A story of a father navigating his daughter’s grief over her pet and his own grief over his marriage.
This is a word that you cannot understand until your six-year-old child is sobbing, cradling the body of her precious kitty in her arms like a rag doll, and the child teaches you that not all tears can be soothed away with band-aids or kisses.
They sat in the bathroom, my wife Wendy and child Paulette, and held Mr. Grumpy Pants’ deceased form. The makeshift coffin of a boot-sized shoe box lay on the floor, its contents of old sheets still, as yet, unused.
Wendy looked up at me as I peeked around the corner, her eyes imploring to me to take a turn at comforting our daughter. Mr. Grumpy Pants had died that morning at the vet, euthanized following the diagnosis of advanced renal failure, and the vet had been kind enough to allow Wendy to take him home for a “proper burial”.
Wendy called me at work at let me know that she’d already dug the grave and had everything ready so that it could be done before dinner. Paulette seemed completely nonplussed by it until it can come time to put the large gray form of Mr. Grumpy Pants in the box.
“I didn’t tell her,” Wendy tried to explain, “what it meant.”
“She’s a smart kid,” I reminded her. “She was going to figure it out, sooner or later.”
“I would have preferred later.”
The crying was earnest and heart wrenching. Paulette snuggled the medium-long haired furry corpse, nestling her face into the mane of his neck. “Just wake up, Mr. Grumpy Pants. It’s okay, the vet’s all gone. You’re home now, you can wake up …” And then the sobs became too much for her little voice, and the tears were more than she could have shed herself. My own face became wet, and I didn’t bother to try to wipe it dry.
Wendy picked the child up under the legs and back and handed her to me, and we turned in our tiny bathroom and I took my wife’s vacated seat on the closed toilet. Paulette seemed to not notice at all, and her pleading and crying continued unabated. There were no words that would make sense to her, no comfort that she would find in me or anyone else. Mr. Grumpy Pants had been a part of her life since before she was born, and the memory of him curled up on Wendy’s massive stomach, purring away like a thrumming motor, over the unborn Paulette brought tears of my own to the surface immediately.
Paulette and I sat there, and we cried. I didn’t say anything—again, what could I say?—and I don’t even remember how long it was, but somewhere in there, a peace was found, and we both quieted down. The moment of silence was precious and sacred as we gazed with love at the vessel of our friend.
“He was my kitty,” Paulette finally said in the tiniest voice.
“He was our friend,” I agreed.
“He was mine,” she stated again, a little more assertively, and she looked up at me with intense hazel eyes, meaning every word to the deepest degree. “He belonged to me, and the vet took him away from me.”
I frowned a little. “Well, there are two things about that,” I said carefully. “The first is that the vet didn’t take him away. Mr. Grumpy Pants was very, very sick, and he was only going to get worse. He’s very old in kitty-years, and with the kind of sick he had, he was in a lot of pain.” Paulette’s gaze got colder: she didn’t believe me. “Remember last night, how he was meowing so loud and keeping everyone awake?”
She paused, her grim face a stone, and nodded just a little.
“That was his ‘I’m hurting’ meow.”
Her frown deepened as she thought about this, then she nodded again, just a little.
“But he didn’t even ask,” she said. “He was my kitty, and he didn’t ask if he could put him to sleep.”
I sighed. “It was the kind thing to do.” I sought for the word. “It was merciful. Mommy and I talked about it on the phone before we asked the vet to put him to sleep, and then the vet gave him some strong medicine that made the pain go away so that he would be happy and comfortable when he—“
What was the word to use to describe to a child what had happened, without traumatizing her?
“Died,” she said with certainty. “Mr. Grumpy Pants died.”
I nodded and sighed again. “Yes, he was happy and comfortable when he died.”
“You should have asked me,” she said, her chin quivering now with the anger that rose within her petite frame.
“And what would you have said?”
“I would have told you ‘no’.”
“But that wouldn’t have been fair to Mr. Grumpy Pants,” I said. “Sweetheart, Mr. Grumpy Pants wasn’t really ‘ours’. Our pets don’t really belong to us. We’re just their friends that make sure they have food and water and a happy family to be with. We love them and take care of them, but we don’t own them. We can’t own other living things, we can just share with them.”
