By Amelia Mairead McNally
Featured Art by Erin Dellasega
My cat’s corpse is in my dad’s garage. She died four years ago, November of 2017. There was a tumor somewhere in her brain that pressed outward against one of her eyes quite horribly in the end, according to my dad. I had moved to New York by then, a five-hour drive from his northern New Hampshire home, and could only listen, powerless, to his news over the phone. She did one of those animal things where she grew very sick very fast but refused then to just die, prolonging us all in the anxiety of her suffering and the knowledge that we would, finally, have to choose which day she would go.
In some ways, it was okay—she was old. My parents brought her home to surprise me when I was eight (after we had to condemn our last elderly cat the month before), and I was twenty-three at the time of my dad’s solemn phone call. But there’s something undoubtedly terrible about scooping an animal into a carrier, taking them from their home for the last time, telling them, “It’s okay,” as they panic, like on all the trips to the vet before, but knowing that this time it is not.
He called me again after it was done. He said, “They gave me some options on what to do with her.” Cremation and eventual return of remains in a commemorative urn, which cost money; burial out on their farmland gravesite behind the office, with visitation opportunities; or self-disposal at home.
He took her home.
He said he could not bear to think of her out there, among the countless bones of other beloved pets-gone-by, and he had paid an outrageous amount for the act of killing her already, to hell if he would cough up more to dispose of what was left. He said he wanted to take the time to dig the hole himself and lay her in it. Somewhere out at the back of our backyard, where she delighted her days whacking blue jays out of the sky and ripping the heads off field mice who strayed too far from the hayfield behind our property.
But New Hampshire ground is cold in November. If there’s not snow already there’s frost every morning, grass crunchy with ice, dirt solid as cement. And my dad was in his seventies.
“What can I do?” he told me on our phone call. I pleaded, irrationally, surrounded by the actual cement and asphalt of the city, to just dig, please, try to dig, get her in the ground. Surely any dirt was pliable compared to the paved surface of New York. But I knew he was right. There was no burying her now, not an inch deep let alone the few feet that would be required to keep her from the paws of hungry foxes and fisher-cats. Within a week New Hampshire would be covered in a layer of snow and ice that would last until April.
“She’s in the garage,” he said to me. “I’ll bury her as soon as the snow melts.” He said, “She’ll be frozen solid until spring.”
Someone told me once about a link between hoarding and mortality—something about the presence of things, the ability to reach out and touch them. If you are surrounded by physical things, then you also will forever remain physical. If you lose that which you have, you yourself are lost.
In simple terms, it is a form of fear.
My dad is seventy-nine years old. He is the oldest of nine, born and raised in suburban Philadelphia, a beating heart of Irish America and rigid Catholicism. My dad grew up thinking if he stepped foot on the grass of the Episcopal church, God would send lightning down to strike him. He grew up through the last two years of World War II, through the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam. He’s a talker with a temper, a self-employed litigation lawyer of forty-five years with the loudest voice and some of the funniest stories you’ll hear—if not also the longest. He married a twice-divorced Protestant woman who had two daughters from her past marriages. He was fifty-one when his first child—me—was born, fifty-six for the next (fifty-seven when we flew to China to adopt her). He was sixty-five when he moved from Philadelphia for the first time to the outer reaches of rural New Hampshire at my mom’s suggestion. He was sixty-nine when my mom divorced him.
Now he is seventy-nine. Seven of his eight siblings are still alive; they argue, more than talk, and are all too far for visiting. My mom lives down the street, and they chat amicably. His friends have started dying in multiples each year, lost to cancer, heart attacks, age. Lately he’s missed more funerals than attended.
My dad lives in his four-bedroom house alone, with one living indoor cat and one dead out in the garage, and he owns a great many, many things.
He has beautiful things, collected from over the years and proudly displayed through the house: handcrafted ornamental vases from China (flowerless), crystal decanters from Ireland (wine- and whiskey-less), original Audubon bird prints hung across every wall (protected from the sunlight by eternally drawn curtains). There are handwoven Oriental rugs upon which we must be careful how we walk, silk and satin upholstered couches upon which we are not al- lowed to sit—and around it all, heaped between museum-quality goods: piles and piles of reclaimed trash.
