Just talking about death with your kids is a hard enough subject, but when it greets you at your front doorstep, all that talk is shoved aside, and you’re simply forced to deal with pure emotion.
That was what we faced, last Friday evening, when Corb and I returned home to the apartment, after a terrific evening at Scary Acres, the haunted farmhouse where Annie works. Annie earns her pay in the corn maze, playing a girl with a severed hand. The maze and the hayride had their scares, but they were innocent and funny, nothing compared to what greeted us when we unlocked the apartment door.
From the minute we entered, we knew that something was up. Thumbkin wasn't there to greet us, the way he usually was. The placed just seemed unnaturally quiet.
"Something's wrong," Corb said, looking around. "Where's Thumbkin?"
I checked the kitchen; Corb checked the little bedroom. Ashes was the one to check the living room.
"Daddy," she said, standing by the armchair.
I moved over. There he was, lying in an unnatural position, right in front of the armchair, his front legs stretched out, as though he had been trying to crawl underneath.
"Oh no," said Corb, and all hell started to break loose. Corb just kept saying "nononono" and started sobbing. Tiger ran into the bathroom to throw up. Ashes started to cry and started insisting that we needed to leave the place, right away.
See, here's the thing. Being a parent isn't the easiest job in the world, even on the best of days. Along with that mandatory love and nurturing thing, the job requires a certain amount of self-control. Your job is to make things better, yes, and in order to do that, you can't always show the world—or at least, your kids—exactly what you're feeling in your heart.
Now, I haven't always been the best with that. I've had many moments that I regret, many situations that I could have handled better. But the minute I realized what was going on, I knew that, as much as my heart was breaking, as much as I wanted to sob and wail and gnash my teeth, I couldn't do it. I had to hold my feelings back. I had to try to maintain some sort of control. Somehow.
"Come on Corb, let's get you downstairs--"
"Daddy! Let's leave now," cried Ashes.
"Hold on...Tiger, are you okay in there?"
"Why did this have to happen? Dammit!" And Corb pounds the wall.
"Come on, big guy, let's get you out of--"
"Hold on sweetie. It's going to be okay."
"No it's not!"
"Well..." I paused. How could argue? Well, I couldn't at that moment, I was in a war zone, so I turned back to the bathroom. "Tiger, are you..."
Corb stared at me, his eyes glazed over. "I don't know what to do."
His eyes were filled with tears. "What do I do? I don't know how to handle this."
I felt like a ping-pong ball being whacked from side to side. But also, I knew that I had to find a way to handle this. I had to make things better, somehow. I had to get the kids to the house, and get Corb calm enough to get out of the house and into the car, and not freaking out and getting the kids even more upset.
Somehow, I don't remember how, exactly, I got them all outside. At that point, though, Corn started crying again. "Why does everything I love have to die?" he asked, and moved away to go for a walk. Ashes became even more agitated and asked to leave, right away.
Tiger jumped into the car, right away. "Isn't there a way to make the sadness stop? Can't we find a way to make things happier?" he asked, and buried his head under his coat.
Everyone finds a way to deal.
Ashes, of course, wanted to talk her way through things. “I wonder what happened?” she kept asking. “Why did it happen?”
“Daddy!” protested Tiger, hiding his head under a blanket I keep in the back of the car.
“I’m wondering the same thing, hun,” I replied, as I pulled the car into reverse and headed out of our parking lot. Corb had managed to calm himself down, and was sitting in the passenger's seat completely silent, brooding. “I was thinking that maybe the Halloween decorations...the spiders that he loves chewing on…”
“Daddy!” Tiger stuck his head out of the blanket I kept in the back seat, and blinked his eyes, trying to remain calm, trying to stop the tears from coming. "Do we have to keep talking about it?” Tiger’s way to cope was to try and pretend that nothing had happened.
“Before we left for Scary Acres, I picked Thumbkin up in a funny way,” said Ashes, as I tucked her in bed at the homestead. “Maybe that was why—“
“Dad!” screamed out Tiger.
“Relax, Tiger,” I said, sternly. “That didn’t have anything to do with it, hun.”
Ashes started to cry. “How do you know?”
“I just…I just do. Believe me, there’s no way—“
“Maybe it was because we brought him to the house for Christmas! He looked so shivery and so cold, when we moved him into the car, maybe that did something to—“
I stroked the curls on Ashes’ forehead. “No, hun, that had nothing to do with it. Now, let’s try to get some sleep, okay? It’s late.” And I took my shoes off, and started to climb onto the bed, right in between Ashes and Tiger, who was still fuming.
