Brianna Bjarnson is a multi-genre writer whose childhood daydreaming once caused a frustrated, second-grade teacher to bite her. Since then, she has better learned how to positively channel her overactive imagination. Brianna teaches and tutors writing in the alluring San Francisco North Bay, where she enjoys getting lost in the woods with her dog.
My friend Laura has a six-month-old kitten in her freezer. The kitten—Oscar, was his name—has been lying dead in the deep freeze for nearly as long as he lived. For months, I’ve gone over to Laura’s to share laughs and stories over wine and chocolate and, all the while, there lay little Oscar, just behind us, a grotesque, contorted block of kitty ice. I laughed when she told me. It was a strange, sympathetic type of laugh. “Oh!” I said. “Why haven’t you buried him yet?” She said, matter-of-factly, that she just had not got around to it. But she did not look at me when she spoke and in her stare I could still see the pain of his loss. So I didn’t believe her.
Laura loved that cat. She had bottle-fed him as an orphaned four-week-old, rescued from the side of the road. A long-haired, orange tabby, Oscar was as cuddly as he was playful. He allowed the dog to carry him around in her mouth, he joined the kids in their wrestling and chasing games, and he nestled himself deep into the nape of Laura’s neck, settled into the webs of her hair, purring and kneading himself to sleep.
When Oscar died (hit by a car, was the consensus), Laura admitted she was grief-stricken. She cried for days. Her kids got over it quickly, but she did not. I knew that. Still, until she told me that he currently resided among the frozen meats and vegetables and ice of her freezer, I had no idea how much Oscar’s loss was still affecting her. It suddenly dawned on me that Laura did not consciously realize the depths of her grief either.
“I still have Sadie’s ashes,” Laura said nonchalantly, detecting my not-so-well-hidden shock at her confession. “Right up there.” She pointed to the slender jar on the top of her work desk. It looked far too small and insignificant to hold an eighty-five pound Husky. Sadie had been Laura’s very special dog (three dogs ago) who died eight years before. As I sat there, beginning to feel sober despite the wine we had drunk, I wondered, when it came to Laura’s grief, if it made a difference where her pets’ remains lay. If Oscar were buried and decomposing in the damp soil instead of suspended agelessly in frozen time, if Sadie’s ashes were spread and joined with the dust instead of sitting motionless in Laura’s office space, would their loss be any further from her mind, her heart?
For me, the forms of those whom I have loved and buried are slowly breaking down, or they have been burned to dust and thrown to the wind. For all the ceremony and distance and disintegration, my dead may as well be resting in my home, before my eyes. In my mind and heart, they are not buried at all.
As a child, I never actually saw death. I am told that I attended my grandmother’s funeral, but I was only three and I don’t remember. What I do remember is my grandmother’s deathbed. I recall being led down the hospital corridor and I recall how the open door exposed her withering frame, her sunken face. I remember my grandmother looking at me, how the cigarette-induced emphysema had made her fifty-two years look like more like eighty-two.
I only have one other memory of my grandmother. I was knee-high and standing beside her at the kitchen table where she sat. She was sipping from a large mug of hot, black coffee. She noticed me peering up, watching her intently.
“Do you want a sip, hon?” she asked, bending down toward me, holding the warm mug out to me. Coffee was strictly forbidden by my parents. It was of the devil and, even as young as I was, I knew that already. I could actual feel my eyes and mouth widening at the prospect. I did not say a word, but I nodded. Slowly. Hopefully. And my grandmother gave me my very first taste of coffee.
Still today, there is nothing quite so comforting and warming to me as the smell and flavor of freshly brewed coffee. That single memory of my grandmother is enough to make my final memory of her one of loss. But these two memories for me are equated with first comfort and then illness—not death.
I saw dead animals as a child, but I did not see them die. On my long walk home down quiet country roads, I saw things bloating, rotting, bursting, crawling with worms: raccoons, opossums, cats. I did not care for the putrid, acrid smell of the filthy, decomposing corpses, but it was the sights—the dislodged eye, the collapsing ribcage, the badly contorted mouth—that unsettled me.
This is what happens to animals when they die, I thought. I never related the decay, the grotesqueness of death, to humans. Not to my grandmother, whom I barely remembered; not to the ashes of my two great-grandmothers (both of whom I knew and loved for twelve years) sitting in my mother’s walk-in closet, awaiting their final resting place.
Down the road from my house, there was a bull I used to go see. He was larger than life, jet black, and a truly magnificent creature. The bull lived on a few acres along with a chained-up Dalmatian, whom I used to sneak onto the property to pet and feed. One day, playing outside in my orchard, I heard a loud, reverberating gun shot. It surprised me but, after hanging in the air for a few moments, was quickly forgotten. Forgotten, that is, until later when I saw the huge black bull suspended by each ankle from a large tractor while he was sliced in two, all the way down the middle. Though I was probably only eight at the time, it seemed that butchering this great beast right out where everyone could see had robbed him of his dignity. I had never cared for those neighbors—I didn’t like the way they treated their dog (who lived his entire life ignored and chained to a metal post) or their chickens (who never got out of their dank and dirty coop) or their children (who never seemed clean or happy)—but after the public dismembering of that sleek, black, two-thousand pound beast, I hated them.