I’m talking about two dozen plastic Talenti Gelato containers, cleaned and dried and stacked, kept for their storage capabilities. A dozen or so glass spaghetti sauce jars, good for the storage of nails and tacks, also cleaned, to be given as a gift to a friend who crafts and constructs. Three plastic Tropicana jugs filled with pistachio shells to eventually tumble-clean the interior of a gas tank of an old motorcycle in the garage. Almost-empty cereal boxes that expired in 2012, in case my sister or I want to eat them when we’re home visiting. Frozen zucchini grown in the summer of 2010, to give back to my mom eventually, be- cause she was the one who grew and froze it. In his room, his drawers are filled with brand-new sweaters, shirts, socks, pants, still in their packaging, while the clothes he wears are falling off in pieces, holes in the elbows, knees, pockets, chest, and when they are dirty he puts them in a plastic bag on his bedroom floor. After he washes them, he keeps them in a separate clean plastic bag, next to but never to be mistaken for the dirty.
But the real mass, the monstrous center of his collecting, lies in the mounds of paper piled over the dining table and across the kitchen island, right beside the stove.
These are two years of The London Review of Books; a year and a half of performance brochures from the “local” theater an hour away at Dartmouth; year-expired coupons for the grocery and hardware stores; a few half-read articles from magazines (namely The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Smithsonian), pages yellowed, lightly stained with food flown up from the stove. There are law periodicals from two states, all sealed still with stickers; clothing catalogues, sorted and stacked and dating back three years at least; unread hardcover books about the history of different wars; napkins from restaurants across the country, all browned and torn with use but neatly folded to be used again. And on the edge of the main pile, poking onto the only clean edge of the kitchen island coun- tertop where my dad eats his breakfast every morning: a collection of funeral home trifolds, picked up from his aunt’s wake three years ago.
I can trace along the things my dad has amassed like a jagged horizon— stashes and piles that have grown and waned over the years. Trying to move any of it breaks into that hot-tempered part of him, that lexicon of religion-based swears hiding behind his teeth. Whether my dad’s collection has to do with some internal fear of death, I do not know. Maybe I’m just too inexperienced to say. I have not been around much dying in my life. Though my mom and dad are both older than most parents of my peers—my mom is seventy-one—they are relatively healthy, young for their years. In fact, for most of my life the only death I’ve known is my dad’s father, who died when I was four—a time when I believed that he had gone from the frail body I was scared to touch to become one of the stars in the night sky (for that blackness with all its lights sparkling was, undoubtedly, Heaven). He was an old man, my grandfather, nine days shy of his ninety-second birthday when he died. Around that time in life when people have prepared to let you go.
I feel like someone overly fortunate, like disaster hovers on my front step, braced against the doorframe, building and building until it is set to fall in on me all at once. All my good luck and happy days spent in these naïve early years of my life. All my death and darkness waiting to overshadow whatever decades I have left.
In our old house in Pennsylvania, we renovated our kitchen from the winter into the spring when I was six. Included in the renovations was a beautiful new bay window behind our kitchen sink, overlooking the backyard. When we could finally enjoy the space in the summer, the sun hit the window mid-morning, spreading a wonderful sunbeam across our kitchen table, until—WHAM—a songbird slammed against the glass. It turned out the sun reflected off this window just perfectly, so all that the birds saw was a mirror of the world behind them, and again and again they snapped their necks against the reverse image of our neighbor’s cherry tree.
The first time it happened, that summer after the renovations, it must have been a weekend morning. I was reading the color comics from the newspaper, my dad was reading the news, and classical music drifted as always from the radio we kept by the window. After the horrible thunk of the bird he put the paper down, grabbed a paper towel, and said,
“Come on. Let’s go see.”
I was barefoot, in one of the oversized T-shirts I always slept in. I followed him across our wooden back deck, stepped down onto the cement path and then followed him across the grass and dirt of our yard. I remember the texture of each step of that yard by heart, the warmth of the sunbaked deck and dirt, the cool of the shaded cement and grass. At a certain point in summer mulber- ries fell from one of the trees—one beside the bay window but not close enough to shade it from the sun—and they littered the ground and rotted into the fall. If I stepped on them, the soles of my feet stained purple, and my dad cursed at me to be careful not to track it into the house.