They were quiet for a few minutes, but then, Ashes started up again. “Maybe it was the stories.”
“The stories that we used to tell. Of Thumbkin eating people, or hurting Joyce because she fed him vegetables, or—“
I cut her off before she could work herself up—and also, before Tiger could let out his trademark shriek. “Hun, let me make this clear,” I said, holding her in my arms. “You didn’t have anything to do with what happened to Thumbkin. Nothing at all. You loved Thumbkin, and he knew it, and all you ever did was show him how much you cared. Stop beating yourself up about this, okay?”
“But something had to happen,” she said, slightly wild-eyed. “So what happened to him, Dad? Why isn’t he here any more?”
“I...I don’t know, hun,” I said, and kissed her forehead. I had a catch in my voice, but I wasn't going to let them see me break down. I wasn't going to cry, not then. That was the way I had to deal with things.
Josie arrived home at two in the morning. God bless her, she had broken off her date to return as soon as she could.
Corb and I arrived back at the apartment at two thirty, and made our way up the stairs, slowly and silently. I held a cardboard computer box in my hand, one I had swiped from Josie.
As we entered, we both tried to ignore the animal in the living room, stretched out by the armchair. Of course, we couldn’t for long.
"It'll be okay," whispered Corb. "We'll make it through this."
I grabbed Corb and held him tight, and cried, one more time. I had started crying once I got into the car, away from the kids—huge, racking sobs. It was as though, having held everything in for so long (except for one moment calling Annie, desperately trying to get her to come over), everything had built up and had to come flooding out. And here it was, again.
After a few minutes, I wiped my eyes and pulled away from Corb. “I’ll take care of this,” I said. “Why don’t you go in the other room.”
“No,” he replied, resolved. “I have to watch.”
I nodded and moved toward the body. Thumbkin’s head was positioned toward the far wall. I bent down and tried to avoid contact with his frozen gaze.
I hesitated for a bit, made a show of putting the cardboard box that I was carrying next to him. And then, I moved down, and grabbed his mid-section. It felt stiff and unnatural, so unlike the sleek smooth feeling that I once knew, the one I'd feel when I woke up in the morning and there he was, allowing me to pet him; to start at the top of his head and move down to his tail, to enjoy the feel of his back arching in pleasure.
Corb moved into the bathroom and grabbed a towel. I lifted Thumbkin’s body a bit. Corb moved back to me and placed the towel on the floor. Quickly, I let Thumbkin down, and started to wrap him up in the towel.
When I was done, I stared at the covered body for a moment, then the box. I suddenly realized that I had no goddamn idea of the best way to do the job. I also didn't think that the box that I had chosen, the one that I thought was going to give him plemty of room, was going to do the job. But perhaps, if I angled Thummie sideways...
I lifted up Thumbkin’s covered form and started to try and move him in. The body felt unnatural in my hands. His head easily fell into the box, but he was stretched out so badly that his hind legs weren’t able to fit, and stuck out at the top, refusing to budge.
I sat there, staring into the box. There was no way I could bring myself to put much pressure on his hind legs. “He won’t fit, Corb,” I said, moving my hands away. I looked up at him, with tears in my eyes. “Thumbkin won’t fit...” Corb looked over at me, his head lowered. I raised myself up and started to move toward him, resting my head against his chest, my arms around his back. “He won’t fit, sweetie.” And I just started bawling.
“Maybe we’d better save this for tomorrow,” Corb whispered.
We headed out for the vet at ten the next morning. We had discovered that cremation was inexpensive, only $33, and so we had decided that we could hold a small service outside the house, burying his favorite toys and mementoes of him.
“Maybe we should ask to keep the ashes,” I suggested to Corb.
“And do what with them?” he asked. “Keep them in a bottle?”
“Sure. We can throw some Thumbkin dust at the kids, whenever they get out of line.”
Corb started laughing, and shook his head at me. “See?” he said, his eyes still red from all the crying he had done. “Even when we’re sad, we can still joke about things.”
Saturday afternoon, we sat inside the car in the parking lot of the apartment, with the engine running. The kids were sitting in the back seat, looking pensive and nervous, bickering among themselves. We had just returned from the movies, and Josie was attending divorce class, so we had decided to take on the next big challenge: getting the kids to cross the threshold back into the apartment.
“I don’t want to go in,” mumbled Tiger, eyes to the ground.
