One of the hard things about being a mother is that you don’t get to grieve. They don’t tell you that in the parenting books. They tell you about losing sleep or how to deal with picky eaters. That you may never have alone time again or your jeans might not fit the same. They don’t tell you that grief, like clothing, will not drape your postpartum body the way it did before.
With the addition of a child, you subtract your ability to mourn in your own time. You do this to protect your child. To help them process their own grief. To cover them in a veil of safety like a net against mosquitos. You throw your own emotional well-being aside to lie in the pile of the other things you gave up, discarded in a corner like laundry. Clothes you once wore.
That’s how it was for me when I noticed that Prospero was missing. The first morning when she didn’t jump down from her basket on the top shelf in the laundry room at the sound of food hitting the cat bowl, I wasn’t really alarmed. The cats can come and go through a broken louver in the laundry room, so I had assumed she must have been outside prowling somewhere in the high grass like a lioness. When she didn’t come that night for dinner, I figured she had eaten earlier at some point and I’d missed her. That maybe she was outside in the moonlight looking at night moths.
The next morning was also empty of her grand entrance thundering down onto the dryer from her high perch. I felt the stab of dread in a low part of my abdomen. She wasn’t there that night on the bed rubbing her face forcefully against mine. I felt the dread spread through my veins, making my arms cold.
On the third morning, I didn’t feed the cats at all. Surely by midday she would have to appear. It was around 2pm when I shook the food container and three ginger blurs whizzed by to the empty bowls, yowling and anxious, complaining boldly at my clearly humanoid lack of time keeping. No black and white kitty with a broken tail and a missing half an ear. No Prospero.
I began to feel worried. I began to feel sad and a pang of grief echoed through my mind at her memory. The little, scrawny, mangy Hurricane Kitten so long ago looking up from the cinder block with squinty, sickly eyes. I started to worry about how the children would react. I started to worry about how I would tell them. I silenced my own sorrow at the loss of Prospero and just kept feeding the cats like normal.
On the fourth day, Savannah asked if I had seen Prospero lately. I replied with a clipped “no” accompanied by enough eye contact to let her know what I truly thought. She bent her lips in and glanced at the floor discovering the veracity of my utterance. Perhaps older siblings are also not allowed to grieve. Maybe grieving is something you can outgrow and be forced to pass on to someone younger.
On the fifth day, Harrison asked where Prospero was. I put on an artificially cheerful tone and said I wasn’t sure, that I hadn’t seen her for a few days. The words tasted like cherry, rolling over my tongue the way too much grenadine does when it spoils a rum punch. His eyes looked wet, but no tears spilled. He asked in a small voice if I thought she would come back. I told him I didn’t know.
On the sixth day, I decided that Prospero was dead. I watched the three ginger tabbies lined up eating at the food bowls looking dutifully monochromatic. I still filled the fourth bowl, so now the gingers methodically moved between them, happy for extra food. I thought about how she was such a funny cat. Never grew past the size of a kitten, a probable result of her malnutrition during her formative weeks. I thought about her spunky personality and how we called her a ninja. I wanted to think about what must have happened to her, but I didn’t let myself. That would be too much grieving.
On the seventh day, around dinner time, I left to get take-out. I wasn’t thinking about Prospero anymore because of the ill-fitting parental grief process. When I returned home, there, on the kitchen bar, was Prospero. The children were beaming and ecstatically falling over one another, retelling her reappearance simultaneously. In the melee, she rubbed her head against Harrison’s hands, green eyes probing mine. I was able to pick out that she had simply materialised in the hallway, walked into the kitchen and jumped onto the bar.
She had a healing wound on the back of her head and one below her neck; the fur on her back right leg was missing in one area. When she rubbed against me, I could feel her spine. Her hips jutted out and, coupled with her regular hard-knock anomalies, gave her the look of a derelict stray. She was home.