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The Tiger Test

In Decision making, parenthood, what is this thing called love? on February 15, 2014 at 09:37

Tiger on Sept 24, 2011.  Looking cute

Bold, fearless, heartless; artful, cruel and cunning.  They pounce, toy with their victim before ripping it up and then either discard its corpse, display it as a prize or devour its entrails.  Who wouldn’t want someone like this around the house?

And besides, they make me sick.  Literally.  When my parents  brought me home as a new born from  hospital it  took a very short time to realize that Katy the Cat, who along with my brother had seniority over me in the house, made me sick.  Unsurprisingly there was an eternal grudge when Katy had to go.  The surprise was that they chose to keep me over the cat, but that’s another story.

The symptoms of my allergy were intense: eyes flaring red and swelling, throat scratchy, skin itching, nose burning and respiration becoming slow and wheezy.   During a short university stint as non-paying boarder at my brother’s house, I had to hole up in my room and keep the door shut all the time, in order to survive living with Munchie, Manhattan, Garp, Van Dyke, Ballard (named for the hockey team owner, who was also “fat, toothless and mean”) and the queen of the bunch, Cheetah.  Luckily for my brother and his wife, I was too allergic to mooch off them for long (although “long” is in the eye of the beholder, especially when you’re being mooched off of).

In the following decades, I learned to avoid cats.  Occasionally I would encounter a memorable one (my friend Pam had a stout-hearted feline named “Atticus”, whose name alone of course, won my heart).  People were always going on about how sweet and cuddly and loving their cats were, but I could never see it.  I just saw violent, indifferent creatures who guaranteed large doses of Benadryl or a visit to the Emergency Room.

So when our then-eight year old began to beg for a kitten, the answer was direct:  we can’t do it, they make dad sick.  And they need to be taken care of – who’s going to do that, I wonder? And they also claw the furniture to pieces, which apparently ranked at least as high as my lungs.  The daughter was not deterred.   She had no wish for me to become ill but she really, really, REALLY wanted a kitten.

Long before this, the kid had learned that everything was a debate.  She had been taught “ask WHY” and “never say yes to anything you don’t want to do – unless you’re in traffic and mom says move.”  With such lessons and a genetic predisposition towards obstinacy, the girl was insistent upon what she wanted and resistant to what she disliked.  I still believe this will stand her in good stead in the long run, although in the short run, it can be a pain in the ass.

Her mother and I conferred.  As for furniture destruction, we could monitor that and if absolutely necessary, yank the poor devil’s claws out. Nasty, but people do it.   There were no illusions about who would end up filling the bowl and emptying the box.  As for my lungs, the fact was that I had not been near a cat in years (save for visits to the in-laws) and my symptoms seemed to have retreated. The last bad episode had been before Junior was born, in the basement of someone’s house watching my wife and her assistant practice as back up singers on “Unchain My Heart” for an office function.  I could take allergy shots, as Junior had already told me.  It came down to this: if I was willing to risk getting sick, her mother was willing to adopt an officially neutral stance on the arrival of a cat.

But it wasn’t that simple, because if the allergy shots didn’t work and the symptoms returned full-force, a cat would become a serious problem for me.  Ultimately the risk of getting a cat was not just my being uncomfortable or ill; the true risk with a cat, was having to get rid of the cat. The danger was that our daughter might suffer the same loss as I inflicted on my brother, all those years ago, when Katy had to go.

On a hot summer afternoon, as her birthday approached, the daughter and I sat down outside on the lawn for a talk.  She remembers it to this day.  The fact that we were even sitting down to talk alerted her that we were now in serious, probably conclusive negotiations.  She was tense, attentive and ready to dish out her many arguments (again) in favour of the proposition.   I spared her the trouble.

Your mother and I are willing to consider getting a cat, I advised.  You have to help take care of the cat (sure she will…) I will avoid the cat.  If I begin to get uncomfortable, I will look into allergy shots.  But…

Long silent stare from the junior member of the team.

“If the cat makes me sick, and nothing works, we will have to get rid of the cat.”

Another long silent stare.  Wheels turning in the head, likely processing the probabilities: would he be terribly allergic? Would he really ever be mean enough to say we can’t keep the cat?

“So you have to decide, and this is really important:  do I go for what I want, knowing that I could lose it, and get my heart broken?  Or do I decide to spare myself that pain, and just forget about getting a cat?”

A continuing, long silent stare.  But a restless movement as she itched to answer.

“Don’t say anything now” I said, knowing she would likely jump at the chance, wthout regard to the future agony that might await.   Take your time and think it over.  You can avoid a lot of grief by giving up on this now, because if you do this – even though you really want it – you could end up terribly hurt.

A pause.  “What do you think I should do?” she said.

“I’m not telling. That’s for you to decide.”

But she knew that I had an opinion, she said.  Maybe, I said.  That didn’t matter.  What mattered now was that she make her own decision.

Now you might think that this is all a bit much to drop into the lap of an eight year old.  Personally, I have a lot of faith in the capacity of kids to think.  And yes, you might fairly ask whether she really was going to deliberate upon the possibility of a future heartbreak, or instead just leap into this thing heedless.   Who knows?  I couldn’t make her think about it any particular way.   Even with our children, sometimes the best we can do is give people the chance and tools to think something through, and let them make decisions.

Which she did, later that afternoon.  She had thought it over, she told me.   She gave me that look meant to say “really, seriously, I did.”  She understood we might have to give up the cat, she said.  But she was ready to risk heartbreak.  She wanted to go for it.

“Okay” I said, “then let’s tell your mom the big news.”

“Will you tell me now if you think this is the right decision?”

Did I think getting a cat was the right decision?  No, probably not.  Did I need to say that? No.  Did I think she had decided it the right way?

Yes” I said.   And she beamed.

In a curious way, the girl and I both made the same decision that summer day.   She decided to risk getting her heart broken, for a chance at what she wanted; I decided to risk having to break that most precious heart, for a chance to make her happy.

Was it the right decision to get a cat?   I’m not sure that really mattered.   There are hazards and a price to everything.   Maybe all we can do is learn how to make decisions, and do the best we can choosing.  Those may be the only “right” decisions we make.

We are living through a math equation every day; what’s on the other side of the equal sign is not for us to control. We just do the math.

In memoriam AHH

By the way, we still have the cat.   And I love Tiger, even though I never get to touch him.

 

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