Dead men do not have birthdays, and because of this, I have remained reluctant to acknowledge November 17th as anything other than a silent day of reminiscing. That is also a big, fat lie because when Gatita the cat was alive, I would feed her tuna, saying, “Celebrate in his place!”
Because of the tuna tradition, I chose today to make the 30-minute drive to the Phelan Cemetery, exactly as I had done six years ago and basically for the same purpose: to spread ashes. Except this trip, instead of my husband’s ashes, I took the brown container from the pet crematory, and which held my precious girl, and carried this to my grandmother’s weathered tombstone.
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My Texas family had a tradition of burial in the Phelan Cemetery in Bastrop, Texas, an old coal miners’ town. My great-grandfather, Cleofas Guzman, worked the coal mines in the 1800s in that tumbleweed village of 500. John Phelan, owner of the coal-mining company and the only employer of dark workers, donated two lone acres to the Tejanos to bury their dead, the sting of segregation the only thing alive in that cemetery.
Two turned into four and eventually six acres would become a sacred resting place for the coal mining community to honor the lives of those generations that had gone before. Bastrop County would not acknowledge the burial ground until the mid-1990s when twice a year, descendants of those buried in Phelan held a psuedo dia de muertos, flipping burgers and Elgin sausage on a barbecue pit set up on the cemetery grounds, while men drove riding lawn mowers and held battery-operated edgers to trim the overgrown weeds.
They came from Amarillo and El Paso, Laredo and Corpus Christi, to mingle with the Central Texans and tend to the resting place of their families. Mariachi music played in the background, and if you happened to drive by during one of these cemetery days, you would assume it was a party in the planning. After the lawn was trimmed back and the music turned off, the name of each soul buried was proclaimed out loud, with the date of their birth and the date of their death.
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Feline remains are about one-tenth the amount of an adult male, give or take a few whiskers.
“It’s like I just keep bringing you ashes,” I said as I silently hoped that the grandmother I’d never met did indeed like pets or would at least like this one. “And she’s from Mexico!” I said, hoping that Gatita’s dual-nationality might endear my dead cat to my dead grandmother.
Last weekend, during the virtual Texas Book Festival, I listened to best-selling author, Jodi Picoult, talk about her newest novel, “The Book of Two Ways,” about a death doula who dares to ask: What does a life well-lived look like?
A life well-lived looked like Gatita’s, at least for the first 16 years; and even though I did not say it then, I still want to say those five things that Picoult said we should to anyone who is dying or who has left:
- Thank you for being a lap kitty
- Please forgive me for not being more patient with you
- I forgive you for scratching my face
- I love you and even miss your incessant crying
- Good-bye, chica Gatita . . .