The Examined Life

And why it's worth living

Is There A Kitty Heaven?

A Case Against Beautifying Death For Children

As I walked in to collect my six-year-old from her theater class, I saw her sitting with a forlorn expression on her teacher's lap. Instantaneously, I knew she had told her teacher our cat that had been put to sleep earlier in the day. I heard the teacher say, in a chirpy theatrical voice, "I'm sorry to hear that, sweetie, but at least you know she's in kitty heaven now."

Kitty heaven?

Moments before walking up those stairs I'd been doing my best to answer my other, four-year-old, daughter's questions: Will she wake up? Where is she now? Why did she have to die? Even as she wailed, I avoided euphemisms, uttered the difficult words --"dead," "gone," "forever"--that possess terrifying weight, like the "small and extremely heavy cones" Jorge Luis Borges describes in his story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," which are "made of a metal which does not exist in this world:" words, once uttered, that make your entire being sink.

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I didn't promise a new kitten to push us out of the moment, but sat with her in her sorrow. "I'm sad, too," I told her, "but it is the way of the living." Then, quoting from the book Lifetimes, I added, "There is a beginning and an ending for everything that is alive..." Looking back, I realize it certainly would have been easier for me to invent a kitty heaven, granting our cat, Flotsam, an afterlife that looked much like the dog party atop a high tree on the last page of Go Dog Go. But sometimes what is easier in the present becomes more difficult in the future, like buying the coveted plastic toy to end a tantrum and setting up the expectation that each tantrum will be met with reward.

When, as a parent, you choose to neutralize a difficult situation by recasting the external reality so that the emotions retreat, you have to ask yourself whether you are striving to make the situation easier on your child or on yourself. In many ways, I was faced with this very dilemma in relation to my cat: was "putting her out of her misery" the best outcome for her or for me, allowing me to distance myself from her deterioration by tidying up her death through a scheduled appointment?

Five months earlier, I was forced to ask myself this question when I took my cat to the vet because she had begun to limp and had stopped eating. The vet, after diagnosing kidney disease, pointed out that my nineteen-and-a-half-year-old cat--fur clumped in three-inch dreadlocks, paws filthy, eyes sunken and bleary--had had a good, long life and that, perhaps, her time had come. I agreed, but knew I couldn't put her to sleep then and there--my four year old was with me at the time and my six year old was still in school. Neither had been prepared in any way.

When I picked up my older daughter at school and explained that our cat was sick, my four year old interrupted, "She's going to die." My older daughter broke down sobbing, began to hyperventilate. I realized I wasn't prepared either--for her death or for the children's reactions. I didn't know what to say and found myself speaking in vague terms. Miraculously, by the time we got home, the cat seemed five years younger, jumped up to the sink to drink from the tap, transformed her de profundis bleat into a more comforting meow. I cancelled the appointment.

Everything inched along: Flotsam went back to sleeping in her little cat bed and begging for our food, though with an aggressive energy I'd never seen before--jumping onto the kids' laps as they ate their dinner, stealing food off their plates if they turned their heads. Her eyesight weakened and she continued to urinate on anything shaped like a rectangle--including, one time, my pillow. We decided to confine her to the kitchen, which had an adjacent bathroom with her litter box in it.

Then, more recently, she became fixated with the kitchen sink. She'd jump up to the counter, sometimes dragging kitty litter with her paws, to drink from the faucet. Occasionally, I'd come home and the kitchen would smell like a subway station, the stench of urine so powerful I would hold my breath as I lifted her out of the sink to disinfect it and fill the basin with water as a deterrent. It was time.

I called the vet and made an appointment. I began reading Lifetimes to my daughters regularly: all living things have beginnings and endings, and there is living in between. Yet it is one thing to explain a natural death, as the book does, but another to explain deliberately putting a beloved pet to sleep. The girls and I were going out of town the day after the appointment. My husband could have taken her to the vet while we were away and it would have been possible to lie about how she'd died. How much easier that would have been! The possibilities for not telling them the truth were endless.

But I decided to tell them everything. One of my worst memories of childhood was the sense that something was wrong but not knowing what it was. That dual sense of knowing and not knowing is what I wanted to avoid by attempting to explain what would inevitably be difficult for a child to comprehend. I explained what would happen when I took the cat to the vet, why it seemed to be time for her to go, and that she would no longer be with us when I came home. "Do you think she will come back as our next pet?" my four-year-old asked. "Maybe," I told her, explaining reincarnation. "Different people believe different things."

The night before the appointment we had a ceremony. My daughters composed poems -- "O, she's just like Jackson," began one of my younger daughter's poems, referring to Michael Jackson, whose very public death was perhaps the first of which she was cognizant. "She's part of me, she's a piece of me," my older daughter mused. "She's all I ever wanted." I took pictures of them petting her, cuddling with her, and showed them baby photos of each of them with the cat. For Flotsam's last supper, my husband cooked steak--her favorite food--and served it with a big bowl of milk, which she lapped up as we read the poems to her.

The next morning, before they left for school, each child said goodbye in her own way. My four year old, who had been drawing pictures for her throughout breakfast, gave her the pictures, placed a cookie on her back and whispered in her ear. My six year old told her how much she loved her, gave her a kiss and said, "I hope you take that to heaven with you." After they left, I put the cat in her carrying case. She used to fight and scratch, shoot her paws into a spread-eagle, making it impossible to slip her into the case, but this time she stepped right in. She was ready, too, I think.

When I came home, I made a photo album including pictures of her throughout her lifetime as well as the poems they'd written the night before. Both had a hard time coming home to her absence, but after a few days they were ready to move on. I think, in a way, they were comforted by my admission that I didn't have all the answers, even by my sadness. We were in it together, this mess of mortality.

My daughters still express sadness when we pass a pet store or randomly hear Flotsam's name. On a recent Saturday morning, my older daughter climbed onto our bed with a bag of work she'd brought home from school the day before. We read over the different papers as she handed them to us. Right after my husband read the weekly note from the teachers aloud-- "We're sending home a lot of cubby flotsam!"--we had an impromptu moment of silence. Then we looked at my daughter's poem about spring.

Nuar Alsadir, Ph.D., a poet and essayist, teaches at New York University and is in The Scholars Program at New York Psychoanalytic Society & Institute.

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