He led the way over beneath the kitchen window. The yard was large and it sloped down, so the window loomed tall above us when we reached the ground below it. The birds had a long way to fall.
It was there, as expected, crumpled and still. A brown sparrow, I’m pretty sure. It didn’t look damaged. Its wings were folded against its sides, its legs drawn up beneath it. Its beak was unbroken, its head barely bent. Its little bulg- ing eyes were closed. I think I remember it still was breathing—just a little; just a few, final times.
My dad stooped and used the towel to pick up the body, so as not to touch it directly with his bare hands—in case it was diseased. He held it out, tiny and cradled.
“Only touch the towel,” he warned, and I accepted it into my own small hand.
As I felt its body through the coarse paper, I sensed some sort of illicitness in touching it. This was not something I should be holding; only tragedy brought it here to me. I could see up close now the different little branching barbs that made up each feather. I could see all the different strokes of brown.
“Not too close,” my dad said.
He carried it inside. He took out the smallest size Ziploc bag, slipped the body between the flimsy walls of plastic, and looked at it a moment longer in the light over the table. Then he sealed it up, opened the freezer, and placed it in.
I don’t know why he did this, but the next time a bird collided he did it again. And the next time and the next. The birds kept dying. We tried little tricks to make the window safer to the wildlife—stickers on the glass, objects on the win- dowsill—but nothing worked. For years, songbirds startled us with the sounds of their deaths in the mornings.
After the first bird I don’t know if I ever went out to find any of the others. I know they all fell to the same spot among the bushes. I know my dog never touched them. I know, after we got her, the cat left them because there was no chase to them, given they were already dead by the time they reached the ground. And I know the number of Ziploc bags in the freezer increased.
There was a plastic-locked wren beside my Eggo waffles.
A chickadee beneath the peas.
When we complained, when our hands brushed the hard, little bodies while pulling something out to defrost, when we asked him why, he snapped at us.
“You leave them there, God damn it, don’t move them!” He said something about what-ifs, what if someone needed them someday for something, for sci- ence, maybe. They died so perfect. He wanted to keep them that way. Maybe this is why I don’t remember any broken wings or odd-angled heads. The mangled ones—and there must have been some—those he must have disposed of. Only the pretty ones he kept.
“Just in case.”
Like almost all frozen things, over the years the birds in their bags grew freezer burn—ice crystals that caught and formed between all those little feathers—until they were just bags of cloudy, crunchy frost. Forgotten by my dad and by all of us. I don’t remember so many birds dying as I got older. It’s possible the mulberry tree grew out enough that it finally shaded the window, so that instead of a reflection of skies and trees, the birds saw us inside, going about our kitchen-ly lives, and knew to turn away. Eventually my mom and my older sisters grouped the bags in one lesser-used corner of the freezer so we could stop finding them.
When we moved, my dad procrastinated sorting the house. Selling it took over a year, anyway—we put it up for sale just months after the housing market crashed in 2007. The night before the movers finally came, apparently my dad had finished almost nothing. I was already in New Hampshire with my mom and my sister. One of my aunts went by the house in Pennsylvania to help pack and found my dad in a pile of papers in his home office, near tears.
“I can’t do it!” he screamed at her. “You can’t make me do it, I can’t!”
I don’t know what happened to the birds.
There were deaths after my grandfather. No one I knew closely, really, until January 2012, when my dad’s mother died—nine days before her ninety-second birthday, the exact same as her husband thirteen years before. She’d had dementia most of my life, before which she was a somewhat polarizing woman—religious to a fault, prone to fits of temper and bad language, likely living with a lifelong undiagnosed mental illness because, simply, those kinds of things were never talked about in her time. My dad still has a scar on his pinky from an afternoon in the Fifties, when he reached for a slice of cake before dinner and she hit him with the sharp edge of the knife she was using to cut vegetables. By the time she died she was entirely out of money. Her Florida condo had been sold and her assets liquidated until there was nothing. She lived in an assisted living facility in Maryland, and my dad’s last visit had been three months before her death. In that final meeting with his mother, she’d had no idea who he was.
The January she died was during my senior year of high school; I had a music audition for college in Boston the same day the funeral would take place in Philadelphia. I chose to skip the funeral. When I bombed the audition, my mom and I ate cream puffs as big as our faces in Boston’s North End and laughed while we licked cream and chocolate glaze off our noses. She had filed for divorce the day before my grandmother died.
