It was cold. The rain ripped through the gray morning and whipped my face as I walked to the car.
It was the perfect setting for something dramatic.
On this day, the catalyst was Mittens – a cat born a year ago this month that became my 6-year-old daughter’s love. Mittens is no longer with us.
My daughter’s demeanor changed earlier in the morning as she put on a t-shirt adorned with kittens that looked similar to Mittens. Prior, she’d been giddy and excited for the Friday – her last day of school before Easter and spring break. But upon seeing the shirt, she became quiet, serious and covered with the gloom protruding from her dark brown eyes.
“That shirt reminds me of Mittens,” she said in the tone of a very sad song.
“I know,” I replied lowly, but rushed by the goal of making it to school on time. “Do you still want to wear it?”
Naturally, she did. I exited the bedroom with instructions to brush her hair and put on socks appropriate for purple and white sneakers. I had to let the dog back inside before it tore up the flower beds we planted earlier in the week.
Five minutes passed before I returned to her room. It was getting late. At her vanity she sat brushing her brown hair as it trailed down her back. I stood in the doorway watching her reflection in the vanity’s three mirrors; strokes with the hair brush alternated with dabs at her eye with a wadded up tissue.
“Are you crying?” I asked gently as I approached from behind, putting my hand on her shoulder and caressing the fabric covering her shoulders.
“No,” she said, wiping her eyes quickly as she snuffed up her nose. “Let’s go to school now.”
I knew she was lying. I figured I’d address it on the way to school. But fighting with our 70-pound German Shepherd-looking black lab to stay inside as we walked out the door – pressed badly for time – made me forget. I had a clock to watch.
In fact, we’d completed one-third of the 10-minute drive to school before either of us said a word in the car. She was in the back and I was in the front, decompressing after another battle to reach our destinations on time.
“Kalista,” I said, looking at her in the rear-view mirror. “Are you going to have a good day?”
She didn’t immediately answer. Why would she? It was the same thing I asked every morning – part of my “happiness is a state in which you choose to live” seminar.
Then I remembered. Mittens. But I didn’t know what to say that I hadn’t said before. The time following Mittens’ departure from our lives had been a month of sympathy, condolences and “I’m sure he’s happy wherever he’s at” discussions. What sort of fresh spin could I put on it this morning?
“You know, I’m sure Mittens got lost one night and was crushed by all 18 wheels of a tractor-trailer with studded tires as he tried to cross the street.”
I’m just kidding here. I did not say this.
I gave her, instead, assurance that I loved her and reached back to hold her hand, which she placed in mine with a smile I could feel in the front of the car. Then she began to cry again.
“I know, Daddy,” she said, connecting her words with nose-snuffs. “It’s just so sad we don’t have Mittens anymore. He was so cute … and I … just … loved him.”
Make no mistake – if one could make a pie chart of my psyche’s composition, the fattest piece of that pie would be Kalista’s happiness. However, there would also be one piece – not necessarily a big piece, but a piece nonetheless – depicting my happiness. And this thing with the cat destroying an otherwise peaceful morning on a dime? It didn’t make me happy.
Of course, sharing that with Kalista wouldn’t help anything.
“Well, Kalista, remember what I told you the other night? You still have Abbie (the other cat), Dade (the big, black dog) and Sandy (the peeing reprobate of a dog that now stays outside). You have to try to be thankful for what you have instead of sad over something you don’t.
“The glass is half full.”
Naturally, my speech was ineffective. By its conclusion I’d adopted the tone of my high school football coach reprimanding a freshman. There was nothing I could do by that point anyway – we’d just pulled into the school’s parking lot. We were late.
She began crying again as we walked toward the school. I couldn’t just send her in like that. So I stopped, squatted so we were eye-to-eye and held her hands in mine.
“Kalista, it’s going to be okay,” I said for the 4,582nd time since she was born. “I can’t say with any degree of certainty what happened to Mittens, but I do know you can recover from this.”
I felt a bit ridiculous.
“I’m hurting too,” I lied. “But I pull myself together each day and get through my life because that’s what Mittens would want.
“Now wipe those tears and enjoy your last day of school before Easter break.”
I kissed her, told her I loved her and sent her inside. She wiped her tears, but I don’t know if she enjoyed the day.
I really hoped so.