A little story about my son’s love affair with a dead kitten

The Black Monarch Hotel recently posted my son Harry’s depiction of Forever Kitty: a dead kitten preserved in glass like a macabre snow globe. Here’s how he fell in love with the lifeless feline.

First, a little cultural context for the horrified grandparents in the room. Modern children’s books and TV shows have exhibited a trend of taking spooky things–ghosts, vampires, zombies–and rather than using them to scare kids, have harnessed their “other” qualities to teach kids about diversity. Vampirina is a good example; it’s essentially the Addams Family in a cartoon and is about a weird family finding acceptance in a new community. Scary concepts that were once charged or used to keep children in line have been made cute, and that’s a positive thing–making a ghost cute, like Casper, is a way for kids to wrestle with ideas of death in a safe way.
I was studying up on the Black Monarch Hotel because as their publicist, I was going to be giving Colorado Public Radio a tour of this haunted former brothel that’s been renovated into a serial killer-themed boutique hotel. My kids didn’t understand who Elizabeth Bathory was, but they became enamored with the place. They kept asking me when they got to go with me to the “spooky hotel.” It seemed magical in a Harry Potter kind of way to them.

On Mother’s Day weekend, my wonderful Black Monarch clients offered me a free stay with my family. I was a little nervous to bring my children because a lot of adults are too scared to stay there! Cliff and I planned to each sleep with one child, rather than having them sleep separately from us. When my children first entered down the Black Monarch’s dingy, dark hallway, they were a little scared. I held their hands. But when we got upstairs to the renovated boutique hotel, filled with curiosities and oddities, they showed the same exact giddiness of the adults I’ve brought. They were a little on edge, but in a fun way that quickly turned over into laughter. It actually boiled over into raucous party vibes…pretty soon, my children were dancing around, hollering their heads off. It’s the secret of this place.

One curiosity I thought would be too scary for my children was Forever Kitty. Forever Kitty is a dead kitten (ethically sourced–the kitten died of natural causes) who has been immortalized in a glass orb. I snuck into the Black Annis room, and I hid Forever Kitty in the closet.

That night, my son slept restlessly with me. We were sleeping in the bed closest to the window in the Tesla room. He was tossing and turning and whimpering. Harry is a fussy sleeper; he’ll often call me into his room in the middle of the night just to ask me to adjust his blankets. But this time was different. His whimpering was so unrelenting that I finally whispered in his ear, “What’s wrong, baby?”

“A ghost,” he said.

My chest and my heart felt like they were caving in with fear, but the immediate parental defense came forward: “Ghosts are not real. It was all a scary dream, and mama’s right here.” I hugged him tighter. He wouldn’t let up.

“A ghost,” he said, and with his eyes closed, he pointed to the right, as if someone were standing to the right of our bed. I’ve never seen him do anything like this while asleep.

I couldn’t do anything but hug him all night, and eventually, the whimpering stopped and we got a few peaceful hours of sleep.

The next morning, I asked Harry, “Did you have bad dreams last night? Did something keep you from sleeping?”

“No,” he said. “I slept well.” I was relieved that he wasn’t traumatized by the experience, at least consciously. I had started to regret my bringing them to the hotel. But the mystery of the experience only solidified my fear that it truly was some ghostly experience.

After a day or so, the children were starting to really explore the place. Having discovered Forever Kitty myself in a terrifying way–in the middle of the night, in a dark and unfinished room while exploring with flashlights–I started to worry more about my kids discovering Forever Kitty in a sudden way. I couldn’t think of a place to hide Forever Kitty that was totally out of reach to them. It was just in a closet. There was no good way out of this situation. So I stupidly told them,

“While you’re exploring, don’t look in the black closet in the forest witch room. There’s something in there that I think is too scary for you.”

Camille, seven years old, was able to let this go. She doesn’t especially enjoy being scared, and I think she appreciated the heads up. Harry, however, in his 4-year-old curiosity, would not stop asking me about it.

“What is it?”

“It’s nothing.”

“Why can’t I see it?”

“It’s too scary for you.”

“I’m not scared, I promise.”

“You had nightmares all night.”

“No I didn’t. What is it?”

My will weakening, I thought maybe telling him what it was would scare him away from it. Harry is a fierce animal lover.

“It’s a dead kitty.” I used the word “kitty” purposefully. I thought it would be a lesser blow than “dead kitten.”

“I want to see it!”

I couldn’t win. Finally I told Harry, “If you make it through our last night here without having any nightmares, I’ll show you when we’re about to leave the hotel.” I figured if it scared him, at least he wouldn’t be stuck in this place he associated with it. And I hoped that by morning, he’d forget.

The next night, Harry slept like a dream. In the morning, as we were getting ready to leave, he remembered. “I want to see the dead kitty!”

Both Camille and Harry were sitting on the suspended bed in the forest witch room and I brought Forever Kitty out to a room that felt heavy. Forever Kitty felt heavy in my hands. Camille’s expression was sad. Harry’s was awed. Then, they started asking questions.

“Did someone hurt the kitty?”

“No, it died of natural causes.”

“Why did it die?” asked Camille. “It wasn’t old.”

Oof. This was already a harder conversation than I even imagined it to be.

“Very rarely, young things die, too. Maybe it had a heart defect or was sick. But don’t worry, most living things get to a ripe old age before they die.” Sorta.

After many more questions, we mutually came to the conclusion that this was just a way for a very special kitten to live on forever.

When we got home, I watched Harry’s sleep nervously, and he was totally fine. A few days later, he drew this picture of Forever Kitty and made it a point to tape it on my desk. He’s really happy and he happens to have five legs. See?

It’s impossible to protect our kids in a world that’s so scary, and I certainly botched my way through this test. However, I think modern parenting has coddled children too much. My generation was raised to enter a relatively safe world, and our world is only getting more dangerous. The most important thing we can remember is to stay calm and not panic ourselves when we’re talking about weighty matters with kids. Parenting is more about modeling behavior than teaching behavior through long monologues. Lord knows children don’t like to listen to lectures, and even if they do, they’re often misunderstood. It’s about being a friendly guide through the scarier stuff.

Or, if Harry turns out traumatized for life, y’all can all point to this exact moment; I will start a children’s series of cartoons revolving around Forever Kitty to fund his therapy.

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