When we all got home, my dad showed me for the first time where he kept his minted coins of silver and gold and my little sister’s and my birth certificates in a secret compartment built into the wall.
“The important things,” he said. “Just in case. Just so you know.”
I canceled the rest of my auditions.
Three years later my uncle died from brain cancer. Glioblastoma: where a tumor not only grows in your brain but it spreads in tendrils out among all those delicate folds and crevasses, winding its way through you in a way that can never be cut out. He was diagnosed in September 2014. He was dead by the next June. My dad showed up to my mom’s house and told me and my sister that he had gotten the call. He found out alone in his dark house, in the com- pany of nothing but his belongings. He said he teared up for a moment, but by the time he was standing there in my mom’s kitchen, his eyes were dry.
This was the brother right beneath him who died, the second-oldest of the family after my dad himself. They talked on the phone every other Sunday. There is a picture of them as little boys in my dad’s house, both stone-faced, with their mother smiling to the side, back when they were still each other’s only sibling.
My little sister broke down sobbing when my dad told us. She was fifteen, I was twenty; I held her as she cried on the floor next to the kitchen table. I did not cry. Not then, not at the memorial service, and not now, as I write about him. I loved him very, very much, but in seven years I have not cried for him.
My mom was away for the afternoon, and when I told her later what had happened, I told her my uncle was “gone.”
“Gone where?” she asked me. She knew what I meant. We were outside in the cool New Hampshire evening; I had gone out to meet her as she parked her car. Above, all the millions of stars you can’t see in Philadelphia shone against our dark sky.
I said, again, that he was gone.
“You have to say it,” she told me. “You have to say what happened, in real words. What happened to Michael?”
“He died,” I said. “This afternoon. He died.”
“Good girl.” She looked at me with a stern face and said, “He died. He’s dead. He hasn’t gone anywhere. Don’t you ever tell someone somebody has gone somewhere when they haven’t.” Then she took me in her arms and hugged me.
She and my dad were not speaking then. This was the depths of their divorce, when there were still lawyers and mediations and fights over money and belong- ings. She left my dad because she could not take him anymore. Twenty years of his holier-than-thou attitude and his screaming and his irrationality and his “God fucking damn-it”s and his “Jesus Mary and Joseph”s and his endless, untouchable things.
I have not mentioned yet that the rest of us were not allowed superfluous things.
He could pick a woman’s hair tie out of a foot-deep pile of magazines like a weed from an overgrown field and yell, “Jesus Christ why can’t you girls pick up after yourselves, this is why this house is a fucking hellhole!”
We took our things and put them in our rooms and closed the doors. Then, eventually, we left.
One winter, in New Hampshire at Christmastime, I finally went for it. Standing in the kitchen while my dad poured us each a glass of wine, I picked out a piece of paper from under the pile on the kitchen island. My dad immediately tried to take it from my hand.
“Don’t touch that.”
“It’s trash, Dad. Come on.”
He grabbed at it again. “I haven’t seen it yet. I need to see it.”
I walked halfway to the recycling bin, and he followed.
“You can’t throw it away until I see it.” His voice rose, both in volume and pitch; his pink cheeks flushed a deeper color. The wine bottle was left on the counter by the glasses, only one filled and only halfway, and he made his way toward me with cautious movement.
“It’s a year and a half old, Dad. All these events are over. They’re done.” I shoved the paper into the recycling bin.
He was beside me in two steps, snatching the paper out of the bin, pushing it back where it had been at the bottom of the kitchen island pile. “I don’t care!” he yelled. The pile became more a slope, slippery with glossy pages. It was tip- ping over onto the stove. Papers, brochures, they all started sliding across the unlit burners.
“It’s a year and a half I haven’t seen!” He was frantic now, running around the island to stop more papers from falling. He leaned too far over; his stomach pressed against the knobs of the stove. The burners sparked. The gas started to hiss. He yelled, Jesus! Jesus! but his hands shook too much to move the papers out of the way. Suddenly they looked so old, his hands—veiny, wrinkled, two of the fingers gnarled with arthritis. I don’t remember them looking like this while I grew up, while I held them in my hands, when they picked me up when I was still small enough and tossed me laughing into the air. But I also don’t remember them changing.
