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Illustration by Ashley Wong

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

I had an idea of what it would look like, the urn for his ashes. It would be marble or stone, with engraved lettering, the size of a jewellery box. This would be the final resting place of Kojak, my cat. My computer screen had several websites open, sites with names such as stardust-memorials.com, but – just as when I’d picked Kojak from the shelter – I was searching for “the one,” the vessel that would be the appropriate, tasteful, serious tribute to the grief I’d previously dismissed. It was a relief to have a vision, a plan, something to do with this loss when I’d been forging ahead without one for so long.

Many months before this, I stood in an exam room at the animal hospital petting Kojak’s dead body. The vet had just put down our tabby after a series of heart issues. “I can’t leave this room,” I said to my husband, David, in tears. I kept making loops from his small body on the examining table toward the door, then back to Kojack. “When I leave this room, I won’t have my cat any more.” I continued to pet him as if he were alive, rubbing his ears, brushing a finger down the top of his nose. But his paws were cold to the touch and his eyes were open, unblinking.

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I had adopted Kojak just as my relationship with my husband began, and together we made a trio. These were my newlywed years and all our domestic bliss had a cat at its centre. We ate our dinners together, a pet bowl by the table, binge-watched Netflix snuggled up under one ragged blanket, and bunked down together every night. Kojak would burrow under the sheets and head-butt between us purring his double-decker purrs and demanding to be petted, before he finally retreated to his sleeping spot at the foot of the bed. We went through three moves in my cat’s lifetime, but I’d often say to my husband, “Home is anywhere you and Kojak are.”

Kojak’s life also spanned the time when my father fell ill and eventually died. After Kojak’s death, I often felt guilty by the way the loss of my cat could at times feel just as powerful as that of my dad. It helped that my cat was so uncomplicated and unwavering, whereas my father was a difficult, prickly man. Ironically, my dad was a person that felt most at peace around “critters,” and he would have understood and accepted my feelings, even if I couldn’t do that for myself. When my father died, I knew how to approach that grief. I had a playbook: I notified family members and friends, held two separate memorial services, and took bereavement leave from work. I knew what to do, even if that thing was “buy a platter of cold cuts” and “put on a black shift dress.” Likewise, my friends, family and co-workers knew what to do. They paid their respects, offered messages of condolence, sent food or greeting cards that I treasured.

But I had no clue what to do when I lost Kojak. The aftermath was a series of jarring and truncated events. At his death, the animal hospital gave us a choice: We could have him cremated with other pets or pay to have him cremated separately with his ashes returned to us. It was no choice.

A week later, we picked up his box and I was disappointed by how cheap it looked, a mass-produced, hinged wood box with a tin nameplate glued on top. We’d also paid extra for a commemorative paw print but when we got it, it looked ghoulish: a forced imprint with claws digging through the resin. I could almost see the technician cramming Kojak’s lifeless paw into the putty. It was more a memento of his death than his life. David threw it away almost immediately, revolted.

I placed the generic box with Kojak’s ashes in his old cat bed, setting a single marigold on top. And that was that. Funeral over. There was no bereavement leave as there had been with my father; I returned to work immediately, staring at a spreadsheet, glassy-eyed. Friends would ask how I was holding up but I’d mostly play it for laughs, which was easy to do since pet grief is considered an oddball thing. “I’ve become that weird lady with a cat shrine!” I’d joke. "But I’m doing okay.” Meanwhile, I cried in yoga class seeing cat scratches on my foam mat. I cried on the subway platform hearing a busker sing the folk song Orphan Girl. And I cried without fail every time I opened my front door and did not find Kojak charging the entrance to greet me. I was not doing okay.

Left without an outlet, my grief festered in bizarre ways. I began Googling “cat funeral.” I found the search results soothing. I spent one afternoon reading about the elaborate funeral rites for a Japanese cat named Tama, who’d become a railway station mascot. Her service was attended by more than 3,000 mourners. But I also revelled in the more mundane passing of house pets and studied Buddhist funerals for pets in which cremated ashes and bones are collected with chopsticks and placed into vessels adorned with filigreed paper, tassels and calligraphy. The final flourish of the rite was the monk’s prayers over the animal.

Even in my grief, it didn’t feel right to appropriate the rituals of another culture, but I found myself wishing there was something, anything, I could do to work through my feelings. That’s when I began looking for the urn. The serious, real-deal urn. The urn that said, “This is authentic grief and it deserves to be honoured.” I looked at everything from granite and stone urns to artisanal homemade ones to fussy antique ones. I wasn’t just looking for a container for my cat’s ashes but also for all the emotions around my grief. I finally settled on a handmade, rectangular box of wonderstone with a pattern similar to a tabby cat – a striped pattern on one side and a swirling bull’s-eye on the other. When it arrived, I transferred Kojak’s ashes to their new container. I lit a pair of candles and played Orphan Girl. After many lost months, I had finally scooped up all the sadness I’d suppressed and held it in my arms and stroked it softly. I’d been pushing it away for so long, but now I recognized it had been pawing at the door, waiting to be let in.

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Maria Teresa Hart lives in New York.

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