A Cat for Christmas
By Jim DeBrosse
Russell Miller knew the moment he walked in his front door and saw Edith already at the coat rack, her face tired and careworn, that it had not been a good day for his son Alex.
"Well, I got him to do most of his homework," she said, tying a chiffon scarf around her graying head. "But then he said he could only do his arithmetic with you, and he was out the door before I could stop him."
"Did he go to Nick's?"
"He didn't say."
"OK. I'll call."
She went over to the built-in bookcase and picked up what had been, just a week before, Alex's brand-new pair of glasses. A stem was cracked off, the nose piece twisted.
She handed Russell the mangled frame.
"This was the result of a fight at school today. There's a note from the principal on the Dutch oven."
Russell shook his head in disgust and felt the anger rise — anger that he knew would do neither him nor Alex any good. But he had just paid $200 for the glasses and hadn't thought he could afford the extra $25 for the insurance plan. Penny wise and pound foolish. And at a time when his hours at the machine shop had been cut.
"His mother called while he was gone. She said she'd call back in an hour."
Russell looked at his watch. It was just past 3 o'clock in Seattle. She must have called on her way home from work.
"I'll see you tomorrow, Mr. Miller."
"Thanks for your patience, Edith. I know it's not easy for you."
"Don't worry about me. I'm not going anywhere."
Alex came bursting through the door in his usual hurried fashion, an 8-year-old boy with more energy than he knew how to handle.
"All right, why did you call me home?"
Russell was sitting at the dining room table, the note from the principal and another from Alex's teacher in front of him.
"First of all, don't use that tone of voice with me. Secondly, you didn't finish your homework."
"What about your arithmetic?"
"Awww, can't we do that after dinner?"
"You're doing makeup homework after dinner. Mrs. Shelton says you still have three missing assignments."
"OK, OK, OK! Can't I get a snack first?"
Alex tore into the kitchen, opening the freezer, refrigerator, cabinets in staccato fashion.
"Don't we have anything to eat?!"
"I'll have dinner ready in 30 minutes. I want you to sit down and talk to me."
He refused to sit, and stood at the table across from him.
"About this note from the principal."
"It wasn't my fault! Jason called me a name and then kicked me. I punched him and he punched me back and broke my glasses."
"And then, according to this note, you told Jason you were going to buy a gun and shoot him."
"I did NOT say that!"
"The note says other students heard you, Alex. You just can't say stuff like that in school, no matter how angry you are. They'll kick you out. Do you hear me?"
"How do you KNOW I said that? I never said that!"
"It doesn't matter. It's in the note. If you say anything like that again, you'll be suspended. Now go to your room and do your arithmetic until dinner."
"I can't see anything without my glasses."
"Alex, just go! Go to your room. You're grounded for a week."
"For a week! What did I do!?" "Go ... to ... your ... room!"
"I didn't do anything wrong!"
Russell stood and slammed his fist on the table, jarring the Christmas candle clean out of its stand. He saw the instant fear in his son's face and he froze, ashamed of himself. There had been too much of that right after the divorce.
But it didn't keep him from screaming even louder.
"Now go, dammit! NOW!"
Alex ran and Russell heard the bedroom door slam.
He took a deep breath, then another and another. Let it be. Let it be.
The mall a week before Christmas was in seasonal high gear — the glitter of good cheer and rampant commercialism as far as the consumer eye could see.
Alex adjusted his new pair of glasses on his nose and looked around, the world fresh and sharp after days of uncorrected vision. The boy's stern, appraising stare — a look much older than his years — reminded Russell of Alex's mother.
"Dad, didn't you and Mom take me to Santa here when I was little?"
Russell couldn't help smiling. "Yeah. You told him he should bring you a bike. And if he wasn't going to, he should call us, because we would get it for you."
"I covered all the bases, didn't I?"
"You sure did."
Alex suddenly stopped in his tracks in front of a pet store. A small gray cat was curled up inside a Christmas wreath, laid flat just inside the window. It lay so still that Russell thought at first it wasn't real.
"Awwww. Can we go look at it, Dad?"
"Alex, I don't have the money for a cat right now."
"Let's just look. It's Christmas."
The teenage salesgirl lifted the cat into Alex's arms and, instantly, it began to purr. Russell could see it was a calm, goodnatured cat. Alex kissed it and rocked it like a baby.
"His name is Buddy," the salesgirl said. She was the fresh-faced, nurturing type who like to work in pet stores. "We're offering him for adoption through the animal shelter. For $65, it has all its shots, and you get a free a carrier to go with it."
Alex looked up at Russell with pleading eyes. The cat was still purring in his arms. Alex reached out and scratched it under the chin; the cat squinched its eyes in ecstasy.
"Is he fixed?"
"No, not yet," the salesgirl said. "He's only about 3 months old."
"No. But you can keep them trimmed."
