Rants & Essays

A Boy and His Cat

By Judith S. Johnessee

A Boy and His CatI'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 open.

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 become.

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 Now she was not eat-ing at all and had withdrawn from her human family.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 long.

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 alone.

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 emo-tionally scarred.

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 child.

I held out my arms and asked him if he needed a hug. He did indeed, and in truth, so did I.