Our oldest cat, Dusty, is dying.
Not in some theoretical, we're-all-going-to-die-someday kind of way, but actively dying. Dusty is currently laying on his side on the bathroom rug, laboring to breathe. Beside him is a nine-year-old boy who brought his pillow and blanket into the bathroom to keep Dusty company, a nine-year-old boy who is stroking Dusty's fur and crooning, "Silent Night."
Dusty was diagnosed with feline leukemia, the cat version of AIDS, a few months ago. At that time, an XRay also revealed what is likely a cancerous tumor in Dusty's chest.
Faced with the reality of limited healthcare dollars and an incurable disease, we decided against aggressive treatment. We brought Dusty home with a prescription for prednisone, which the vet said would ease his symptoms for awhile, and told the kids the uncomfortable truth: that their favorite cat was dying.
At first, Dusty seemed fine. Then, about a month ago, his breathing became labored to the point that I called the kids to say, "I think this is it." The kids came home, cuddled with Dusty -- and the cat lived another few weeks. He survived 'til Thanksgiving. He survived 'til his birthday (the day after Thanksgiving, aka the day we found him in our garage attic). He survived til the birthday of Boy #1. He even made it to St. Nick's. But despite the frequent prayers of Boy #3, I don't think Dusty's going to make it til Christmas.
I realize our choice -- to bring Dusty home, rather than to put him to sleep -- is a controversial one. The boys, though, were dead set against the idea of taking their cat in to be euthanized. And, to be honest, Dusty showed moments of startling improvement. After that phone call a month ago, Dusty revived enough to eat, drink and, slowly, wander the house. So we spent our time catering to the cat. We petted him. We fed him tuna. Boy #1 even took him outside; Dusty never did shed his love of the outside after all the years he spent on his own.
And secretly, I am glad, because I know that someday I will die. Like it or not, death will be part of my boys' life, and like it or not, death, more often than not, is a process. Very few people just keel over. Many more linger for weeks or months or years. My boys are learning, now, how to be there. My boys are learning that love lasts til the end. They're learning the physical process of death too, but most importantly, they're learning how to care.
Watching my nine-year-old sing to the cat, I know it's a lesson they've learned well.