We walked out into the newly cold mid-November night. Coats and scarves retrieved from storage. Dad had a thing that night, so son was going to spend the night with grandma. The 9-year-old broke the silence of the walk and asked, “Dad, why did we kill Aida?” Aida was our cat who died a few years ago. “The vet said she was in a lot of pain, and she couldn’t cure her,” I said. “But what if we had just let her live? Maybe she could have lived another week, or another year,” my son said.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s probably true. She probably could have lived a little longer, but she was in pain, and with animals, well, we try to stop them from being in pain.” “But wasn’t your dad in pain? Sorry.” He looked away, keenly aware he had transgressed something. “Why are you sorry?” I asked. “I’m sorry your dad died.” “You mean Grandpop?” I asked. “Yeah, I’m sorry,” he said. I told him it was okay. These are normal and important questions.
“So why do we just kill animals but not humans who are in pain,” he asked me. “Well,” I said, “We believe human beings are imbued with a consciousness that is different from animals, even though we are actually animals, we have an awareness of ourselves that makes death different, not just a question of ending pain.”
“But Bagheera has consciousness,” he said, referring to my alive cat. “Oh?” I asked “Why do you say that? ““When I pet her head,” he said, “she sits up higher to get more petting, she knows stuff.” “Yes,” I said, “but you know that might just be reacting to stimulus, not a real understanding of what she or the world really is.” He took my hand as we crossed the street.
“Dad? Do you think your dad is still around?” This is a hard question to be asked by your child. His grandfather had died a few weeks before, and his form of grief has seemed to be comforting me. “Well, what does the catechism tell you?” I asked him. “That his soul is in heaven,” he said. “Well?” “I don’t know if I believe that, dad.” The wind whipped up a bit. Our little Brooklyn neighborhood suddenly felt huge. I thought the earth was going to open up.
There comes a time for honest talk. “I didn’t believe for a long time,” I said, “I mean it seems crazy, right?” “Yeah,” he said, “I think Grandpop is just gone, like Aida, you just live and then you’re gone.” I squeezed his hand a little, “Do you really think that?” “Yeah,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
I was trying not to let tears well up, “Hey, big boy,” I said, “that is nothing to feel sorry for.” “That is, you are, that is the mystery of faith. You know how we say that in church?” “Yes,” he said. “Well, that’s it, but you want to know something?” I asked.
“Yeah?” he said. “I feel my mom and dad all around me, all the time, I can’t explain it, but I know they are with me, not just in some abstract sense, but really with me, does that make any sense?” “Kind of,” he said. “When I go on trips,” I said — “You mean like to Japan?” he said. “Yes, when I go on trips, you know I still love you, right? I’m still with you in some sense.” “We can Facetime, though, you can’t Facetime your dad.” Yeah, he’s right. I can’t Facetime my dad.
“There you guys are,” his grandmother said, appearing as if from nowhere on the dark Brooklyn block. “We were just talking about death,” I said awkwardly. “Well, that’s alright,” Grandma said, “Are you two okay?” “Yes,” my son said, far more certainly than I could have. “Yeah,” I said, “He had questions about why we put down our cat.”
Leaving him safely ensconced with his alive grandmother, I turned tail and walked in this cold but pleasant night, back towards some business of seeing people, doing things. Living in the world of the people who still live. As I walked across the bridge that spans the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, with all those cars, all those people heading home to loved ones still alive, I looked up at New York sky, too bright for stars. Did I just lie to my son?
I lit a cigarette and found myself on quiet Seventh Avenue. I don’t think I lied. I believe in one holy, Catholic apostolic church, I look forward to the resurrection and the life of the world to come. I want him to believe it, too.
But there is no faith without doubt. There is no life without death. His cat and his grandfather are beastly dead. He knows it. And for the very first time, ever, ever, my 9-year-old boy seemed like a man. These are the questions. I’ll help. But I think he’s realizing that ultimately only he can answer them.