Calder Wills and his three siblings grew up in a family that never had pets, and his parents were determined to keep it that way.
“We always said we would never have pets and told the kids, ‘Don’t ask for pets,’ ” said Brianna Wills of Iowa City, Calder’s mother.
But that was before her 12-year-old son was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma, a blood cancer, in February 2016. After at first having difficulty finding a donor, Calder earlier this year underwent a stem cell transplant in a Minnesota hospital.
When he was due to come home Sept. 20, his mom began asking him what he wanted to do to celebrate. She suggested a trip to New York to see the Statue of Liberty or travel to some other vacation destination.
“He was just like, ‘I really just want a cat,’” Brianna said. “ ... I think it was partially that even when he came home, he was going to have to be isolated at home until January. I think he thought a cat would be a nice companion to be at home with him.”
Brianna and Calder began searching the pages of PetFinder.com.
“We thought we should get two cats because, with four kids, we have a lot of love to give and two would be better than one,” Brianna said.
“As we started looking at the different pets, there were lots of sets of cats where they would say. ‘We really want to home these cats together because they’ve been together a long time,’” she said. “Calder has a twin brother, Grayson. I was, like, ‘It would be cool to have twin cats like you and your brother.’”
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The two discovered a pair of kittens that were staying with a foster family associated with Last Hope Animal Rescue of Cedar Rapids.
In early September, Calder picked out the names Toby and Oscar for the white and gray kittens. Brianna filled out the paperwork for adoption so they could pick up the cats when Calder was discharged.
But it was not to be.
A few days later, Calder had a rare complication in which his lungs became inflamed.
“His lungs were not exchanging gas at all,” Brianna said. “His carbon dioxide levels were so high he was basically in a coma.”
By November, Brianna and her husband chose to turn off Calder’s ventilator.
“Calder had been sick for a long time,” Brianna said. “We were very honest with all the kids. Calder was aware of what was happening. We were all together. The morning that he died ... we sat the kids down and said, ‘Today’s the day we think he’s going to die, and you need to say your goodbyes.’”
Calder died Nov. 4.
Two weeks later, Brianna began to think again about the cats that he had picked out. She contacted the foster mother, who said they were still available.
“It just spoke to me,” Brianna said. “I just thought this was meant to be that Calder wanted me to have these cats, It was his final wish.”
Brianna took Grayson to meet the kittens, and she said one of the cats immediately climbed into his lap.
In early December, Brianna gave her two daughters, ages 7 and 9, a letter from Santa, saying Santa knew the family had a tough year and wanted them to have the pets Calder picked out as a symbol of his love.
The kids, she said, love having the kittens.
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“As soon as everyone comes home, they get a cat, and they’re toting them around,” she said. “My husband keeps telling the kids, ‘They’re not baby dolls. Be careful.’ They’re really sweet cats.
“With things being very difficult this year with our first Christmas without Calder, it’s just nice to have something that’s warm and fuzzy and loving ... and that we can all sit around and laugh at when they’re chasing their tails.”
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