Everest’s favorite book is Charlotte’s Web. We’ve read it at least 6 or 7 times and he knows many parts by heart. There’s one page, however, that he always asks me to skip: it’s the final page of the chapter entitled “Last Day” where Charlotte dies. He knows that she dies but he doesn’t want to hear the details. I’m happy to oblige. We all have sections of books and movies that we’d rather not read or watch.
But I couldn’t skip over Mocha’s death. I prepared him as best I could. I offered to read books about pet loss (which, as I’ve said, he refused to allow me to read) and I tried to help him find a way to make sense of life’s most challenging reality. But I couldn’t protect him from the pain of losing a beloved friend. Just as Wilbur grieves the loss of his best friend, Charlotte, so Everest will find a way to grieve the loss of Mocha. If fact, I think he may have already found a way.
About a year and a half ago, Everest started telling stories about “the kitten crane”, an enormous structure, “bigger than the universe”, where mining cats live. In the world according to Everest, everyone comes from the kitten crane and we’ll return to the kitten crane when we die. Asher, Everest’s little brother, was most recently at the kitten crane before he came to earth to be a baby. Everest has created elaborate stories about this “place”. Needless to say, in Everest’s mythology, Mocha will be traveling there when she dies.
About a week ago, Everest decided that he needed to draw a map and print out a code so that Mocha would know how to get there and could scan the code to open the door when she arrived. Here it is, along with a letter we wrote to Mocha together:
I could see that creating this map and codes, which he taped together then put into a large envelope along with a can of cat food, a cat toy, and several photos from our life with Mocha, offered him a sense of control over her death. One of the most difficult aspects of transitions is the feeling of being out of control. The purpose of rituals, like those that comprise a wedding or a funeral, is to give the person or people in transition a container that can hold the largeness of their grief, fear, doubt, confusion, and uncertainty.
Context and rituals together contain the feelings activated by transitions. By context I meant the roadmap of understanding the three stage of transitions. By rituals I mean any consciously creative and sacred act that tangibly contains our feelings. Everest, in his 5 1/2 year old mind, has created both.
Of course, the one who was most affected by this transition was Mocha. I’m not sure how much animals understand about an impending death, but yesterday morning I found her shivering on the floor, looking up at me and asking for attention.
I picked her up and held her on my chest for a couple of hours, whispering words of encouragement into her ear: “You’re okay. You’re going to be free of this painful body soon. Let go. It’s okay to let go. You’ve been the best cat in the world. We’ll be okay. You’re going on a wonderful adventure. Thank you for being our beautiful, sweet cat. We’ll always love you.” After about twenty minutes, she stopped shivering. Her body relaxed. She jumped off my lap and settled onto her place on the carpet, watching her two boys at play.
Mocha died yesterday at 2:45 pm, April 21st, 2010. She died in the room where Asher was born, one day before the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. These synchronicities, which so often occur around transitions, bring me comfort as they remind me of the mysterious web of life where everything is interconnected. She died peacefully purring in my arms. After she left, I curled my body around her curled body and could almost feel her rough cat tongue licking away my tears, just as she had done countless times in life. I allowed myself to surrender fully into the first wave of grief without my sons on my radar.
After a bit, I went into the yard to find my husband and sons. Everest’s first question was, “Did she make it?” I assumed he meant to the kitten crane, so I responded, “Yes.” I didn’t know what to expect from Everest. He had told me that he was going to be grumpy after Mocha died, but he was in good spirits, happily swinging on the swing and asking many questions. My husband soon proceeded to dig two holes, one for an evergreen tree and one for Mocha. Everest and Asher played close by. Everest asked how long it would take for Mocha’s body to disintegrate. He asked what it was like when she died. He asked about her heartbeat and her final breath. Surprisingly, he said he wanted to see her before we buried her. I brought her out and held her curled on my cross-legged lap. Everest petted her and talked to her. He said that his head felt heavy and he smiled as he said it must be because Mocha’s spirit was sitting on it.
He had told me that he didn’t want to have anything to do with her burial. But he was intimately part of the experience. He threw the first fistful of dirt over her body. He said a prayer. When she was completely buried and the grass packed down over her grave, Everest decided we needed to place flowers on top. He picked five daffodils, fixed them into a circle, and, accessing a beautifully primitive place within, made his own flower garland.
There was something celebratory and holy in the air. I’d like to think that the weeks we spent preparing for this day paid off. At the core of my work with transitions – whether it’s the wedding or motherhood or any other transition – is the tenet that the more emotional work that occurs during the first letting go stage, the more easily we can move into the third stage of a new beginning. We had talked about Mocha’s death, written stories about our life with her, and encouraged Everest to prepare in his own way. Just as I encourage my clients to do, in the months preceding her death, he grieved and raged and questioned in his own way. And just as Everest surprised me when he bravely and happily witnessed Asher’s birth at home, so he surprised me again by participating in the events surrounding Mocha’s death. Either we prepared him well or he’s more resilient than we think – or, most likely, a bit of both.
Mocha’s on her way to the kitten crane, finally free of the suffering of this body and on to a glorious new adventure. For us left on earth, we grieve, we breathe into the empty spaces and painful reminders of her absence (the place where she ate, her favorite sleeping spots), and then we transition into our new beginning, which will eventually invite another furry friend to join our family. And perhaps Everest has had a positive first experience of death. Perhaps it’s not something he’ll fear in anticipation next time we encounter it. And perhaps he’ll even allow me to read the last page of chapter twenty-one of Charlotte’s Web.