“But I fed him every day,” she said, “and held the bowl for his water, and Mommy said that he was my cat.” Her chin quivered even more, another wave of grief threatening to take away her voice again.
“You did,” I said, “and you did a wonderful job, but when we say that he was your cat, we mean it in the same way that you are our daughter. We don’t own you, but we made a commitment to you that we would take care of you and love you and teach you how to be big and strong.”
She was silent again, but the tears were not flowing yet.
“We need to put Mr. Grumpy Pants’ body in his box,” I said, “so that we can say our proper goodbyes. Mr. Grumpy Pants is not in that furry body anymore, but he’s still with us. He doesn’t need his body, so we can say goodbye to it.”
For many long moments, I wasn’t sure that she’d understood me, but finally, she wiggled off my lap and stood on the cold tile of the floor, still clinging to Mr. Grumpy Pants like a cherished gift that was only ever borrowed. She stood there, and I could see her shoulders shaking with the power and strength that she was grappling with. At long last, she knelt down and put him in the shoe box, kissing him gingerly between the ears before she arranged him just so, looping his tail around so that he looked for all the world like he was napping in a sunbeam.
Wendy stood in the doorway, waiting for the signal. Paulette stared down at her little friend for another full minute before turning and burying her face in my chest, bawling anew. Wendy stepped forward and with the utmost efficiency closed the box and whisked it out of the room.
I let Paulette cry herself out and then led her outside to the backyard. The “coffin” was already in the ground, and Wendy stood by with the shovel, ready to finish the job.
I picked up a handful of dirt and threw it into the grave. “Thank you,” I said, “for being our friend, for being so peaceful and loving, despite your name and reputation for being a sour puss. Thank you for letting us love you for so many years. You are welcome in our homes and our lives forever.”
Paulette stared up at me, and then something shifted in her face, and the intense rage and severity that had been there before melted away. She picked up two big handfuls and threw them in. “I love you, Mr. Grumpy Pants. I miss you and I want you to come back, but not if you’re going to be sick and hurting. I want you to be happy some more.” She sniffled a little. “Thank you for being my best kitty ever.”
Wendy, always a woman who struggled with emotional words, picked up her own handful and dropped it in. She bowed her head, then looked up and said, “You’ve been great, Pants. There was never a kinder, more wonderful cat in the history of the world. I couldn’t have made it without you.”
Then she turned and filled in the hole quickly, placing the wooden marker at his head.
She wiped the dirt from her pants and walked into the house, mumbling something about taking dinner out of the oven.
Paulette and I stood there for a while longer, looking at the fresh pile of dirt in the yard. Paulette started to shiver a little in the cooling evening, and she followed her mother’s steps into the house.
I gazed at the evidence of remains and felt my own traces of anger trickling through. If only he’d stuck around just a little while longer, if only he could have made it to fifteen years old instead of twelve, he could have been there for Paulette during what was no doubt going to be a very rough couple of years. Wendy had already spoken to her lawyer, and mine was in the process of drafting the counter-offer. There was something, though, to the words that I’d shared with our daughter that struck me.
We love them and take care of them, but we don’t own them. We can’t own other living things, we can just share with them.
Maybe that was Wendy’s and my problem. Maybe we were trying too hard to own one another, to demand what we wanted instead of sharing space, sharing each other. We argued, we negotiated, we manipulated, we played stupid games of politics. “I’m not putting out if you don’t take out the trash,” was answered with, “Well, I’m not coming home on time until you shave your legs.” It was childhood antics, I saw in retrospect, but as I thought of my brave little girl, letting go of the most precious thing in her life, I realized that even children would have been ashamed of how we had been behaving.
“You almost broke us up,” I told the grave, “back at the beginning. You hated me, peed in my shoes, pooped on my clothes, and I almost left her because of it. I’ll be a son of a bitch, Pants, but I think you might just…”
I couldn’t say the next words. It was too much to hope for that Wendy would back down, and I wasn’t sure I was in a position to try to back down, either. I broke down and cried, dropping to my knees, letting the weeping turn to sobbing, which turned to howling with the depth of sorrow that opened up inside me, inconsolable.
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Photo: Getty Images