I've got news for poet Elizabeth Bishop. The art of losing is really hard to master. Of course, that's the point of her poem, "One Art", which emphasizes that we spend our lives losing, and preparing for more loss, harder loss.
Last month, we lost a cat. Harvey, a cute 'fraidy cat who had been part of Thea's entire life, did not come home from the vet. The 'fraidy cat part is important -- in Thea's world, Harvey was a feline uni corn, a mythical beast that wandered the periphery of her life. He spent most of his time with Thea hiding in a closet, hugging the shadows, slipping beneath furniture.
His biggest fear since she was born in 2008? That the child would pet him.
Still, we knew that his de ath would rock her world. We didn't anticipate a shift in her mental pantheon that would elevate him to become one of the most important things in her entire universe. For a week.
Day One, a Friday, was hard enough. We suspected that Harvey would not be coming home, and let Thea know that he was sick. We all snuggled on the couch and gently stroked him, and said goodbye. And then Nikole and I took him to the vet, and stayed with him, and said our own goodbyes, as he fell asleep under the anesthesia. The doctor euthanized him after we left.
Nikole and I were both broken-hearted, but Thea seemed to take things in stride once we came home. She didn't realize that he was dead until Saturday morning.
"Dad," she said, as we snuggled on the couch together early that morning, "will Dr. Hiser mail Harvey back when he gets better?"
Talk about crisis communication.
In short order, Thea knew that Harvey was dead, and was not coming home. She cried for two hours. It was rough.
At bedtime, she laid in bed and sobbed for an hour. "I miss Harvey so much," she wailed. Never mind that Harvey existed only on the periphery of her world. That wasn't really the point. For the first time in four years, something very real had vanished unexpectedly from her life.
That night, Thea curled in my lap as I told the story of Thea the Pirate Princess and Harvey. Heavy on the symbolism, it involved Thea setting sail on her pirate ship the Lucky Bucky. Thea and her crew of fierce pirates (her two small cousins, a fat Chinese cook and our dog, Rilo) took Harvey to an island at the edge of the world, where he slipped off into the jungle with his mother, chasing butterflies. (Hello, C.S. Lewis.) It seemed a good idea at the time, but it triggered another hour of sobbing.
Sunday was a little better. And Monday.
It's said that every significant loss in our lives reopens previous losses. But what about our first loss? What prepares us for that?
If the last few years has taught us -- all of us -- anything, it's that we are all faced with change and loss and challenges that we can never anticipate. When the economy evaporates, and the social and political landscape shifts with it, no one is immune. I talk to people every week who are trying to reinvent their lives on uneven ground, or attempting to reconcile their new world with their old aspirations. It's difficult, heart-breaking stuff.
It's never hard letting go. It's sometimes even harder grabbing hold of something new and unexpected. It's unfamiliar, uncomfortable. It feels too soon. We're not sure we're capable of moving forward.
It's been almost a month since Harvey died. Last week, as I was tucking Thea into bed, she leaned into me with tears in her eyes.
"Daddy," she said. "I miss Harvey so much."
"I miss him, too, sweetie," I replied quietly. I asked her what had made her think of Harvey.
"When we were going to the library today, momma and I passed a graveyard and it made me think of him," she whispered. She paused. "Dad, will you tell me about Harvey on the Lucky Bucky tonight before I fall asleep?"
Sometimes, we remember what we've lost. In those moments, we need to be able to lean into people we love, and feel their understanding. In those moments, we need stories, and memories, to hold us together.
The moon has just risen above the lip of the sea, casting a beautiful glow around the shape of Thea's rainbow pirate ship as it splashed through the waves. A bright moonbeam danced through the mast and sails of the Lucky Bucky, and in the shadows the slender shape of a small cat could be seen as he chased a moth through the skies...