunting altogether, even for camel crickets. Every so often she would gallop like a kitten, or do this strange sideways walk, which she also did when she was much younger. In the main, though, she slept and purred and ate, rarely venturing outdoors, and when she did she confined herself to the front porch.
Two days ago, just after six in the morning, I opened my bedroom door, expecting to see Sophie who would lead me to the kitchen and her morning meal. But she wasn’t there. I checked in Charles’s room, the sunroom, the front porch, even the basement. From the basement I clambered into the crawl space, and searched for her on hands and knees all the way up to where the front porch begins. At one point, my hand touched something with fur on it, and my flattened palm went right through it. Whatever it was deflated like a puffball mushroom, and I could sense a small rush of cool air on my fingertips. When I pointed the flashlight downward I could see my hand embedded in what looked like the mummified remains of a possum or a large rodent. It was not Sophie.
I searched the house again for another hour or so, and then checked under my son’s bed. Sophie lay on her side, eyes shut, breathing almost imperceptibly. I threaded my fingers under her small body and carefully lifted her out from under the bed. She was ragdoll-limp. I carried her to the kitchen and laid her down on the window seat, tried to get her to eat and drink, dipped my finger into the bowl of water and brought it to her open mouth, but she pulled away.
I took a quick shower and when I entered the kitchen, Sophie was gone. Again, I searched the house and this time found her under my bed, and her breathing had become loud and labored. I wrapped her in a towel, laid her in the passenger seat of the car and drove her out to Locke Taylor’s veterinary clinic on Woodman Road.
A young vet tended to her. She was gentle with Sophie. She took her temperature, but when she tried to listen to her heart, Sophie’s purring was so loud the vet had to hold a ball of cotton dipped in oil under her nose. The purring stopped immediately, and the vet listened, then prodded Sophie’s abdomen.
“They’re not like us and they’re not like dogs,” the vet told me. “Cats don’t tell us when they’re in pain.”
The vet stroked Sophie’s back, then looked at me. “She’s in a lot of pain,” the vet said. The entire time that Sophie lay on the examination table, my fingers combed through the hair between her ears, something that had always calmed her. When the vet took blood, I held Sophie firmly down with one hand.
It seemed the vet was gone for more than an hour to have the blood analyzed, but when I checked my phone only fifteen minutes had elapsed. That’s when the vet told me it would be a good idea to put Sophie down. I had not prepared myself for this, and the walls of the room contracted, and when I shifted my weight from one foot to another it was as if I was standing on a floor of foam rubber. The only words I remember the vet saying were, “A large mass.”
My eyes flooded with tears and for several seconds I could not speak, I could not catch my breath.
“I need to go outside.”
The vet nodded. As I removed my hand from between Sophie’s ears, her hand replaced mine.
Outside, a hot wind rustled through the dry leaves of a tree that created a small pool of shade. I stood there for a moment and then called Catherine, but she didn’t answer her phone and this was going to require something more than a text. I knew she was busy with last minute details because the following morning she was scheduled to fly to Nanchang, China to visit, Tyler, who had been studying at a university there since February. I called Joany, Catherine’s mom, and when I explained the situation she recommended that I not tell Catherine. Our daughter was already nervous about a twenty-hour flight to China, and Sophie’s passing would only increase her anxiety, Joany reasoned. I halfheartedly agreed.
Back in the examination room, the vet had prepared a syringe, and as I held Sophie firmly down, she injected her with pentobarbital.
“Look right into her eyes,” she told me. “You’ll be the last person she sees.”
I crouched down so that I was at eyelevel with the examination table and stared directly into Sophie’s eyes, and she stared back. As the drug began taking effect, her fully dilated pupils slowly contracted to slits. A very long two minutes after the injection, Sophie’s eyes became vacant as a doll’s.
“She’s gone,” the vet said.
And just like that there was no life left in her, yet she had purred up until that very last second.
“We’ll prepare her,” the vet told me. “You’re welcome to leave and come back later this afternoon.”
By the time I got back to our house, the temperature had climbed into the nineties, with the humidity in a nose-to-nose race. I spoke with Charles, and asked him not to tell Catherine about Sophie.
“Why?” he asked.
I explained that she was already nervous about her trip, and this would just increase her stress. “We’ll tell her when she gets back,” I told Charles, but I still had my reservations.
