The Truth Will Not Be Buried
“Tiger Lily and I are getting to New York on September 7th,” I tell my father.
“We can’t wait to have you both. One more thing. Do you care about seeing Altero alive again?” he asks.
Altero is my parents’ cat. When I brought him home from the North Shore Animal League, I saw that he was wearing a tag around his neck that said “Altered” because of the state of his testicles. I misread it, thinking it was his name tag, and wondered why the shelter had given him this strange vaguely Italian name. From then on, the “altered” cat was known as “Altero.” Although I was the one to select him, he and I never really bonded, since I moved to Brooklyn soon after Altero moved in. For the past few years, he has been suffering from a type of cancer that makes him scratch all of his skin off.
“No, I guess not,” I say.
“Okey, dokey. Well, his time has come and I think I’m gonna have to go do the deed in the next week or so,” he responds. “So, he’ll be gone when you get here.”
“It’ll be nice for you to meet Tiger Lily. Some fresh kitten energy will be good,” I say.
My parents are well accustomed to watching their cats in their final moments. They had four when I was born: Spooky, Blanche, Baby, and Lily. I only remember two of them because Lily was sent off to a farm (or is that just another euphemism?) for peeing in my father’s shoe and Baby died of diabetes when I was an infant. My mother likes to share the story of going into work the day after and telling her colleagues that she had a bad night because “Baby” died. They looked at her in horror until they realized she had a cat named Baby and I was still kicking.
By the time I was old enough to chase and smother the cats, or my siblings as I thought of them, only Spooky and Blanche were left. Spooky was thin and black, and so patient, that I often told my friends it was okay to throw him up at the ceiling just to prove that he would never bite us. Blanche, on the other hand, was not as tolerant. A low-bellied orange and white mask-and-mantle (like Altero was in gray), Blanche hissed and smacked me when I disturbed her. So, obviously she was my favorite. Her siblings, Gretchen and Plato (who I thought was named Play Dough) belonged to my mother’s friend Roberta. I loved visiting Roberta and seeing Blanche’s sisters; it was nice to feel like our feline family was extended.
When I was eight years old and spending time in my parents’ room one night, Blanche fell from their dresser. She landed with a thud and didn’t move. My mother determined (with the vast veterinary knowledge of an English teacher) that she must have had a heart attack. This was my first brush with an actual dead body, although my parents dragged me to funerals the way other kids went to Mets games. They didn’t want me to miss out on any part of the life cycle. Without a Dr. Kevorkian for pets to lead the way, we were left with the strange undertaking of how to handle the body.
The next day, my father assured me that he was going to take Blanche to the school where he worked and bury her in the field. He was not particularly outdoorsy. I had never seen him use a shovel, so the image of him digging a hole in the schoolyard to dump a dead cat like some kind of low-profile mobster always struck me as odd. But I figured this was how people who lived in apartments in Queens without proper backyards handled our corpses.
Twenty-six years later, I arrive home with Tiger Lily, who is my daughter, not my sister, to accompany my father as he receives chemotherapy for the next fourteen weeks. I let her out of her case and watch her marvel at my parents’ living room, which is bigger than our whole apartment in LA.
My father kneels and says, “Hi Tiger Lily. You didn’t know you had so much family.”
“How did it go with Altero?” I ask.
“It was sad,” he replies.
I try not to think about the implications of sending a person with Stage 4 cancer to fulfill this duty. Later, we sit on the terrace, and the topic of Blanche’s sudden death comes up.
“I still can’t believe you buried Blanche in the backyard of BOCES,” I say.
He looks at me with a sly smile, “I didn’t really do that.”
“Then where is she?” I ask.
“I was going to bury her. But as I walked out of the building, a garbage truck came by and I threw her in the back of the truck and got the hell out of there,” he said. “I didn’t want to upset you at the time, to make you think I hadn’t given your cat a proper burial. So I lied.”
I couldn’t believe it. All this time, Blanche was not lying in the ground like Jimmy Hoffa, waiting for some vocational high school student to discover her remains. Somehow, this version of events made a lot more sense to me and I wished I had learned the truth sooner. My father did not like getting down and dirty. He didn’t hunt or fish or camp. Burying cats didn’t seem like his calling.
But what disturbed me more than the image of her orange and white fur bumping along in the garbage truck was the ease with which he confessed to lying. It made me wonder just how many other truths he had buried. Or in this case, not buried.