The first dead body my son sees is a cat’s. It was in his favorite parking lot. Since the stay-at-home orders were put in place when the pandemic started, we no longer feel safe at Lindale Park, so we come here—the rough asphalt parking lot of St. Luke’s. Stanley enjoys riding his balance bike here, which he got for his third birthday a month ago in June. He’s slow and cautious as he paddles his feet on either side of his first two-wheeler.
Out front, the signboard notes that St. Luke’s United Methodist Church offers online services at slumcorpuschristi.org. They need a better social media manager, I think at first, but then realize there might be an underhanded brilliance to it. Maybe a slum is where we notice God the most. It is, after all, where Jesus hung out.
This parking lot feels slummy. We often find empty 40 oz. beer bottles swaddled in brown paper bags. Once, by the back fence, we saw a used condom, curled and yellowing in the sun like a shed snakeskin.
“What this?” Stanley asked.
“A balloon,” I said, which I suppose wasn’t entirely false.
One afternoon, we discovered an unhoused man napping behind the signboard. We weren’t scared and didn’t wake him. The next day we saw a brand-new, bright orange sign tacked up on a tree trunk: No Trespassing by order of Corpus Christi Police Department. I wonder if the sign is meant for us, too.
A week later, we found the dead cat at the nicer end of the parking lot under a live oak tree. It lay between the curb and a clump of monkey grass on one side, and a parking block spray-painted with the word VISITOR on the other. In the heat of South Texas summer, we smelled it—the unmistakable stench of death—before we saw it. I looked at it with detached curiosity. A car must have run it over. Its eyes bulged. Its black fur ruffled in the breeze, flies crawled over entrails that had burst from its belly.
“What this?” Stanley asked, still astride his bike.
“It’s a dead cat.”
“What is dead?”
His question caught me off guard. I’d never thought to define it, not for Stanley, anyway. I thought there’d be more time before tackling this question. I knew that putting death in relationship to its opposite by saying “not alive” didn’t explain anything to a three-year-old.
“If something is dead, then it can’t move,” I said. “This cat isn’t like Tessie at home, who pounces and plays and purrs because she’s alive.”
Stanley looked at me solemnly. I blurted out explanations because I didn’t want him to fear death, and I didn’t want to hide it from him.
“Dead is what happens to a body. There’s a part of us that lives forever called our soul. But I’m not sure what happens to it when we die.”
“Oh,” Stanley replied and rode off.
The next day when we returned to the parking lot, we found a turkey buzzard had arrived for a feast. Its talons ripped out the guts, then it slurped them like spaghetti. It seemed methodical and perturbed that we’d interrupted it.
“Go away, bird!” Stanley screamed. I thought about how my definition of dead deepened: being dead meant you may become food, but I didn’t try to explain this to Stanley.
The turkey vulture cocked its red head at us. I’d never seen one this close before, and it was huge. When it took off, its wingspan was easily six feet—a distance I’m a new expert at eyeballing—because we were never supposed to get closer than that to anyone who might infect us with the virus. I watched the vulture’s slow wingbeats. It soared to the church’s art deco steeple in a dramatic sweep Alfred Hitchcock would have admired. At the base of the spire, it joined a dozen more vultures. I learned later that a group of perched vultures is called a wake because their heads hang down as if in mourning.
By January, six months after we first saw the dead cat, things have changed. Stanley is no longer hesitant on his bike. Now it’s his monster truck, riding over concrete parking blocks, skidding to stops in fishtails that make gravel fly. Scattered among the pebbles, I notice bones. Sun-bleached and compelling. I am drawn to them, but I don’t know why.
I pick up a jawbone with a minuscule mountain range of jagged teeth. Fangs curled into parentheses. A flat scapula blade white as paper. A femur.
“What this?” Stanley asks.
“Bones. Remember the dead cat? Underneath all the fur and skin, this is what’s left.”
“Let me pick one.”
“Okay. Pick one. You have bones too, you know. Under your skin and muscles.”
“Yes. I have bones, too.”
We sift through the loose dirt and gravel. He finds a leg bone. I take the two jawbones and two vertebrae—each containing a perfect circle, where the spinal cord once flowed.
“Put in your pocket,” he says, as he holds the bone out to me. I put them in the front pocket of my hoodie.
A month later, in February 2021, Texas is hit by an extreme cold front. The temperature drops below freezing and stays there for days, breaking a twenty-year record. The power grid can’t handle the strain, and we lose our electricity in rolling blackouts. Later the Texas Department of State Health Services reports that 210 people died of hypothermia during the freeze.
