From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul


Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.


I’m not sure how Jesse got to my clinic. He didn’t look old enough to drive, although his body had begun to broaden and he moved with the grace of young manhood. His face was direct and open.

When I walked into the waiting room, Jesse was lovingly petting his cat through the open door of the carrier on his lap. With a schoolboy’s faith in me, he had brought his sick cat in for me to mend.

The cat was a tiny thing, exquisitely formed, with a delicate skull and beautiful markings. She looked like she was about 15 years old, 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 and there was a dullness there now, but she was still elegant and self-possessed. She greeted me with a friendly rub against my hand.

I began to ask questions to determine what had brought these two to see me. Unlike most adults, the young man answered simply and directly. Tigress had had a normal appetite until recently, when she’d begun to vomit a couple of times a day. Now she was not eating at all and was withdrawn and sullen. 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 stomach. And then I 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 teen and back at the cat he had probably had all his life. I was going to have to tell him that his beloved companion 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 him that his cat was likely to die. And there he was, all alone.

It seemed he was about to learn one of life’s toughest lessons: that death is something that happens to every living thing. It is an omnipresent part of life. How death is first experienced can be life-forming, and it seemed that I was going to be the one to guide him through his first. I did not want to make any mistakes. It had to be done perfectly, or he might end up emotionally scarred.

It would have been easy to shirk this task and summon a parent. But when I looked at his face, I could not do it. He knew something was wrong. I could not just ignore him. So I talked to Jesse as Tigress’s rightful owner and told him as gently as I could what I had found, and what it meant.

As I spoke, Jesse jerked convulsively 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 Jesse 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.

Jesse listened carefully and nodded. 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.

Jesse gave me his father’s number. I went over everything again with the father while Jesse listened and petted his cat. Then I let the father speak to his son. Jesse 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 arguing, 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 up inside for Jesse, who 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 wonder how it actually happened.

Immediately seeing the logic of that, Jesse held her head and reassured her while I administered the injection. 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 youngman.

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

Judith S. Johnessee

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