My daughter-in-law called last night from the other side of the country. Tuna had died, and she didn’t know what to do.
Tuna was the wall-eyed Siamese my son rescued from a dumpster when he was living in a rental with bars on the windows on busy Clinton Avenue in Fresno and working at the Community Hospital. The feeble mewing he heard coming from the alley was not coming from the ache in his heart, so he brought the cat in.
“They’ve been through a lot together,” his wife said. “He loved Tuna. I don’t want him to come home and find the cat disappeared.”
From the contents of his apartment we helped pack up when he joined the Army, I think that what Tuna and Nick have been through are hours of metal hefting, action films and sit coms, but Nick did like to box with his cat in a funny little guy-game. Tuna lived in our barn while the soldier was in training and on his post in Germany (during which time he met Hope and her kinders) and during his “year abroad” in Afghanistan. Hope put her foot down; the cat would not be the best “man” at their wedding. Nick had bought him a Chippendale-style bowtie just in case. At great expense, he had shipped the cat from California to North Carolina when he started Special Forces training, even though I told him they surely have cats on the east coast.
Hope talked to my husband first. Since we live in the country, we bury passed-pets at the edge of the woods deep enough to deter coyotes. She lives on Fort Bragg Army base where all the back yards merge, and, being from a European resort town, she doesn’t yet drive, so she couldn’t bury it on her own. When her neighbors’ cat had died, they had it cremated. We all balked at the expense. My husband’s dumpster suggestion horrified her, despite the poetic irony–from a dumpster he was saved, and to a dumpster he returns.
She was glad Nick was unreachable because she didn’t want to tell him by phone in the middle of stressful mission, but she didn’t want to lie.
“How are the kids reacting?” I asked. I remember my son, the animal-lover gently conducting funeral rites for kittens named Luke and Leah, but I also remember the future combat medic dissecting a chicken after a dog had broken its neck, while Kaji, our exchange student, filmed the gory scene.
“Aleyna [the nine-year-old drama queen] cried a little,” Hope said. I told them Tuna died in his favorite spot under Daddy’s chair. I wrapped him in Daddy’s towel and told them the body was just the shell, that Tuna’s soul was in Heaven, then I sent them to Miss Emily’s to play. But Mika  stood by the door. He asked if he could pray.” Mika is a rough-and-tumble boys’ boy, and they aren’t regular church-attenders, but his mom said he became very serious. He approached Tuna, who lay stiff in a towel. He kneeled down and thanked God for Tuna’s good life, asked Him to watch over Tuna, He hoped Tuna would be happy in Heaven where he wouldn’t be sick, where he could run and play. Then he ran after his sister.
On her answering machine, I had left my best suggestion for stalling until Nick returns. “Once when Greg and I were away and Nick was housesitting, our good old cowdog Pearl died. Nick went at night to our old house, the ranch where she had lived most of her dog years, where Nick’s dad’s ashes are strewn, and clandestinely buried her in the cattle pasture. But, if I were you, I’d wrap the cat in thick plastic and freeze him until Nick gets home.”
So the cat waited in the freezer, next to the spinach, peas, and popsicles. Sophie, the kitten, was looking for Tuna from room to room. Hope couldn’t bring herself to feed Sophie where she always has, by the fridge.
Nick called a day before she expected him, as she was walking to pick the kids up from school.
“Where are you?” She asked. He could be hours away; she never knows.
“Almost home,” he told her.
She told me she panicked a little. “Don’t go to the house!” She told him to meet her in front of the elementary school.
She was able to tell him the whole story before the final bell rang. When kids ran out and saw Daddy, they screamed with delight, then immediately looked at Mommy.
“He knows,” she said, and Aleyna started to tear up.
“It’s okay,” Nick said and put his big arms around his 3rd-grader.
Once home, the kids went out to play. Hope was in and out readjusting to the change of plans. On one trip through the laundry room, she was startled by the stiffly-frozen cat carcass.
“Was he doing an autopsy?” I asked when she called, knowing my son.
He wasn’t, she said. He was taking it to the woods to bury it, but he’d been distracted by little Sophie and was on the floor boxing with the kitten.