Rants & Essays
A Boy and His Cat
By Judith S. Johnessee
I'm not sure how he got to my clinic. He
didn't look old enough to drive, although his child's body had begun to broaden
and he moved with the heavy grace of young manhood. His face was direct and
When I walked into the waiting room, he was lovingly petting
his cat through the open door of the carrier on his lap. With a school-boy's
faith in authority, he had brought his sick cat in for me to mend.
The cat was a tiny thing, exquis-itely formed, with a
delicate skull and beautiful markings. She was about the boy's own age, give or
take a year. I could see how her spots and stripes and her fierce, bright face
had evoked the image of a tiger in a child's mind, and Tigress she had
Age had dimmed the bright green fire of her eyes into faded
lace, but she was still elegant and self-pos-sessed. She greeted me with a
friendly rub against my hand.
I began to ask questions to deter-mine what had brought this
charm-ing pair to see me. Unlike most adults, the boy answered simply and
directly. Tigress had had a nor-mal appetite until recently, when she'd begun
to vomit a couple of times a day. Now she was not eat-ing at all and had
withdrawn from her human family. She had also lost a pound, which is a lot when
you weigh only six.
Stroking Tigress, I told her how beautiful she was while I
examined her eyes and mouth, listened to her heart and lungs, and felt her
stom-ach. My fingers found it: a tubular mass in mid-abdomen. Tigress politely
tried to slip away. She did not like the mass being handled.
I looked at the fresh-faced boy and back at the cat he had
proba-bly had all his life. I was going to have to tell him that his beloved
com-panion had a tumor. Even if it were surgically removed, she probably would
survive less than a year, and might need weekly chemotherapy to last that
It would all be very difficult and expensive. So I was going
to have to tell this boy that his cat was likely to die. And there he was, all
Death is something we push to the background and ignore as
long as possible, but in reality every liv-ing thing we love will die. It is an
omnipresent part of life. How death is first experienced can be life-forming.
It can be a thing of horror and suf-fering, or a peaceful release.
So I would have to guide the boy through this myself. I did
not want the burden. It had to be done per-fectly, or he might end up
It would have been easy to shirk this task and summon a
parent. But when I looked at the boy's face, I could not do it. He knew
some-thing was wrong. I could not just ignore him. So I talked to him as
Tigress's rightful owner and told him as gently as I could what I had found,
and what it meant.
As I spoke, the boy jerked con-vulsively away from me,
probably so I could not see his face, but I had seen it begin to twist as he
turned. I sat down and turned to Tigress, to give the boy some privacy, and
stroked her beautiful old face while I discussed the alternatives with him: I
could do a biopsy of the mass, let her fade away at home, or give her an
injection and put her to sleep.
He listened carefully and nodded gravely. He said he didn't
think she was very comfortable anymore, and he didn't want her to suffer. He
was trying very hard. The pair of them broke my heart. I offered to call a
parent to explain what was going on.
He gave me his father's number. I went over everything again
with the father while the boy listened and petted his cat. Then I let father
speak to son. The boy paced and gestured and his voice broke a few times, but
when he hung up, he turned to me with dry eyes and said they had decided to put
her to sleep.
No rage, no denial, no hysteria, just acceptance of the
inevitable. I could see, though, how much it was costing him. I asked if he
wanted to take her home overnight to say good-bye. But he said no. He just
wanted to be alone with her for a few minutes.
I left them and went to sign out the barbiturate I would use
to ease her into a painless sleep. I could not control the tears streaming down
my face, or the grief I felt welling inside for this boy who had had to become
a man so quickly and so alone.
I waited outside the exam room. In a few minutes he came out
and said that he was ready. I asked if he wanted to stay with her. He looked
surprised, but I explained that it was often easier to observe how peaceful it
was than forever to won-der how it actually happened.
Immediately seeing the logic of that, he held her head and
reassured her while I administered the injec-tion. She drifted off to sleep,
her head cradled in his hand.
The animal looked quiet and at rest. The owner now bore all
the suffering. This was the finest gift you could give, I said, to assume
another's pain so that a loved one might rest.
He nodded. He understood.
Something was missing, though. I did not feel I had
completed my task. It came to me suddenly that though I had asked him to become
a man instantly, and he had done so with grace and strength, he was still a
I held out my arms and asked him if he needed a hug. He did
indeed, and in truth, so did I.