“Kah-nights?” asked the 7-year-old as he sounded the word the best he could.
“It’s just knights,” answered his grandfather. “The “k” is silent. Do you cut your meat with a kah-nife?”
“No,” he said. “I’m a vegetarian.”
And from there the game went on, comparing apples to apples beneath a soundtrack of talk and laughter. It ran late, as fun tends to do, my parents were tired from their drive, and we were tired from our day. Each of us embraced our fatigue and welcomed the promise of pending sleep. Each of us, that is, except the boys, who were drowning in denial like a river in Egypt.
We said our good nights and everyone went about the business of bedtime. My path started in the sink and worked its way to the dish rack. The sound of crying seemed appropriate.
He walked into the kitchen covered in tears and footie pajamas.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I saw a picture of Norman,” he said.
The picture had moved quickly across the TV, part of a screensaver running beneath a playlist of Andrew Bird and bands like Daughter—the kind of music that welcomes melancholy with warm embrace. He had seen the picture of his favorite cat and suddenly it hit him: Norman was gone, and he would never come back.
I had been waiting for this.
Two months ago Norman said his goodbyes in the night, found a quiet place to be alone, and he died.
He wasn’t the first pet my kids had lost, but he had years upon the the oldest boy, and as such they had never known life without him. We braced ourselves for their sorrow, but it never came—only sighs and change of subject.
Days turned into weeks, and then months went by. The boys took turns showing a moment here and implying sadness there, but it was as if the thought of Norman’s passing would not register. They spent their days happy and barefoot, and I spent my nights waiting for the other shoe to drop.
He stood there in the kitchen crying, and I stood there watching him with soap in my hands.
My wife was behind him and carried him away. No sooner had I placed my hands back into the depths between wine glasses and saucepans than my oldest son appeared beside me.
“Why was he crying?” he asked, and I told him.
Suddenly his tears fell like bullets, bursting bubbles, and ricocheting from the bottom of the sink across cutlery and coffee cups until their salt blended with the lukewarm waters and the basin was as blue as a porcelain sea.
“I miss him,” he said.
We tucked them in, saying the things we needed to say about lifespans, love, and the most of it all. Eventually their eyes grew too heavy for tears to hold, and they fell asleep a little harder than when they woke—one more lesson of heartache and the looming end of innocence.
I went back to the kitchen, Andrew Bird whistling in the background, and the water grown cold as the hole in the night.
The sink was full of knives and apple skins. The latter floated like a faraway smile, and then it floated back again.