I’m trying (emphasis on trying) to be one of those matter-of-fact parents when it comes to the tough issues. It’s a technique that works well with JavaBoy, the jury is still out on which parenting technique (if any) works well for JavaGirl.
So when one of our older cats was not looking well last week and I was concerned this may be the end of the road for her, I decided to prepare the kids for the possible conclusion the night before the vet visit. Because I was going to have to take them with me and I didn’t want to have to handle making a tough decision and breaking the news to them and handling hysterical kids and my own emotions all at the same time.
“Kids, JavaCat is a very old cat and she’s sick, so we’re going to take her to the doctor. Now, they are going to run some tests, and she may be so sick that she may not come home with us, she may go to heaven.”
JavaBoy at first took the news extremely well, and then said, “For a little while, and then she’ll come back, right?”
Oh, no, this is not going as I planned. “Um, no honey, once you go to heaven, you stay in heaven. She would go to heaven and stay. Like JavaDog went to heaven.”
And cue tears. “But I don’t want her to go to heaven!”
“Yes, I know, honey, but eventually all of us will die and go to heaven.”
He thinks about this, “And what about the other kitties? Will our other kitties go to heaven?”
“Well, eventually, but probably not all at the same time.”
“And when all the other kitties go to heaven, will we get the same number of new kitties?”
I then explained that we do not have a one-for-one exchange program with heaven, but that we will probably always have two or three cats and a dog.
The day of the visit, JavaBoy seemed pretty prepared. JavaGirl mostly talked about “kitty not feeling well” and “kitty has to go to doctor” so I wasn’t sure if she grasped the heaven part. But, as it turned out, JavaCat isn’t going to heaven — not yet. She’s perfectly fine. Her dehydration was due to being stubborn — she’s decided she only wants to drink water upstairs now, not downstairs and because she’s 15 years old, apparently she can pull these kinds of shenanigans. She doesn’t have feline AIDs or a thyroid condition or any of the other things I had feared (even the vet had feared). I just have an extra water dish to fill. Whew.
So I was pretty sure I had was done discussing heaven with the kids for awhile. But no, I had to go find a bird. Some people joke they have gay-dar, I have stray-dar. If there is a lost or injured animal within 10 miles, I’m sure to find it. And so it was that I saw the little injured bird outside Wal-Mart last night half-hopping, half-flying but then falling and flipping upside down in the mulch. It was clear his leg was broken. My first instinct was to bring it home and try to give it a safe place to heal, but I knew this wouldn’t make JavaDad happy, so I tried to stifle that instinct, and even left the shopping center to run other errands. But then it started to rain, and I could not bear the thought of that poor little bird suffering in the rain. So there I was, in the rain, emptying my children’s swim gear out of a mesh bag so I could go capture the bird.
I brought him home and remembered we actually had a birdcage — from our wedding (people slipped wedding cards into it)! And so I made him a place to rest for the evening until I could call the wildlife hotline when they opened in the morning. Once I touched base with a volunteer, she gave me the name of the rehabilitator, and I waited anxiously to hear back from the rehabilitator so I could take the bird over.
JavaGirl was thrilled with what she called her “new parrot.” I explained that this was a bird who was hurt and we were taking him to a bird helper. I also explained that this bird may not live, so we had to try not to be sad if he didn’t, but that we could at least try.
Per the instructions, I kept the cage covered with a towel, and kept the radio off and the kids even did a good job of being quiet to minimize the stress of the car ride for the bird. I knew his chances were slim, he wasn’t looking super lively this morning, but I was feeling more hopeful the closer we got to our destination. While at a red light, I lifted up the towel to take a look at our little charge. He seemed way too still. He had fooled me before, but this time it seemed real. I opened the cage and reached over to feel him, and although still warm, his head lolled lifelessly. He was gone, we’d lost the patient.
I had a quick internal debate. We were five miles from the bird rehabilitator. Do I continue driving, foist the lifeless bird on her with a knowing nod, and put on a show for the kids? Or do I just tell them the truth?
I pulled the car over into a parking lot. I triple checked the bird and broke the bad news. “Kids, I’m sorry, the bird has died. We’re not going to take him to the bird helper. He’s gone to heaven now.” Because we had a long car ride to our next destination, I decided to dispose of the body where we were, so I took it out, and let each child see it and say goodbye. I went out of their eyesight and got rid of it. When I came back to the car, JavaGirl asked, “Where is Birdie?” Her eyes started to well up with tears.
Oh no, I thought she understood.
“Honey, he died. He’s gone.”
With her eyes still glistening, she said, “He’s flying. He’s flying up high to heaven now.” And she looked out her window, skyward, with a broad grin on her face.
Maybe she does understand this heaven stuff after all.