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Ash-Scattering, Assisi and Two Fellows Named Francis

07/12/2013 04:53 EDT | Updated 09/11/2013 05:12 EDT

In 2011, both of my cats -- seniors I had had since their kitten-hoods - were euthanized. Orloff, diabetic for the last four years of his life and blind as a result, had always been a little martinet as I stuck him with insulin and glucometers, seeming to understand that I was trying to help. But when he no longer wanted to eat even his beloved Swiss Chalet, I knew I had to stop trying.

Pushkin had esophageal cancer, "just like Christopher Hitchens," I remember thinking when she was diagnosed. She began vomiting blood one summer day, three weeks after her brother died, and I watched helplessly as she grew thin and furious, raging at me to let her go. When I finally did, I felt I had waited too long.

I loved them both and -- please keep your cries of "anthropomorphizing" to yourselves -- they loved me. I have kept their ashes since then, unable to decide where they should be scattered. When my father died -- on this day 18 years ago, the day the massacre at Srebrenica began -- we faced the same dilemma. He had been happiest on the golf course, but his country club wouldn't allow ash-scattering near the plaid pants. We settled, instead, for our former backyard.

The cats' lives were spent in my apartment, so it follows they had been happiest there, but scattering their ashes on my couch or bed (where they slept approximately 21 hours a day) did not seem right. I would only have to vacuum them up and they hated the vacuum.

My indecision continued until I had occasion to spend five weeks in Italy last autumn, not far from Assisi, the city of St. Francis, patron saint of animals. He preached to the birds and sent them chirping the gospel -- caw, caw, to the least of these -- in cross formation. He tamed the ferocious wolf of Gubbio (a lesser-known Italian town, well worth visiting).

I had an epiphany.

I would scatter their ashes in Assisi. This seemed a perfect idea until I began reading airline regulations for transporting the dead. The rules I found applied only to humans, so my options seemed to be packing the ashes and hoping no one noticed, or asking in advance about pets' ashes and drawing attention to myself.

Visions of me answering questions in a small, dark office as my cats' ashes were run through a sieve by latex-gloved airport security apparatchiks or placed under the noses of drug-sniffing dogs filled my head. And what if my luggage got lost and my babies ended up on a tarmac in Minsk or Pinsk or some other godforsaken place for all eternity?

Plan B was born. I would bring a bit of Assisi back -- flower petals or leaves -- and mix it with my cats' ashes. They would be connected to their patron saint. Waiting to board my flight to Rome, I told my boyfriend -- a man who calls St. Francis a "medieval hippie punk who stole from his father," of Plan B.

"It's crazy, right?"

"No," he smiled. "It's sweet." Pause. "And crazy."

Two weeks later I stepped off a bus and into Assisi, which is at once bellissima beyond belief and something of a Catholic theme park. Everything there is connected to St. Francis.

Convenience stores sell thimbles and other knick-knacks with his image, all of them stacked up at the front cash, the way North Americans have refreshing mints and seedy tabloids in the same spot. I saw more nuns and priests in Assisi than I had previously seen cumulatively and I mean in my lifetime, not just in Italy.

I found myself wondering if any people in Assisi did jobs not connected to St. Francis. There must be dentists and shoe salesmen there, though you could argue they somehow find their way back to Brother Sun and Sister Moon.

Even the living statues were Franciscan in nature: the best one I saw was of a pellegrino, or pilgrim, who looked not unlike the soulful lead in Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth.)

I also found myself wondering why the numerous international pilgrims in Assisi couldn't make more of an effort to dress properly. I am not religious, yet I wore a dress inside the Basilica of St. Francis; the glory of Giotto deserves better than your shorts, t-shirts and sun-visors, tacky pilgrims.

Stealing flower petals was not as easy as I had imagined, given the teeming, poorly-dressed masses everywhere. There is no subtle way to rip a flower off its stalk and stick it in the Ziploc bag in your purse. Wandering through Assisi's steep, winding streets and trying to look casual, I stepped into a gourmet shop (with St. Francis-embossed bottles of olive oil and limoncello on sale!) and was welcomed into a wine-tasting. It was hosted by a rotund, jovial, throwing-about-his-weight German, though at least he was doing it with Euros rather than Stukas and jackboots.

He poured me enough wine to give me courage and loosen my purse strings. An hour later, out I went, newly-purchased bottle of limoncello in hand, and headed back to the Basilica. On the way, I tore three flowers off their stalks, several leaves off trees and once there, I grabbed a handful of lavender.

Months later, my cats' now-fortified-with-Franciscan-flora ashes still wait on my dresser. It would behoove me to have another epiphany already, as death takes no holidays: shortly after my return to Canada, one of my brothers died, utterly unexpectedly. He was someone who mourned the loss of his pets without shame and I swear I can feel, from the great beyond, his aggravation with my tarrying.

Months later, there is a Pope name Francis -- a pope who blesses animals and probably their ashes -- and I am organizing another trip to Italy and a Plan C.

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