In the beginning, there was Jelly. Before the kids, before a mortgage, before choosing Richmond as our adoptive home, there was a black and white tuxedo cat with a Charlie Chaplin mustache splotch on her nose who loved laying in warm laps, devouring pieces of salmon, and hunting pieces of yarn.
Shortly before we found out Kat was pregnant with our first child, we adopted this one-year-old shelter cat. For no good reason, I came up with the name Jelly, and our new feline companion came home to our little apartment in downtown Baltimore. It was the summer of 2006.
By the summer of 2007, our little family of three humans and a cat had moved to Richmond. We’d mostly adjusted to our new home, but Kat and I were worried. Arlo was six months old, happy, and healthy, but we were concerned that Jelly was losing weight. We took her to the vet and reported that she seemed to be eating well and had plenty of energy. The vet weighed our cat and kindly let us know she was the same healthy weight as our first visit after we had moved. As new parents, we hadn’t realized that as our human baby continued to grow, Jelly seemed dramatically lighter in comparison.
Jelly was extremely tolerant of tiny humans. She happily shared my lap with an infant Arlo. She graciously allowed a toddler Lorelai to pick her up and carry her around the house like a baby (for a little while at least). As the kids aged, they learned to be more gentle; as Jelly aged, she spent more and more of her time sleeping in comfortable, warm places.
A few weeks ago my family said goodbye to Jelly. For as long as I’ve been a father, Jelly had been there. She was there when Arlo was born. She was there when Lorelai was born three years later. My kids have never known a life or a home without this cat in it.
Because Jelly was so old, we had talked on and off through the years about how she wouldn’t be with us forever. When the kids were little and didn’t really understand this life lesson, this manifested in cute but morbid statements like, “When Jelly dies can we get a new kitten?” (Jelly didn’t enjoy the company of other felines). As the kids got older, we talked as a family about how we’d approach decisions around Jelly’s quality of life and what the end of her life might look like. Arlo expressed a desire to be there at the end, if possible, to say goodbye. It was my wish that we’d have a little bit of warning.
That wish wasn’t granted. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was almost home from dropping off Arlo at a school event when I got a call from Kat that Jelly had taken a sudden turn for the worse. I could hear the worry in Kat’s voice and my tears began immediately. We quickly agreed we would take Jelly to the emergency vet as soon as I got home.
I called Arlo, let it go to voicemail, then immediately called again so it would actually ring through (“allow repeated calls” overrides “do not disturb” in case you didn’t know). Crying still, I gave all the information I had and said we’d keep them updated. Arlo was about an hour round-trip from home, and it was my hope that I’d have time to go get them if things were really bad.
Once at the emergency vet, it was clear that Jelly didn’t have hours. Things were really bad, and it was time to say our goodbyes. We got Arlo on FaceTime to be with us digitally, and Kat, Lorelai, and I gave Jelly her last pets and scritches. Then she was gone.
We made our way home and picked the spot where Jelly would be buried. Then, while Kat and Lorelai drove to pick up Arlo, I started to dig as deep a hole as I could. I was already emotionally exhausted and it was cathartic to be able to work toward a similar physical exhaustion. I finished by the time the rest of the family got home.
Finally all together, we gathered flowers, said our tearful words of thanks and goodbye, and placed Jelly’s body in the ground. We took turns filling in her grave until it was full, added a large stone as a marker, and draped flowers on top. With the sun setting, my family – covered in dirt, sweat, and tears – headed back into our house to figure out the relatively mundane task of what we would eat for dinner.
I hadn’t realized it, but I had been dreading that day for years. I’d experienced the grief of losing a pet before, and I wanted to spare my kids that pain. It’s why I had always been the reluctant one whenever there was a request to bring a hamster or guinea pig into our home. If we fall in love with this small mammal, I’d reasoned, we also have to be sad when it’s gone.
I’d missed the point, and it took grieving with Kat and my kids over Jelly for me to find it. It’s not about worrying about what it’s going to feel like when a pet dies. It’s about loving that pet together. It’s about grieving that pet together. It’s about letting myself feel the full force of my feelings, allowing my family to be part of my joy, and giving myself permission to lean on them in my sorrows.
In the beginning, there was Jelly. In the end, there is gratitude. I am grateful for the time Jelly was in our lives and the stronger family she helped us become.