And then there was one.
Until a few weeks ago, we had been a two-cat family for years. Walter, our newest addition, was a two-year-old rescue, fun-loving and goofy and uber-friendly. We added him to the family and quickly couldn’t remember when he wasn’t around. Seeku, our old cat, was about thirteen when Walter joined us.
About two weeks ago, at age sixteen, we took Seeku to the vet to have him put to sleep. He was suffering from cancer, and it was the kindest thing to do for a dignified old man who no longer had even a passable quality of life. But we worried about how to talk to Georgia about it.
Seeku was, as Chris pointed out, Georgia’s oldest friend. It hadn’t hit me until the prospect of the vet trip loomed – Georgia had never known life without Seeku. I actually acquired Seeku before I had Georgia, and lived with him sleeping on my stomach and chest at night for a year or two before I became pregnant; that large lumpy thing in my abdomen meant that Seeku lost his sleeping place. He moved four houses with me, has bonded with multiple house-sitters, has drooled on many a dedicated cat-petter and has hunted his share of Toronto birds and rodents.
Like many cats, he loved to be out at night. Leaving him in would result in despondent howling and worries about being accused of animal cruelty. So I would let him out, and every morning he’d be at the back door, some days proudly sitting with a mouse or a sparrow at his paws as a gift. In one house we lived in, just east of downtown, there was a local chipmunk that everyone in the neighbourhood adored. Neighbours fed him seeds and nuts, and we’d all be slightly competitive about whose backyard ‘the chippy’ visited more. When the chipmunk would come around, we would hurry Seeku into the house, and he’d watch from the living room with eyes like slits, and what we know now was a slowly-forming evil plan.
One lovely summer morning, as I sleepily opened the sliding door to let the hunter in, I noticed in passing that he seemed a bit more fluffed up and proud than usual. Looking down, I saw with horror that the night’s victim was …yes, beloved chippy. I let out a little scream and nearly dropped my coffee. Recognizing that the chipmunk was beyond saving, I gave him a proper if rushed good-bye.
I then had to smile somewhat stiffly and shrug guiltily every time a concerned neighbour asked, “Oh, have you seen old chippy? Where could he be? I’ve got some nice seeds for him!” As if summoned, Seeku would then swagger by with what I think was a triumphant cat smile on his face, and a self-satisfied swoosh of his tail.
Despite this bloodthirsty tale Seeku was, in a word, great. He was a cat with a big but reserved personality, who spent his days exploring the neighborhood and hunting and nights curled up on the bed. When he’d crawl up to sleep on my chest like a sphinx, I’d feel his paws kneading softly into my collarbones. We were like roommates, checking in once in a while to see how the other was doing, but with respect for each other’s space. Then along came Georgia.
Most cats see Georgia as a bit of a mini King Kong with grabby huge hands, lots of loud energy and absolutely no sense of ‘gentle touch’. Being faster than she is, cats can typically escape, and Georgia doesn’t mind that they run. But Seeku never did. When she was a toddler, she was very slow to toddle around and easy to escape, but he never ran away. He never seemed to be angry with her as she groped him, opened and closed his eyes for him, examined his teeth for plaque, scratched him two or three inches away from where he wanted to be scratched, or forced a hair-covered cat treat into his mouth.
He would occasionally crawl into a random cardboard box as cats are wont to do, and Georgia would join him if the box was big enough. He’d make room and create a photo op. But he never ran away.
Once when she was a baby, Seeku scratched her. He was sleeping with his head hanging over the side of the couch and she approached with stealth. Okay, not exactly stealth – more like a giggling screaming excited hyena – but he was a very heavy sleeper. Before I could cross the room she had pulled on a precious whisker and woke him from a deep sleep; out of reflex he reached out and scratched her face. Now imagine the same giggling screaming excited hyena, but substitute ‘giggly’ and ‘excited’ with ‘horrified’ and ‘hurt.’ For days, she shied away from him.
But soon enough they were cuddled up together again on the couch, with Georgia babbling through her life story while he listened.
This was their life together. Georgia told Seeku many a secret, and let him know of her triumphs and disappointments. Each afternoon when she came through the front door she called out, with great joy, “Hey Seeku, I’m home from school!” She wouldn’t care that he rarely, if ever, raised his head to acknowledge her. They sat beside each other watching TV without a word or movement between them – just both being themselves, together. He just accepted her as she is, and I suspect she’s never realized how special he really was for that.
When we talked to Georgia about the fact that Seeku was dying from cancer and was going to be home for a while, but very sick, we weren’t sure how she’d take it. She is lucky enough to not have had to have death explained to her very much before that. The abstract notion of what death really means is hard for someone who lives very much in the moment to understand. Or so we thought.
One suggestion that she already knew something about death without us talking to her about it suggested that she’s picked up the odd thing from her occasional visits to Sunday school with Grandpa and Grandma. A while ago, my hair dryer broke. We realized it was broken as she was standing at the sink, wrapped in a towel post-bath, waiting for her lovely long hair to be dried. We explained to her that the blow dryer was broken.
“It’s dead? The blow dryer’s dead?”
“Yes, Georgia, the blow dryer’s dead.”
“Oh well. It’s gone to see Jesus.”
We were astounded. I mean, it was a very good blow dryer. But still.
We realized that, in terms of being uber-good parents who prepare their kids for a talk about death, we were total and complete failures. Two reasons.
First, she knows about things dying, but only in the context of inanimate objects, as we use that expression freely in an unthinkingly casual manner: Electronics that lose their charge – “The iPad died! Charge it up!” – or things that break – “Hey, the vacuum died! Better get a new one.” Not the ideal messages to give your kid about death: Once something dies, you either charge it up again or get a new one.
Second, as most of her experiences with death have been animals she knew, someone said to her that the dogs and cats and horses (Shamus, the old Walter, Charlie, Boz, Lucy the horse) she has known who have died have Gone To The Happy Hunting Grounds. Yes, you know the place. It is not easily explained but has roots to the Lakota indigenous peoples in the Great Plains. I’ve looked the phrase up a few times and it relates to the afterlife being a great green paradise where hunting and game are limitless.
In terms of Seeku, our great hunter, it was easy to make the case to Georgia that once he was gone, he was on a great plain somewhere chasing mice in the sunshine. But we worried that it was just a bit too easy and that one day, we’d have to explain that a person that she loved was there.
Then we’d have to explain that there was no visiting and that they’d never come back, and all these things would make the Happy Hunting Ground suddenly a much darker place.
So we took a deep breath, fearing the worst and opted for the straightforward approach, explaining to her that Seeku was sick and that he was dying.
“He’ll feel better tomorrow?”
“No, Georgia, he won’t feel better. He’s very sick and he’s going to die.”
“We’ll be sad?”
“Yes, we’ll be sad.”
“Oh poor old Seeku.”
“Yes, poor old guy.”
“He’ll go to the happy hunting ground?”
We looked at each other, worried. “Well, yes, he will.”
“With Shamus and the old Walter and Charlie and Boz and Lucy?”
“Yes, with Shamus and the old Walter and Charlie and Boz and Lucy.”
“He’ll go in the blue car?”
We look at each other, confounded. “Wellll, yes. We’ll take him in the car to someone who knows the way there.”
And off she went to play.
We looked at each other, this time in complete surprise.
At the end of the day we realized that Georgia, in her own way, has made some pretty complicated connections between a whole bunch of belief systems and experiences and random sayings, and she’s far better prepared than we are to deal with death.
And of course, she still has Walter. She’s been coming home after school the last few weeks, bursting through the front door and yelling out with joy, “Hey Walter, I’m home from school!”