"I'll take care of him, Dad. I promise. You won't have to do a thing."
"You'll have to clean the litterbox every day."
"That's easy. You just get one of those scooper things."
"We have a special on cat litter today," the salesgirl volunteered.
Suddenly, the cat opened its big yellow eyes and stared at Russell as though forcing some unspoken question. It was a piercing but soothing gaze that seemed to go straight into his soul.
"OK. But this will be your Christmas present, Alex."
Alex held the cat tighter. "You won't have to do a thing, Dad. I promise."
They brought Buddy home two days later on a Saturday afternoon.
Alex filled the litter box and the food and water dishes, then found a spool of yarn his mother had left behind and trailed it all over the house with the cat chasing and clawing. They played like that until dinner time.
Later that night, after he had finished cleaning up the kitchen, Russell found boy and cat asleep on the sofa, exhausted from their first day together. He settled a blanket over them — the cat softly wheezing through his nose — and turned out the light.
Worth every penny, Russell told himself.
Sunday night, he opened his eyes and saw from his bed the boy holding the cat, a silhouette against the hallway light.
"Dad? Are you up?"
"He threw up, Dad."
Russell sat up in bed, his mind was still fogged with sleep.
"The cat. Just now on the sofa."
"Did you clean it up?"
"Don't worry. Cat's do that a lot. It was probably just a hairball."
"What's a hairball?"
"They lick their fur and it balls up in their stomach."
"Go back to bed, honey. He'll be all right."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure. Just go to bed."
"He has really stinky breath, Dad."
"He's a cat, Alex. Now, please, let me sleep. I have a big day at work tomorrow."
In the morning, as Alex and Russell ate their breakfast together, the cat seemed fine. He rustled in his bowl and crunched, piece by piece, on his dry food.
"He's the world's best cat," Alex said. "He doesn't claw on anything. Just the logs in the fireplace. That's it."
"Yeah, it's like he knows he has to be a really good cat because I'm so bad."
"You're not always bad, Alex."
"Yes, I am."
"You've been doing a great job taking care of the cat, you know that?"
With a sudden start, the cat seemed to bark, once, like a dog, and then began heaving, leaving all the food he had just eaten in a wet clump on the dining-room floor. Alex picked him up and cuddled him. The cat started purring again as though nothing had happened.
"Dad, you got to take him to a vet."
"I am, son. He has his first check-up this morning."
"Is he going to be all right?"
"I'm sure he will be."
Dr. Brubaker was a pleasant, efficient young woman who knew her way around a cat. She was gentle but firm as she took the cat's temperature, looked in his ears, eyes and down his throat.
"Mmmmm," she said, as the cat's tongue wrestled against her prying fingers. It was the one place Buddy had resisted her probing. She let go of the cat and looked at Russell.
"Are you sure this cat has had all its shots?"
"It said so on the form the shelter gave me."
"Well, I'm afraid he has a number of tooth abscesses. That's very unusual in a cat this young. It could be caused by a virus, or it could be a syndrome that inflames their gums."
"Can it be cured?"
"If it's the virus, it will run its course. If it's the inflammatory condition, it can be controlled but not cured. In either case, I'll have to do oral surgery to drain the abscesses. "
"How much would that be?"
Russell flinched, but didn't say anything. He'd just have to add it to his credit card debt.
"The lab tests will tell us if it's the virus or the inflammation. Those take about 48 hours. I'll call you as soon as they come in. In the meantime, we'll do the surgery today. I'd like to keep him here a couple of days, if that's all right with you."
"Fine. Whatever's best."
Russell scratched the cat's chin and it purred and then gave him that soul-piercing stare again with his yellow eyes.
"He's a very sweet cat," Russell said.
"I can tell. We'll take good care of him."
Russell was at the shop two days later when Dr. Brubaker called just before 3 p.m. She sounded very matter-of-fact and older on the phone.
"Well, it's not the inflammatory condition. The tests ruled that out. And it's not cancer."
"The bad news is that the infection doesn't seem to be subsiding."
"You can't give him antibiotics?"
"We can for the secondary bacterial infection. It won't help the virus, though."
"And he's not getting better?"
"I'll be honest with you. My fear is that he may be immune suppressed."
"You mean ... like AIDS?"
"Yes, similar. We call it FIV, for Feline Immuno-deficiency Virus. We should know in a few days one way or the other."
Russell knew Alex wouldn't wait, not with Christmas just two days away.
"Can we pick him up this afternoon?"
Dr. Brubaker drew a deep breath. "If you'd like. FIV poses no threat to humans, but you should keep him away from other cats. I can give you some oral antibiotics and pain medication, and we'll see how he responds."
Alex was thrilled to have Buddy home again, although he hardly seemed to be the same cat. His front legs were shaved to the skin where the IV lines had been put in, and he was lethargic. He slept most of the time now and made only cursory visits to his water dish and food bowl.
