The reality of death doesn’t call us to be morose, but grateful that it hasn’t visited us yet. The air was a warm sheet on our bare skin, smoothing us over with a soothing glow. A paintbrush had danced lazily across the blue beyond, sweeping pure ivory over the sky in fair and perfect turns. It was the second day of Spring. Buds were sprouting from their hiding places all over. It was a Wednesday, the day we returned Ava’s first true love to the Earth.
The circumstances of the night before met us ill-prepared and lost. I suppose the heavy duties of parenting happen when events occur, rather than like plot points on a map. At 8-years-old you explain self-worth. At 13-years-old you explain menstrual cycles. At 16-years-old you explain romantic principles and standards. That’s not the way it goes. So, when Ava was 8-years-old, 49 inches tall, a thin redhead whose only problem up until that day was being forced to eat vegetables when she didn’t want to, I had to look her in the eyes and tell her the truth about mortality. I didn’t have perfect words, and magic wouldn’t save us this day.
She approached me as I sat on the ground in front of the little striped pillowcase that covered our cat’s lifeless body. I was crying. She asked me what was wrong, and I had no choice but to shine light on things she didn’t know. We were at a gate, a departure point. I had to induct her into a world where we really do lose things we love, and we feel hurt over circumstances we cannot change. I had to, as best I could, teach her about grief. I didn’t know when I woke up on Tuesday morning that the day’s agenda would serve us such a heavy-handed topic of discussion. In the grocery store just hours before, I got eye to eye with her and talked to her about gratitude. That was enough spiritual-mom wizardry for the day. God thought otherwise.
It came out clearly and without cover: “Harry Potter got hit by a car and he died.”
She cracked into a shattered mess of salty tears, heartbreak, and confusion. We laid our hands on the pillowcase and gave our Harry Potter a few last pets. Her entry into a cruel and sometimes unfair reality happened as it has to so many others: suddenly, bluntly, and unwanted.
We went back inside and cried some more. She was angry at the driver of the car who hit him. I understood this, and I didn’t tell her how to feel. I told her the feeling she had was normal, and that we would both cry until we didn’t feel like crying anymore. I understood my cue this night. “Grief is sadness over the loss of something we loved,” I said. We must feel it. I wish I had known that and could’ve applied it during my own times of loss. But I forget. Conceptually, I can understand grief. Spiritually, emotionally, and mentally, I avoid it at all costs. The fear of pain has always made me dance into corners I don’t belong in. And Grief, in one form or another, always becomes the other wallflower once all my other dance partners are gone, and I am left to have a late night discussion with it. Webster’s defines grief as keen mental suffering over a loss. At least I was close.
When conducting the act of parenting, one needn’t always heed the drive to consult reference material outside of the experiences you’ve lived. Experience is more valuable than a dictionary about 80% of the time.
I remember the funerals for the various pets we had growing up. We had a kitten once that was hit by the neighbor boy’s car. We hated him every day for that. I think we even plotted something against him for a while, but time assuaged our guilt enough and we forgot to execute the plan. I had two fish for a long time that my dad accidentally killed when he made mustard gas in the bathroom next to my room. We buried them, too, which is strange because they’re fish and we could’ve just as easily flushed them. But hey, my family is strange. I had a bird that got eaten by the cat one day. All of them lie in the earth in the backyard of my childhood home. We gave them little monuments. My mom always read a Bible verse at the funeral we held for each of them. Then we’d cover their Tupperware container or cardboard box caskets and go back to the business of living.
My mom taught us all of this. She taught us empathy and that all creatures matter. She instilled the meaning of tradition and ceremony that unfurls upon the death of someone or something. She taught us about loss, about love, and about consideration. I copy and pasted many of these lessons when it came to be my turn unexpectedly on a Tuesday night. The funeral was held the next day. My sister picked a pretty place under a huge oak tree on my family’s plot of land in the country, right next to a dog we buried a few years before.
