I looked up at my mom as she hung up the phone. I may have been three or four years old. She told me that Mister Gurkey died. (40 something years later I remember his last named rhymed with turkey.) As the family of a local pastor we got prayer requests and information sooner than others. And for the past several nights when I said my prayers before bed my mom had asked me to pray for Mr. Gurkey because he was in the hospital. I don’t remember if I asked why he was there but I think that he was an old man near the end of his days. So I had been dutifully praying every night for him.
After my mom told me what they said on the phone I imagined the person at the other end of the line. They were frantic and busy. Whatever had put Mr. Gurkey in the hospital in the first place had gotten worse. Now the doctors, who had been working on him for days, were busier than ever trying to fix him. I expressed my thoughts to my mom and she told me that the doctors were done trying to fix Mr. Gurkey. When someone died, there wasn’t anything the doctors could do anymore. I considered that and I was doubtful of that finality.
Death to a preschooler was just too big and way too long to imagine. That night when I said my prayers I added on: “and help Mr. Gurkey up with you.” Again my mom had to explain something. Once someone was with God in heaven you didn’t need to pray to help them anymore. Everything was okay once they were with God. Despite those joyous tidings, I still did not care for the idea of death. Each night when I would say my nighttime prayers, just before the “amen” I always said “and thank you God for everything…”. It may have been right around then that in my mind I silently added: “except dying.”
Our family dealt with the death of a pet over ten years ago when one of the four pet rats we had died after only a few weeks. The four children, Harrison, Naomi, Benjamin and Sarah, were devastated. We buried the dead rat in the side yard and had a whole funeral. We knew that rats had limited lifetimes and saw the loss of several more rats over the years. Prajna and I didn’t seem to learn our lesson when we got Sarah a beta fish for her birthday which didn’t last a month. By then we owned Pumpkin. The animal shelter had already named him when we got him. He grew to a big orange cat and survived two moves and saw the passing of 4 other cats.
When I got home from church yesterday Sarah was digging a hole in the corner of the yard. Prajna told me that they found Pumpkin dead. He had no signs of injury or poisoning. We don’t know why he died. I went out and finished digging the hole. I let Jamie take a few shovel scoops. Then we all gathered around, put the cat in the ground and took turns filling in the hole. Prajna said a little prayer thanking God for Pumpkin and we put flowers in the fresh dirt. It was the most elaborate pet memorial since Darcy the rat. It wasn’t quiet for a moment when Nathaniel walked away saying he hoped his lunch hadn’t gotten cold.
Sarah was the one who took care of Pumpkin the most. Most of the Facebook posts express sympathy to her. I kind of want to say that I liked him a lot too. And as I write this I can look directly to my right and there is the windowsill with Pumpkin’s food dish. Some mornings around this time he could be there. Now he’s in the ground or in cat heaven, we can only wonder.
All my kids are older than I was when I first grappled with the notion of death. They are all older than any were when our first rat died. Today, Nathaniel is a few months shy of how old Harrison was when we lost Naomi. And after Naomi, a ginger tomcat might seem insignificant.
And I think it is. For better or worse, dealing with loss has toughened me a little bit. The loss of Pumpkin doesn’t hurt too bad. I think I can get through this. However, even after 40 years, I still think of death the same way I did back when I was very young. I’m not as afraid to fall of my little bicycle for fear I might die. But death is a great big unknown. No matter how much I believe God’s promises, I still don’t know exactly what to expect. And me, someone who gets bent out of shape when I don’t have a precise floor plan for a weekend event, like to know what to expect. I think that faith has to be a mighty stepping stone in the walk I take. The passing of a cat reminded me of that.