Mosa was not supposed to come into my life.
After my elderly lady cat, Brandy, died in my arms last April, I just wasn’t ready to have another furry little creature use my heart as a scratching post. The thought of opening myself up to another animal that WOULD DIE was more than I could consider handling for a while.
But then I flew back to Los Angeles for a wedding and while I was gone my husband found himself following a limping cat down a dark alley.
No, the cat did not sell him a fake Rolex. Instead, the black cat with piercing green eyes, an extra long body, and a teeny-tiny meow sold himself to my husband the sucker.
Between the two of us, I suppose it was only a matter of time. Suckers of a feather…
Upon closer inspection the black cat, whom we named Mosa or “tough guy” in Japanese, had huge, gnarly wounds on either side of his abdomen. It looked like a larger animal had picked him up and attempted to make a snack of him. Mosa had obviously fought his way free, with the battle scars to show for it, but he was in rough shape.
Afraid that Mosa would not last much longer in the soon-to-be-snowy Yamaguchi winter (did I mention I live in Japan?), my husband captured Mosa with the help of a local shop keeper who had been putting food out for him, and got him to a vet.
While Mosa got warmed up, stitched up, and filled with meds at the vet, my husband called me in Los Angeles to say, “So…I think we have a cat.” Despite my trepidation at having my cat-lady heart broken again, I was excited.
We had a cat for a whole two and a half weeks.
When I got back from Los Angeles we brought Mosa home from the vet and began the long process of healing his wounds and getting his immune system as strong as it could be. You see, while at the vet it was discovered that he had Feline Leukemia (FeLV), and while the vet was hopeful, Mosa’s on-and-off fever worried him. Though my husband and I knew that Mosa might be fighting a losing battle, we decided to dive in and give him the best life we could give him, for as long as possible.
Despite his dire situation, he revealed himself to be a rather chill, cheerful kitty. He was so much more chill than I’ll ever be.
Wrapped up in bandages for most of the two weeks he lived with us, he’d spend his days sauntering between our bed, his cushy dog-sized cat bed, and the fridge, where he would “meow” his gentlemanly but insistent tiny “meow” for food, several times a day.
He started to rapidly heal, he put on some weight, we dared to order him a cat condo for Christmas. But it was not meant to be.
One morning he stopped eating. By the afternoon he was lethargic and dazed. We rushed him to the vet where they gave him emergency intravenous medicines that seemed to stabilize him. But it wasn’t enough.
That night, curled up with my husband and me on the couch, he slipped away. It was so fast.
We held him and stroked him and mourned for all the adventures that might have been with our little “tough guy”. His fur had gotten so shiny, the wounds on his right side were almost completely healed and patches of skin were smooth and new. While I had known from the beginning that Mosa would likely have a short life with us, I didn’t think it would be this short.
Mosa stayed in his bed one more night, the cold and our home’s lack of insulation keeping his body cold until the morning. We decided to have Mosa cremated (burying him in our neighbor’s rice field seemed a wee bit gauche) so we called the only “pet funeral home” we could find in our rural town.
Within an hour, a smiley woman in a red wind breaker with the funeral home’s name in Japanese emblazoned on it, knocked on our front door. Bringing Mosa’s body to her, she reverently bowed to his corpse and gestured to a pink, cat-sized cardboard “coffin” in the back of her van.
I couldn’t help but think that it looked like something a creepy “Kid Sister” or “My Buddy” doll would come in, in the ‘80s.
The woman carefully tucked Mosa into his coffin with a pink blanket, leaving his head exposed, and handed me a plastic flower. I looked blankly at her. “For me?”
She pantomimed laying the flower on Mosa and turned expectantly to me. Feeling like this was like, “So not Mosa’s style” but wanting to be polite, I carefully laid the flower on Mosa and petted his head. Pleased, her smile increased and she bowed to me. And I bowed to her. And then my husband bowed too. There was a lot of bowing.
After filling out a form and paying about USD $100, the relentlessly smiley woman (“camp counselor” came to mind) looked up at the sky and said in Japanese, “Mmm, if it rains that’s a problem. We can’t cremate in the rain. We’ll call you. Plan on coming over at 11 o’clock.” She shut her van up, nodded her head at us, and drove off with our cat.
Tears rimming my eyes, the woman’s kindness and good intentioned professionalism having sparked another crying jag, I went back inside to get dressed for my cat’s cremation.
Within 15 minutes it was pouring rain and we got a phone call. It was the same woman telling us to come at two o’clock. For some reason cremation just couldn’t happen in the rain.
A few hours later, my husband and I pulled up in a taxi to the “pet funeral home.” It was a narrow, white, two story building in a residential neighborhood near downtown. If it wasn’t for the mobile cremation unit in the front yard, and the sleek, metal sign by the mailbox that said “pet funeral”, it would have been indistinguishable from the other upper middle class homes in the neighborhood. With its airy second-floor verandah, it looked like somewhere I’d like to go for a cocktail party.
It was still drizzling when we arrived, so uniformed attendants ran up to our taxi and covered us with umbrellas as we walked inside. A very Japanese touch. These workers were dressed in black and white, much closer to fancy valets or butlers than the camp counselor who picked up Mosa.
Inside, we found ourselves in a small room with white marble floors, two rows of white folding chairs in front of us, beyond that a TV screen with what looked like a PowerPoint slide of Mosa’s name in Japanese and English (Mosa Hung), and Mosa on a white table in a cat bed surrounded by real flowers. A woman in a long white skirt and a red vest asked us to walk forward and, “Spend some time with Mosa before we begin.”