I walked to the stove and gathered the papers before the blue flames flared up. My hands were steady while they guided my dad away from the knobs and turned the one he’d hit to Off. When I turned from making sure that nothing had caught, that our house would not burn, I found him leaning against the counter clutching his chest.
Between shaking breaths he said, “I want to see it. I want to see the year and a half.” He said, “I don’t know if I have a year and a half left to see. I want to see the one I haven’t seen yet.”
I am jealous of people whose parents are a normal age. Every day I am bitterly, outrageously jealous. Though I know I am lucky to have kept my older parents this long, that others have lost one or both much earlier, I also know I will have to watch their lives end just as I try to start my own. This is different from caring for your aging parent when you are fifty, from eventually burying them after your life is established and your own children have grown. My children, if I have any, will likely never know my dad. Or, if they do, it will be as I knew my grandfather—wheelchair-bound, sagging. Too paper-thin to touch.
They’ll never know him as I’ve known him. The man who used to sing, to no particular tune, “Wake up, wake up, you sleepy head!” repeatedly until I was too annoyed to stay in bed, who can talk for an hour over breakfast about a single battle in the Civil War, who danced a God-awful salsa with me and my sister in the kitchen on Saturday nights, toe-heeling in socks across the hard- wood floor. The man who told me on the phone once, when I called him crying, “You’re extraordinary, sweetie. I’ve known it since the moment you were born. Whatever you chose to do, I would be here to tell you so: you’re extraordinary, and I love you.”
In the next ten or, if we’re lucky, twenty years, I am going to have to go back to northern New Hampshire to clean out that house. My dad will die. No piles of papers or stacks of plastic containers will save him. No nicely hung artwork or books yet to be read will keep him here. Those clothes in his drawers will go unworn, and for what?
On a cold February morning, my dad’s voice booms through the kitchen.
“‘Cast a cold eye. On life, on death. Horseman, pass by!’”
It’s so loud, so sudden that I start, spilling the cereal off my spoon back into the bowl. I am home visiting, eating at the one bare corner of the counter, while my dad stands before me in tattered flannel pajamas. We’ve been discussing the merits of poetry. I, with my music and writing and stars as good as Heaven, consider it a life necessity. He, with his tomes of history, his anatomical bird prints, his law, is not so sure. He likes Yeats, though.
“That’s on Yeats’s tombstone, you know. Those lines.”
“His—what’s that word?”
The cold outside is seeping in, a little, through the windows, though the heat is rumbling out of the vents. A foot of old, icy snow covers everything outside. I’ve nearly forgotten the cat lying somewhere frozen in the garage. It’s easy, most days, to forget. There’s never been any smell. I’ve never noticed an uptick of insects in any corners, nor seen any strange liquids seeping out where per- haps they shouldn’t. Maybe my dad did bury the cat once spring came and for- got to tell me, or I forgot to listen when he did. Or maybe, after the deep New Hampshire freeze, the cat’s body, wrapped in plastic, covered in some drawer, was in the right condition to preserve rather than rot.
Sitting at the one clear space at the counter, the echo of Yeats’s words still booming a little, I forget that I’ll eventually have to do the throwing. I’ll be the one to get rid of the paper, the collected trash, the fine art, the cat, if she’s still there, in that vague but inevitable future. That fat little creature, whose soft black fur I used to press my face against when I was young, whose triangle nose my sister and I balanced sunglasses on while laughing, who slept in my dad’s lap night after night while he watched the evening news, even after everyone else had left.
I forget about what will come, because I am sitting at my kitchen counter, with the taste of warm coffee and cold milk in my mouth, corners of magazines pressing just a little into my elbow, the sound of my dad’s voice in my ear.
“‘Epitaph.’ Huh. His epitaph. I should choose one of those. Or maybe—you could write one for me. What’d’ya say, sweetie? Want to write me an epitaph?”
Amelia Mairead McNally is a Philadelphia-born writer and graduate of Trinity College Dublin’s MPhil in Creative Writing. Her fiction has been a finalist for competitions with Glimmer Train and Sycamore Review, as well as the win- ner of the Doolin Short Story Competition in Ireland. She currently resides in Queens, New York, where she is working to finish her first novel.