Across the street from the bull-butcher’s property one sunny afternoon, I found a gopher. It was moving slowly over the ground and I could see it needed help. Growing up with gardens, I knew the only good gopher was a dead one. I would watch with amazement as the wild, country cats stalked the gophers with painstaking patience. They worked so slowly and carefully that their movements were almost imperceptible. I cheered right along with my dad every time the cats caught their meal, leaving more lettuce, carrots, beets, and radishes for my family’s dinner. I also got excited every time my dad caught one in his traps. I’d look at the dead gophers, barely bloody, their yellow teeth bucking comically out from under their top lips and I couldn’t believe their mission in life was to destroy our vegetable gardens. One time, I sat only feet away from a young corn stalk as I watched it easily and methodically pulled down by its roots until it fully returned to the ground from which it had grown. The apparent reversal of the corn’s short life and the robbing of our future sweet corn on the cob had me fully on board with the annihilation of the gophers. Yet, when I saw the helpless gopher that day, alive and in distress, I did not hesitate to help him.
I immediately ran home and grabbed my dad’s old dirt and grease encrusted work gloves and searched for a small box. Once I had everything I needed, I rushed the half-mile back down the road to where the gopher struggled. He was still there, still out in the daylight, still moving slowly. I picked him up with my gloved hands and he did not fight. I ran home as fast as I could without rattling him in the box too badly. When I got home, I checked on him again. It was clear to me that he was not well, but I wanted to make him better and then keep him as a pet.
I hurried into the house to get my siblings so they could see what I had brought home. But by the time they came out and I opened the box again, he was just another dead gopher. We all looked at him, lying there, succumbed to whatever had ailed him, but only I cried. One minute he’d been alive; the next he was dead. I never saw it happen. True, it was just a gopher—the enemy, really—but for a moment he was mine, and so I cried for him and for what I had tried and failed to do: save him.
There was a time my dad decided to get a pet rabbit. It was his idea and he did it for us kids. So we got Red and he was sweet and large and beautiful, and my dad built him a nice, big hutch. But later my dad let us get another rabbit and, soon enough, we had too many and their reproduction was unstoppable. Though my dad (in my opinion, purposely) came home empty handed from his deer hunting trips each year, my dad knew how to kill and butcher animals. He told us all that he would have to turn some of the newer rabbits into dinner to get the situation under control.
But I had made every single one of the bunnies my pets. I had named them and held them and loved them. I didn’t want to be a part of turning them into dinner.
The day to harvest the rabbits came and, at first, I avoided the back acre. I didn’t want to see the bunnies killed. I knew the method of swinging the rabbits by the ankles into a hard post so they would die immediately from the head trauma—brutal on the human end; fairly quick and painless on the rabbit end—and I didn’t want to watch. Within minutes, I heard they had already been killed and, somehow, I found my way out there where I sat by, quietly watching my father work.
Though a part of me understood, another part of me was sad and a little angry with my father for doing it. I sat, a curious and silent observer, in the grass near the garden a few feet away from my father. He had the dead rabbits along a tall fence line, hanging by their feet and he was beginning to skin them. In their fur, I could still faintly see my pets, but beneath their skins, I could see they were also meat.
“Oh, darn,” my dad said, suddenly breaking both our silences. My dad has always been (and still is) a uniquely calm and patient person. Something as small as a quiet “darn” with a slight undertone of frustration would be a shouting “GODDAMMIT!” from a regular person. I knew something bad had happened. “Brianna,” he said gently, “I need you to come hold this.” I got up immediately. I always have been (and still am) the first to jump in and take calm action when there’s a problem.
My dad showed me where he had, while skinning one of the rabbits, accidentally nicked the flesh over the stomach cavity. The poor dead bunny was literally spilling its guts. I have since learned that spilled guts at the wrong time or place during butchering can spoil the meat. However, at the time, all I knew was that my father said to hold it and so I did. While he finished removing the skin, using my small fingertips, I had to put counter-pressure on the intestines and other slimy internal parts that were trying to push their way out.
As I stood there, I was torn between worrying that I might mess up and ruin everything and wanting to just let go and ruin it on purpose because I hadn’t wanted the bunnies to be turned into dinner in the first place. But I held firm as the wet, spongy bits threatened to consume my whole hand, and nothing was ruined. Much like the rotting road kill, I suddenly realized that animals had guts. Lots of them. And yet I did not relate the existence of innards to my own body or to any human bodies at all.
Later that night, when we ate the rabbits for dinner, I wasn’t especially hungry and they did not taste especially good. With each bite I took, I could not help but wonder which of my pet bunnies it might be.
As an adult, I have seen death. Really seen it. From the motorcyclist on the hot asphalt of the freeway to my dear friend as I held her hand when she passed from this life to the mystery beyond to the feel of my brother’s cold, unnaturally hard body as he lay dead, the hole at his temple refusing to stay hidden beneath the layers of makeup. I have smelled the repulsive decay of my own beloved cat, already dead where she hid while I hung posters that read “MISSING!” in bold letters above her photograph.
I know death now. I understand how it cannot be denied or ignored. And yet I fear it. For others more than myself; I would rather be lost than to lose. Though time passes, the sting of death does not lessen—I only learn how to better redirect my attention away from it.
When Laura opens her freezer or sits at her desk, I wonder if she is practicing how to lose? Each day, when she sees (or learns to not see) those cherished remains, does she get just a little bit better at letting go? When—if—she finally buries her sweet Oscar and spreads the ashes of her loyal Sadie, will she be done grieving? I wonder and yet I do not ask. I dare not speak of those whom I have lost. I could not bear it. For me they are simply gone. Eternally, painfully, gone. And I am still here.