”Puppy! Puppy wake up,” Katie cried, the fabric on the trampoline dipping and rolling as she tried to rouse the dog. “Puppy!”
It didn’t move.
“Time to wake up, puppy.” Katie shook the dog, kneading its tiny black and white spotted body back and forth.
“Daddy!” she screamed. “Something is wrong with the puppy!”
Her dad ran towards the trampoline and pulled apart the jump screen. “What’s wrong, Katie?” he yelled, his eyes frantic and searching.
Katie extended her arms, holding out the lifeless body of the dog. “He’s broken. He’s not moving,” she said. “Help him.”
Katie handed the dog to her dad. The animal’s stillness unnerved him, warning him that perhaps he had arrived too late to do any good. He pressed two fingers over the dog’s chest anyway, hoping that his instincts were wrong, but he felt no heartbeat. He lifted the dog to his ear and listened for signs of life.
But he heard none.
The dog was dead.
He looked up at his daughter. Katie’s eyes were wide, looking for him to fix this like he fixed everything else.
“Honey, the puppy…,”
“What’s wrong with him, Daddy? He was jumping with me just a minute ago.”
“What happened?” He looked down at the tiny body, suddenly noticing that the dog’s back legs were bent at an odd angle. A horrifying, disgusting thought quickly ballooned. “Honey, were you…” Surely she wasn’t capable of such a thing at four years old. “Did you. . . did you put the puppy on the trampoline with you while you were jumping?”
Katie sniffed and wiped at her nose with the back of her hand. It was stained black from the trampoline top. “Yeah, Daddy,” she said. Her body swaying and bouncing slightly as her tiny legs steadied her to keep her upright. He noticed that her feet were green around her heels where she had run through the freshly cut grass. He gently picked up one of the dogs bent leg’s and noticed it had similar colorings on its tiny, white paws.
“I thought he would want to jump with me,” Katie said.
“Did you jump on puppy?”
Katie blinked. She considered her dad’s question for a moment, pulling at her mind, trying to remember. She pursed her lips and stuck out her tongue. “Yes,” she said, nodding. “I jumped really high. But I didn’t hurt him when I came down. He stayed right there. He liked it. He kept barking at me for me to do it again.”
His eyes grew terrifyingly large. “You kept jumping on him?” He glanced down at the puppy and pulled him protectively closer to his chest.
“He didn’t move out of the way. I thought he liked it,” Katie said. “We were just playing.”
He thought he was going to be sick. He was sick.
“What? What did I do, Daddy? Why do you look like that? What did I do wrong?”
He saw that she was on the verge of tears. Another stern word from him and she would be inconsolable. He grimaced, unprepared to have the death conversation so soon with her. They had barely learned how to tie shoes earlier that week.
And now this.
He lifted the small puppy in his arms, remembering how excited Katie had been to finally be gifted one. She had begged him for the past six months about having her own puppy. He recalled how she cried and pleaded, promising him that she would clean up the puppy’s messes and make sure it got exercised.
He cradled the dog, gently pushing it into the crook of one of his arms. “Oh, Katie,” he said.
“Wh-h-h-h what’s wrong with my puppy, Daddy?”
He looked at his daughter. Tears rimming behind both of their eyes. “Honey, he’s dead.”
“What does that mean?”
He exhaled, preparing himself for the long conversation ahead. “Honey, it’s like when Mommy went away.”
“But puppy wasn’t in a car crash.”
“No, not like that. Remember when you were a baby and how I told you Mommy was taking a really long nap, but that she probably wouldn’t wake up?”
Katie thought this over. “Yes,” she said.
“And remember how Mommy didn’t wake up? Remember how Daddy took you to see her in the hospital?”
Katie pulled at her memory, trying so hard to remember. She remembered something about a lady in a bed who was lying very still. Daddy had said the lady was hurt, but she didn’t know who the lady was. She only remembered that Daddy cried about the lady a lot. She remembered hearing him crying in his room every night after he tucked her into bed. Then, suddenly, they had stopped going to the hospital. She hadn’t known why. But she remembered Daddy saying that word back then too.
He said that Mommy was dead. That Mommy had died and had gone to a better place to be with Jesus. She hadn’t known who Jesus was, but Daddy had said that the lady, Mommy, wasn’t hurt anymore.
Katie looked up at the sky. The clouds were shifting and blowing around. Is that what Mommy and Jesus were doing? Moving the clouds around in the sky?
“Katie?” her dad asked, pulling her back to earth.
“Do you remember what happened to Mommy?”
“She went to live in the sky with Jesus and push the clouds around.”
“That’s. . .” he hesitated, unsure whether to correct her or not. “Okay. But remember that I said she died?”
“And gone to a better place with Jesus. It’s a good thing. You said it was a good thing.”
“Do you understand?”
Katie looked around the yard, her interest in the conversation fading. “When is puppy going to get better?”
