Bourbon and Milk: Dead Kitties and Shallow Graves

Bourbon and Milk is an ongoing series that dives into the perplexing spaces parenting sometimes pushes us, and explores the unexpected ways writers may grow in them. If you’re interested in joining the conversation or contributing a Bourbon and Milk post, query Giuseppe at giuseppe@americanshortfiction.org

560px-George_Topîrceanu_-_Colored_pencil_drawing_of_a_catOne of our two cats died recently—Mr. Melo. He was the older of the pair, and the first pet my wife and I ever adopted. We spent his entire last day in vet offices before finally admitting him to an animal clinic around 7 P.M., hopeful but worried. Around 10 o’clock, my wife called the clinic and was told Melo was as comfortable as he could be under the circumstances. An hour later, I got a call back informing me he was dead. As I listened to the news, I began to pace. My wife, watching me, let out a low moan. I suppressed an unexpected sob as I thanked the vet and hung up the phone. In a half-daze, I went down to the car, grabbed my In Case of Emergency Camel Lights, and came back up to our apartment. P poured us each three fingers of Templeton and we went out to the balcony to light up. When we finally made eye contact, we were both tearing.

“This one’s on us,” I said. We’d seen Melo’s health deteriorating over the span of two weeks, but each time he showed the slightest sign of being his usual self we quickly deemed him turning the corner. Perhaps we were in denial. Or maybe it was the shitty month we’d lived through, which included a family flu, a respiratory infection for Z, and a wonderfully passive-aggressive guilt trip from my mother for not bringing her grandchild ‘home’ for the holidays. And besides, the holidays are always stressful anyway and, well, there was no excuse.

“We killed him,” P said gulping her drink.

“What the hell are we going to tell the baby?”

 *

Two days passed before Z finally asked. It was Saturday morning and my wife was teaching a cooking class. I was getting Z ready to go to the coffee shop for a croissant, one of her favorite things to do, and had managed to get her washed up and dressed with minimal bargaining. As I sat her down on the couch to get her shoes on, our remaining cat slid past and rubbed against my legs. As he sauntered towards his scratching post, Z said, “That’s my kitty Rocco.”

“It is your kitty,” I assured her.

My mother-in law was visiting, and we looked at one another knowingly. There was a brief pause, no more than three silent seconds, but I could see the pieces coming together in Z’s head. I swallowed hard and waited.

“But where’s my Melo?” she asked.

From the moment we found out P was pregnant, we’d begun to map a course for the kind of parents we wanted to be. As far as we figured, the whole endeavor boiled down to love, support and an unflinching honesty that would, in the long run, convey to our daughter how much we respected her as a person. But I don’t care who you are, what you hold dear, or how you prepare—death ain’t the kind of thing you’re in a rush to break down for your toddler. Since lighting that cigarette and downing that bourbon on the balcony, I’d ripped through dozens of ways to answer some version of the same inevitable question: Where’s Melo?

He went to sleep.

He’s on an adventure to find his mommy.

He got married and moved out.

I was all over the place. But despite every cowardly urge to lean into a lie that would spare my little girl’s feelings, I wasn’t able to land on one I could own.

“Baby,” I said. “Melo died.”

Her little brow furrowed and she sighed deeply. She knew the word dead and often blurted it out when seeing a squashed worm or tree roach, but died? That implied a transition, the ability to see Melo on two planes simultaneously, here and gone.

“He died?”

“He died,” I repeated.

“But I want him,” she said.

“I know,” I said, and reminded her about taking him to the doctor a few days before. About his being sick. “The doctor tried to help,” I said, drifting towards what I needed to hear. “But sometimes animals get sick and they can’t tell us and there’s little we can do to help.” There was another pause, and I fought the urge to continue explaining, to attempt to fix, to anticipate what she needed. With each passing moment, however, the urge to spew bullshit grew more intense.

“But when is he coming back?” she asked.

“He’s not,” I said. “He’s never coming back. He’s in a better place, though. He was in pain, but now he doesn’t feel anything.”

Her lips pursed as she considered this. How much of this is she getting, I wondered. “Daddy?” she said.

“Yes, baby?”

“Can we go get a croissant?”

Abso-fuckin-lutely, I thought, happy to swoop her up and into the car. Happy to get through my first stab at death without a lie.

