Learning from Laughter and the Trees: Under the Apple Tree Again

Grandpa, Cedar, and Isaac digging the hole for Scatters under the apple tree.

By Lydia Wylie-Kellermann

The rain is pouring down with periodic rumbles of thunder. It is cold and the sun has set, but we can tell that there is a need in Isaac’s heart to make this trek. We put on hats and shoes and give into the rain as we walk down the street and into the backyard of my dad’s house.

It’s too dark to see the loosened soil, but we bend down low and Isaac says, “This is where we buried Scatters.” Cedar, who is almost two, bends down too and after a minute looks up at Erinn and says “Meow” and points to the dirt. Erinn says, “Is this where Scatters is? Did he die?” Cedar responds, “Meow die.”

This is about the same age when we first explained death to Isaac. We had given Isaac fish for his second birthday who quickly proceeded to die. He helped us bury them, Two and Baubee.  But I was struck by how much harder it was to explain death this time around to Cedar because there was an intimacy here that Isaac didn’t share with his fish. Cedar and Scatters loved each other. Both boys did.

We had known his death was coming. My dad had held Scatters for a long time the night before he died, thanked him for being such a good cat and let him know that he could die. The next morning, my dad couldn’t find him. He searched the house and basement and then called for physical and emotional help. I found Scatter’s body curled up in the basement besides my dad’s work bench nestled in saw dust. He looked like he just fell asleep content and peaceful.

Both boys helped dig the hole under the apple tree delighting in the abundance of worms. We planted this tree thirty years ago when my mom had a miscarriage and we buried my sibling below the roots. When we laid Scatter’s body in the hole, my dad said “next year Scatters will be in the apples.” “What? Grandpa, that doesn’t make any sense,” Isaac said. I responded, “Scatters will turn into dirt and fill the earth with nutrients. The apple tree roots will suck them up and the tree will make even more delicious apples. So, each year, when we eat the apples, we can say thank you to Scatters.”

We each took a handful of dirt and covered his body up. It reminded me of burying my Grandma Bea’s ashes two years ago in the Upper Peninsula. It was a small circle of family there and the great-grandchildren took the greatest delight in filling the hole with dirt. I think my Grandma would have loved that.

When the hole was filled, we laid flowers on the dirt that both kids had helped forage in the yard. A beautiful bouquet of yellow broccoli flowers and wild daisies. As we picked flowers, Isaac came over to me and said “I have a long time before I’m going to die. I still have to get bigger. You will die first because you are bigger than me.” My heart ached knowing the ways his own heart was thinking about death- his and mine. All I could do was love him in it.

Scatters was nineteen years old and had been a gift to Lucy and I from my mom. Shortly, after my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer, I stumbled upon a little pile of notecards with my mom’s handwriting all over them. One read, “When I die, get each of the girls a cat.” We had not really been a pet family, but believing my mom’s death to be imminent, my dad and I went to a friend’s house and picked out a tiny kitten and brought him home for Lucy’s birthday.

Little did we know that Scatters would become a great companion for my mom for another seven years. He would follow her along and she would talk to him through years that I am sure were really lonely. And after my mom died, and the house grew empty, Scatters made his home on my dad’s lap and answered his calls like a dog.

I never would have imagined that nineteen years later, through Scatters’ death, that I would be the mom caring for my own children as their hearts grow and learn about pain and death. We walk home in the rain with Isaac’s eyes filled with tears saying out loud, “I didn’t want Scatters to die.” He makes us promise that we will come back and visit the apple tree again in the morning. And we will.

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