By the time I got back to the animal hospital, Sophie had been wrapped in a lime green cloth—a sort of death shroud—and placed in the bottom of a small coffin. It was shaped like a coffin, but it was just a cardboard box, and a fairly flimsy one at that. When I lifted the casket I almost flipped it over my shoulder because it was so light, offering no resistance whatsoever, and I remembered the vet having told me earlier that Sophie weighed a scant six pounds. I drove home with one hand gripping the steering wheel. The other hand rested on the cardboard casket in the passenger seat.
Even with the two small window units going, the air in our house, when I returned, was warm and humid so I decided to put the casket in the freezer. I removed the ice trays and the wire rack, then slid our encoffined Sophie into the freezer and shut the door. There was a gasp of suction and a brief fog that faded in an instant.
The sun seemed hotter now at six than it had in the early afternoon. Beneath the saucer magnolia in our front yard, where Sophie had often hunted, I began digging along the lines of a rectangle I had inscribed in the earth with a trowel, an outline I had made of Sophie’s coffin before I put it in the freezer. I thrust the pointed tip of the shovel into the dirt and then rode the shovel like a pogo stick. The first three inches of soil were easy to remove, but then I got to the roots, and every six inches or so there was another network of them, and I would use the shovel as a cutting tool, severing them. The deeper I got, the harder the digging became. I penetrated a thick layer of hardpan, presumably fill dirt, and then struck red clay. By the time I finished, the hole was four and a half feet deep, the deepest hole I’d ever dug in our yard. I retrieved the coffin from the freezer and lowered it into the hole, then guided the dirt back into the hole with the shovel. My work was done by about eight o’clock that evening. I dripped with sweat and was smeared with dirt when I went back into the house and fixed myself a gin and tonic. As I took the first sip, my phone rang. It was my daughter. She was crying.
“You nervous about tomorrow?” I asked.
All I could hear was her sobbing. Then she said, “How’s Sophie?”
I was silent.
“How’s Sophie,” Catherine asked again.
I didn’t know what to say, so I maintained my silence. I took a full swallow of my drink, I raked my hand through my hair. “Look,” I said, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“I talked to Charles,” Catherine said.
That’s when I told her in detail all that had happened, and promised a proper burial for Sophie in the morning before we had breakfast and I drove her to the airport. We talked for the next hour, remembering little things about Sophie. We talked until Catherine began to yawn.
By then it was well after nine and I knew what I had to do. I was planning to drive up to WalMart, the one on Parham. I would find a gift box of some kind and make a proper coffin. On my way out of the neighborhood I drove past Once Upon a Vine, and though they were closed, there was still one car parked out front. Pete was still there, closing out the register. I told him my predicament and he gave me a wooden crate that fine French wines come packaged in. He gave me another one, just in case I need more wood to seal the coffin.
Back at the house, I cleared the peninsula in the kitchen, broke the boxes apart with pry bar and hammer, and reconstructed a single coffin from the small boards. On the lid I painted two large, almost perfectly circular eyes, each with a black, vertically-slitted pupil. I used Charles’s green and yellow acrylic paints and poured some silver glitter into the mix. I even added the small orange blemish in her left eye, the birthmark Catherine had often stared at. Above the eyes I painted SOPHIE. By the time I finished this construction, it was just past midnight.
Armed again with the shovel, I dug up Sophie’s grave, and removed her flimsy cardboard coffin, brushing away a paste of moist clay. The cardboard had absorbed ambient moisture from the ground so it was limp, and the lid had caved in. I carried the casket to the kitchen and set it alongside the coffin I had just built. I took the new coffin (which was considerably larger than the original) out to the front yard and scored the earth again, then began digging again, enlarging the hole to accommodate the new coffin. As I dug, shaving away thin layers from the walls, then scooping the dirt out of the hole, a couple walking their dog stopped for a moment and watched me from the sidewalk. And I wondered what they might be thinking. “What the f***’s he doing now? Grave-robbing?” I could hear a chain rattle, then the dog’s toenails scrape the concrete, and the couple moved along the sidewalk, their dog in the lead. The moon was nearly full that night so the light was good.
I finished digging at about two and then took Sophie out of the cardboard coffin and deposited her in the wooden one, then set it in the middle of the peninsula. Behind the casket I placed a vase containing the bouquet of flowers Catherine’s mother had brought two weeks earlier for Catherine’s graduation party. The flowers were still in perfect shape. I covered the top of the coffin with the single loose board that would be sealed just before Sophie’s burial. I pulled two stout white candles out of the pantry, set one on either side of the casket, lit them, and let them burn as a vigil through the night. I flipped off the light in the kitchen and slowly fell asleep on the couch in the living room, where I could see the flicker of the candles making shadows in the dining room.
