Photo by Kari Sullivan
We suspected it was illegal, but we had no choice. At the vet’s office in Park Slope, they told us cat cremation cost $125, and neither my boyfriend nor I had the money. Besides, cremation seemed too formal, too clinical, for Jed. He was always escaping out the window, taking self-guided tours of the neighborhood after nightfall. He was an explorer, a wild boy, and he had two adorably protruding saber teeth to prove it. I worried about him getting lost or hit by a car, but he was Kevin’s cat, not mine. In the end, his liver failed and we had to put him to sleep. Kevin didn’t know how old he was, but he’d had him for more than ten years. It was his call where we laid Jed to rest.
Though I’d lived in New York for almost a year, I was still getting accustomed to the city’s unique rites of passage. Kevin, who had arrived only a couple of months before, was still in shock. We’d both moved from Boston, a place where people have cars and backyards and relatively few homicidal thoughts per capita. In New York, you must relearn all the simple, quotidian skills you’ve taken for granted since becoming an adult—grocery shopping, laundry, parking, sleeping. Daily life is a blur of small battles—squeezing up and down the stairs to the subway, bobbing and weaving around slow walkers on the sidewalk, and vying for park-bench space so you can eat your takeout lunch in relative peace. To some degree, these are all expected, reasonable challenges in a city of more than eight million. But every once in a while you’re faced with something unexpected, a question you can’t just ask the guy on the corner. A question like, “Where am I supposed to bury my cat?”
Kevin and I stood outside the vet’s office squinting in the sun. We had lied and told the vet we had a backyard where we could bury Jed. The other two options were to pay for his cremation with a credit card, or to give the vet’s office permission to “dispose of the body.” Kevin was more upset than I’d ever seen him. He had rescued Jed from an abusive owner more than a decade ago, and he wasn’t about to leave him now. A proper burial seemed the only fitting thing, but where? We started walking down 7th Avenue toward True Value Hardware, taking turns carrying the house-shaped cardboard carrier. It was heavy with a weight unlike any other I’d ever felt. It was a lifelike weight, but oddly quiet and still, somewhere between asleep and inanimate. When I tripped on a chunk of broken sidewalk, I worried that the shake had disturbed him. No, I had to remind myself. Jed was already gone.
I waited outside while Kevin went into the store and bought a red-handled metal shovel. By the time he came out, we had both arrived at the same idea: Prospect Park. We guessed we could get in some kind of trouble for it, but we decided it was worth the risk. The park was our mutual favorite place in New York. Its vast, sea-like lawn is Brooklyn’s backyard; its meandering woods the borough’s best hiding place. On a warm day you can see dozens of picnic tables decorated with crepe paper and balloons for kids’ birthdays, their parents sipping beers and manning grills nearby. People of all ages play catch and softball and soccer, and dogs chase tennis balls as far as their owners can chuck them. In the woods you can pretend you’re completely alone, with the chirping of birds and the swell of the breeze to keep you company. Though we doubted he’d ever gotten that far in his nocturnal wanderings, Kevin and I agreed: The park would’ve satisfied Jed’s wanderlust for an eternity.
We entered through a break in the stone wall along Prospect Park West and followed a path that ultimately dove off into the woods. We climbed a hill to what we hoped was the highest point in the park and chose a spot next to a thick oak tree with tangled, partially exposed roots. Kevin dug the hole while I stared down passersby who gave us condemning looks. What was the penalty for burying a pet in a public park? Would anyone actually go to the trouble of reporting us? For all they knew, we could be stashing a murder weapon or human remains, but we knew our cause was pure. When the hole was deep enough, Kevin lifted Jed’s body, wrapped in an old towel, out of the carrier. He held it for a moment before placing it in the hole and then immediately started filling it in. It had rained recently, and the dirt was heavy and dark like wet sand. Kevin tamped it down with his feet and then smoothed it out with the back of the shovel. We wanted to mark the grave without making it too conspicuous, so we pressed fist-sized rocks into the packed earth in the shape of a capital J. When it was done, we sat on the ground for a while, watching the sunlight move through the trees.
Burying Jed was one of the last things Kevin and I did together. Our relationship had always been a volatile one, and by the time Jed died, we were already in our decline. I don’t know if Kevin still lives in New York or if he’s moved back to Boston, a place he always loved and seemed reluctant to leave. Nor do I know if Jed’s grave is still on that hill in Prospect Park where we made it that bright spring day two years ago. I could probably find it if I looked; I remember that wonderful tree with its rippling roots, the way the sunlight split a thousand ways and dotted the spot we marked with a J. But I’d hate to find it ravaged somehow, dug up by a dog or eroded by rain. Instead I’ll just imagine Jed the way he might’ve looked if he’d gotten to enjoy Prospect Park during his life. His lean, gray body bounding through the woods, or curled up in a patch of sunlight, warm and dreaming.