Requiem for a Cat

I found my cat dead in the living room this morning.

It wasn't a surprise. Dabney was seventeen years old. I'd acquired him at age fourteen in Massachusetts, back when dinosaurs walked the earth. He'd followed me across the country, through college, marriage, divorce and more states than most human Americans live in all their lives. He'd been failing for months, and skidded downhill over the weekend. If he'd held on much longer, I intended to have him put down, as a mercy. We still have Marina, the girl cat two years younger than Dabney and his lifelong companion.

Poor Dabney. When we got him as a kitten, we thought he was a girl. We named him Tallulah. We had a family tradition of naming pets after actors, and we were quite surprised when Tallulah turned out to be a Dabney instead. For the rest of his long life, people always assumed Dabney was a girl. Always. I don't know if it was his soft white-and-beige fur or just something about the eyes, but the poor cat had gender confusion long before we had him neutered.

My son is seven years old. He has never lost so much as a goldfish. We have been blessed in my family, and the few deaths we have experienced in his lifetime have not been people who touched his life. I consulted with smarter people than I before I decided to bury Dabney in my father's back yard, as my apartment building lacks a lawn and I doubt my landlords would appreciate a pet cemetery addition.

After digging the grave, I picked up my son from school. He was a little "nervous," he said. He uses the word "nervous" to describe all uncomfortable emotions. When he says he's nervous about Dabney, I know he's not really nervous about the cat. He's experiencing grief, and doesn't know what to call it.

When we got to Dad's house, I carried the box in which Dabney's body lay around to the back. I must admit, we looked strange. A grown woman and a little boy standing over a box and a pile of dirt in the back yard.

He has never been to a funeral. Until today, he did not know the meaning of the word "funeral." In order to make him comprehend the word, I had to remind him of the episode of SMALLVILLE in which Clark's father died. I explained that funerals were for us to talk about our loved ones, to help us move past the sadness into fond memories. Then he understood.

Understanding death, however, is a tougher task.

I told him we should pray, and he immediately suggested the Lord's Prayer. He knows it by heart, and the Sunday School teachers tell me he likes to lead the rest of the children in it each Sunday at Children's Chapel. So we said the Lord's Prayer. Then I told him I wanted to say my own prayer. I have no strong convictions on the theology of kitty heaven. I'm making up this parenting thing as I go along.

"Dear Lord, thank you for the time we spent with Dabney. You gave us seventeen wonderful years with him, and he never harmed anyone in his long life. Help us to remember good things and forget the sad ones, to be glad that Dabney's pain is over. Help us to take care of Marina, who will miss her friend. Help us to be good caretakers of your creations, Lord. And thank you for our pet. Amen."

My son looked up at me and asked if he could say his own prayer. I told him to go ahead.

"What do I say?" he asked.

"Whatever you want," I replied. "Whatever you feel. Just talk to God."

He clasped his hands and bowed his head. "Our Father," he began, because to him all prayers begin that way. "Take care of Dabney. I'm going to be sad, and I'm going to miss him. I hope he's happy now and I hope I see him again. Amen."

And that's when he started to cry, and God help me, I was glad. For a moment he seemed to understand, to feel it, and it seemed healthy for him to move forward. I held him until he stopped crying. Then we petted Dabney one more time, and I wrapped our cat in the Toys R Us bag and put him in the hole.

I buried him while the my son watched, and he seemed better, easier in the mind. I placed what few sods had survived my clumsy digging on top of the small grave. I worried whether I had dug the hole deep enough. I worried whether I should buy a paving stone to place on top of it. I worried whether animals would come along in the night and dig it up.

We cleaned up our mess, returning Dad's shovel to his garage. Then we sat on the back porch and looked at the grave for a moment.

Kiddo looked up at me. "So when does he get better?"

Hoo boy. Back to square one. I explained again that he doesn't get better. Dabney's gone. Forever. The boy seemed sad. I put the box and other things back in the car, and came back to get him.

He was kneeling beside the grave. He took a handful of dirt and sprinkled it on top of the grave. Just like he saw Clark Kent do in SMALLVILLE. He looked so small and sad, trying to act like a hero. I hugged him and told him it was okay to be sad, okay to cry. He teared up a little, but didn't cry.

And then as we drove away, he asked if we could go to the pet store and maybe they could do something for Dabney. And I explained again that no one can do anything to help Dabney. He's dead, and we've buried him. I know, Kiddo said with an eyeroll, as if that fact were not completely contradictory to his magic-pet-store request.

Tonight, we curled up on my bed for nighttime cuddle, and Marina jumped up with us. He petted the cat behind the ears, and she was almost aggressively affectionate, pushing her face against us. We cuddled with her, our little haphazard family. And I try not to worry, not to fret about whether I dug the hole deep enough, whether I did the right thing by holding a cat funeral, whether I've done my job as a mom to explain these things.

I still don't know if my son understands what death is. I don't know if I understand it. Last night Dabney was alive and purring against my chest, and now he's gone. Do any of us really understand it? Maybe all we can do is sprinkle the dirt on the mound and say our prayer to whatever power in which we believe. And hope to see them again.


  1. When my Rabbit died a few years ago I insisted on a burial at sea as it seemed appropiate at the time. Now I look back on it and wonder!

  2. Lynne1:38 PM

    Poor kitty. I think I remember him! 17 years is a long time to walk this earth in cat years.
    Give my best to Ian. Death is tough to understand.

  3. Thank you. Will be using the text (translated into Slovak oddly enough) with my ex-girlfriend tommorrow. She's an artist so she takes these things seriously, as a child? Just glad that I'll have the right words to say. Also sad that one of our cats (Angie) unfortunately met with a car at the wrong moment, and is alas, no longer with us.


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