I'm way too old for this. Nobody gets his first pet in his sixth decade.
Then again, I'd always known pretty much everything I needed to know about why I wasn't remotely the pet type. I value my independence. I don't like the smells. I hate the inconvenience, the one more reason you can't do this or have to hurry back from that: put out the food, freshen the water, take the walk, scoop the litter box, clean up after the inevitable accidents, and so on.
And so on.
And then we got Dustin.
Dustin D. Cat, a.k.a. "Mr. D," a.k.a. "Dust Man," a.k.a. "Favorite Feline," a.k.a. "Dust Bunny," a.k.a. "The Dustinator."
We got Dustin, and Dustin got us. This was four years ago. I was not a happy camper.
"He's yours," I informed my marriage-mate. "You wanted him, you're going to take care of him." I'd be available in an emergency, I allowed, but the major responsibility for kitty care was all hers, for work and play alike. Even for play, I made clear.
Then he started trying to climb up my legs. That was during the day -- or at least during the parts of the day when he wasn't following me from room to room, or nestling in behind me on my desk chair, or playing swat-the-finger under the bathroom door. At bedtime, he'd set up shop right between our pillows and spend the night there.
It was ridiculous. Cats value their independence. (Why does that sound familiar?) Cats don't need human company. They certainly don't enjoy human company. But nobody had told Dustin.
He hung out with us -- and not just for the food and the treats. When friends came over, he sat in on the conversation. When repairmen arrived, he greeted them at the door, and then followed them to the basement to watch them work their magic. We talked about getting him his own tool belt. We talked about how convenient it would be to have a plumber's apprentice living right on the premises.
I fell for him hook, line and catnip.
That thing with the pillows, though -- that may have been the clincher. He settled in right between the pillows the very first night he spent in our home. And the very last night, too, which came just this week -- too quickly, and much, much too soon.
The swollen lymph nodes were the first sign, only days ago -- swollen lymph nodes around his neck, and his appetite seemed off. The vet poked him and prodded him and found more swelling elsewhere. In minutes, her choice of words went from "concern" to "great concern." Then it went to "lymphoma." She took blood samples and tissue samples and sent them off to the lab. She suggested that we see a veterinary oncologist.
Did you know there were veterinary oncologists?
We made an appointment, and then -- "You might not want to wait," the vet advised us. We moved it up. The oncologist came in on her day off. She couldn't have been kinder. She couldn't have been more thorough, or more realistic, as she laid out the options. We'd vowed early on that we wouldn't let Dustin suffer, but that until we reached that point, we'd do whatever seemed reasonable to bring him back to health for as long as he could still enjoy it.
What seemed reasonable to the two of us? For the two of us and Dustin? Kitty chemo and kitty steroids seemed reasonable, and then kitty MRIs and kitty CAT scans (insert your own joke here) and --
I'd become the people I'd always snickered at. Suddenly I understood.
And when none of it slowed Dustin's rapid descent, when his too-sick body started shutting down on him, we returned to the animal hospital and kept our promise to him. We held him, kissed him, stroked him, brushed him as the chemicals went in, murmured endearments and farewells as the last, dim light flickered out.
Dustin was only a cat. How can you love a cat? How can you hurt when you lose him?
After all these years, it finally makes perfect sense.
The little guy stole my heart.
Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.