It was that lovely week of Christmas when utterly NOTHING happens at church, and we clergy types can lounge in our sweats for days on end, in recovery from the high holy days. Christmas had fallen in that same week of blessed cool weather that the desert gets, just every now in then, when the sun is still shining but you can actually wear a jacket outside without melting. It was like that. My mom was in town, and we had walked the kids over to a neighborhood park for some excercise.
There was a sign–handwritten, non-descript, unassuming–hanging on a post as we arrived. “Pat-pat,” says my 4-year-old, “What does that sign say?”
My mom proceeded to read her the message on the sign; someone had lost their cat. Said cat was greatly missed, and a little girl named Alyssa would greatly appreciate any help in locating her pet. A phone number was attached so that folks could call with information.
I saw my daughter’s wheels turning rapidly–sparks flying and gears grinding, in that rhythm unique to a 4-year-old girl who has just been faced with a new and alarming reality of the world: pets can get lost.
Uh-oh. This was about to be a long walk.
Now, we don’t have a cat. My husband is allergic, and besides, we are dog people. In fact, we are the proud family of Van Halen, super dog and baby shepherd extraordinaire. (And yes, like many people who have small children, we have become the worst ever dog parents in the world. But, he has yet to encounter a rattle snake on our watch, he is well fed on covert bites of chicken nugget and peanut butter sandwich, and he gets a stocking at Christmas. We love that little booger). So the fact that my child would feel immediate rush of affection for a member of the feline race seemed unlikely.
What she did feel, however, was a rush of worry for this sad little girl who had lost her pet. “Let’s go find the cat,” she said, just like that. Like the cat was chilling under a bush somewhere, muching on a snack of desert quail and just waiting to be found.
Maybe we’ve let her watch too much Wonder Pets. But now we had a mission, and she wanted to look all over the park for the cat.
When we didn’t find the cat, we tried to change the subject. No deal. “Let’s call Alyssa and tell her that we’re looking for her cat,” she said. I guess she thought it would be some comfort for the girl to know that neighbors were on the case. Solidarity, sister.
“Well,” i said, “i don’t think we need to call her unless we actually see the cat,” i said. Then i tried, “You know this isn’t OUR Alyssa from church, right? This is another little girl named Alyssa.” (Hey, worth a try. Maybe her concern is not arbitrary, but attached to a person she knows by the same name.) But no. She knew this was not our Alyssa.
“I know. But…where did the cat go?”
My mom and i exchanged looks. We knew that the likely answer was that kitty had run afoul of the neighborhood coyotes, and become the centerpiece of an elaborate midnite picnic in the desert.
“LET’S GO PLAY ON THE SLIDE,” i try, a little too loudly. Commence slide play. 30 seconds later, “I think somebody already found the cat.”
Yes, exactly. Cat has been found. Let’s go with that. “Your brother’s playing in the sand. Let’s go help him.”
Sand play in progress. 90 seconds later, “Pat-pat, tell me a story about the cat.”
A story. Now that we can do. And so, Pat-pat goes about telling a cat story. And then, upon urgent request, another cat story. And another and another. The cat hid in the bed, under the covers, and took a long nap. The cat went out to the desert and had an adventure involving a road-runner and a javelina. And always, the favorite one that we kept coming back to–the cat was found and home again, and Alyssa was so happy, she forgot to go to the park and take down the signs.
Cause there’s a story, and then there’s a Story, you know? I am all for telling kids the truth, and not pulling punches about the realities of life and death, of missing pets and poverty and partisan politics. But at this point, Alyssa and her cat are still pretend, in some abstract kind of way. Why not give them a happy ending if we can?
Some day, there will be plenty of time to talk about the difference between truth and lies; and then the deeper distinction between truth and history, in that profound way that gospel, literature, and shared narrative–though not entirely historical– can still hold great truth. But, as a wise seminary professor said–when the kids is 5 (or 4, as it were) all you have to give them is the story. You don’t have to dig into the layers of context and language barriers, and what actually happened. You give them the gift of the story so that it becomes a part of them. As they grow, they will find the many ways in which the story is, in fact, true.
Fabled Alyssa, if you are reading this, I hope that you found your cat. I hope he was off on one of the great adventures that my mother laid out for him, and I hope he came back home with his own story to tell. But if not…then know that a little girl who lives very close to you was willing to share your broken heart. While the rest of us wrote you a happy ending.