Our furnace cuts out, but my husband, Kent, lights our gas stovetop with kitchen matches. It’s our only source of heat. I make heavy comfort food that can be managed on the stovetop alone: chicken and dumpling soup, hot cocoa, and rice pudding sprinkled with cinnamon.
We eat pancakes while our citrus trees in the backyard freeze, as the leaves of the star jasmine vine turn brittle and brown. A city water main freezes and breaks. There’s a water boil alert. Our tap water slows to a trickle, so we open three-gallon jugs of stored water. We move our perishable food out to the frigid garage. Our four LED lanterns are fully charged, and they’re bright enough to read by. Then, our cellphone service goes dead.
After months of digital hyperconnectivity through Zoom and the online learning management systems we use to work remotely, being forced to make do with only analog feels calming. We sit together as a family at the kitchen table. We roll Play-Doh into shapes. We draw pictures using Magic Markers.
Kent and I have a bit of confidence in improvising our lives because we’ve experienced other small disasters. The two hurricanes we’ve weathered and the pandemic quarantines have taught us to make our home an island. We’ve learned to prepare for what we can control. For example, we’re prepared with shelf-stable food and water for a week. We’re still learning to let go of what we can’t change.
Our utilities come back on for good after two and half days of rolling blackouts, and a few days after that, Stanley and I venture out to Ropes Park, a small city park off Ocean Drive with bayfront access. To reach the water, we zigzag down a series of Escher-like steps made of railroad ties. There’s a 100-yard strip of sand, and a wrack line often full of trash. We rarely encounter people here, maybe because it’s such a dirty beach, strewn with plastic bottles, cigarillo tips, and odd shoes. I like this beach anyway. I like the way it’s situated in the belly of the bay’s curve, how huge boulders enclose it at either end. It’s a hotspot for sea glass, too. Stanley throws rocks into the surf and runs shrieking as the gulls dive and hover around our heads. The gulls must think we have food. Sometimes we bring our drive-thru lunches here because it’s still not safe to eat in restaurants.
We’re at the north end of the beach when we spot it. A sea turtle. For a while, I’d just thought it was another boulder, but no. It’s a dead sea turtle tagged with a neon-orange X across its back, indicating it’s been counted in the Gulf’s Sea Turtle Mortality Report. Its flippers and head are outstretched but look hollow like the flesh has been eaten from the inside out. I think of the sea turtle rescue operation photos I saw on Facebook last week. Big pickup trucks with cargo beds filled with cold-stunned sea turtles to be warmed up, so they wouldn’t freeze to death. Why wasn’t this one rescued?
This time, when Stanley sees the body, he says, “No, no, no. I don’t like it. Let’s go!” He grabs my hand, tugs me hard, away from the dead sea turtle. I don’t want him to be scared, but he is. I feel helpless about the cruelty of the world, the type of cruelty that causes ordinary deaths every minute. I think of my Quaker friend, Janet, the first death doula I’d met. She’d sat with so many people while they were dying that death and suffering didn’t scare her. Even when she admitted, “Death is a Great Mystery,” she maintained a sense of awe rather than anxiety over the unknown.
As I slowly turn away from the sea turtle, I realize that seeing dead animals may be my way of practicing compassion, something that requires real presence. “Compassion is our capacity to relate in a tender and sympathetic way to what we perceive,” writes Richard Rohr. He suggests that instead of “resisting our feelings of fear or grief,” we should “embrace our pain with the kindness of a mother holding her child.” I’m practicing, too, for when it’s not an animal, but someone I love who’s inanimate and breathless before me. Except there’s no way to prepare for that sort of loss.
We leave the sea turtle and resume throwing rocks into the surf. It’s so easy to turn away from something that is painful. I’m still not sure how to fight the urge to turn away, or why I feel like I shouldn’t turn away. At my feet, I spy a piece of sea glass. My fingers graze the sand as I reach for it: a rounded, pale blue-green piece like a translucent robin’s egg. I put it in my pocket.