Three hours later I was up. I showered and composed a prayer for Sophie’s funeral service. After picking up Charles from his mother’s, I met Catherine back at the house. Her face was puffy, her eyes red. After a brief viewing, I read the prayer. Here’s how it went:
“God, we give thanks this day for our sister/daughter Sophie. She was the rarest of your many creations, and we were blessed to call her part of our family. Sophie was kind and loving and joyful. Sophie sprinted through life. She was agile, stepping softly on catspaws, and relished all the natural wonders of the world. And sometimes ate them. We so miss Sophie, we so love Sophie, and our house feels less full. But we know she is with you, and your house has grown fuller, and rejoices in her presence. Please, God, stroke her gently and let her know how much her family misses her. We will always love you, Sophie. We deliver your body to Mother Earth and your soul to our Heavenly Father.”
I fitted the cover over her coffin and secured it with eight flat head nails, and we carried the small casket out onto the front porch, down the steps, and to the edge of the rectangular hole I had dug beneath the saucer magnolia. We lowered Sophie into the earth, tossed flowers onto the coffin, then began pushing and shoveling the mounds of earth into the hole. After tamping the earth down, we did what people often do after burying a loved one—we went to get a bite to eat, a hearty breakfast at Dot’s Back Inn, where both my kids had eaten their first meal in a restaurant. After breakfast, I drooped my son off at school, then drove my daughter out to the airport.
I spent the vast majority of the afternoon constructing a headstone, and I made it the way the Gullah of South Carolina’s Low Country and Sea Islands had made theirs for generations. I had the great fortune of spending part of my boyhood in the Low Country, and several years ago, as part of a media tour, spent the better part of a week on one of the Palmetto State’s Sea Islands. It was on that island I came across an old family cemetery that contained more than a dozen graves. These were the final resting places of a Gullah family—the earliest dated back to the 1870s. Descendants of enslaved Africans, the Gullah did not have the money to buy marble or granite headstones. Instead, they crafted them out of a sort of concrete made of sand and crushed shells, and ornamented with pebbles. Adorning the center of each tombstone, which faced east toward the motherland, was either an eating utensil or a plate, cup or bowl—an item that had been used at the last meal of the deceased.
And so I bought a forty pound bag of cement from Lowe’s, built a simple form of scrap lumber and plywood, mixed and poured the cement, laid in four thick sticks of rebar, and, after inscribing Sophie’s name and the years of her birth and death with a twig, pressed her food bowl into the unset cement. A little after nightfall, I broke the form away from the headstone and carried it to the front yard where I set it at the head of the small mound that marked Sophie’s grave.
But my work was not finished. After setting the headstone in place, I walked down the side of the house and into the backyard and found the spot where the shells were. I began picking up a dozen whelks that bordered two sides of the vegetable garden. These shells, sun-bleached and chalky white, were things Catherine’s mom and I had collected the day after an October nor’easter twenty years ago near my parents’ house in Bethany Beach, Delaware. I carried the whelks to the front yard and lined them around Sophie’s grave much like the Gullah had done a century ago around the graves of their ancestors in the Low Country. The Gullah did this so the soul of the departed would have a series of chambers where it could rest, an ancient belief from the rich cultural heritage of the Bakongo people who call Angola home. Now Sophie’s soul had many rooms to inhabit before she left the world for good and all.
There’s a kind of caveat that comes with pet ownership. You will probably outlive your animal, unless you happen to be very old at the time of adoption, or if your pet of choice is either a Galapagos tortoise or a Greenland shark. Understanding this proviso, though, doesn’t diminish the sense of loss experienced when a family pet dies.
We would all miss Sophie, and there would be a palpable absence in our home, and it was as if we were losing a family member. Yet it wasn’t. As clever and sweet as she had been, Sophie was not a human being, and it was not as if we had lost a blood relative or a dear friend.
My son and my daughter, who began their lives with Sophie as children, had become young adults by the time of her passing. Over the course of those thirteen years, she was a constant presence in our home, and as the children grew, Sophie seemed impossibly to remain the same. She didn’t get larger, and her coat did not whiten. Photos of her taken shortly after her arrival in our home, and those taken weeks before her death show the same exact cat. She seemed ageless, as everything around her grew older, and then one day she was simply gone.