Cats are everywhere these days.
“Look, a kitty!” my 4-year-old son Jack shouts, dropping his fork to his plate and pointing out the window.
I look out to our backyard and sigh. Indeed there is a kitty, and it’s one I’ve seen before, tiptoeing across the garden soil as though it thinks I can’t see it. White fur popping like snow on coal.
“I think he likes our backyard,” Jack says as the cat lowers its backside behind a hydrangea.
“Indeed,” I say, glaring at the cat and then remembering the other cat I’ve been meaning to bring up all day. Lucy, my sister-in-law’s cat – dead for two weeks already, and I still haven’t told Jack. She was probably about a hundred years old in human years, but what comfort is that to a kid? Plus, he loved her.
So I’ve let the days pass with Jack’s ignorance intact. I’ve watched him play Doctor with his own “kitty” – a ratty old plush with a resemblance to Lucy I could really do without.
“Time for your check-up!” he told the plush this morning. The cat’s bent-whiskered head fell grotesquely to the side, but Jack didn’t mind. Plastic doctor’s kit in hand, he set his small hands to work.
Stethoscope to the heart. Thermometer to the mouth. Here’s a bit of medicine. Look, all better now.
The thing about secrets is that they’re kind of like cats. If I keep them locked up, my whole world creeps with their presence. I sense them in the shadows like silent stalkers, slinking around in the corners of my vision, lurking in places I thought they couldn’t reach. It’s high time I set this one free.
I take a deep breath and turn to Jack.
“So you know your Aunt Sara’s cat, Lucy?”
His face lights up and my chest aches instantly. I should have known better than to look at him.
My eyes find the cat outside again, now lounging ghost-like on the freshly cut lawn. Suddenly it hits me that we’ve been here before. Not at this table, but in the car, the day I told him my mother died. Our bodies were just like this, in fact – facing the same direction, looking out the window, sparing me the need to look at him.
The message on my tongue feels heavier now. “Well,” I say, staring harder at the cat, but now seeing my mother’s cat, snow white as well. “Remember when we talked about how, when animals and people get old, they die?”
Jack says nothing, but I feel his body tense, a spoon of peas forgotten in his hand.
“Lucy was very old and sick.” I’m hauling words like bricks now. “She died a few weeks ago.”
I know the sort of thing I should say to him next – “It’s ok to feel sad – I feel sad too” or “I know you loved her and you’re going to miss her.” Validate their emotions, I read somewhere. Let them know it’s ok to feel.
“So,” I say. “We won’t be seeing her anymore.”
My mother. The cat. The cat. My mother. I close my eyes to clear the jumble in my mind, but now I’m seeing the road again. My hands are gripping the steering wheel and I’m delivering the news in the very same way. A passing fact, a tale of spilt milk. We’re seeing tons of these cases, the police officer said. Given her history, it was bound to happen eventually.
I open my eyes and glance at Jack, who’s still looking forward, eyes wide.
I’m hoping this plays out like it did in the car. He’ll stay silent for a minute and then change the subject, it won’t be a big deal when he never mentions her name again.
Finally Jack speaks, his voice too small for the boy I know.
“Nothing lasts forever, right Mama?”
I scour my brain for something comforting, but his words sit between us like a newly formed crevice. There’s nothing I can think of to bridge it.
“That’s right, Jack,” I say.
My mother used to leave out three bowls of kibble and three bowls of water every day for her cat. When I asked her why and she said “just in case”, I remember how I laughed and changed the subject.
Stethoscope to the heart. Thermometer to the mouth. Sometimes there is no medicine.
The cat climbs the wooden fence at the back of our yard and navigates the top with perfect balance.
Andrea Lynn Koohi is a writer and editor from Toronto. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Maine Review, Pithead Chapel, Cabinet of Heed, Idle Ink, Streetlight Magazine, Emerge Literary Journal and others.