We were all standing outside, waiting for our son Arthur's school bus on the first day of Kindergarten, when a black VW Jetta sedan sped right by my toes and crushed our newly-adopted kitten, Lulu. Lulu flopped on the ground until he died, flinging blood until I was covered in splatter from my knees down to my bare toes. I tried to grab him, but he was moving too quickly.
Arthur. My son. I spun around and grabbed Arthur's shoulders, turning him to face me, making him look away from Lulu's body and into my eyes.
"Mirame." I said in Spanish, the language he's been spoken to all day by his teachers since he was a baby. "Look at me."
"Everything is OK," I said. "You are OK."
I held his shoulders tightly so he couldn't turn around. My husband stood frozen, staring, holding our 3-year-old in his arms.
"Mitchell," I said. "Get a towel." He snapped out of whatever trance he'd been in. He handed me our toddler and ran into the house, emerging with a large towel to wrap up Lulu's tiny body.
While I kept Arthur's attention, Mitchell carried Lulu behind our parked cars and away from sight. I looked at my watch. The bus would be here any minute.
Mitchell rounded up the other kitten -- Lulu's littermate, Frankie, adopted together from the shelter just three weeks before -- and carried him back inside. Why did Mitchell let them outside? I set aside my anger at him and focused on Arthur and our other son who now clung to my leg.
A picture. I hadn't taken a picture of Arthur on his first day of school, of his shiny new backpack and his little knees emerging from his khaki shorts. No jerk in a Jetta was going to prevent me from taking a picture.
I kneeled on the ground a few feet from him and told him to look out for the bus -- he'd been so excited about the bus -- and hoped the memory of the bus would give him the power to smile for me, or at least look less shocked. I took as many pictures as I could -- two, maybe three -- before I heard the big diesel engine making the turn onto our street.
Mitchell was back from taking Frankie into the house. He took Arthur's hand to walk him across the street. I realized, with a shot of fear, Arthur has to walk across this street every day to board the bus -- and I snapped more pictures, of father and son and the big yellow school bus like a sun. Then the bus pulled off.
And finally, I sat down on one of our outside chairs, looked at my blood-stained jeans and feet and completely lost control. I had taken a small life into my care, and then through my own carelessness, caused its death. And I'd done it in front of my sweet, sensitive child.
My sweet, sensitive child who, in a blink, could have been the one killed by that speeding car.
The Outdoor Cat Debate
Our kitten Lulu (his real name was Lloyd) was not the first cat of mine to be hit by a car. He was just the first I felt horribly guilty about. The reason I tend to feel sad, but not guilty, about my cats getting hit by cars, is because I believe cats should have indoor/outdoor lives. I've put a cat door in every house I've lived in, and have given my cats free reign to go outside -- once they are old enough to understand how to behave around cars.
I felt guilty about Lulu because we let Frankie and Lulu out to celebrate the first day of Kindergarten in our driveway with us. We put them in danger because they were too young to be outside. But once Lulu (and Frankie) were old enough, we would have let them outside on their own, with my other two cats, Richard and Wilbur.
Most "cat people" in the U.S. believe that cats should be kept indoors for the safety of the cats. They believe it is inhumane to let cats outside. Many anti-cat people also want cats to be kept indoors, because cats are predators that kill birds, and these people really like their birds. What's interesting, though, is that if you look outside the U.S., many cat people believe it is inhumane to coop up cats inside. My husband and I have always taken a middle ground, letting our cats out when they wanted to be ou t-- based on our observations of our many cats and their specific personalities.
Here's where the problem comes in: We didn't make the right decision that morning with young Lulu. And when she died, all I could think was, What if? What if that had been one of my boys?
We don't let our cats outside any more.
Dealing with Traumatic Guilt
That afternoon after Kindergarten, Arthur got off the school bus. I waited for him, thrilled to see him. He said, pointing at the ground, "That's where Lulu got hit by a car." There went my hopes that, in the excitement of his first day of school, he might just forget it ever happened.
I wondered if I should send a letter to his kindergarten teacher explaining that if my kid started talking about how his kitten got killed on the first day of school, he wasn't making it up. I could picture the scene:
Teacher: OK, class! Draw a picture of your family. Don't forget to include your pets!
Arthur: Draws Mommy, Daddy, brother, Frankie, Wilbur, Richard, and a squished Lulu.
Teacher, to the classroom aide: This kid's got problems.
But, my imagination aside, Arthur and I did have problems.
For my part, for weeks after I watched Lulu die, I would have horrible moments in which I relived the scene. Thoughts intruded, where her bloody mouth was all I could see in front of my eyes. These visions would strike unpredictably, and I couldn't make them stop. I shrugged the intrusions off as silly, though. Lulu was a cat, not a person. You don't get traumatized from watching your cat die. Besides, I'd buried lots of pets.
Traumatic stress, however, has an unexpected component to those who are unfamiliar with it: guilt. The difference between Lulu's death and the death of my other pets was the blame I'd placed on myself. I believed, to a certainty, that I'd been the cause her death -- not the reckless driver in the Jetta. No matter how much I reasoned with myself, I couldn't get out of that vortex of blame.
One night, while I was reading stories to my sons in bed, I froze, replaying the death of Lulu in my head over and over. I was crying, suddenly, and had to call out to my husband to come and physically move my body away from my children because I couldn't. That was the worst moment. That was when I started taking things seriously. That's when I finally realized that my fears for my kids were living in the same place as my guilt over Lulu's death.
I also knew, if I'm suffering this badly, Arthur must be suffering too.
Kids who suffer traumatic events often act out the event while playing (and this play can be a good thing). One night, soon after Lulu died, Arthur was playing with his Legos, his single most favorite activity. He loves to build complex structures and then explain to me how they work.
This particular night, he built a scene with Lego creatures and vehicles, each more fantastical than the last. Then he told me a story.
"The one," he said, pointing at a smallish creature composed of blocks and shiny pieces like horns, "got hit by a car."
Then he picked up a vehicle, a plane, perhaps. "But don't worry," he said. "I built a rescue ship."
Since it became clear Arthur wasn't going to quickly forget Lulu, I've worked hard to ensure that he has the tools he needs to make sense of Lulu's life and death.
Learning from Losing Lulu
Only after a few weeks could I finally place the proper blame for Lulu's death onto on the speeding driver of the Jetta. And only then could I finally figure out why I had been so fearful in the first place.
You, driver, you saw a husband, a wife, a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old -- all of us standing at the end of their driveway. You probably didn't see our four cats. But I know you saw us humans because we would have been impossible to miss even as you torpedoed up our street. Even though you saw us, you didn't slow down, not a bit, as you sped by our home, by our children, only inches from us. You crushed my kitten, a life our society values very little.
But you could have crushed my child.
You heard me scream. The whole world heard me scream. But you didn't stop. You didn't even slow -- you sped up instead.
You are my worst nightmare.
If killing my kitten stops you, whoever you are, from killing a toddler some day, then Lulu's death was worth it. Please learn from what we lost.