 *

While I don’t have a clean analogy that connects my cat’s death to writing, I do have a manuscript that—despite a few salvaged chunks—currently lies in the shallow graves of folders earnestly titled Second Try and Get ‘er Done. I spent the better part of my MFA years working on that book, and genuinely believed it was publishable, but rather than taking a step back after grad school and asking the kinds of questions that would have led to the tough love it needed, I wasted the better part of two years fussing with commas and section breaks. I need to have faith in the work, I convinced myself, but the truth is, in retrospect, I got lazy, inattentive, and a little bit scared by the prospect of failure. My interactions with the work became passive. They lacked purpose. And if there’s one thing quality fiction won’t accommodate, it’s inadequate nurturing. Left to its own devices it would just as well stop breathing.

Which isn’t to say you can ever tell with certainty what a given manuscript needs to thrive. Or what separates, say, a well-written lifeless book from one that becomes an extension of living in a reader’s hands. There’s too much mystery involved in the process to undercut it with logic. In the end, I think the only thing any of us ever really knows is the basest of truths—things die. And sometimes they die earlier than expected or because someone screwed up or didn’t care enough. Armed with these facts, when the reality of death finally does present itself, it’s best, I think, to stare it down with an honesty that at least pushes you towards integrity and growth.

*

I’m still not sure whether I’m most upset about Melo’s death or the guilt I feel when thinking of the role I played in it. The fatty liver disease the vet believed he was fighting was the symptom of an underlying cause. Cancer. Diabetes. Pancreatitis. It could have been any of these things. Had I heeded the warning signs and acted earlier, who knows how things might’ve shaken out. By the time we finally got him admitted, he was too weak to survive the battery of tests needed to start him on a definitive treatment plan. He hadn’t eaten or drunk a thing in days. He needed to be hydrated and fed intravenously just to gain the strength needed to undergo a diagnosis. Having been starved for as long as he was, his body rejected the nutrients and sent him into cardiac arrest.

 *

After two years of carelessness, and part of a third that was outright neglectful, I came back to my grad school manuscript determined to make it work. A lot of good had come into my life—I’d gotten married, moved to a new city, started a job I was invested in—and I felt ready, recharged. I had new ideas and throughlines and characters, and was intent on masterfully weaving every single one of them into the two hundred plus pages that already existed. In short, I had the best of intentions, but they were fueled by an unfocused, violent creativity that left me worse off than I could have possibly imagined. By the time that burst subsided, nothing felt right. I no longer recognized the people I’d created. The world they navigated was clunky and cartoonish. It was unclear what they were doing or why. The whole thing collapsed under its own weight and I felt further away from a finished book than ever.

Deflated—and a little exhausted—I finally took a necessary step back. I realized the book I thought I was writing no longer existed. In order to tell the story I wanted to tell, I’d have to radically alter the foundation. I’d have to write a new book. It wasn’t until I accepted this, and actually took the time to mourn the book (and my efforts), that I was able to appreciate what it had given me. A solid technical foundation from which to grow from, yes, but more importantly, it made the pursuit of art concrete. Creating, nurturing, and ultimately abandoning that manuscript filled me with a sense of loss I’d only felt on a few other rare occasions. The act of writing, as it turned out, was something that could hurt me. But it was also something that could shape me. Once I got past the mourning, I felt empowered by the letting go, by confronting the fact that something I cared about no longer existed because of decisions I did and didn’t make along the way. The act of living and writing somehow became both more urgent and tenable as a result.

Likewise, being honest with my daughter about her favorite cat’s death has provided an opportunity to embrace the perpetual threat of loss inherent in everyday living, and explore with her the meaning, growth and appreciation we can at least try to take away from it.

*

Melo’s been dead a little over a month now, and though Z’s questions linger, they come and go in spurts. She’ll go from not mentioning Melo for a full day to firing off a barrage of questions over the span of an hour.

Recently, as we drove to preschool, she asked if it was okay if we still loved Melo.

On another day, after her mother had picked her up, she asked if she could say goodbye to him, and together they shouted his name as loud as they could.

As I was putting her to bed the other night, she stopped me in the middle of the book we were reading.

“Daddy?” she said.

“Yes, baby?”

“Melo’s not coming back?”

“No, he’s not coming back,” I said.

“But why not?”

“Because he got sick and died,” I told her again.

“It’s okay to be sad, though,” she said.

“Yes, baby. Sometimes it’s actually the best thing.”

 

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