I landed with a hard thump on my bedroom floor. Just moments before, I’d escaped from a human-sized rat, only to hear the snuffle of its whiskery snout and see its claws reaching around the edge of the door to my hiding place.
I didn’t need a dream interpreter to tell me the source of my 2 a.m. visitor, the reason for my tumble. It stood astride my head, pawing my face and gnawing my ear. The newest member of the Esposito household is a 2-month-old tabby kitten that my older son, Lucca, has named Shadow.
We plucked Shadow from The Anti-Cruelty Society in downtown Chicago during Christmas week.
My wife and I didn’t need a kitten. Matteo, our 2-year-old, already routinely wakes us at 2, 3 or 4 a.m.
But children need pets. And not just a fish. Fins and scales aren’t made for petting.
I remember, growing up in England, feeling a longing ache when I was at school, miles from our German shepherd puppy Timber.
Now, as we strolled past the cages at The Anti-Cruelty Society, each face pleading to be taken home, Matteo stopped in front of a cat with strangely cold, pink eyes and an orange tongue. Please don’t pick that one, I said to myself, as Matteo lingered.
Fortunately, toddlers have short attention spans.
“How about this one?” I said, spying a squirmy tabby with big, green eyes and, on its forehead, markings that look exactly like a smile.
“Would you like me to put the kitten in a room so you can hang out and get to know it better?” our guide said, poker-faced.
Oh, sure. That’s like asking, “How about doing a test bungee jump before you try the real thing?”
Within an hour, we were heading home with our two squealing children and a perforated cardboard pet carrier that on the outside read: “I’m going home!”
It’s taking some time to adjust. Shadow likes to poke his head inside the freezer drawer at the exact moment I’m about to slam it shut. The cat is fascinated by the preferred adult male method for urination, leaping up on to the toilet bowl rim to see exactly how it’s done.
And Shadow is always under foot. The other day, I stepped on a softly yielding object and was sure I’d killed the kitten. I looked down to find one of my oldest son’s Pokémon toys.
Some dear friends we haven’t seen in a year asked if they could spend the night at our house. We were delighted.
“By the way,” I texted, “we have a kitten. I hope no one is allergic.”
Turns out, the father is.
But it’s all small stuff. To understand the difference this little ball of mewing, pouncing gray fur has made in our lives, I need only look at Matteo. He likes to throw things — often at his parents. When he’s with Shadow, though, he reaches out a tiny hand and whispers, “Gently, Daddy.”
Shadow enjoys sitting on Lucca’s lap while he’s reading, occasionally swatting the page just as Lucca has reached a particularly thrilling part of the story. My son doesn’t mind at all. He thinks it’s funny.
I confided to Lucca, who has endured two years of playing second fiddle to the cute new arrival, that I think he’s Shadow’s favorite. Lucca replied, “The day we got Shadow was the best day ever!”
“Really?” I said. “Better than when your brother arrived.”
He thought for a moment.
“I love Matteo more,” he said in a rare expression of affection for his sibling.
“But think about it: Matteo couldn’t do anything fun when he came home. He just lay in his crib.”
FATHERHOOD: AN OCCASIONAL SERIES
This is one of an occasional series of columns on fatherhood by Sun-Times staff reporter Stefano Esposito, the dad of two young sons.