into boats sailing the hardwood-floor ocean; rocket ships flying your son through rainbows up to the stars; time capsules holding the tiny clothes his body has outgrown; and a casket for a small animal, the first living thing you and his father took care of together, the 11-year-old gray-tabby, Ele P. Hant, who started your journey towards motherhood.
Your son doesn’t hear you scream in the basement when you push open the litter box door and feel Ele’s body, motionless inside. He doesn’t seem to understand why you run upstairs shaking, crying, holding on to his father tighter than you have in maybe months. When he asks what’s wrong, you tell him Ele is sick. Your son says, “He needs to go to the doctor,” and you don’t know how to explain that it is too late. You don’t even know how to process this yourself.
Grateful your son is too young to feel the loss you are feeling, you let him sit on the couch and watch something about animals, something with singing and bright colors, something to drown out how you can’t control your tears. You know he notices though, you know from the way he refuses to go to bed that night, screaming and kicking and holding onto you and asking you to stay with him and burrowing into your body when your there. You are grateful his father is finally able to get him to sleep in minutes, after you’d spent an hour trying. Your emotions must have been making things worse. Even if your son doesn’t feel, doesn’t comprehend, the loss of Ele, he sees your struggle and gets to express it with the limitless force of toddler emotion, the way you wish you could. You are grateful he gets to scream and kick and fight, to be angry and afraid and sad, to be unrestrained and inconsolable.
You walk outside to call the generous woman who takes care of the stray cats around your neighborhood. You know she’ll know what to do, but it’s Sunday, and the place you could take him is already closed. You are grateful that his father takes care of the body, carefully bagging it and placing it in the empty diaper box you had purchased just that morning. He even seals with silver tape, saying “I even made it fancy,” as though anything done after someone is gone can make a difference.
And you feel like you could have made a difference. Could have done more. This is normal, you tell yourself. To feel guilt. There is always guilt in loss. Always. Many months ago, he started to become even more affectionate, even more needy than he already was, but you took this as normal older cat behavior having never had a cat before. Then, you saw him start to thin down, weeks, maybe months, but he was still so loving and playful, still fetching bottle caps and trying to sneak outside to eat some grass, still so his incredible self that you didn’t think much of it.
Except this last week, when he stopped sleeping next to your pillow as your tiny spoon, when he wouldn’t come to the sound of your voice, when he preferred to stay down in the cool basement curled up on a blanket for hours instead of on your lap, then you knew something was wrong. And Ele must have known to. Maybe he was just avoiding the overzealous affections of a toddler whose hugs must have caused discomfort, though Ele never showed it, except to leave the room. But you think he must have been teaching you how to be without him, in his own way. Teaching you to get used to his absence from your side.
The night before Ele died, you were watching a movie and missing him. You went down to the basement and brought him up to be with you, thinking you were doing this for him. It was all for you, Mama, he must have said goodbye before this moment, but you’d missed it. He looked so thin and sunken in your hands then, as though he’d aged years over the last few days. You held his face and kissed his nose, but he did not lick back the way he used to. He still purred, softly, and let you stroke his chin and ears a short while before he jumped off of your lap and chose the floor over your body. This was the first time he chose anything over you. You worried. You thought, if things aren’t better tomorrow, you’d go to the vet.
And in the morning, he was hiding, but you needed to entertain the toddler who woke up in a mood, who screamed his demands for your attention. You needed to take him to jump out his energy and then go shopping and then make dinner and then do laundry. You needed to do so much, but would find Ele when you came home, his younger fur siblings all in their places reassuring you of normalcy. And on the car ride to the store you googled how long house cats live for, thinking you still had years with Ele, years ahead of you.
Then this morning, after taking your son to school, you walk the half-mile in the heavy heat carrying the diaper box with his body. You cry and sweat and tears mix with perspiration and the vision in your sunglasses blurs. You keep looking down at that silver tape reflecting sunlight and you remember the way his first collar glinted just like that. The way you stared at its light when he had a major upper respiratory infection as a kitten. You remember being up all night watching the shine move up and down like the crest of a wave, reassuring you he was still breathing.
When you arrive at PAWS, you pay the $30 dollars and sign on the dotted line. You tell them no, you don’t want some of his ashes. You have other ways of holding on to his memory. In the line where it says name, you start to write your son’s. The guilt again. So heavy. Immeasurable. And the tears, you feel uncomfortable the receptionists have to see them. They just keep saying “I’m sorry for your loss,” and you know they all mean well but the words mean so little. The pen shakes in your hand. The guilt of an animal always coming after your child. Of your child always coming first. But you loved your animal, your Ele belly, your fur-baby, before you were a mother to your son. And you loved him, love him, no less after.
His memory will keep glinting, shining back at you, every time the sun reflects off of a metal surface. You are grateful he was not in pain, grateful he went so easily, and grateful for the fancy silver tape your husband used to transform the diaper box into a beam of sunlight, to help you find a kind of closer, and at once, the promise of return.