Charlie got a cat when he was a few days old. Because we were in limbo, in a hotel with few of our belongings around, we weren't able to furnish Charlie's isolette with any of the personal touches parents like to add — photos of home, a special blanket, a CD of favorite lullabyes. I'd read that premature babies shouldn't be stimulated too much, so I didn't worry that Charlie's plastic box wasn't very cozy. I was surprised one day to see that one of the nurses had taped up a picture of a dog, a black and white graphic, the kind infants are supposed to see earliest. She'd written on it in black marker, "Charlie's dog!" The next time I saw the nurse, whose name was Carol, I thanked her. "Well, a boy needs a dog," she said in mock indignation. I told her we had cats instead. The next time I went in after she'd taken care of Charlie, I saw she'd taped a new picture up on the other side of the isolette. It was a cat, in the same high contrast style, helpfully labeled, "Charlie's cat!" I swear to God Charlie preferred to look at the cat. When he was put to sleep on his back, he'd turn his head toward the cat. When he was placed on his side facing the dog, he would inevitably end up on his back, head turned toward the cat. He'd look at it, eyes wide, brow furrowed, clearly seeing something. Charlie liked that cat.
Because Charlie's lungs were in such bad shape, I worried about bringing him home to a house with pets in it. The preemie book I'd read, which I highly recommend but hope to God you'll never need, cautioned against it, citing possible irritation from dander and pet hair. I asked one of the neonatologists (which I can never pronounce, so I usually say "the wee tiny baby doctor" instead) about the cats: would it be safe for Charlie to be around them? "Don't get rid of them!" he said in alarm. But I wasn't proposing to; I'd thought of something less drastic like having them shaved and dressing them in fetching little velour suits, perhaps with "JUICY" emblazoned across the ass, just above the tail-hole.
The cats spent the first couple of days avoiding the bedroom. They would creep in silently when Charlie was asleep, slinking low to the floor, ready to back away hastily at his first gurgle. The younger one, the one I fondly call Nutless, was brave enough to sit up on his haunches and peer through the mesh of Charlie's bed, but still chicken enough to flee, claws skidding spastically on the hardwood floor, when Charlie made a noise. A few nights ago when everything was quiet, I was sitting in the den feeding Charlie. Nutless crept in, hopped warily onto the sofa, and advanced far enough to sniff the back of Charlie's fuzzy head. Sniff. Sniff sniff. And then... Lick lick lick lick. Since then, the cats have been largely unconcerned by Charlie's presence. I can only conclude that Nutless tasted baby, and found him unobjectionable.
As we were leaving, one of the nurses saw me removing the dog and cat from Charlie's crib to take home as a souvenir. She brought over a new book of pictures, including the dog, the cat, and several abstract patterns, so I could show them to him at home. As soon as we'd settled Charlie in for his first nap at home, I pinned a new cat to the side of his bed. He likes it very much.