It was off the beaten path, quite literally. Mom drove a Kubota truck down to the place where Harry Potter was to be put into the ground. The road was lined with locust trees, barbed wire fences, and dry branches that had accumulated in piles under the larger trees that stood faithful watch over this area. We were in the company of nature, momentarily secluded from the world’s wrath. It might be a beautiful enough place to come back and visit anytime one feels too full of the things that don’t matter, and a great place to remember what really does. It was, in all respects, the perfect place for a cat funeral.
My sister had already begun to dig the hole. Nothing but moist clay under the initial layer of dry Texas soil that was waking up after a long, tempestuous winter.
We chipped away at it with the shovel we had, then used our hands to dig out the huge clumps. A pile of black soil was growing. When we were satisfied with the depth, we pulled Harry from the box. We asked Ava to turn away, because some things 8-year-olds don’t need to see yet, and we placed him gently into the ground. He was covered one last time with a soft pillowcase. We read a beautiful poem and I cried again.
When I was in my late twenties, a squirrel was hit just outside my house. It wasn’t immediately killed on impact. I had every intention of saving its life, nursing it back to health, then releasing it to live a while longer. But Death had visited it while I was inside looking for something soft to wrap it in. The towel, originally fetched to aid in its survival, was now the terry cloth shroud I would use to return it to the Earth. I dug a hole, placed it gently inside, and covered it back up. As I looked down in the company of someone who has almost no regard for animals, I said simply, “Squirrels matter.” And they do.
When I was thirty-two, a grown woman, a bird hit the window of a building I was in. I went outside to check on it and found it hurt, but still trying with everything left in it to fly away. I picked it up and carried it to what I considered to be Nature’s field hospital. It was a tall tree down the street. Nature would do its job. But when I reached the tree, the bird’s breathing had already begun to slow. Its eyes started to turn slightly red, and I realized suddenly I was holding a bird on its way to Heaven. I sat down under the tree, held it in my hand, and stroked its wings. I whispered, “It’s okay.” He lowered his head and his chest ceased to rise and fall. I cried. Then I placed the bird at the foot of the tree, said a prayer, and walked away.
Generally, I am a sensitive person. When it comes to animals, I am especially sensitive. I think this is probably a result of my upbringing. We always had animals. And then there’s my mother, who like I said before, did one of the best jobs teaching us how to love and have concern for things smaller than us. It was no mistake that the day we buried Harry, my mother stood behind us and watcher her lessons unfold in real time.
Ava helped us put the dirt on top of the blue pillow case covering his body. She asked many questions as she always does. I did my best to answer them. We dug our fingers into the mud, into what we really all are anyway. We covered ourselves in tradition and ceremony, just like we had when I was young. It got in between our fingers, under our finger nails, on our jeans. We performed a ritual, and in some strange way, it helped God’s needle begin to lace a thread through all our ripped tissue. I sat on the ground with the little person I made, the heart that lives outside my body, and felt as close to her then as I ever had. She was growing older even as I looked at her.
We cultivate magic in our house. We dress up; we believe in Santa; I slip dollars under her pillow and save her teeth in a secret place she’ll never find. I know I can’t shield her from all of life. I know she will feel this feeling again. But God, I was happy to be in the soil with her. We were both wrist deep in experience now. I knew, as she handled the shovel we were using, that she wouldn’t ever be the same again. How we arrived at this terminal so quickly surely can’t be the fault of any one person. It is, quite simply, just Life as we know it.
I know there is a God. I know it’s not scary when you die. I am secure in God’s love for me because He made me a Texan. I couldn’t answer all of Ava’s questions, like why God killed her cat. Some of these rivers she will have to navigate on her own. But on the day of a beautiful cat funeral, I felt God move in the trees. I saw God in the soil. I heard God in the whimpers of someone who feels hurt and lost. And for this moment, my daughter and I were in the same boat on the same sea with the same cargo. Even in times of loss, times of sorrow, times of hurt, God's there. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t true. God has always been there. Squirrels matter. Birds matter. Cats matter. And all of us matter to God. Just ask the animals. They’ll tell you.
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