When our beloved seventeen-year-old cat was dying, Tyoma, our autistic son, reacted thus:
“Oh. So, then we’ll get a new kitty.”
No emotional depth. No concern. No sadness.
This did not fool us.
Kitty Pearl filled our son’s daily imaginings. Wobbly scratching posts and sinister-looking grooming contraptions were built in her honor. He wrote her sentimental “I-love-you-kitty” letters and taped kitty-centric schedules near her water bowl. Homemade Kitty Forts stretched across rooms and cluttered staircases.
Then there were lists. Page after page of numbered instructions pertaining to the cat:
- Pet kitty gently.
- Add ice cubes to fresh water.
- Brush with the fur.
- No pestering.
Tyoma needed to organize his interactions with Pearl, not just to remind him of his duties but also to cope with the delicious and abhorrent impulse to pull her tail.
Pearl’s declining state preoccupied Tyoma later that evening. He spread inky equationed papers on the bed and announced that his calculations showed Pearl would live until August 4, 2014. Propelled with anxious, hyperkinetic energy, he expounded: “The next day (hop), Pearl will be cured (hop) and returned to live with us forever (hop, flap, twist, jump).” I nodded and replied, “I hope so.”
The Sunday before Pearl passed, Papa suggested something different for their weekly project. He asked Tyoma if he would like to build Pearl a casket. Tyoma’s face whitened. “No burial,” he said, “Cremation only.” Within ten minutes, an atomic autistic meltdown consumed him. Books and tears flew. A hole in the woods behind us was too dark and ugly for her, he howled.
After an hour of outcry, he vanished into the computer room, asking not to be disturbed. He resurfaced with the creation to the left.
This Boardmaker sheet is a window into his mind. It translated the enormity of Pearl’s kidney failure into something concrete and measurable.
Like other autistics, he needed to anchor to the tangible before venturing into the realm of emotion.
Every few hours, he filled out a new worksheet and tacked it to the refrigerator. He helped her the way he knew best—with discrete bits of information recorded on paper.
We held a vigil for Pearl on her final day. Tyoma read her his favorite stories as I stroked her. He addressed her in the same sing-songy voice I reserve for sick days and jarring injuries. His imitation of my soothing strategies struck me. Autistic children retain more than we realize.
Papa came home early to sit with Tyoma while I took Pearl to the vet. We did not disclose the ultimate purpose of the trip, to keep departure subdued. None of us copes well with strong emotion.
An hour into the appointment, Papa told Tyoma.
My cell rang as I finished tucking a homemade blanket around Pearl’s inert form. Sorrow weighed upon me so heavily, answering required unexpected resolve.
Initially, I mistook Tyoma for a shrill, unhinged octogenarian who dialed a wrong number. His hysterical voice rattled my cheap crackly phone:
“I know about Pearl. Are you going to cremate her or bring her home? Is she dead? Are you going to bring her home? Is she dead? Will I see her dead body? Will you burn her on the charcoal grill? Is she dead? “
He pleaded for details about the cremation: where would it be, how long would it take, and could he keep her ashes in his room? I squeezed out appropriate answers and hung up.
The significance of cremation finally occurred to me. Remains in our home were less of a transition than burial, which held a sad and somber finality.
Tyoma continued to call for reassurance. My cell chimed cheery tunes as I exited the vet’s office. He left five more voice messages and sent six emails before I arrived home to hugs, tears, and many, many lists.
The day after Pearl died, I thought of her constantly. Her absence seemed inexplicably more powerful than her presence; like when I lost my watch weeks ago. I never realized how often I checked the time until my empty arm reminded me. How sad the stripe of skin on my wrist registered emptiness more than presence.
Tyoma processed his grief with questions. The first wave concerned the minutia of biological death, followed by a shower of spiritual inquiries. At last, he asked how I felt. A grief inquisition ensued. As if he knew emotion collapses me inward, Tyoma tugged and pulled each word out of me, like an invasive, but beneficial medical procedure.
He led me through sorrow as if he were an expert. Each question I answered took me closer to peace and acceptance. Perhaps all little askers of questions are armed with the tools to heal. Great sadness can come from passing, but grief is not a monster to slay. Grief means a life changed yours.
Months have passed. Pearl lives on in Tyoma, but not in a dark, sad way. She inhabits his imagination, her ghost flits by windows and lingers half-perceived in kitty-fictions and Tyoma-escapades. We welcome her as an addition to the family. To be spoken of and remembered.
Pearl may have died, but she’s in my heart.
She’ll go when I do. Do what I do.
Okay, she died, but she’s in my heart, yeah!
Pearl may have died, but she is in my shoe.
She’ll go when I do. Do what I do.
Okay she died, but she’s in my shoe, yeah!