Our cat, Milky, died in early December. She had already lost her ears, a few years back, and the skin cancer had eaten away her nose. She was in pain. It was time.
So with my wife holding Milky, and the kids upstairs taking their naps, a vet administered the injection which put her to sleep.
A few days passed, and the children hadn't said anything. But we felt we had to tell them. So, one night around the dinner table, we exchanged looks. My wife signalled for me to start.
"George and Cole," I said cautiously. "I have something to tell you that is kind of good and kind of sad too." Cole remained intent on some obscure design he was making with his food on the table. But our three-year-old Georege's face dropped, and he stopped clicking his spoon against the edge of his bowl of noodles.
I continued on, speaking slowly and carefully. "Milky had to go away. She was in pain. Now she is in a place where there is no more pain."
He looked shocked.
"Where is Milky?" he asked, as if he had only just thought of it and I had yet to say anything.
Seeing me hesitate, my wife took over. "Milky is gone, sweetie," she said. "Her nose was hurting her so much, and she went to a place where she won't feel any more pain."
"What place did Milky go to?"
By this time, George's little 2-year-old brother Cole was also paying attention. He must have caught the unusual tone in our voices. Or, more likely, knowing Cole, he just so happened to have reached a good stopping-point in his design work -- the noodles were properly mushed into the edge of the table. Now he was giving us his trademark sideways look from his seat.
My wife and I waited for the other to answer. What else do we say?
Finally my wife carried on. "She's in a place called Bubbling Springs." That was in fact the name of the place the vet mentioned where Milky's ashes would go. I have avoided thinking too hard about what Bubbling Springs actually looks like, aside from its enticing name.
And with that -- the mention of that single data-point of "Bubbling Springs" -- the boys seemed to drop it. George went back to his noodles. Cole slid off his chair and started the nightly ritual of running around the table holding something aloft -- a spoon, a pretzel, a piece of cheese -- and yelling, "Parade!"
But five minutes later, it happened.
First George, and then Cole, ran to the window looking out on the night sky, trees, and neighborhood houses.
"Milky! Miiiiiilky!" George cried out. "Milky come home!" Cole joined in too: "Come 'ome Miiiwky!"
We sprang from our seats, got on our knees and held them. The obvious next line, "Milky isn't coming home," sounded a little Hollywood, so we just held them.
That night, as I was putting George down to sleep, he started crying. I lay down next to him and he shook with sobs.
"You're sad because Milky is gone?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said, wiping tears from his eyes while still more came out.
"I'm sad too," I told him. "What do you miss about her?"
He stared at me for a moment, as if he hadn't thought about specifics until just then. I was about to withdraw the question, or add, "Everything, huh?" when he reached out and grabbed my arm.
"I miss petting her."
The experience of seeing the boys grieve for our cat Milky stayed in my mind for all of December. Over the next few weeks both George and Cole occasionally still called out to her from the window. But I kept thinking about the tears and sadness that George showed on that first night when he heard. He was not following some prescribed behavior; we had never told him to cry at the death of a cat, a mouse, or anybody else. It just welled out of him.
It reminded me again how naturally, without effort, the most tender emotions arise in human beings. It reminds me that below the outrages and cruelties and prurient proddings of our politics and our pop culture, there are children -- all of us -- who just want Milky to come back so we can pet her again. That's it. It's not complicated.