Not often do I remember my dad being reflective, introspective, or ever admitting any kind of weakness or regrets. I guess that was probably typical of his generation – men were expected to be strong and silent, never wavering in their Atlas-shouldered stance. But towards the end of his life, there was a part of him that maybe once or twice let down the curtain a little bit, and let me see something of the human being inside. Sometimes it was not a pretty picture, not at all, but gave me more an opportunity to understand him, even if I didn’t like what I found out.

I don’t remember what prompted the story, but he told it as matter-of-factly as you’d recount a trip to the store or what you had for breakfast that morning. When he was a young boy, perhaps around seven or eight years old, a mother cat had chosen to have her litter at his family’s house. My dad liked cats and dogs and his parents always had one or the other around. He went on to tell me that one afternoon he took one of the new kittens from the rest to look at it, touch its tiny claws, marvel at its deep blue eyes. As he brought it into the house, he paused. There were two sets of stairs: one steep set down to the cellar and one short set up to the kitchen. He hesitated for a second, and then flung the kitten as hard as he could down to the cellar, killing it instantly.

I was completely horrified and I looked at him in disgust. “Why?” I sputtered. “Why did you do that? How could you ever have done such a thing? ”

He looked back at me with red-rimmed eyes, an old man now. “I don’t know,” he sighed. “I don’t know why I did it. I was sorry right away, and I felt terrible, but there was nothing I could do about it. I guess I just wanted to see what happened.”

“But you knew what would happen! You were old enough! You knew you were going to kill it!” I was livid.

“I can’t explain it. It was a horrible thing to do.”

I walked away, unable to think about it. It made him seem to me like he had a monster inside him, and maybe that was who he really was. How could anyone be so cruel, especially to something so helpless and lovely, just beginning life? I didn’t want him to have a pass because he was a child. No normal child would do such a thing. The children that I knew who were cruel to animals were evil, bad, ugly, unloved, unwanted bullies. My dad was not one of those kids, as I understood it. But maybe he was.

And now it is many years later, my dad has been gone 16 years, but still the specter of this tiny little being remains. I wish I had been able to tolerate hearing what he really was trying to say, and to let him: that almost seventy years after it happened, he had never forgotten it, never forgiven himself, and wanted to say to someone, aloud, that he was sorry. It is easy enough to say, well, it was just a stray cat’s kitten, it was meaningless. But clearly it was not. My father had hung on to this moment of cruelty, what he had done, and it stayed with him all his life. He had never told anyone about it, until he told me.

There is meanness, spitefulness, hatred in everyone, it is simply part of the human experience. We can try to know where it comes from so we might be able to control it before it consumes others, or ourselves. But cruelty is another step down, the deliberate damaging of another to gain a transient feeling of power and control. Is there any doubt that at the moment when he flung the kitten to the cellar floor, that my dad felt like a god? That there was a gain, a thrill in being able to do it at all? That for a second, all that internal anger and self-doubt and hatred is relieved by passing on a worse fate to something weaker and undeserving? Would it had been better if he had confessed it right then to his parents and been punished, instead of getting away with it? What if he had become the kind of person addicted to being cruel, searching out the vulnerable to use and toss away, a sociopath who felt nothing?

Understanding why someone might do what he does is one thing, but cruelty should never be accepted or condoned. Excusing away strengthens and enables. Cruelty builds upon itself and in one way or another, the bully will eventually pay a heavy price for his actions.

I am sorry that I reacted in anger instead of allowing my dad to talk. I closed off the conversation, shamed him further, did nothing to help. He was not a monster.

I imagine that he sat there alone for quite some time, noticed it was close enough to 5PM, and then got up and poured himself a gin and sat and looked at the birds outside the window, as he often did.