This week, Beti brought home a book by James Herriot called The Christmas Day Kitten. I had no idea. I started reading it to her and about halfway through gasped in surprise. Split second decision: do I keep reading or send the book back to school? I kept reading.
See, in the book, there is a stray cat who shows up every three or four days to a farmhouse to get fed. She goes missing for three months and then appears back at the farmhouse, bedraggled and sick, holding her sole kitten in her mouth. She knew she didn't have long in this world, so she made a plan for her soon-to-be-orphaned kitten, to make sure he was in a safe, warm, loving place before she had to leave him.
They named him "Buster" and he lived a long life, bringing joy to his family.
I cried. I saw the parallel. I started to discuss the symbolism with our kids but decided against it, just letting the story stand on its own. All I remarked on, through my tears, was how wonderful that the mother cat made a plan for her kitten to be safe and taken care of. My kids nodded and asked to go on to the next book.
Later this week, I found a book at our local library called Big Cat Pepper by Elizabeth Partridge. I don't actively seek out sad books about sick and dying cats, promise. This week, they just came to me on their own. This one was lying out on one of the kids' tables at the library along with a few others that someone decided not to take home. I checked it out.
Tonight I decided to read it with our kids. Again, I had no idea. The little boy loves his cat Pepper and plays with him under the apple tree every day after school. He can't remember a day in his life he was ever without Pepper. You know where this goes. Pepper gets sick and the boy sits vigil by the soft spot he makes for him on the couch. His mother lets the boy stay home from school the day Pepper dies. Together, they bury him in the flower garden.
Beti is reading whole long chunks of words on her own these days, so I was never more thankful for this new skill of hers than when I read the page in which the boy asks his mother, "Will he be afraid, Mama, way down deep?" I couldn't read her answer, so Beti did.
In Beti's sweet voice, she read, "His spirit is forever--it can fly, fly, fly."
The boy struggles through lonesome bedtimes without his friend and marks the spot in the garden with a hand-drawn picture and Pepper's favorite toy. He feels Pepper's fur on his legs when the wind blows and he knows Pepper is always with him.
Does it make me morbid that I read these sad books to our kids this week, kids who already know a lot of loss? They seemed more concerned about the fact that I was crying than anything. We have three cats, and they discussed which one would probably die first. Abe asked if he could miss school when that happens and if we could bury our pets in our backyard too. He said he wanted to be able to visit them. I said that was a good idea.
When Beti first got here, she was terrified of our cats. If one came near her, she'd jump onto the highest piece of furniture in the room. Now, things are different. One cat regularly sleeps with her and the skittish one who hides from most people actually lets her carry him around the house, purring on her as she carts him around. She has a way with them. They're now her friends.
I know the pain is coming. Two of our cats are older than twelve and the other is middle-aged. It's like the comedian Louis C.K. said about puppies, "It’s like, if you buy a puppy, you’re bringing it home to your family’s saying, hey, look, everyone, we’re all gonna cry soon. Look at what I brought home. I brought home us crying in a few years. Here we go. Countdown to sorrow with a puppy."
I guess my logic is that because I know it's coming eventually and because our kids have already known such loss, it's best to get it all out in the open than pretend that we're never going to feel grief again. Fred Rogers said, "Whatever is mentionable is manageable," so I'm mentioning to our kids the reality that our cats are not immortal creatures.
I just hope it's a long way off from now. Please God, let us have those rare cats who live to be twenty. That'll get us at least another five years.