A lesson in sacrifice

Brotherly sacrifice
Brotherly sacrifice 

In the wake of his younger brother's battle with life-threatening allergies, Rachael Turk's 13-year-old son goes through a rite of passage about life, love and brotherly sacrifice.

When I was nine and my mother told me I was going to have a baby sister, I apparently said, "I'd rather a German Shepherd." So it should have come as no surprise really that when I told my 13-year-old son that his stepfather and I were going to have a baby, he shrugged nonplussed and said he was happy with his cat.

Howie Mieowie Prowlie slept in Kiko's bed every night and had been an adequate sibling substitute for as long as my son could remember. In fact, not only in the bed but on the pillow, against his face. As a tiny ball of black/brown fluff, he'd marched up to Kiko in the pet shop and curled up in his lap. We'd been chosen, and they'd been almost inseparable ever since. He’d moved house twice with us. He’d been at the airport in his cat cage with us to welcome Kiko home from a trip overseas. He’d fended away rats and brought us countless fested treats. And never, ever stopped purring.

As well as the emotional support, Howie didn't cry at night, he didn't hide iPods and he took care of his own toileting needs. Who'd want a baby brother or sister?

As the pregnancy progressed, Kiko became slightly more interested in the idea – but only (and he was quite specific about this) if it was going to be a boy. Howie too, enjoyed the bump as it grew, curling up on its increasingly precarious ledge to watch TV until it became a logistical impossibility.

Fortunately, genetics obliged and our healthy baby boy was born in November. He was blue-eyed, unlike Kiko's bright brown, but otherwise they were very much alike. Kiko soon became besotted and smiled a big, braces-filled smile as the four-week-old Archie reached out to touch his face. By the time Archie was six months, he would look to the door for Kiko at after-school time, flapping his arms madly when his brother came through the front door. And "Keee" was one of his first words – third only to "Mama" and "Dada", and shortly before "Oh wow!"

We all did our fair share of juggling: Archie getting woken to take Kiko to Saturday sport or to pick him up from the skate park; Kiko having to wait an extra hour for dinner when Archie's feed took priority. Ben and I doing hospital shifts when Archie's ever unfurling allergies took him there on alarmingly regular occasion. A skin prick test had found Archie to be allergic to egg (aero allergens would be retested later) and intolerant of wheat, dairy and indeed the salicylates in most food, a combination that even saw him twice sent to Intensive Care. But the puzzle was still unfolding.

By the age of 11 months, Archie had been in hospital six times in half that time. One time, I came home exhausted from two particularly sleepless nights on the ward to make Kiko's dinner and remind him to feed the cat. Kiko had gone quiet and was playing on his computer. "Is he going to be okay?" he peeped.

By the time Archie was one, Kiko was taking Archie on his skateboard, rolling him gently along, all the time guarding him against a fall. Archie was beside himself with pride and excitement. Howie looked on in amusement. Archie would watch the cat with equal curiosity, often reaching out to clutch a friendly handful of fur. Only once did Howie swat him back.

One day the three of them were romping around the couch together when Archie emerged with a face full of hives.

A second skin prick test at the Allergy Clinic revealed the unthinkable: Archie had an allergy to cats. Not just a mild one but a lion sized, asthma provoking, potentially life threatening one.

Kiko hurled through the stages of grief when I told him the news. Denial: "No, he's my cat, he can't go." Then anger: "This is all Archie's fault. Why doesn't he go. Howie was here first." Then the ridiculous: "I'm going to get my own place so I can live with my cat." Throat stinging with suppressed tears, it was all I could do to quietly reassure him that I understood his pain, that if there was anything I could do to change it I would but that there wasn't. His hurt subsided over coming weeks, flaring up from time to time in raw, red bursts but slowly worn down by acceptance.

It was me who broke down in the local Vet's, as we talked to her about possible pet adoption schemes and worked out the poster wording. "Howie, the Happiest Cat in the World". Kiko just stroked Howie and held him for his cat flu booster, through which the cat just purred. I contacted my Mothers Group, who in turn sent it out on work bulletins and amongst local friends. I tracked down former, cat friendly neighbours and even a real estate agent. But an adult cat was hard to rehouse. In the meantime, Howie lived outside and Kiko fed him on our next door neighbours' porch. Three weeks went by. Christmas was approaching, and with it the next-door neighbours' puppy. Howie's welcome mat would soon be withdrawn.

When we were all but out of hope, an SMS from a friend of a friend. They'd just bought a house in the next suburb and, as new home owners, were finally able to have a pet. They wanted a cat, and had heard about Howie, "The Happiest Cat in the World".

The night before Howie was due to leave for his new home, Kiko set up camp in the yard: a sleeping bag, a woolen blanket for Howie, and a sheet of plastic tied across the top of them from Ben's motorbike. When I woke with Archie early next morning, Howie was curled up asleep against Kiko's mass of curls. Through the glass, we watched them sleep contented in the cool early rays.

Later that day, we tromped to the next suburb in traveling circus: Kiko carrying Howie in his cage, his friend who'd stayed over in tow, me carrying the microchip certificate, tins of Howie's favourite food and a bottle of wine for his new parents, and Ben wheeling Archie a safe distance behind. The house was a sweet little terrace with a sunny front patio. Kiko and I both clocked a warm, tiled spot where we just knew Howie would sit.

Kiko stayed bravely calm as he lifted Howie from the cage and handed him to his new owner, Luke. Then he and his friend sat for an hour while Howie crouched under the bed. Gently, Luke said he understood how hard this must be, and how he promised to look after Howie for him. He had lost his two cats in a split with his girlfriend. They used to sleep in his bed, he told Kiko, but he didn't suppose Howie would want to do that? Kiko's cloud of sadness cracked a tiny smile. Howie was going to be okay.

We wheeled baby Archie home in his pram, empty cage in Kiko’s hand. Archie leaned out and smiled at his brother. A few weeks later, Kiko turned 14. Somehow he seemed much older.

As the pregnancy progressed, Kiko became slightly more interested in the idea – but only (and he was quite specific about this) if it was going to be a boy.