“Katie, honey, he’s not.”
Now she thought she might understand. “Is puppy with Jesus too?”
“Yes! Oh, yes, honey. You do understand. You’re right. Okay. Puppy went to be with Jesus.”
“So Mommy is taking care of him now?”
“Probably, honey, do you understand what I’m saying?”
“I think so.” She pointed towards the sky. “He’s up there with Mommy.” But now she was confused. She tilted her head and pointed accusingly at the dog. “But why is he still here if he’s supposed to be in heaven?”
“No, this is his body,” her Dad lifted his shoulder, slightly elevating the dog to show her. “His body is dead but his spirit…,” he paused, hesitant to continue. “Katie… Mommy believed that every living thing has a spirit and when it dies it goes to heaven with Jesus.”
Katie blinked. “She did?” Katie thought this over. “Do you believe that too, Daddy?”
“I’m not sure, honey, I used to, but that’s not important right now. But do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Is Mommy married to Jesus?”
“No. No, honey she’s still married to me.”
“But you’re here, and she’s…,” Katie pointed to the sky again, “up there.”
“Are you going to die too?”
“And then I’ll be all alone.” Katie looked solemnly to the ground, the weight of the world settling onto her tiny shoulders. “I’m going to be scared.”
“No. No, honey. It won’t be for a very long, long time.”
“Do you understand, Katie?”
“Will I die too?”
He hesitated, the conversation going much further than he had expected. He swallowed hard, feeling his Adam’s apple bob up and down. He knew he was floundering. He could only hope that some of this was getting through. There would be time to explain it better, to fill in the gaps as she grew older.
“Yes, someday you will die too,” he said.
“But that’s not a bad thing. You . . . your spirit will get to go to heaven too.”
“I don’t believe in that.”
He involuntarily took a step backwards. He couldn’t believe how profound her statement had been — clear and filled with conviction well beyond her years.
Katie shrugged, tugging at a loose thread on the jump screen. “Why does Jesus get to live with everybody? Why won’t he share?”
He was explaining this all wrong. “It’s not like that.”
“Jesus wants to keep everybody to himself. You make me share my toys when my friends come over. Why can’t Jesus learn to share and stop taking things from us?”
He looked down at the puppy, realizing that Katie was simultaneously misunderstanding and understanding all at once.
He paused. His daughter was looking for answers he couldn’t give her. Answers he wasn’t even sure of himself. “I don’t know,” he conceded. “I don’t know why Jesus won’t share.”
Katie nodded. “It’s because he’s a selfish bastard.”
“Where did you hear that?!”
Katie’s eyes swam with tears again. “Wh-wh-what’s wrong, Daddy?”
“Where did you hear those bad words, Katie?”
She full on began to wail; a haunted, deep rooted wail that expressed the sorrow of loss and confusion. It echoed across the yard.
“Katie, calm down.”
She dropped her legs and sat down onto the trampoline, her body now too heavy for her.
“I want my puppy back,” she screamed, bobbing up and down from elastic gravity. “I want my Mommy back.” She lay down and kicked her legs and flailed her arms around in a windmill motion. She shook her hands out in front of her as if they were suddenly too hot. “I want my puppy!”
He stayed still, standing on the outside and letting her cry. He suddenly knew where she had heard those words. He hadn’t even really needed to ask.
He had said those words every night since his wife had died. He’d said them loudly as he dug his knees into the carpet, begging God to give her back to him. He had wailed and gnashed his teeth, fighting with a God he couldn’t see. He had cried out to his ceiling and imagined that his words were being carried out into the universe, out to God’s secret hiding place and reaching His ears.
He had said all manner of words. He had cursed God for giving him such happiness and then mercilessly snatching it away. He had cursed his lot for now being a single parent with a daughter who was too young to understand where her mother had gone.
What sort of God did that to a child? How could anyone still believe in an omnipotent being that played roulette with children’s lives? Curse Him. Scourge Him. Send countless plagues upon His head. Take His own life.
There was enough suffering here.
He gently crouched down and delicately released the puppy into the shadowy shade underneath the trampoline. It’s sad, broken body lie cradled against the short edged grass, kindly held and protected from the world that had so quickly betrayed it. He crawled onto the trampoline with his daughter. He sat down next to her and pulled her into his lap.
“It’s not fair, Daddy,” Katie muffled, her mouth soggy and pressed against her dad’s collarbone.
Tears fell from his eyes. “I know, baby. I know.”
Katie wailed again as they returned, full circle, to the moment that had brought on these new, unknown emotions.
His hand on Katie’s back finally slowed and then stopped as Katie calmed down into a restless, tireless sleep.
He looked up in the sky, craning his neck back and pulling his daughter closer to his chest and covering her free ear with his hand.
“Go to hell you selfish bastard,” he whispered to the sky.
The clouds shifted in acknowledgement.