I’m 29 right now. I have a PhD (just earned!), a tenure-track teaching job for the fall, a husband, two kids, and a dog. But often, especially when my kids are concerned, I feel myself growing up…still.
Recently, our cat, barely 9 months old, got critically ill. It was my job to tell our 3-year-old.
“Sweet Debbie,” I told her. “We need to say goodbye to Minerva. She’s really sick. We aren’t going to see her anymore. She’s going to be at peace, and she’s going home to be with Jesus.”
[Interior monologue: Oh God, let me be ANYWHERE ELSE right now. Let ANYONE ELSE do this.]
Debbie looked up from the Bible she’s reading and points to the page. Jesus is helping the woman with the issue of the blood. “Oh, Mommy, don’t worry, my sweet love. Jesus is going to heal Minerva.”
[Interior monologue: Kid, you’re killing ME right now.]
“Debbie, you’re so right that Jesus is a healer,” I told her. “Sometimes he heals people and animals by bringing us home to him in heaven.”
“Oh,” Debbie said. She seemed untroubled. “Bye-bye, Minerva! I love you!”
[Interior monologue: Is that really it? Somehow, I don’t think so.]
Minerva died in my arms at the vet that day.
Exactly one week later, my heart still felt like a badly-scabbed knee of a five-year-old who fell off a bike. But Debbie’s journey was just beginning.
Debbie says, “Mommy, I’m worried about Minerva. I don’t see her anymore. When is she coming back?”
I could only reply, “We don’t have to worry about her anymore, Debbie. She’s all safe in heaven with Jesus. He can hold her for us. We won’t see her again until we go to heaven, too.”
Debbie is too smart for that. “But…if she’s not sick…can’t she come back?”
I can only hold it together for so long. “She’s not coming back, Debbie. I’m so sorry. We can feel sad because we miss her.”
Debbie tears up, too. “Can I bring you a new cat, Mommy? So you won’t be sad?”
This gets a little smile from me. “My heart isn’t ready for a new cat, Debbie. I’ll let you know when it is.”
Debbie nods, wisely, beyond her years. “We can still love Minerva. Even though she’s getting pats from Jesus, not us.”
Parenting has made me realize that age doesn’t have a premium on wisdom. I’ve also come to discover that my philosophy (theology?) of parenting—and believe me, I’m making this stuff up as I go along—is grounded in being real with my kids. I’m not hiding my emotions from them, but instead naming them and taking responsibility for them. It’s messy, humbling, and I have no idea if it works.
But I think I’m growing up…alongside them.