grief, motherhood

Leo: snapshot of a small grief.

I was in the kitchen multi-tasking my way through an elaborate quiche recipe. I sizzled bacon, caramelized vegetables, leaned my body weight against the rolling pin as a crust began to take shape.

When I heard the doorbell, I felt a little thrill of anticipation. Maybe I was getting an early Christmas gift or a product sample for my job.

But when I opened the door, a blonde woman about my age tugged at the sleeves of her sweater and looked away.

“Hi,” I said, almost a question.

“Do you have a cat?” she said, managing to look me in the eye for a split second.

“Yeah.”

Her eyes drift down to my growing baby bump.

“I think it’s been hit by a car.”

My breath caught.

“Is–is it dead?”

“It was moving a second ago. I just had to get out of the street because this car–”

“It’s fine. Thank you for telling me,” I said and scrambled to grab my phone.

I pulled my sweater around my stomach and ran out into the yard, through the drainage ditch and into the street.

I looked in the direction she’d pointed, and there he was, 12 pounds of white fluff completely in repose.

Anyone who knows cats knows that they only sleep this way–sprawled out completely, belly exposed–when they’re safe and it’s upward of 90 degrees. Leo laid like this in the middle of the street on a November night.

He didn’t move when I ran up to him.

I stood over him and said his name. Nothing.

Kneeling in the street, I called Taylor. “Leo got hit by a car.”

“What?”

“Leo got hit by a car,” I yelled, my jaw tight and my teeth grinding through each syllable.

“Hold on, I’m almost home.”

I picked him up. Leo always had a long, slinky body that relaxed when you held him, but this time he was completely limp, like he would fall apart if I didn’t gather him together in my arms and hold on tight.

I carried him home and laid his body onto the cold concrete, leaning over to listen for a heartbeat. I smelled the same earthy, clean smell he always had, like laundry whipped dry by the wind. But I didn’t hear a thing.

I watched the headlights of Taylor’s car drive up fast. “I think he’s dead,” I said, breaking down into sobs.

Taylor leaned over his broken, velvet body and listened.

“He’s not dead,” he said, and snapped into action. “Go get a towel.”

I volunteered to drive because I couldn’t stand the thought of holding Leo all the way to the animal hospital. But his half-open eyes stared at me from out of the towel.

“Babe,” I said as gently as I could. “I think he’s gone.”

Taylor looked down at him and then back at the road.

When we approached the animal hospital, the receptionist took one look at the bundle Taylor was carrying and my tear-strewn face and picked up her phone, punching four assertive digits into the number pad.

“Triage at the front,” she said into the receiver.

Another woman walked up to us, “Is he breathing?”

“No. Hit by a car,” said Taylor.

She hesitated, but the other receptionist came from behind and took Leo’s swaddled body into her arms, running into the back. A man paying his bill at the counter kept his eyes on his paperwork.

A woman with frizzled blonde ringlets led us to a private room in the back with a leather couch and said she’d come back to update us as soon as she could.

I blew my nose and stared at a large print of a dog snatching a frisbee out of the clear blue sky.

Two minutes later the woman came back and said, “We’re doing CPR on Leo but I have to tell you I’m very concerned about his chances of recovery.”

And I think how many times I heard those lines when I worked as a chaplain in the ER, always pronounced by a doctor to someone who’s not me.

“‘I’m very concerned’ is really the best phrasing,” said one of the doctors at an ethics seminar I attended for the free sack lunch. “It communicates personal care far more than just, ‘I’m not sure,’ or ‘chances are low.'”

I wondered if vets go through the same training.

She left and I said to Taylor, “He’s gone. I thought he was gone.”

And he was.

Later, the vet techs brought out Leo’s body in a cardboard casket and we carried him to the car, its headlights still on and the keys sitting in the cup holder.

At home, Taylor snapped on a headlamp and gloves, and carried a shovel out into the backyard. I expected the ground to be dark and soft like potting soil, but the dirt was full of rocks and roots like thick ropey tendons. The hammer clanged with each heave.

I stood beside him in my puffy winter coat and cried. The trains at the nearby station screeched to a halt one after the other, their brakes a chorus of high-pitched moans.

“Goodbye, Leo,” I managed after we’d placed him in the ground, my voice breaking.

“Goodbye, buddy. We love you,” said Taylor as to scraped the scattered dirt into the grave.

I went inside and tried to pick up the reins of my three or four tasks in the kitchen, but I was slower then, dazed. I wandered from oven to stove to cutting board as if surrounded by alien machines.

I felt the baby kick, and I stopped to place a hand on my belly, listening.

When Taylor came inside his face was red and sweaty, and he dissolved in my arms. I’d never seen him sob before in the entirety of our marriage–it had always been me.

When he finished there was a wet patch the size of a fist on my sweater.

“Are you hungry?” I asked.

He sniffed. “Yeah.”

He left to shower, and I poured the cream, bacon, pear, and cheese into the pie pan. I noticed a rust-colored stain on the sleeve of my sweater as I set quiche on the metal rung of the oven.

I punched 3-5-0 into the face of the oven, pressed the start button, and I kept going.

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