Fast-forward around six months and much has changed since then. Noah has had his fourth birthday and continues to expand his view of the world. And his cat has gotten older and less healthy. Time marches on.
Noah and I were heading out a couple of weeks back to run some errands. As I was getting him settled into his booster seat, it dawned on him that we hadn't talked about his cat in a while. Here's what ensued.
Noah: Daddy, you know I love Shadow, right?At that moment, something changed in our son. He looked right at me with a deeply serious look on his face, and slowly delivered his next line:
Me: Of course!
Noah: He's my best cat.
Me: (Thought bubble - "He's his only cat, but even in the mind of a four-year-old, being the best of one is still a superlative.") I know, he's the best cat in the world, isn't he?
Noah: Yes, he is. I wish he could live forever.
Me: (Thought bubble - "Uh oh, we had this conversation last summer! I thought he was OK with the whole the-cat-will-die-someday speech. What do I say now?") Remember when we talked about how Shadow won't always be with us?
"I said, I wish."He emphasized each word to ensure I understood him. He sounded like an adult, and he was teaching me the ways of the world, confirming to me that, yes indeed, he already got it.
I kissed his head, closed the door, and slowly walked around to the driver's side of the car. I took my time to let the tears that had welled up in my eyes subside.
How is it that kids can be so insightful and subtle and so amazingly worldly? Why can't we be more like them?
One more thing: Here's the text of the column as it was published in the London Free Press:
Forever isn't nearly long enough
By Carmi Levy
Published in the London Free Press
July 28, 2004
The beauty of childhood lies in an invisible bubble that protects our kids from the cruelties of the modern world.
They don't have to worry about taxes, wars, or careers. Meals appear right when their tummies start to grumble. They always have soft pajamas waiting for them after bath time. They can empty their toy box safe in the knowledge that Mom or Dad will always be there to help them clean it up.
Most importantly, everyone and everything important to them will always be there. Loss is supposed to be a foreign concept.
So when our three-year-old, Noah, threw his arms around our cat, Shadow, buried his little face in a mass of shedding black fur and told his feline friend how much he loved him, I didn't give it too much thought. He had, after all, done precisely the same thing at least a dozen times since waking up barely an hour earlier.
But then, as miniature people are likely to do, he looked right at me and said, "I want to keep him forever and ever, because he's my best cat. Can we, Dad?"
I was once again faced with one of those moments where I had no idea what to say to the little face looking to me for guidance on an incredibly important member of his world. They didn't cover this in the parenting manual.
Our kids are lucky in so many ways, particularly in that they haven't yet had to deal with loss. All four of their grandparents play important roles in their lives. My wife and I are (relatively) young and healthy. Major illness and death have, thank goodness, not yet directly touched them.
But as he looked to me for confirmation that, yes, his cat would always be there for him, I struggled with balancing the need to be truthful and my wish to keep that bubble of childhood intact for as long as I could. I had no idea what to say.
So I started slowly, my mind racing to find the right words. I told him how Shadow came to be part of our family: that he was born the day we were married, that we adopted him from the pound three months later, that he had just celebrated his 12th birthday.
I explained how we had him before he and his siblings were born. We talked about how Shadow's world changed as we brought each baby home, as we moved away to build a new life in London, as we spent more time out of the house because we were so busy with work. He smiled as he learned more about his beloved pet's history, amazed that his cat had been around way before he even existed.
But everything has an end. I told Noah that Shadow's not so young any more, and although he'll likely be part of our family for a long, long time, he will die someday, because nothing lasts forever.
He innocently asked if we could get another cat when Shadow dies. Almost as if on cue, Shadow sauntered past and Noah gently stroked his back. I answered, "Of course, but we'll all be much older when that happens," not wanting to believe that I would ever have to explain to my son that when someone – even a "someone" as seemingly trivial as a cat – dies, he never comes back.
He seemed happy with that explanation, and soon returned to seeing how high he could bounce the ball on the kitchen floor. I knew we'd be having this conversation repeatedly in the months and years to come.
I still may not be able to explain to him precisely how long "forever" is. But I know it's never as long as we wish it could be.
Which makes me wish I had the power to stretch it just a bit more for a little guy who loves his cat.
Carmi Levy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a London freelance writer. His column appears every other Wednesday.