Getting to heart of loss
Illustration: Astrid Chesney
Last fall I lost my cat Gattino. He was still a kitten, or at seven months, an adolescent. I had just started letting him outside unsupervised. One day I went away for two hours, and when I came back he was gone. We put up fliers everywhere, including in people's mailboxes; we checked shelters and vets. For weeks people reported seeing him; I believed them because Gattino had one blind eye, and in headlights only one of his eyes lit up. Apparently he was quite close by. But we couldn't find him. We couldn't believe he didn't want to come home; it was already quite cold, and he was a fragile cat.

At the same time that this happened, I figuratively "lost" two children I have been involved with for six years. I met them through the Fresh Air Fund, an organization that facilitates inner-city children (usually black and Latino) coming up to the country to stay for one or two weeks with a rural family (usually white) to experience animals, nature, and privilege. The two children were Dominican kids from a single-parent, brutally poor household. They were beautiful children, inside and out. They were also emotionally damaged in ways too complicated to describe here. That didn't matter. I don't have children of my own, and I loved them. We developed a relationship with them that went beyond the organization through which we had been introduced. They came to visit us at Christmas and sometimes their birthdays. I met them in the city on occasion. I sent them books, helped them with their homework, paid for them to go to Catholic school. There were a lot of problems throughout the six years, a lot of tears. Kids who have been treated badly all their lives have difficulty taking in love and a vision of life in which they count, even if they want it. And what we could do was limited. The girl, who was older, got kicked out of school, started running with violent kids, and dropped away from us. I still send her books and talk to her on the phone every now and then. Last year I took her to see a play. But for the moment, anyway, she is gone. The fall that the cat disappeared, the boy began to move away too. It started with him the same way it started with her; he would spend hours doing his homework with me, and then he would not turn it in. He would come up with a variety of excuses for this. But the real reason was clear: He wanted to fail because it was expected of him, by virtually everyone but me.

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