In hindsight, this was probably not the best place for a teachable moment about death with my eleven-year-old.
The whole thing had been Abby’s idea in the first place. “I can’t let her go,” she had said. “Please dad.” Osiris was our thirteen-year-old ragdoll cat my wife Olivia adopted right before we started dating. Yesterday, we found him hiding under the back patio after he refused to eat or drink for several days. I was bracing myself to have that time-old conversation between parent and child, but then Abby remembered something she had heard about from a friend from school, a pet hospital off the interstate that revived sick or recently deceased animals. She begged me to go, telling me all the way about her friend’s cat who turned out alive and healthy. I decided this time I would be the “cool” dad and keep my mouth shut. After all, how much trouble could it be?
As we sat in the dimly lit waiting room, we watched as sobbing, hysterical pet owners came in with shoeboxes and plastic crates, only to receive newly re-animated hamsters or dogs with glowing white eyes.
“Do you think Osiris will look like that once he’s finished?” Abby asked, nudging me. He was currently nestled in his cat carrier on Abby’s lap while we waited to be called.
“I guess,” was all I could definitively say. When I was Abby’s age, my father didn’t even have the sense to make up a story about a farm. He just informed me my black lab had been hit by a semi-truck over breakfast one morning and that I better not make a huge fuss. Even though I still resented him years later, I’m wondering now if I could have done a better job.
“First time?” the older woman next to us asked. She was wearing a juvenile pastel cat-print sweater and matching earrings that suggested she was not mentally playing with a full deck.
“Yeah,” I said. “How could you tell?”
The woman smiled toothlessly and gazed down at the empty carrier by her feet. “This is my seventh. I didn’t know what I would do if I had to part with any of my precious little angels.”
As a parent, I live in constant fear about the values I’m imparting on my children. Looking at this woman, as she pulled out her phone to show me and Abby photos of all of her “precious little angels” with glowing white eyes and claws dressed in various outfits, I was reconsidering whether letting my daughter re-animate our family cat was a good idea.
“Lindstrom?” a veterinary nurse called out.
“That’s me. Best of luck!” the woman said, hurrying toward the front desk where a hissing tabby was waiting for her.
I picked up some of the waiting room literature lying around that explained the details of the miracle procedure. The dying or dead animal would be taken out behind the pet hospital to a special area. The pet would be buried there for two hours, after which the pet would emerge and be brought back to its owner. The brochure indicated that the re-animation had something to do with the soil underneath the hospital. The hospital staff still weren’t sure exactly why it worked, only how. Once an animal was buried there, it would come back stronger, healthier, and more alive than before.
“Wow, I wonder what this thing is built on, some kind of Native American burial ground?”
Abby rolled her eyes. “Dad, that’s racist.”
Last month Abby admonished me and Olivia over the fact that we called Indigenous Peoples’ Day “Columbus Day” out of ignorance. Still, it’s a strange feeling when the small, helpless being that you helped bring into the world suddenly surpasses you in your own knowledge of it.
“Sorry honey, you’re right.”
In our family, we had a system. Olivia handled all conversations about menstruation, boys, and anything involving a Wonderbra. Meanwhile, I agreed that I would cover changing a flat tire and the cruel reality that our life on Earth is both fleeting and short. However, I was starting to think that Olivia got the better deal. I wanted to tell Abby so many things and also shield her from them as long as I possibly could. Yet she was also a lot smarter than I ever was. What could I tell her that (I suspected) she didn’t already know? Is this what fatherhood is, trying the best you can in your own, imperfect way before you fade into irrelevance?
“Dad!” Abby said sharply. I realized I must have been dozing off, as she was standing by the nurses’ station with Osiris. “They’re ready for us.”
“Coming,” I said, letting the brochure fall out of my lap.
“Dad, Osiris keeps biting me.”
I heard Osiris’s low-level growls all the way from the front seat, even with volume on the satellite radio cranked up high. It was unlike him, he had always been a mellow cat.
“Sweetie, you probably should stop reaching back there,” I said, fiddling with the dial. “He’s just been brought back to life, I can’t imagine the kind of stress he is under.”
“Don’t you think he seems different somehow?”
“Well, I mean he’s got white eyes for starters.”
“No, not that. I feel like he’s a completely different cat.”
We came to a stoplight. It had started to rain outside and I turned the wipers on. We both watched the water for a few minutes as it swirled into the storm drain.
“Honey, when I was your age I had a black lab named Thunder. Did I ever tell you this story?”
Abby looked down in her lap. “Yeah, that your dad just came in one morning and said he got run over like nothing happened.”
“Yup. I was pretty upset,” the light changed and we merged into traffic. The rain switched from a light sprinkle to a steady downpour. “I always thought he did that because he was a cold-hearted jackass, but looking back on it now I think he was trying to teach me something, in his own way.”
“Sometimes letting go is the best solution.”
Abby looked back at Osiris, who hissed and yowled at her while clawing at his cage, and then back at me. In that moment, I saw a trace of the little girl who had to hold my hand while crossing the street because she was too scared.
“Dad, could you…?” was all she had to say. I turned off the next exit that took us to a country road and out into a pasture. I pulled over, put the car in park, and took the carrier from the backseat, avoiding Osiris’s claws.
“Want me to do the honors?” I asked. Abby nodded, wiping her face with the sleeve of her sweatshirt.
I walked ten paces into the field, smelling of mud and cow manure. I would have to explain to Olivia why my jeans and shoes were soaked, but that didn’t matter. I set the carrier down in the field and pulled the little door up. Osiris shot out of the carrier like a cannon, hissing because the field was so wet. In the distance, I saw a little farmhouse with a barn and a wispy column of smoke coming out of the chimney. I could hear the distant clucking of chickens and the sound of tires squelching on the back roads. I waited for a moment longer, listening to the engine hum before I picked up the carrier, tossed it in the back and got back in the driver’s seat. Abby was staring at her hands, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“I’m an idiot,” she said, sobbing. I put my hand on her arm. “I should have just let him go in the first place.”
“No, honey. You’re human.”
Kellye McBride is a freelance writer, editor, and film instructor from the Portland area. She currently serves as the TV editor for the UK horror blog Sublime Horror and has written for numerous film publications, including Rue Morgue magazine, Scream magazine, and Horror Homeroom. She’s been previously published in Stephen King and Philosophy. Her short nonfiction has been recently nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards by the Horror Writer’s Association.