Dead Cats

The roast is cooked to perfection. Slightly pink in the center, moist but not raw. The fried potatoes steam over the plate, a faint hint of bacon wafting in the air. My arteries harden as I lean in to eat, knife and fork in hand.

“Let’s say grace.”

Jordan’s brow is peaked with rapt intensity, pertinence spilling onto the table from her ravenous eyes. I lower my utensils reluctantly; the habit of praying long lost. Luc is into his second bite. Jeanette glares at him as she bows her head. He chews inchoately. Jordan continues.

“God, thank you for Max … who died.” Her brow knits as she closes her eyes. “And tell him sorry that Charlie stepped on him when he was sick. Amen.”

We all watch as she deadpan awakens and pleasantly digs into her food. Lucas caps the moment with a smirk and a fourth grade tone, a chunk of roast hamstered in his cheek.

“Ohhhhhh kaaayyyyyy.”

Another glare from Jeanette. Sunday dinner begins.

Max was our first family cat. He joined us when Jordan was barely a year old. A few months after we adopted him, we decided two cats were better than one and adopted Charlie, a frisky kitten who still ambles about our flat. Max was an older cat, and less than a year after settling in the Vincent household he grew ill and died of pancreatic cancer. In Max’s final weeks, young Charlie tried in vain to play. Charlie innocently pounced on Max while he lay huddled in a heap of clothes in our closet. We’d have to distract the precocious kitten to let the dying cat lie still. Jordan was too small to remember any of this, but she knows the story and she talks about it often, sometimes in the strangest places and at the oddest times.

We boarded the elevator in our building a few months ago. It stopped on the fourth floor to gather another passenger. We didn’t know him. He walked in reading a paper, barely acknowledging us. Then Jordan greeted him. When he answered her, she blurted out, “Max died. He had cancer.”

The man stared blankly, not knowing what to say. Jeanette smiled and told him it was our cat. The man offered his condolensces, suddenly engaged. Jordan smiled and retold the story of Charlie stepping on Max. The man shuffled uncomfortably. I think I said something witty to lighten the mood, eager for the elevator ride to end. Jordan just smiled.

Hers is an understandable preoccupation with cancer and with death, but it’s seldom morbid. The temerity of her recollections are nearly always amiable. The story is unnerving to the recipient, even when they are unaware that Jordan is fighting cancer. It is jarring to hear a child speak so candidly about a dead cat. It’s even more disconcerting to have it start an elevator conversation or surface in a dinner prayer. Yet Jordan likes to talk about it. And when she does, she is often wistful, like she’s proud of Max and happy to share his memory with new friends.

My friend Jim Sheehy, one of the most insightful men I’ve ever met, once advised me against the “politics of illness”. Jordan was hospitalized at the time and Jim sent me an email to offer his support. I mentioned that I felt fatigued because I had to comfort so many people who reacted so severely to Jordan’s condition. When they heard that she was diagnosed with cancer, some of them teared up and reacted emotionally. I always felt the need to comfort them – to assure them that she would be okay. I found myself dismissing my own fears to help our friends cope with the diagnosis. This was the phenomenon Jim recognized and counseled against. He argued that I needed to let my own emotions run their course.

I am reminded of his advice as I watch Jordan process her own condition. True, she is sometimes sad, but when she is it is rarely out of fear for her future. She laments the process. She whines about being tired. She is frustrated when her brain doesn’t respond at the pace she is accustomed. And sometimes, she is just sad for no specific reason. But she is never sad for the way others feel about her. And she is never sad about people (or animals) who suffer from cancer. She is fascinated by their journey. It is a bond, and though it may make others uncomfortable, she talks about it willingly. The discomfort is theirs to worry about.

This paragraph may incriminate me for neglecting Jim’s advice. It is intended as comfort for those who worry about my daughter. Jordan is deep into an unplanned life experience. It’s hard to imagine a cheery angle to the subject of cancer or pediatric brain tumors. There are moments when experiencing the disease is agonizing and relentless. But there are also moments of brilliant revelation – shards of insight when the preciousness of childhood and family and storytelling with strangers sustain your sense of hope. When we follow a child’s example, and supress the burden of adult supposition, we entertain the possibility of a life well-lived. When we learn to smile and speak well of dead cats, there’s less to fear.