Am I ready? I doubt it. This is a kid who asks, “Mom, can I..?,” Mom, where’s the..?”; never stops at “Mom?” I know the question will need my full attention.
“You said that when we got a cat we would take care of it forever.”
“Even after it dies.”
“Yes. Of course.”
“So what happened to the cat you had before?”
“I know. Do you still have her?”
I know where this is going and feel good about my answer.
“As a matter of fact, we had her cremated and her ashes are in a box in the garage somewhere.” On average, my answers are five words too long.
“Her ashes?” There are tears now.
“Uh yes. Cremating is when they put the body of a dead thing in a very hot fire and then give you the ashes. To keep. Forever.” Ta-da. Thank you, thank you.
“You set her on fire? Please don’t put our cats in a fire.”
“Oh no, of course not, sweetie. But when an animal dies, its brain stops sending signals to the rest of its body and the body can’t feel anything. It’s like this counter.” I slide my hand over the smooth, hard, cold kitchen counter. “Does this counter have a brain?”
“Does it have a heart?”
The answers start coming slower.
“Do you think it can feel this?” I rap my knuckles hard on the kitchen counter.
The tears streak down his face and he makes no attempt to stop them.
“Well, the cat is just like this counter--when it’s dead.”
“Is your cat in this counter? Don’t turn our cats into counters!”
I realize the counter comparison is ineffective. I search my heart for a more empathetic approach.
”You know how we put food waste in the compost pile so it can turn into food for worms?”
We both feel the impending doom of this tack but are incapable of stopping it.
“That’s the fate of all of us. All living things die and decompose and return to the earth as food for worms.”
By now even I wonder if I’ll throw the cat into the compost when its time comes. I set the course of the conversation in an entirely new direction.
“Look! It’s your dad!”