My son Dax is four and we’re finally emerging out of the nerve-wracking, anxiety-making seasons of the terrible-twos and threenager. All that I can remember from those stages is yelling at him way too many times and letting him basically live in time out. So many of my mom friends would assure me: “You’re doing a great job. He’s just two/three. He’ll grow out of it. Stick to your guns. You’re doing great.”
Raising children is the most rewarding job I’ve ever (or will ever, probably) had, but a huge downside, particularly with the guinea pig that is my firstborn, is that I don’t get periodic evaluations on my performance from my little sweet, precious, temperamental and emotionally-unstable boss. I just spend a handful of months – years, even – winging it at this job until one day, I see that my kids get it.
We had a moment like that last week.
For the entire time that Dax has been alive, we’ve lived in apartment complexes in busy urban areas, so our cat Romeo was never allowed to go outside. He wanted to, though, so badly, so when we moved into our house in a quiet neighborhood a few months ago, I finally opened the door and let him run out. I was nervous another animal would hurt him, or that he would get lost and forget where we live, but none of those things happened.
Last week, though, my husband Dan remarked that he hadn’t seen Romeo in a while. So Dax and I took a bag of cat food outside and started shaking it and calling for him. After a few seconds of that, we heard him crying.
“I can hear him, Dax! But I can’t see him!”
“Me neither, Mama. Where is he? Is he okay?”
“I don’t know.”
Just then, Dan came up from behind us and pointed upward. “Uh oh.”
Dax and I followed Dan’s pointing and looked up. Romeo was stuck in a tree, terrified.
Dan shrugged. “Guess it’s time to call the fire department.
“The fire department? Can they help?” Dax said with his eyes open wide.
“I don’t know, Bub,” I answered. “But I’m going to try calling them. You’ve got to go to school with Dada now, but I’ll work on getting Romeo down and I’ll pick you up from school after lunch and hopefully everything will be fine.”
“Okay, Mama,” he shrugged.
While Dax was at school I called the fire department (who apparently do NOT rescue cats out of trees so literally everything I know is a lie), the local animal hospital, and another friend with connections to an animal rescue service. All of them told me that if Romeo got up the tree, he could find a way down. So I believed them and suffered through listening to his cries and howls for the rest of the morning until I had to pick Dax up from school and take him to my work with me. The first thing that Dax asked me when I got to school was whether or Romeo was safe.
“He’s still stuck in the tree,” I said sadly. “Everyone I talk to says he’ll come down eventually.”
“Oh, okay,” Dax’s face fell and I could tell something was really bothering him.
“What’s wrong, Bub?”
“Well,” he started, clearly trying to properly articulate his feelings. “I’m just… Well… Mama, I’m just very scared for Romeo.”
“You’re scared for him? Why?”
“Well,” he was practically holding back tears at this point. “I just really want him to be safe, and I just really don’t want him to get hurt up there in that tree. He’s so high, and I just really hope he does not fall down and get hurt.”
And that’s when I knew. He got it.
“Oh honey,” I sighed. “I love that you care so deeply about Romeo. I do too. I don’t want him to get hurt, either. We will figure something out. I promise. Maybe we can borrow a ladder from someone.”
“Yeah, a ladder would be a really big help.”
Thankfully, the story does end happily; we did borrow a ladder from one of our neighbors who was putting Christmas lights up on his house and Romeo was rescued after a whopping 12 hours. We were all so grateful for that, but I was especially thankful for the opportunity to see my oldest child exhibit real, true, raw empathy and compassion for the first time.
I don’t want to say that ALL kids are self-centered, but I will say that the majority of the ones I’ve interacted with are completely focused on themselves. That has been the case for my children as well, so I’ve tried my hardest to put a strong emphasis on how other people (or cats, I suppose) are feeling in any given situation. Seeing Dax so genuinely concerned for our pet gave me that rare but unmistakable ping in my gut to let me know that he gets it.
Compassion. Concern. Love. He has it, he is capable of it.
Please excuse me while I fill out my parenting job evaluation with a hearty Meets or Exceeds Expectations.