Today on my way to work, I had to stop by our vet’s office to pick up our kitten’s ashes.
Now, if that sentence doesn’t stop you, let’s go a little further down the sad spiral to a phone conversation that took place two weeks ago.
I made my friend Cassie come and sit with me at my desk while I made the phone call that I’d been equal parts dreading and forgetting. Because who remembers, in the shuffle of things, that you forgot to pick up your dead cat’s ashes? This horrible cat mom, apparently. Anyway, they had told me over a month ago that the ashes would be ready for pick up within 2 weeks, and suddenly it had been 3 weeks and then it was Thanksgiving and then it was 4 weeks and I still had not heard back from the vet’s office.
This is not uncommon in Abu Dhabi. Unless someone is calling you to confirm an appointment, no one is going to call you to tell you when anything is ready for pick-up, be it your dead kitten’s ashes or your chicken shawarma.
One exception: if they do call you, they call you 4,387 times.
No one had called me about Maybe’s ashes, so I knew I needed to call them. I had to call them during working hours, and so, naturally, I was also at work. I called, and got a receptionist.
“Hi, I’m calling about my cat’s ashes? We were in there about a month ago, and we had her cremated, and they said it would be about 2 weeks? But I haven’t heard anything?” Everything became a question. I have no freaking idea how to ask about these things. It’s not like dry cleaning. I don’t even have a receipt.
“Yes ma’m, please hold.” Meanwhile, everyone in the office is ducking lower towards their screens with horrified expressions. This is not a phone call you overhear everyday.
“Hello ma’m? Yes?” Another receptionist.
“Yes, hi, I’m calling about picking up my cat’s ashes. She was cremated, and it should have been done about a month ago? They said two weeks, and – ”
“What’s the name?”
“The name of the cat is Lindsay?”
“No – the name of the cat is Maybe. Was Maybe.”
“Ok, hold on just one moment please Ms. Lindsay.”
My co-workers are waiting for me to cry. I’m waiting for me to cry.
“Hello, yes, how can I help you?” ANOTHER RECEPTIONIST.
I explain, for the third time, how I need to pick up my dead cat’s ashes. I say all of the pertinent information. Again. Everyone in the office is now not even trying to pretend like they can’t overhear. They’re full-on staring. They all know the story of Maybe, of what happened, and they also know what it is like to try and get things done in Abu Dhabi. Repeating yourself over, and over, and over, and over again until finally someone – anyone – gets it.
Fourth time’s a charm, apparently, as far as receptionists go because this one made sounds like she was shuffling through a bunch of things (how many cremated pets are waiting for pick up?!) and then said:
“Yes, Ma’m Lindsay, yes it is here. Only….only -”
“Only – when are you going to come and pick it up? Because it is not in anything.”
“Probably later this week or early next, but – wait – what do you mean it’s not in anything?” I am picturing a pull-out drawer filled with all the ashes of recently cremated pets, and you go and get a scoopful and hope that at least part of it is your beloved pet. Do I need to bring my own box? I’m so confused. My friend Cassie looks like she’s going to choke.
“It is not in a box right now, a nice box, so I need to get something to put it in,” she says. “So maybe later this week is better?”
“Um, ok…” I say. “It’ll actually probably be early next week, so-”
“Ok, Ma’m Lindsay, we will have it here for you.”
I hang up. “What the hell is it in right now?” I say, out loud.
“A Zippy,” one of my co-workers yells across the open space. I sigh. He’s probably right.
This morning, I picked up an ornate cardboard box. It had nature illustrations like butterflies and flowers across the lid, edged in gold, and the magnetic clasp was an ornate plastic beaded thing. It looked like the sort of box you’d find in Hallmark next to cherubic figurines and gifts for the elderly. I thanked the receptionist (who was neither of the four women I spoke with on the phone – I have no idea how many people work there) and headed out to the car, realizing that I was running about 20 minutes late for work. I tucked the box between the seats next to me and turned on the car, and then paused. Picked up the box. Opened the clasp.
There was a laminated cremation certificate on the top listing her name – Maybe – with a date and the dr’s name. It was resting on a pile of surgical cotton, and tucked into the cotton was – indeed – a small Ziplock bag filled with grainy grey-black ashes.
I cried for about fifteen minutes.
We adopted Maybe, along with her foster brother Banksy, last February. They were a happy, sweet little pair that had been rescued separately from the streets, fostered, and then become so close with one another that we couldn’t bear to part them. We were in the market for adoption after my beloved Sushi-cat died in October 2014.
By June, Maybe had barely grown from her tiny kitten frame. She weighed just over 2 kilos (4.4 pounds) and was having trouble walking. Everything else was fine, we thought she was just super clumsy. But then, one day, she completely lost the use of her back legs.
The vet suspected FIP, which cannot be diagnosed with 100% accuracy anywhere but especially here where testing for such things is limited. With steroids and antibiotics, Maybe gained another kilo and a half and almost fully regained the use of her back legs within a few weeks. She ran, she fetched toys (actually fetched – something no cat of mine has ever done), she ate greedily, she kept up with her brother. The vet told us it was a temporary measure, that FIP – or even a similar virus – is degenerative. We were hopeful.
We had nursed Sushi through cancer and were – unfortunately – well-versed in long-term fatal cat care. When Maybe suddenly started wobbling again, we upped the dose of steroids. When her back legs became weaker, we picked her up and carried her everywhere. When she suddenly lost her appetite and was having trouble moving, we knew.
Saying goodbye to two cats within 13 months was brutal. It was different each time – a cat I’d had for 12 years that had lived all over the world with me and a kitten we’d had for barely 10 months that we’d fallen in love with. Each was painfully acute in its own way. Sushi had had a long, full life. Maybe had been sick for nearly half of her short little life.
I cried in my car because we had loved her so much, because I hadn’t wanted her at first – 3 cats seemed like too much – and because the box was so ugly but obviously so carefully picked out. Someone had to go and buy a box to put the Zippy in, and they’d chosen one with wildlife and gold edging as an honorable resting place for a little cat and I approved of the choice even if I didn’t approve of the box. I already know that thing is going to be with us for a long time, mostly because I can’t bear the thought of throwing it away or buying a new box to put the ashes in.
These pets mean so much to us – the household revolves around them. They are bright little loves, interesting creatures who teach us how to be better people, how to love, how to care for something, and how to know when to say goodbye.
And also how to find humor in something so deeply sad. When I relayed the phone conversation to others, it was greeted with rolling of eyes and sighs. “Of course you had to repeat your request four times, of course.” This is how things work here.
But compassion is real, and even if the administration is not quite up to par, a sparkly cardboard box and a laminated cremation certificate for your cat’s ashes is nothing short of a small example of humanity at its best.