A Death In The Family

by Andrea LaCampagne, May 13, 2010

I never had a pet. I guess I just never bonded with animals. I didn't even like taking my son Mateo to the zoo when he was little. When Mateo was about a year or so old (I say "about" because the event was not very momentous in my memory), a calico orange feral cat came around. My husband John kept feeding it so it kept returning. Mateo named the cat "Meow-meow" because he was in the language development stage where all animals are the sounds they make.

Pretty soon that ugly, flea-infested cat continually came to our house. Mateo adopted the cat and bought it a collar with his allowance money. John and Mateo would pet the cat every morning. When they returned home the cat would sit on a little cushion they kept for it next to the house.

It was a peculiar cat. It would come when Mateo called it by name and it would follow Mateo when he rode his bike down our dirt road. Mateo was very fond of that cat.

On the other hand, I was disappointed that a feral cat would refuse to catch mice around the house. I blamed it on John and Mateo for overfeeding cat. The cat just lounged around the front of the door, got under my feet, and shed hair all over the patio furniture and sometimes even inside the house when John and Mateo snuck it into the house when they thought it was too cold for it outside in the winter. When we would return from vacations the cat would literally run to Mateo to welcome him home.

Matteo is now seven. Last Friday, John told me that Meow-meow's breath was labored and she was having trouble standing up. My first response was to "get a shovel" in preparation for a quick, garbage can dump-funeral. John then told Mateo. He cried. No – he wailed. He demanded that we put me Meow-meow in a box and bring it to a "vegetarian" in Ukiah to fix Meow-meow immediately. John did not think that Meow-meow would make the trip and he hurriedly took photos of Mateo with Meow-meow while she was still alive. Meow meow died about 10 minutes later.

Mateo was inconsolable. Yet he started making burial arrangements immediately. John and I decided we would let Mateo make whatever ceremony he wanted and we would comply with his wishes. After all, this was Mateo's first death experience.

Mateo started digging a grave site for Meow-meow. He sited the grave near his bedroom window so he could look out and see Meow-meow whenever he wanted to. He dug a deep, deep hole. (The last thing we needed was the cat's remains to be scattered all over the yard by a raccoon or bear.) When he completed the hole, Mateo came into the house and made a note that said, "I love you, Meow-meow" with little hearts all over the page. He instructed me to carve "Meow-meow" on a piece of wood for the headstone.

We then proceeded to the burial site. Mateo and John put Meow-meow into the grave and Mateo placed his love note, his collar, a cat toy, and his favorite box of pet food into the grave. He asked for three candles and passed them out, one to each of us. He asked  John and I to say a few words and after we were done we were to blow out our candles. Mateo lit the candles carefully.

After I stumbled through a cat eulogy (and being cor­rected that the cat was a "she" and not a "he"), I blew out my candle. John continued and blew out his candle. Mateo finished, blew out his candle, and slumped to his knees in the mud and moaned, "I know all things must die, but why Meow-meow? Why Meow meow?!"

Mateo asked us to pick up some dirt and drop it in the grave. Mateo told us to take turns putting dirt on Meow-meow's grave. After we were done, Mateo stood up and asked us to say  a prayer. I stuttered, "As I said  only moments ago… um, Meow-meow was a part of the fam­ily…") John came through as usual and then it was Mateo's turn again. He thanked Buddha for bringing Meow-meow to us and concluded that he would "never forget Meow-meow." I don't think he ever will.

The following day, we got up early and drove to a memorial in San Francisco's Presidio Park for Dr. Edgar Wayburn, a world renowned conservationist who passed away recently. Dr. Wayburn was 103 years old. He was the father of our dear friend, Laurie Wayburn. Mateo was "itchy" in his clip-on tie and new black shoes. But he was a trooper throughout the long ceremony.

It was a very formal affair in celebration of Dr. Way­burn who was known internationally as a leader in the environmental communities from the 1950s to the pre­sent. Dr. Wayburn, along with his late wife Peggy, led campaigns to preserve over 100 million acres of public parkland including the Presidio, the Marin Headlands etc. Dr. Wayburn was "The 20th Century John Muir." He did this in his spare time as he was a full-time physician who taught at UC Berkeley and Stanford medical schools and was the president of the San Francisco Medical Society.

When we arrived at the memorial, the National Park Service was present in full uniform and mounted on horses. Flags were at half mast. Black Lincoln towncars dropped off passengers at the front of the Presidio coun­try club.  Secret Service agents abounded as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was present. People arrived in taxis straight from San Francisco International. The President of the Sierra Club was on hand. There were giant video monitors showing photographs of Dr. Way­burn with his family, meeting past US presidents, being awarded the Albert Schweitzer prize for Humanitarian­ism and the Medal of Freedom from President Clinton. Media, videographers, and photographers were present. After the memorials and speeches there was a cham­pagne toast in honor of Dr. Wayburn, and a lovely brunch. It was a beautiful and poignant tribute to a great man.

We quietly walked back to our car after the over­whelmingly emotional ceremony. Mateo then turned to John and I said, "We really should have done something like that for Meow-meow."

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