I’ve decided I want to write about this because I’m not sure I’m done processing it. Not so much the death of the Cat, we always had family pets growing up and pets eventually die one way or another. There was Whiskers, the gray rag doll cat who survived all the Whirling Whimsy’s rather violent affections (she once literally snuggled the poop out of him, and another time was caught stuffing him down the vent) only to drink radiator water one day. There was Daisy, the border collie who was a constant presence the first fourteen years of my life, who passed away quietly in the wee hours of the morning from old age and who I was probably the last one to pet before she passed away by the sheer accident that I got up to get a glass of water at just the right moment. There was Fiddlesticks, who followed me on teenage rambles through the neighborhood and delighted in winding up my dog, who died suddenly of cancer we didn’t she know he had while I was away. I’m pretty familiar with pet death, and Domino was ancient for a cat, at least 18 years old and died quietly in her sleep after weeks of all of us watching her closely and praying she wasn’t planning to die in the crawl space between the basement and the main floor. There are many anecdotes, humorous and touching, I could tell about the cat if I were mourning her. But I’m not, and didn’t for long when she died, if anything I was relieved for her because she seemed to be pretty uncomfortable in her deteriorating body. What’s still sitting with me is Pookie.
We think the cat died sometime in night because we found her the morning before Easter (qouthe the Mumsy, both inner and corporeal, “how symbolic!”). She used to sleep on the steps that lead into the basement and every morning, just about, upon waking, Pookie would head out and drag her into our room to “snuggle”. I bet you can guess where this is going. I’d stepped over the cat that morning noting vaguely with some part of my mind that she was laying in the classic dead cat pose. But in my not-yet-caffeinated state this was a bleary and unconnected thought. So I got my coffee and snuggled back into my bed for my morning journaling. Pookie was knocking about watching Saturday morning cartoons and I was quite engrossed in my writing. Suddenly, Pookie was at my elbow speaking low, urgent, and tearfully: “Mom, something is wrong with Domino! She isn’t moving and her head is all floppy!”
“Oh crap, son of a shit” is what I thought. What I said was “Oh dear, let’s you and me go upstairs and ask Grampy to come down and take a look at her.”
“Um, because he has had lots of cats and knows so much about them.”
Upstairs, I sent her to “go tell Oma” and informed my dad that we were gonna need a box. To give him credit, despite roundly cursing this cat for many years, he seemed genuinely sorry to hear it. He went downstairs to gather up the body. He’s an old hand at pet burial. Then I had to break the news to Pookie, avoiding as best I could the detail of exactly when the cat died. I really, really, didn’t want her to know that the bundle of fur she had happily scooped up that morning was a corpse. I had a distinct sense that, this being her first encounter with death, ever, that could somehow seriously flip her out. I wasn’t worried about disgust, although it did seem like a distinct possibility that she might be, I was worried about her first experience with death highlighting it’s stealthiness and, from her perspective, unexpectedness. It is hard enough to have to wrap your mind around the concept of death- that every one we love eventually meets their end- without adding the boogie man of not knowing when that end comes, of knowing it could be any time.
We kept the box open on a chair in the corner of the dining room until the next afternoon. Domino was the last family pet, the last one we collectively adopted, loved, and cared for, so we wanted to bury her when every one could be there. It felt like the end of a chapter, and it felt wrong to leave anyone out of the closing sentences. Pookie kept visiting it. Placing more and more flowers in it. Occasionally stroking the cat’s head. Although I didn’t realize that until Grampy put on gloves to rearrange her in the box for burial the next day, explained to Kayah that bacteria can grow on dead bodies and he just wanted to be extra safe, and her face turned white and she ran off to wash her hands. This was an unfortunate moment, I really like that she wasn’t inherently afraid to touch death. In light of this, it may have been okay for her to know she snuggled and cuddled a dead cat, but I’m gonna play it safe, I’m going to maintain the fiction that the cat died while we were upstairs getting Grampy until she’s older and the information would serve a purpose. She’s still grieving her furry little friend and I want her grief, as much as it is within my power, to be free of additional fear.