Her kitten chose her

2016-10-03 10:41
Olivia Henning and Max. ‘The bond that existed between these two was wonderful to watch.’

Olivia Henning and Max. ‘The bond that existed between these two was wonderful to watch.’ (Supplied)

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The day I buried my child’s best friend. The day I had to show her the cruelty of life. The day I showed her how to grieve. I needed her to celebrate his life and to respect his death. As we stood beneath the tree in the garden and gently covered him with flower blossoms, we both wept and mourned his short life. No longer would we hear the soft miaow when we came home. His delight when she picked him up to cuddle at the end of the day. This furry creature was her best friend and I struggled more with the passing of this animal than with any other I have had.

This best friend chose her. For her ninth birthday we finally decided to let her have a kitten. She had begged us for more than a year, and so, on a cloudy, wet day in July we visited the SPCA. The kittens were being kept in a warm room instead of the usual cages and as we entered the room we were surrounded by a frisson of energy. We told her to let her kitten choose her, to sit quietly in the middle of the floor and to see who would choose her. A sleepy, little black and white bundle, lying on a cushion in the corner, cracked open an eye. He slowly sat up and then stretch-walked (you know how cats can do that) to where she was sitting. He looked up at her, climbed into her lap and it was love at first sight. This little creature had chosen her. We made lame suggestions of looking at the ginger one under the couch and the grey one on the shelf. But she would have none of it. Her kitten had chosen her. We brought him home and he immediately claimed her favourite blanket as his own and spent many happy hours nursing his blanket. Names were thrown about: Prince. Tiger. They didn’t feel right. Max. Maximus Caticus was the name that stuck.

The bond that existed between these two was wonderful to watch. We would sit on the step with our afternoon tea and watch as he followed her around the garden. Often if we were looking for her we would check to see where Max was and would be sure to find her, busy with her fairy games with Max included in the adventure. Hours were spent decorating old boxes for him to sleep in or tear up as cats are wont to do. During hot days he would lie next to the pool as she swam about, her bobbing down under the water and surprising him like a jack-in-a-box. If he hadn’t seen her for a bit he would peer over the edge and check where she was. He was a bit of a swimmer himself, reluctantly we are sure, but we would be amused by the streak of wet cat that would fly through the front door. She would gently dry him with her bath towel. Homework time was a lengthy, exhausting time for us as parents. Max would distract her with his antics, trying to catch her pencil as she wrote out her spelling words, or her feet as she sat reading. Some days elaborate games were created by the two of them and homework would be abandoned.

At night he would sleep on her bed with his blanket and early in the morning we would hear him talking to her, nudging her awake to feed him. He could be quite insistent. He would sit in front of the fridge and demand his saucer of milk. It never did him any harm and she would lovingly pour him a saucer, admonishing him when he bumped her hand and poured the milk on the floor. Bath times were giggles and guffaws, as he tried to catch the bubbles. She would build him bubble mountains to play with and he would gently lick the water off her fingers. Some days as we sat and watched them together I would think about how long their friendship would last. What would it be like when she was a teenager? Would he still be here when she kissed her first boyfriend? Would she whisper in his ear and tell him about her date? Silly me! I think I jinxed it because that day I found him on the side of the road.

In the night someone had placed his still-warm body gently on the grass. I had wondered where he was as I rushed off to work, thinking that I hadn’t seen him and I would look for him later. I was in a rush to get to work early. As I drove around the corner I saw the small black and white bundle on the verge. Luckily nobody was behind me as I slammed into reverse gear and turned into the cul-de-sac. I leapt from the car screaming my husband’s name. The panic in my voice made my son vault a six-foot fence. They thought I had been attacked but it was much worse than that. I had to break my daughter’s heart.

I shouted to my husband that it was Max. He was dead. I could hear the cries of my daughter over the fence as he told her. The anguish on my daughter’s face as she rushed out will stay with me forever. “How did he died-ed?” she asked. I told her that it was okay to touch him and she gently ran her hand down his back. Luckily (if I can use that word) all his injuries were internal. There was no exterior damage. There were ants on his eyes and that distressed her but otherwise it just looked like he was sleeping. The four of us crouched on the grass, sobbing, as the world went on with its busy morning.

Unfortunately real life called and my son and husband had to leave for school and work, respectively. I was left with a dead cat on the table and a grieving daughter. We chose a spot under the tree in the driveway where he had spent most of his afternoons. While she sat inside writing Max a letter I sobbed in the pouring rain, digging a hole. It was an out-of-body experience. I could almost hear the movie soundtrack. Gumboots, pickaxe, spade, rain and tears. It was cathartic. I dug the hole and then worried that it wasn’t big enough. I fetched his body and used the spade to measure his length. The hole was too short. I tried to tuck his tail around his body but it was stiff and unmoving. The hole would have to be longer. It felt disrespectful to laugh but I giggled at the absurdity of my dilemma. My husband was working at the Hilton Arts Festival. My son was writing his physical science trials paper. And I was standing in the rain measuring a dead cat with a garden spade.

With the hole finally dug, I gingerly picked up his body. I was so grateful that I had the forethought to put him in the grave before calling my daughter because I dropped him. Not far, as I was crouched beside the grave, but still, not something I needed her to see. I went back into the house. “It’s time?” she asked. We gathered the letter she had written, a feather from his favourite toy and as many flower blossoms as we could find in our parched garden. Holding her hand we knelt beside the grave. She placed the letter on top of his body, and ceremoniously scattered the flowers over him, speaking of her love for him and how much she would miss him, how she was so lucky he had chosen her that day. My heart broke into tiny pieces as I quietly held hers in my hands. She marked his grave with a large rock, decorated with his name. At his feet I placed a smaller rock with a heart in red crayon.

I have questioned my choice to let her touch him and to bury him. But I didn’t want her to not feel the pain. Life is hard and as parents we can overprotect our children. Hiding death from them. Flushing Nemo down the toilet and replacing him with a look-alike. That doesn’t prepare them for life. That just saves yourself from having to deal with a broken heart. That day I had a chance to support my daughter with a part of her journey. She won’t ever get over it but she will get through it. One day she will let a new little fur friend choose her and she will remember that day.

Sandra Henning currently works at Epworth Preparatory School for Boys and Girls teaching drama and design and technology. After nearly 25 years as the theatre manager at The Hexagon Theatre, UKZN, she is loving working creatively with young children. She also treads the boards at the theatre and performs favourite songs from jazz to rock n roll and the blues. She has been able to tap into her passion for the creative arts by writing and designing productions for the children she teaches.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  true stories of kzn 2016

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