Parenting is about sacrifice. Rachel Aydt learned that when her son’s allergy tests gave stark evidence of what she already suspected, that her beloved boy was having asthma attacks because of her beloved cat. Of course there was only one choice, she writes in a guest post today. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t a hard one.
BREATHING SPACE By Rachel Aydt
Tomorrow I’m going to visit my cat, Charlie, who moved in with my brother in his Chelsea apartment in New York City two years ago. She sleeps in his bed now, by his head to be specific. Last week I brought over a case of Fancy Feast; this week I have a “catnit” gift from my six-and-a-half year old son, Jamie. Fights still break out with Chris’s other cat, Ally, from time to time, but over the months they’ve learned to tolerate one another. After a series of asthma attacks, we learned that our son Jamie is allergic to dogs, dust mites, and cats. So after a trip to the emergency room we made the agonizing decision to send Charlie away. To date, this is the biggest parental sacrifice I’ve ever made.
Sixteen years ago I rescued Charlie, a Siamese mix, from the Harlem ASPCA. I was 22 then, and had gone through my first season of death: not one, but two beloved family members had passed away, and I needed some creature comfort. Charlie quickly became my familiar and followed me from room to room of my New York Chelsea apartment, jumping on every sink for a dribble of water, racing up and down the spiral staircase. For years, a rotation of post-collegiate roommates loved her, and she was my constant companion. Eventually those single years morphed into boyfriend years, boyfriend years into marriage; throughout it all was Charlie.
When we brought our son Jamie home from the hospital for the first time after he was born, his breathing sounded rattled. We called our pediatrician in the panicky way first-time parents make those calls. “Do you think he’s allergic to our cat?” we’d asked. “No,” Jim recalls her saying. “Babies’ chests are small little chambers, and any congestion sounds amplified. He’ll be fine, but call us if it continues.”
Well, it did. We made friends with saline spray, blue earwax nozzles used to suck mucus from little noses, makeshift steam saunas in our bathroom. His sickness cycle would have weakened Paul Bunyon. Cold after cold transformed him into a miserable green-snotted monster. As he got older, we kept him out of nursery school with increasing regularity. The folklore that kids get sick a lot in their first school environment became his story. “His immune system is just building up,” his doctor would say. “Next year he’ll be healthier.”
Next year came and went with just as many colds. Peach colored antibiotics sat in our refrigerator with alarming regularity. His tonsils and adenoids were so large that we had to have them removed.
Two years ago we were visiting my parents in upstate New York, when Jamie’s familiar cough ratcheted up to wheezing. His chest sounded like an orchestra of piccolos. We got him to an emergency room where he was nebulized with Albuterol for the first time—his first full-blown asthma attack.
The next week, after getting allergy tests where he was pricked with twenty needles, what was suspected became official: Spunky, my parent’s dog, had set off the first asthma attack.
“If you keep your cat you’ll have to live like a miniminalist,” our new allergy doctor said. “Get rid of all upholstered furniture and curtains. They hold dander. Kitty will need a bath daily, and must be kept out of his room at all times. You’ll need a Hepa air filter, and the good ones cost about $400. Oh, and you’ll need to nebulize him with steroids twice a day.” Jim and I looked at each other warily. We could do our best to be neat freaks and keep Charlie clean and out of Jamie’s room…but keep Jamie on steroids indefinitely? We waved the white flag. It was too much.
For a few nights after dropping her off at Chris’s place, I’d cry myself to sleep. In a particularly mournful moment I pulled out a photo album. In it, there are murky, dark pictures of Jamie as a 3-month old infant, asleep in just his diaper with his arms splayed out on our bed. Charlie sleeps next to him, and stretched out she dwarfs him. It’s the New York blackout of August 2003, and as evening falls we’ve been without electricity for three days. They’re both so hot without the air conditioning. Our poor babies. Charlie was my girl, and I had brought her home with the promise to take care of her always. I failed her there, and the lingering pain is acute. I’m fortunate that my brother didn’t even question his decision to take her in.
Even though we now live pet free, managing asthma continues to be hard. You never know when invisible allergins will strike, and the wheezing will kick in. Now we travel with a bulky nebulizer, antihistamines, and steroids, just in case.
It’s true you lose your freedom when you become a parent, and the sacrifices are sometimes greater than you can imagine. For Jamie, sacrificing his breathing wasn’t an option. In the end, there really was no choice to make.