My daughter experienced the first death in our family when the neighbor’s cat, Willie, died. Willie had been circling the drain for some time. His spine protruded from his scrawny back and he complained constantly, emitting a low, haunting death chant of a mew that seemed to say, “I’m done with you.”
One day he crawled under the neighbor’s porch and “went to sleep.” We smelled him a couple of days later.
My daughter, who can tell if I change my nail polish or pluck my eyebrows, noticed Willie’s absence almost immediately. I took this as a teachable moment.
“Willie died, Baby,” I said. “He’s in kitty Heaven.”
Shockingly, Ava didn’t have any follow-up questions, which is good since I don’t think I’m capable of keeping a straight face while trying to describe the feline afterlife.
A couple of weeks later, I overheard Ava explain to a friend that Willie was no longer with us.
“He dived,” she said solemnly.
Needing clarification, I interjected: “Like, into a pool?”
“Yes, Mommy. He’s gone,” she said, her eyebrows furrowed in seriousness.
I let it slide; who am I to split hairs?
Our second brush with death came last week. When I got home from work, Ava called me into her bedroom to introduce me to her new pet.
“Look, Mommy, he loves me!” she exclaimed, holding out her palm.
There sat a fly. A repulsive, feces-frolicking, Jeff Goldblum-looking fly that she ceremoniously named “Skyler.”
“Ooooh, he’s PUH-retty,” I say, trying to blow the maggot out of her hand. He came complete with a private Tupperware pool and a Cheetos buffet, like an off-brand Malibu Barbie.
Later, I confided in my husband that I’d never seen a domesticated fly. “Do you think she has some special gift?” I asked, while Googling the phone number for the Today Show.
“Nah,” he said, “they get like that right before they die. It probably won’t last until morning.”
It’s bad enough that he administered the adoption of Ava’s pet fly, but then he had to go and get one that was on its last leg?
Sure enough, the next morning Skyler is in the throes of death, flailing on his back. Ava laughs hysterically at his dance of death, which causes me some unease.
“Look, he’s doing hip-hop!” she giggles joyfully while prodding him.
I can’t take it. Even Skyler deserves a death with dignity. But first thing’s first.
“Go wash your hands,” I instruct Ava. “Then we have to set him free.”
“But why?” she whines.
“Because . . . because . . .” I can’t do it. I can’t tell my child that her pet fly is going to “dive” into a pool. Or go to insect Heaven. Or bite the bullet. So I play the trump card (and silently thank Stellaluna for the plot device): “He wants to find his Mommy.”
Before Ava can object, I’m on the front porch chucking Skyler into the air, trying to create the illusion of flight.
“Where’d he go?” Ava asks, looking into the sky.
“He flew off to find his Mommy!” I singsong.
Ava looks down. “No, he’s right there,” she says, pointing to his lifeless body perched on a pile of pine straw. “I think he’s dead.”
I’ve got nothing. And it shows.
“It’s okay, Mommy,” Ava reassures me, putting her hand on my arm. “A birdie will eat him. They need food to live, you know.”
As parents, we sometimes make things more complicated than they need to be. Let’s face it; at 5-years-old, life is relatively easy. People are good or bad, games are fun or lame, Barbies are pretty or brunette. There’s no gray area. No nuance. And matters of life and death? Well, they’re just that.