Several years ago, we had a cat. He was sleek, moved effortlessly, and annoyed us to no end. In fact, when we moved from a townhouse to our current suburban home, we attempted to turn him into a part-time outdoor cat. Since he was always trying to escape from our old place, this seemed like a smart move.
It didn’t turn out quite as we’d anticipated.
My wife and I didn’t have much experience with cats, but apparently they like to bring “presents” to their owners. These presents were typically alive, but only barely. Or they were recently deceased, which was somewhat better relatively speaking, but not by much. Having a consistent stream of half-dead squirrels and assorted rodents deposited on your back porch is quite gruesome. Fully dead is also bad, but if you must choose, it’s the better option. Of course, you really want neither.
So every time our cat left his calling card, I crossed my fingers that it was fully dead. Then I could get on with the disposal. Before I had kids, this whole situation would have grossed me out to no end. But since I was a grizzled veteran of two children, who were around ages 1 and 3 at the time, I had experienced things. I had seen, smelled and been drenched by all sorts of bodily fluids and excretions. Thus, I was comfortable enough with grossness that a mangled squirrel wasn’t quite so bad. In fact, my main concern was disposing the squirrel before my 3-year-old saw it. He was very sensitive, and I knew the sight of a dead little animal would be traumatic for him.
When our cat did drop off a gruesome gift, I’d usually find it early in the morning while I was letting our dogs out. I would grab my shovel, scoop up the glob of fur and guts, and quickly bury it in the backyard. It was a task I dreaded. Turning our backyard into a squirrel graveyard wasn’t one of my life goals, but I put my head down and did the dirty work. That’s what parents do. We learn to put our child’s needs before our own.
It starts with those first sleepless nights with a newborn. At first, it feels completely weird. Like you’re groping around in the dark trying to find something, but you’re not sure what exactly you’re searching for. Suddenly your primary concern isn’t whether you sleep or eat regularly, but that this new little person does. As the months and years go by, this new arrangement starts to feel normal; you feel like this is the way life has always been. But, when you take a step back, it can be hard to wrap your head around. What did I do with my time before all this? Did I really sleep eight hours and eat three meals most days? What did I do on weekends before there were red-ball tennis lessons and tiny tot soccer games? Yes, things have certainly changed. Your life isn’t just yours anymore, it also belongs to someone else.
With this recognition of a shared existence comes a fierce protectiveness that is almost indescribable. It’s visceral and anxiety-inducing and all-consuming. It is forged in the fire of those early, muddled days and nights and only grows and expands with time. In the beginning, the overriding drive is to provide physical protection. To hold this new being as close as possible. To shelter it with your own fragility. Later, as that little person grows, it only becomes more complicated. Now you must worry about the psychological and not just the physical. As they pull away, you struggle to pull them back. Paddling against the relentless current of time to protect them from disappointment and trauma. Of course, you’re not only protecting them. If you’re being honest, you’re protecting yourself, too.
Life is hard and heartbreaking. As an adult, you understand this more every day. You want nothing more than to shield your child from these harsh realities as long as possible. To let them revel in blissful innocence while it lasts. When they walk close to the edge, when they start to ask difficult questions, sometimes you give encouraging, simplistic answers that you don’t necessarily believe. “Yes, buddy, we’ll all be together again one day, even after we’re gone.” You feel that if you can convince them, maybe you can convince yourself. By wrapping them in your fragility, maybe you can make yourself feel less fragile.
So it is that I found myself collecting the carcasses of small rodents from my porch and depositing them in the earth. As a scrape and shovel and dig and try not to look too closely at the crime scene, I think about how soon enough my child will learn more about death and despair and how unfair and painful life can be, but it doesn’t have to be this morning. I can put it off. I can save him this much, at least. As long as I shovel quickly enough. Hurry.