When we return home from the beach, I put the sea glass on the bookshelf where I’ve made an altar of tokens we’ve collected on our walks: heart-shaped rocks, dove feathers, and small balls of Spanish moss. The cat bones sit in the center. I’ve arranged them symmetrically, like a face. Two round vertebrae form eye sockets, the femur looks like the bridge of a nose, and the jawbones curve like cheeks. I put flat pieces of sea glass where I imagine teeth would go. Without exactly meaning to, I’ve made a calavera—a human skull–shaped symbol seen at Dias de Muertos celebrations. Come October, the stores in Corpus Christi will be full of colorful, festival skull representations on cookies, cakes, paper plates, and tee shirts. Here’s another way to attend to death: with humor, a sly ironic smile. An attitude that shrugs and says, If you can’t beat death, then you can at least be on friendly terms with it.
The significance of the cat bones keeps shifting for me. They comfort me with their solidity. Tommaso Fagioli writes, “Bones represent our truest and barest self . . . our home and anchor in the physical world.” Bones exist as the last tangible thing after death. But the cat bones scare me, too, because they look so much like my bones. Those cat vertebrae I hold in the palm of my hand are the same shape as the bones knitting my spine together, aren’t they?
I never took anatomy and physiology in college, and I was always a little envious of those who did, with their coloring-book study aids, a neat row of colored pencils, and those diagrams labeling every part of the human body. All this precision, and we still don’t know where the soul resides. We still don’t know what happens to the spirit when someone—person or animal—breathes its last.
One day in mid-March, a full year into the pandemic, Stanley scoots a chair to the bookcase so he can reach my altar. Before we pulled him out of preschool to shelter in place, his teachers used to designate time for play with loose parts: buttons, beads, and rocks that kids can engage with in imaginative play. To him, my sacred objects are just loose parts.
Stanley sweeps the sea glass over to the side, then moves the cat bones, obliterating my calavera.
“This is the momma bone,” he says, holding one of the jawbones. “And this is the daddy bone.” He points to the largest one, the femur.
“What’s this one?” I point to a vertebra.
“The kid one!”
As I watch him play, I think about how I’m moving on this life circle and so is Stanley. Like the cat, the unhoused man, the turtle, and the turkey vulture.
I think about how last night we saw turkey vultures again. Kent was washing dinner dishes when he spotted two dozen turkey vultures roosting in the bare red oak trees across the street.
“Look, hon!” Kent called, and he dried his dish-soapy hands and grabbed his camera. Photography is his new pandemic hobby. I peered out the window at the wake of hunched birds silhouetted against the dusky sky and I thought: What’s died now?
“Let me come, too!” Stanley shouted, so we put on shoes and headed down the street. We were in the golden hour photographers covet, the time just past sunset when light is soft and diffused, making any subject look beautiful. Neighbors had come out to watch. Kent’s camera shutter tkk-tkked, mechanically. Stanley held my hand.
“So many birds, Mama!” He pointed to a dozen more turkey vultures circling in the sky, floating on thermals. They swirled downward in a funnel until they found a place to perch for the night: an old telephone pole in the alley, a scraggly backyard palm tree, or the branches of the oak tree on the corner.
“Look at the hawks!” a man with a white beard yelled from across the street. “There must be forty or fifty of them.”
“Those aren’t hawks!” I yelled back. “They’re turkey vultures.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, see their bald, red heads?” I wanted to add that there must be a dead animal nearby, why else would they be here? I pulled out my phone, wanting to prove I was right, even though I wouldn’t dare get near enough to show him my phone screen because he might be infected with the virus.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he shouted.
“Me either.” We probably wouldn’t have even noticed the vultures if not for the pandemic that narrowed the scope of our lives.
A quick Google search revealed that these turkey vultures were migrating. Because the birds glide on updrafts, they love flying along shorelines where the temperature shifts between land and sea create great thermals. In March and November, Corpus Christi is on the vulture migration superhighway. These birds would eventually stop somewhere in the Midwest, their summer breeding grounds. This time they aren’t here because death lurks, they’re on their way to make babies.
Balanced on the edge of the chair, Stanley uses the cat femur to shove a piece of green sea glass off the bookcase. It clatters to the hardwood floor. I scoop it up and put it back.
“Okay. You need to get down now,” I say, but he’s still engrossed by the bones.
“Not yet. Muh-rrrr!” He zooms a bone across the shelf. “Muh-rrrrrr. It’s a car!”
“Drop it. Or the tickle monster will get you!”
He squeals. I grab him, wrapping my arms around his waist, and scoop him up in a monkey-hug while I tickle his armpits. He giggles, big, bubbling, hiccup-gulping giggles. He drops the femur back on the shelf. It makes a soft, hollow clatter as it hits the wood, returning to a memento, reminding me that the cycle from birth to bone is brief, but brilliant.