Alex and Russell watched him push around a nugget of food on the floor with his nose, debating, it seemed, whether to eat it or not.
"He'll be all right, won't he, Dad?"
"The doctor said it would take time to recover from the surgery. We'll just have to pray and see."
"Why would God kill the nicest cat in the world?"
"We don't always know God's plan, son. Just pray, OK?"
The next morning, on Christmas Eve, Alex was up before his father. Russell could hear him running up and down the hallway in a frenzy.
He called out from his bed. "Alex, what's going on?"
"Dad, come look!"
Russell yawned, got up and went to the door. In the hallway, Alex was running back and forth trailing his mother's spool of yarn — with Buddy giving chase.
"He's just like he was before, Dad!"
Praise the Lord, Russell thought. It seemed a miracle.
"He certainly is."
After dinner that night, Alex cleared his dishes without being asked. His make-up homework, long overdue, was already done, so he could have more time to play with Buddy.
Later, after Alex had talked to his mother, they started a fire in the fireplace and sat down to watch A Christmas Story — Alex never tired of Ralphie's quest for a BB gun. The cat lay curled in Alex's lap.
"Feel how warm he is, Dad."
Russell stroked his striped gray fur. He was warm — too warm, Russell thought, and his eyes, opening a little every now and then, looked glazed. Signs of fever. But he didn't say anything to the boy.
"It's like having your own personal heater," Alex said.
Russell didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "Yes, it is, son."
When he stepped into Alex's darkened bedroom later that night, he found the boy asleep, the cat curled around the top of his head like a hat. Russell felt the cat's belly — even warmer now. The cat wheezed, its belly a tiny bellows, each breath coming fast but weak.
He debated whether to move Buddy, but decided it was best to leave them both be. He said a silent prayer and walked away.
He woke to a violent shuddering at his bedroom window. He pulled back the curtain. There was a snowstorm outside, the big, wet flakes whipping horizontally in every direction.
He threw off his covers and suddenly shivered. The temperature must have plunged. He got up, put on his bathrobe and padded out to the hallway to check the thermostat. It was 62 degrees. He turned the heat up to 68.
Alex's door was open.
Russell peeked in and saw the cat still curled around his son's head.
At least it will keep him warm tonight, he thought.
He watched from the door as Alex stirred and tossed in his sleep, his head bouncing on the pillow. But the cat didn't move.
Oh dear God. No.
Russell stepped lightly to the bed and placed his hand on the cat's belly. There was only stillness beneath the fur. The tiny struggle for air had ceased.
He gathered up the cat in his hands and then into his arms, the body limp and heavy but not yet stiff.
He carried it to his bedroom, not daring to look at it, then found his boots in his closet and slipped his feet in. Still holding the cat, he went out to the garage and found the spade in its place in the corner by the back door.
He opened the door, grabbed the shovel and stepped outside into a blast of snow and cold. The cat was impervious in his grasp.
There was a garden patch behind the house, where his ex-wife once grew herbs and spices. The soil there, he knew, was still soft. He set the cat gently on the ground and began to dig as the wind and snow whipped around him.
He had never felt more alone.
He was back in his bed, just getting warm again under his covers again when his son quietly opened the door. Russell couldn't see him in the dark.
"Buddy's dead, isn't he?" he said in a tiny voice.
"Yes, son, he is. I'm so sorry."
Alex came nearer. Russell could see the pale glow of his white T-shirt, smell his boyish scent. He wanted to reach out and hold him but he didn't know how. It was a language they didn't speak.
"I had a dream he was in heaven. He wasn't sick any more and he was jumping through all the clouds."
"I'm sure he is. He was a good cat."
"He was the world's best cat."
"Yes, he was."
"Can I sleep in your bed?"
The boy's voice was soft, hoarse, almost other worldly in the darkness. Russell folded back his covers.
"Of course you can."
"Just this one night. 'Cause I'm too old for this stuff, you know."
"I wouldn't say that."
"Yes I am."
"It's all right. Just this once."
Alex crawled in and pulled up the covers to his chin. Russell put his him arm around his son. Outside, the wind, dying now, nuzzled and rubbed against the house.
"Let's not get another cat."
"We won't. Not for a while."
"We'll never find another cat like Buddy."
"No, we won't. Not like Buddy."
The boy squirmed to get comfortable, kicking at the blankets. Then he turned on his back and stared at the ceiling.
"It's not so bad, is it?"
"What isn't, son?"
"You know, just you and me."
"No, it isn't, son. We have many blessings."
"Like Christmas, right?"
"Yes," he said, holding the boy tighter. "And each other."
Russell kissed Alex on the top of his head and felt a flood of gratitude pour into his heart, as warm and golden as the season. He was at peace again.
"Merry Christmas, son."
"Merry Christmas, Dad."
Copyright, 2004, Cox Ohio Publishing. All rights reserved.