Begin? Begin what?
I looked at my husband questioningly. Had something been lost in translation?
We had asked for the simplest, no-frills cremation possible. Some of the options included prayers, a ceremony, a blessing both before and after cremation – we wanted none of that. We knew the “viewing” of Mosa’s body was unavoidable at facilities such as these, and we appreciated their attempts to make Mosa’s funeral beautiful, but more than anything we just wanted to leave with a plain ceramic jar of Mosa’s cremated remains.
When we sat down after stroking Mosa’s body a bit (the flowers concealed ice packs), the woman came and stood by the TV and began reciting a roughly translated speech in English.
Again, I looked at my husband, eyes wide, and whispered, “Did we sign up for this?!”
She talked about how we were “gathered here today” to say goodbye to Mosa. How sad were to see him go, but how happy he made us, how lucky we were to “spend our days with him, our friend.”
Again I thought, “This is so not Mosa’s style.”
But as much as I wanted to just tune her out, ignore the canned sentiments she read off of a computer print out with the website printed across the top, I found myself softening to her, appreciating the attempt more than the execution. Though her words were stilted and a little awkward (Google translate is rarely the answer), I was moved by how seriously she took her job as “cat funeral eulogist”. She wasn’t phoning it in.
When an errant tear betrayed me and dropped from my eye along with a sniffle, she slowed and quieted her speech, looking right at me as she extolled Mosa’s virtues as a “best friend”. I got the feeling she really wanted to comfort me, to soothe me, and sincerity was her best tactic. Begrudgingly, I was moved.
While attending a funeral for my cat was the last thing I wanted to do that day, there I was, at a place devoted to the mourning of beloved pets, and I figured I could at least sip the Kool-Aid. Sip I did, and in spite of my determination to save my tears for later, I found myself a soggy, teary mess by the time the woman finished her speech.
Just the afternoon before, Mosa and I had sat by my living room window and watched the cranes land in the river behind our home. At this time yesterday he’d eaten a few last bites of tuna off my fingers. Though I’d sensed his life was coming to an end faster than I’d expected, I did not think I’d be cremating him the next day.
“But the joy, it cannot be taken away, Mosa, changes the life we had…”
The woman concluded her speech and asked us to take one last moment with Mosa. My husband and I knelt by his body, scratched his chin, touched his snaggletooth one last time. He really did look like he was sleeping.
We then chose to pick him up and deliver him to the mobile cremation unit outside. Loaded onto the back of what looked like a small, square Japanese truck, the unit looked like it could barely accommodate my six pound cat. What if someone had a labrador? I guess I understood why they didn’t want to cremate in the rain. The whole set-up looked slightly precarious and easily flooded.
The four women who ran the business – our red jacketed friend appeared again – stoically stood by with heads bowed as Mosa was delivered into the furnace.
Afterwards, my husband and I were ushered to the second floor of the building, where we were shown to what looked like a tiny Japanese living room with a white, rectangular dinner table. Sitting down with the woman who had delivered Mosa’s eulogy, she asked us how we were doing, if we wanted any food, and if we had any questions about Mosa’s cremation.
Assuring her that we were OK, weren’t hungry, and did not have any questions, she gestured to the coffee pot and cups by the door, and told us to make ourselves comfortable for the next hour and a half while Mosa was cremated and his remains placed in an urn.
Of course, it was at this point that I got overzealous with the coffee pot and poured near-boiling coffee all over my left hand, scalding it, and causing me to cry uncontrollably – not so much out of pain, but from the culmination of surprise, embarrassment, my dead cat, and OK fine, yes, pain.
The poor woman couldn’t stop apologizing and ran away to find me ice packs and wet cloths. I couldn’t help but wonder if the ice packs she brought me were the same ones that had kept Mosa chilly through his service. I hoped they were.
After being left alone for an hour (during which I not only mourned my cat, but also wondered if I had Johnny Tremain-ed my hand good and proper), the eulogy woman came in and asked if we’d like to inspect Mosa’s bones before they put them in an urn. If the skin hadn’t been peeling from my hand, I would have said yes, but at this point I just wanted to take Mosa’s remains, find some burn cream, and go home to cry over my dead cat and my dead epidermis in peace.
We went downstairs and Mosa’s remains were presented to us in a white and silver box that contained a plain, white ceramic container. Taking the lid off the container, I was delighted to see Mosa’s whole bone fragments, intact, and artfully arranged on top of his ashes. His remains were so beautiful; white bones speckled with black ash. I felt a surge of joy – “the joy, it cannot be taken away” – in getting to take my time with Mosa’s death.
From the moment we arrived at the funeral home, we had been encouraged to mourn, feel our feelings, and go slow. They had guided us in the best way they knew how, but really, it had been about what we needed as mourners. Cat funerals aside, there are few times in modern life that we get such freedom, such space and time.
As we climbed into the red jacketed woman’s van to go to a nearby pharmacist (Japan’s answer to walk-in clinics), I turned and thanked the assembled staff through a lump in my throat. They all smiled sweetly, micro-bowed, and the woman who gave the speech said, “Thank you for letting us share this beautiful day with you.”
And for the billionth time that day, I lost it. Not so much out of sadness, but out of surprise.
Like Mosa, everything about it had been unexpected, but it had been a beautiful day.
Louise Hung is an American writer living in Japan. You may remember her from xoJane’s Creepy Corner, Global Comment, or from one of her many articles on death, folklore, or cats floating around the Internet. Follow her on Twitter.