By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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By Sean Pendergast
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Instead, she had Iris cremated. For weeks, Rische could not bring herself to pick up the ashes at the animal clinic. On the way to a solo October retreat in the Hill Country, a clinic worker tucked the plastic urn box in her trunk.
"I don't have any good reason to explain it, but I took the ashes everywhere I went on that trip. I know it seems strange now, although I didn't even think about it at the time."
Her cigarbox-sized urn accompanied her into inns. She put it next to her during cafe meals and even carried the box into bathrooms.
When she returned to Houston after a month, Rische said the grief was gone.
But so were the ashes.
Rische searched her car. She looked through the trunk and her suitcases. She believes she left the urn in the restroom of an Exxon station somewhere in the Hill Country. She thought of calling various places where she had stopped or stayed, then dismissed that as futile. "I realized it might have been a subconscious sign that I'd gotten over my grief. I felt like I had reached closure. It was time to move on."
She has moved on in life. St. Francis decorates her lush back-yard flower garden. Honey Mutt, the dog she adopted from the SPCA soon after the trip, is her constant companion. "The kids said, 'You need another dog, Mom.' They were right."
One of those at the SPCA support group, Rebecca Bertrand, started to speak of her dead cat, Tom. She hesitated for several seconds, fighting for control, before her words gave way to eerie sounds. A whimpering cry turned into a moan like that of an animal.
She sobbed, then half laughed, then apologized. Her outburst had shaken tears from the others.
Bertrand, with husband, Jay, by her side at the session, cried for her Siamese cat named Tom. The stray wandered into their lives nine years -- and probably nine lives -- earlier. Tom was her constant companion through her bout with abdominal cancer and the business trips of her husband, a communications worker.
Early this year, she noticed Tom's mouth sores and weight loss. After a series of tests, vets diagnosed the problem as liver cancer. Rebecca took vacation days and cooked chicken for the cat, but the condition worsened, and vets convinced her it would be "a gift of love to let him go."
On March 11, Rebecca cradled Tom and could not stop crying as Jay drove their car to Home Depot. He selected lumber and materials for a suitable coffin. Then they all went to Petsmart. Tom was dead before the vet there finished the injection of bright pink fluid.
Under the limbs of a peach tree where the cat used to lounge, Jay dug the small grave. He placed a wooden cross, carved with Tom's name , and they prayed that Jesus would take care of Tom as His own until Rebecca could make it to heaven.
Conventional wisdom -- to get another pet if one dies -- had been mixed for Cordelia Winston, a young and self-assured schoolteacher, as well as committed dog-lover.
Winston said she has a strong circle of friends and family but most enjoys the devotion and companionship of a canine.
"That kind of relationship is totally unconditional. You can do anything to them, and they'll always come back to you, and they won't begrudge you," she said. "If we could only be so forgiving."
She explained: "We wear masks every single day. You don't really know if what another person is telling you is the truth or anything. Dogs are completely honest, every day."
Shakespeare, the family's chocolate Labrador in Winston's youth, died in 1996 from a fungus infecting his blood. She said she was horrified that her parents had buried him at their home in Laredo while she was still in San Antonio on a teaching assignment.
Winston drove from San Antonio and threatened to "unbury" Shakespeare. She settled for staying at the grave through the night, wedging locks of hair, pictures and a blanket into the burial soil.
Nine months later, her mixed breed Barfy -- named for his habit of throwing up when she first found him -- died from a tumor at age 13.
She grieved and found a vocal basset named August.
Winston considered the dog her closest friend, although she was startled twice by nightmares. She dreamed the basset was in a grave, and Winston was trying to cover August with dirt. "In that one, I was saying to her, no, obviously it is better this way; to do it like this. She'd come out, and I'd bury her again." In another, August squealed and bled profusely as Winston applied pressure to a massive wound. She told August she was just "going to have to die."
Winston assumed these were symbolic messages that she was having to give up some aspects of her past to accommodate her recent marriage and career moves.
In September, August was spending time with her family in Laredo while Winston was working in Houston. The dog lost a few pounds, and the family took him to the vet, but Winston said her mother assured her the dog was fine.