One of the wonders of a child with autism is the way their mind works. Just when you think you have figured them out, they’ll say or do something that leaves you amazed.
In my case, Eli blew me away by being happy in a situation where I thought for sure he would be sad.
There is a cat cafe in Branson. If you aren’t familiar with Mochas and Meows, it’s a coffee shop on one side, and a room full of cats on the other. The cats are part of a partnership with a local animal rescue and all but the “resident cats” are available for adoption. They’ve had over 110 cats adopted in the last 2 years of existence.
This means that cats come and go, and just when you start to bond with one, they’ll move on to their forever home.
Eli wasn’t a fan of animals for a long time. Our family ended up with a therapy cat, and Eli slowly came around to Neil T. Kitty. (The cat was named Neil, after Rush drummer Neil Peart, and then Eli started calling it Neil Kitty. So the name changed to Neil Kitty. One day, Eli called him “Neil T. Kitty.” We asked Eli what the T stood for…and in true autistic brain literal thinking, Eli replies, “the.”)
So Eli slowly came around to cats. The first time he was with me when I stopped at Mochas for a hot chocolate, he would only look at the cats through the window until I pointed out Pumpkin.
Pumpkin was a special cat. Bright orange and white, large and squishy, and a cuddle muffin. She had been in a less-than-ideal situation before her arrival at the shelter and then Mochas; Pumpkin endeared herself to customers and staff as she slowly went from hiding all the time to being the center of attention.
Eli drew himself to Pumpkin by playing a game we jokingly called “Hungry, Hungry Pumpkin.” Pumpkin would hide in a large dollhouse with a big door on the bottom with a ledge that looked like a porch. You would put a treat on the end of that porch, and Pumpkin would peek her head out, eat it, and then go back inside, like you’re playing a game of Hungry, Hungry Hippos.
Eli was sad when Pumpkin was adopted…but then the next time he came around, there was Ralph.
Ralph looked like Pumpkin, except the orange was a little more muted and faded. The white was a little less vibrant. His face was a little goofy.
One of the staff members joked one day that Ralph was “like someone made a Pumpkin for Dollar General.” Thus Ralph earned the nickname Dollar General Pumpkin.
Eli absolutely loved Dollar General Pumpkin. He wouldn’t ever call Ralph by his real name. Eli liked Ralph so much that he would start to ask during the weekends he would be with me in Branson if he could go to see Dollar General Pumpkin. He never asked to visit a specific cat before and honestly, if it wasn’t for the fact his home already had multiple dogs and cats, I think Eli would have adopted his Dollar General Pumpkin.
Then one day it all came to an end.
Mary, the store’s owner, messaged me on Facebook.
His death shocked everyone. One day he started coughing like he was about to cough up a hairball. A half hour later, they realized he wasn’t sleeping on the floor but he was gone. The vet speculated it was some kind of heart issue.
The staff and the rest of us who knew Ralph tried to comfort ourselves by saying at least Ralph got to spend the last few months of his life with people who loved him, cared for him, and gave him attention.
But I knew that likely wouldn’t be good for Eli. The last time an animal Eli loved died, he cried, he got upset, and it took quite a while to calm him down. Eli was at his mother’s, so I was going to have to tell him via FaceTime, rather than in person.
So I call and Eli answered while laying on his bed in his room.
“Buddy, I have something sad to tell you,” I said.
“What it?” Eli asked.
“Remember Ralph, Dollar General Pumpkin?”
“I like Dollar General Pumpkin.”
I felt my heart sink. I thought of not telling him, but went ahead anyway.
“Eli, Ralph died today. They said he went to sleep and didn’t wake up.”
Eli didn’t miss a beat.
“Oh, that’s OK, Dad,” Eli said as he got up from his bed and walked to a bookshelf where he had a bag of Skittles. “It ok. Don’t be sad, Dad.”
As Eli poured himself a handful of Skittles, I tried to get my mind back on track, wondering why Eli was happy at the news Ralph had died.
“Eli, are you ok?” I asked.
“I fine Dad,” Eli said. “And Ralph ok.”
“Why is Ralph ok, buddy?”
And this is when Eli brought me to tears.
“It’s all ok,” Eli said. “Ralph just at the Dollar General in Heaven now.”
And with that, Eli put the iPad down beside him, picked up a video game controller, and started to play a game so dad could watch him.
I immediately pictured Ralph sitting at the end of an aisle at a Dollar General in Heaven, with angels walking around buying things as the cat just stared at them with his goofy look. It amazed me that in Eli’s mind, death wasn’t any big deal, because to him it just meant you went to heaven and everything was OK.
And there’s part of me that hopes when Eli goes to heaven, there’s a little furry greeter at the Dollar General waiting for him.