One day when I was ten, or thereabouts, I found my mother waiting for me after school, parked outside the gates in our family’s station wagon. This was highly unusual, as it was a mere five-minute walk from the schoolyard to our front door. Three, if I ran as I usually did. We were going for ice cream my mother explained as I climbed into the car, just she and I. I had been singled out from my brothers and sister to receive a special treat. I smiled to myself, and thought about what I would get at the Dairy Queen.
Some time after the ice cream and before arriving home, my mother revealed the real reason for our special outing. My cat had been sick, my mother said. She had taken it to the vet. It had been “put down”, “put to sleep”.
I bolted from the car as we pulled into our driveway and ran through the backyard, over a fence and into the trees beyond. I hated my mother! I had been tricked! Tricked into happily eating ice cream with her when she knew that my cat was dead. I felt sick. My stomach soured as I hid behind a large boulder and cried.
I was summoned to the supper table a short while later and chastised when I did not eat.
“Why aren’t you eating?” my mother asked. “I made pork-chops, your favourite. You’re just being silly. Eat!”
Eventually I was excused from the table. Perhaps my father intervened on my behalf, I don’t remember.
What I do remember is my grief, and wondering how my family could continue on as though the world had not irrevocably changed. Mischief was dead. My little white cat with one blue eye and one green, and a small streak of black between her ears like a smudge of grease she had picked up from walking under a car, was dead. My friend was gone. Several years earlier I had buried a small grey mouse that I found dead in our yard, and dug it up again after a week or so.
I knew what dead was.
That night as I lay in the bed I had shared with my sister for most of my short life, I could not sleep. There would be no little white cat slinking under the covers to curl up against my belly that night. Not that night, and not ever again. I couldn’t bear the questions that ran through my mind.
Had Mischief been afraid? Had my mother stroked her fur, and spoken to her softly? Did she wonder where I was, and why I hadn’t come to say goodbye? Did it hurt when they “put her to sleep”? Did cats go to heaven, or did they just stay in the ground being eaten by maggots? My grief was all consuming.
I slipped quietly downstairs to the living room where my father was watching TV. I crawled up beside him, and he put his arm around me. I lay my head on his warm chest, and listened to his heartbeat.
“I’m so sad.” I whispered.
My father pulled me closer. “I know.” he said, and we sat like that, together in silence, until I fell asleep in the crook of his arm with my head on his chest.