Who Killed Mom's Cat? A Mystery About Aging Parents

05/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

My senior executive friend Cathy is a most rational and reasonable person. So when she called ranting about the crimes of her sister Lynette, I was taken aback. Their mother's beloved cat Rufus had been put to sleep while under Lynette's care, and Cathy was seething with grief and rage. You'd think her sister had murdered that sad, ancient tabby.

It seems younger sister Lynnette's home is in Ohio, an hour away from Mom, while Cathy lives in Manhattan. To help 87- year-old Mom out as she underwent a hospital procedure, Lynette picked up Rufus, planning to bring him back a week later. But while Mom awaited her beloved pet's return, the tabby began wobbling. When he got worse the next day, Lynette rushed him to the local vet and was told his condition was hopeless. Then she bundled Rufus into her car and drove him straight to Mom, who clutched the poor trembling animal to her chest, kissed him and wept. Together they agreed they needed to end his suffering, and Lynette supported her Mom through the horrible ordeal. Afterwards, Mom called Cathy to share the awful news.

Cathy was devastated. Since her father's death, Rufus had been her mother's only companion and comfort. Damn it, she said. Why hadn't her perennially incompetent sister called the vet at the first sign of trouble -- or called her for help? Cathy would have insisted on a specialist. And, if Rufus still couldn't be saved, well, damn her sister for depriving Mom of Rufus's last few days. And why? For her own convenience! Almost worst of all -- unlike Cathy and Mom -- Lynette wasn't an animal lover; she'd never even liked Rufus! Now, Mom was heart-broken and alone.

Cathy paused to breathe. She admitted she was also angry at herself. Why hadn't she flown home to take charge? Her sister could never do anything right! And when Lynette angrily reminded her of how she was never around to help, Cathy felt doubly guilty, even though her sisters' crimes were worse -- gross incompetence, selfishness and callousness! She never wanted to see her again. But she'd have to if she went home for Christmas; so maybe she shouldn't go.

Cathy called me because she knew my book They're Your Parents, Too! was about the explosive feelings of sisters and brothers around their aging parents. Cathy and Lynette's conflict about the sad end of Rufus was almost an archetype of the sibling struggle.

To an outsider, Cathy might seem hysterical. But when it's your widowed mom who's getting frail, facing yet another loss and soon to face her end, it's all too easy to be swept up in such operatic emotions. Like so many siblings, Cathy and her sister had been plunged back into the rivalries they'd had as children, each needing to be most important to -- and most loved by -- their mom.

Cathy wanted to protect her mom from more pain and loss -- an impossibility given her infirmities and age. Nor could Cathy protect herself from the inevitable loss of her mother, which was surely coming sooner rather than later. So instead of raging at the Dark Force which had taken poor little Rufus -- and will someday take us all -- she funneled her fury towards her sister ... and herself. It was easier than looking the reality of death in the face. But now she did look. She sighed. She cried. And then she went home for Christmas.