“But it’s your home,” I said. “Thumbkin would be really sad if he thought that you no longer wanted to stay here, because of what happened. He loved having you here.”
Tiger looked up and brushed his bangs out of his eyes. “I know, but I just don’t want to go in yet. I’m not ready.”
I grabbed his hand. “Tiger—“
He snatched it away. “All right, I’ll go in, okay?” he said, angrily.
Tiger walked up the three flights of stairs to our apartment as though he was a Death Row prisoner making his way to the electric chair.
At the top, outside the door, both of the kids stopped and looked up at me, nervously. I put my arms around both of them. I knew the feeling. Their thoughts were wrapped up in the memories from the night before, and the shock that they had experienced. They were having trouble dispelling the echoes of the discovery and resulting chaos that followed.
With my hand still on Ashley’s shoulder, I placed the key in the door and turned.
And we crossed the threshold.
For his part, Tiger ran into the living room and threw himself onto the couch, turning on his Game Boy to tune out. Ashley looked around nervously, looking for some sign of Thumbkin.
“It feels weird,” she said.
“Can we just not talk about it?” whined Tiger.
I nuzzled my lips into the curls on Ashley’s head. “I know, hun,”
“Can we watch Gilmore Girls?” she asked.
Gilmore Girls. I grinned. I knew then that everything would eventually get better.
We didn’t say much more about things until we were just about to leave. Ashes gazed over at the armchair where we had discovered him dead, and her expression turned serious. “I just wonder what happened, though,” she said.
“I wonder the same thing,” I said. “The vet said it was probably a heart condition that no one knew about, because they—“
“I don’t want to talk about it!” cried out Tiger.
Corb straightened up, from his relaxed position on the couch. “That’s fine, Joey, but there’s something you do have to hear,” he said, his voice gentle yet firm.
Both of the kids grew quiet. It wasn’t often that Corb spoke like that.
“While we were at the hospital, the vet told us a story about a stray cat that lived a long life, alone and cold on the streets. It was a miserable life, and he died incredibly unhappy. But you see, he was reborn, and he lived his next life with a family that loved and cared for him, and he experienced more happiness than he had ever known. That family gave him everything he could have ever wanted in life. But he only lived for just two short years.”
Corb paused. “You know what? That cat received more happiness in those two years than he had ever gotten, all alone and unhappy. And he wouldn’t have changed a single minute of his life with that family. And that’s what Thumbkin had here, with us. Because of the love that all of us—you Tiger, and you Ashes, and me, and Ted—showed him. And that’s what we need to remember, guys. Thumbkin loved us. Every one of us. He loved his life here. He loved his family. And we should never forget that.”
And then he paused, dramatically, for a minute. “He even loved Ashes’ horrible flatulence.”
The kids all laughed, and I did, too. But more than that, I looked at Corb, my man, with wonder in my eyes. I stood there, amazed and impressed with the incredibly articulate way that he had expressed himself, and all I wanted to do was to move over and kiss him.
We were a family, I realized at that moment. We truly were. And Corb, for all his crying the day before, had managed to come through when it counted most.
We were a family. And even though we had lost one of our own, we were going to get through this.
Once upon a time, there was this little cat, a gray and white tabby. He was a cat that got into lots of terrible adventures online: shagging a girlfriend named Sasha, growing back a pair of balls, posing nude for a Feline Fancy porno magazine, sleeping with lawn statues, riding in hot air balloons.
In real life, there was just a cat. A cat with a weak heart that didn’t have long to make his mark in this world. A cat that had been born into the wild but had been taken in by a loving home and had in return filled our house with an incredible amount of love.
Thumbkin, I miss you terribly. I keep coming home, expecting for you to be there, waiting by the door. I expect to hear you at night, running through the apartment, making strange noises, knocking things over. I expect to stumble out of bed in the morning and see you there, resting on the windowsill.
The apartment’s still littered with your items. Your food dish is still in the kitchen, kitty litter box in the bathroom. I still have your toys in the car.
That will change, of course. Time has a way of changing things. But time won’t change the way that we felt about you, or erase the memories that we have of our time together.
In your next life, Thummy, I wish for you the best of both parts of Corb’s story. I hope that you find another loving home, another family that cares about you and takes care of you the way that we did. And I hope that your life is measured in years, not months. I wish for you years, and years, and more years, and a loving, happy life, each and every day.
And one day, as you’re resting on your new master’s lap, perhaps you’ll catch a distant glimpse of the life that you spent with us. And I hope that you remember.
I hope that you remember how much you were loved.