by Dante Zappala

Kitze Katz didn’t answer the bell, and I knew it was going to be over soon. Usually, my oldest cat would be eager to see me when I come down the stairs in the morning and tap the food bowl with a spoon. Even though he had been sick for more than a month, he’d still managed to get excited about eating.

Instead, he lay in front of the heating vent with a blank stare on his face. I’ve watched enough people go through the very last stages of life to know what was coming.

The kids were getting ready for school so I took them aside before they came down to tell them plainly that the cat was going to die today. They processed this in whatever way their young minds can. They sat with Kitze Katz, offering him milk and gentle words.

They left for school, and I stayed with the cat. About an hour later, he took his last breath and died peacefully on a blanket. I cried a little bit, sure. He was a unique animal. Stray cats would come to our porch looking for him, for he was the one that shepherded them. He and I worked hard to maintain his two personalities – the tough and grizzled cat he needed to be in the streets, and the tender and vulnerable cat I needed him to be inside.

We take in animals for many reasons. One is that their shortened life cycles prep our kids for the bigger drama that is sure to come. It’s a little bit of life training for loss and trauma.

I’ve been through my fair share of those things. I lost my brother in a war and my father too young. I appreciate now how lucky my grandparents were to live long. Nothing is guaranteed, no matter how you play it.

All of this is happening in the context of marathon training, where I am out for long, lonely stretches with not much to do but think. And it dawned on me that the marathon itself is a form of trauma. For 2, 3, 4 hours we push our bodies beyond what they want us to do and what they think they can do. We prepare for this by introducing small bits of trauma.

A recent 20 mile run had my head spinning and legs wobbling. A few days later, I did a track workout, 4 x 2000-meter. The idea was to start and finish at a baseline tempo pace, somewhere between a 10k and 10 mile race pace. But I also threw in surges at any point to tax the system and then work to recover at that baseline. My mind conspired in every way to make me physically feel like I couldn’t even begin this workout. It thought it knew what was coming: pain, hurt, exhaustion.

At the end of my track workout, I felt fantastic and motivated. I absolutely crushed it and was embarrassed for having been afraid of it.

Our minds get ahead of us in that way. We have our own helicopter parent inside of us, a voice that wants to protect us, a voice that finds reason after reason to shift us away from any danger, real or perceived.

When considering what to do with the remains of the cat, my wife and I talked at length. What should we expose the kids to? Where exactly is that line just beyond what they know that we can safely push them towards?

The SPCA would have taken the body free of charge, but this seemed too impersonal for a cat we genuinely loved. Cremation was an option, but pricey in my book. Burial made the most sense even if the ground was frozen solid.

I didn’t think it could be done, but my brother started digging a hole. After trading off for about two hours, we had ourselves a proper grave for Kitze Katz. When the boys came home from school, I laid him down there with his face uncovered. My oldest stood with me outside. My youngest peered through the window. We said a few words and covered the dead cat with dirt.

Death takes a lifetime to comprehend. In a small way, this helped them on that journey. Had the cat just disappeared it would have spared them a bit of pain but filled them with confusion. The best thing we could do for the cat and for ourselves was to deal with the circumstances plainly and honestly.

In the future, these circumstances will be bigger and unavoidable. Despite what their brains might tell them to do, they’ll have no choice but to be present and experience what happens.

I’ll remember Kitze Katz for many things. As a kitten, he would burrow under the covers in search of comfort and calm. As an adult, he would bring his fresh kills of birds, snakes and mice to our doorstep. But I’ll always be most thankful for his final gift: preparing my boys for the race ahead.