Dear Diane, you asked me if I would write something about Dolly and what she meant to us. I feel inadequate to the task. I know you will understand when I say she was such a ‘human’ cat, only a better human than most of us.
We came to San Diego to visit your house in the summer of 1994. I was buying her for my mother because my father had recently left the family after, 40 years of marriage, and she was devastated. I remember Dolly and her siblings were in a play pen in your living room and neither Dolly, nor any of the kittens, seemed particularly eager to leave their pleasant life. Certainly, Dolly knew she’d never seen us before. She eyed us warily and seemed to know exactly what was going on. Some kind of ‘moment’ had come, and an important process was taking place. I recall her carefully sizing me up, not even sure if I was allowed to hold her.
You explained that she was a “bonder,” meaning that she wasn’t necessarily going to be friendly to everyone but, once she made the connection with ‘her’ person, she would be as loyal as a Labrador and be just fine sitting with my mom and being her constant companion.
I often thought of your words later when we brought Dolly to her new home, and I watched my mother become completely enchanted with her as she grew from a thoughtful, sweet kitten to a highly intelligent and perceptive best friend.
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Mom asked me all the time if I thought Dolly was really a cat, especially when Dolly would seem to seriously watch tennis, golf and Animal Planet. Or when she’d wrangle my toddler children or when she’d warn Mom with a low, subtle meow, when anyone was approaching the house. Dolly once even signaled us when a tornado was about to touch down near our home. In fact, one time, if we hadn’t listened to her meowing and circling around our legs, we might have never made it to our secure room. Fortunately, by the time this happened, we’d all realized what an extremely special spirit Dolly was and her behaviors could put us all on alert as we had come to understand that Dolly sometimes simply ‘knew’ better than we did.
She also had her own language. She had a particular meow for a greeting. There was another to call Mom, others for, ‘open the door’ or ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘time for bed’ or ‘want to play?’ It was like having a person with you and she gave my mom the feeling of living with a wonderful friend and I’m sure it was this love and companionship from Dolly that helped her heal.
My mother went on to recover her life, married again, moved to Phoenix , started a small business and Dolly was always in the middle of everything. Dolly went on the honeymoon, managing to spend two weeks on a sailboat and, after a few years, became a greeter at a boutique my mother opened. She was often the star attraction and people came in just to give Dolly a petting and sometimes a treat. Dolly was always sure they had come to see her and not all the gifts and do-dadds. If someone was silly enough to pay attention to something other than her, Dolly would carefully crawl into the display and pose among the various gifts as if they were simply a frame for her beauty. Mom was a real go getter but, after the passing of her second husband, she took a fall in 2005. She couldn’t run the store any more and decided to stay in Phoenix and retire.
She lived alone with Dolly for at least five years before we noticed that Mom was losing her eyesight (Macular degeneration). But like companions do, Dolly had adjusted and had developed a little chirping sound to warn Mom when she was about to run into anything. At the chirp, Mom would take new account of her surroundings and avoid the obstacle. As Mom’s eyesight worsened, we’re certain Dolly’s warnings often kept Mom falling again. Soon, Dolly wasn’t more than 2 feet from Mom, inspecting everything Mom ate, sitting on the edge of the special bathtub we’d installed and sleeping with her every night. Mom used to call her, ‘my little shadow’ and Dolly seemed to glory in the attention and petting and listened to Mom talk, sometimes replying with a sweet meow or just settling into a purr.
Unfortunately Mom’s condition did not improve. When she could no longer prepare her own meals and was no longer able to do the necessary tasks for herself, we brought up the idea of putting her in a retirement home. But Mom absolutely refused because she wouldn’t leave Dolly and we couldn’t find any senior home that would take pets. We visited a beautiful facility and Mom told the people there exactly that. She said she needed Dolly because Dolly kept her from running into things and without her she felt really, truly blind.
Ruth, the manager of the facility, was obviously an animal lover herself and asked all about Dolly. When my mom detailed all of what Dolly meant to her, Ruth seemed to consider. “Well we don’t accept pets,” she said. “But we do accept ‘service’ animals. That’s what Dolly is to you. She’s a service animal.”
The more senior staff took convincing and some of the residents were worried they’d be allergic to a cat. But after Mom brought Dolly in, and did a demonstration of how Dolly would chirp to tell her to avoid something, or curl herself around Mom’s legs to redirect her, everyone seemed so impressed it was worked out to have Dolly be Mom’s ‘service animal’
Dolly had become the senior home favorite, with everyone pointing out to their friends and family about the “Seeing Dog-Cat.” Dolly adjusted to a life constantly surrounded by people. And no matter what activity was going on, she was never distracted from Mom. She just trailed Mom everywhere. So, as time went on, it seemed Mom and Dolly completely swapped roles, with Dolly being the ‘mom’ and caretaker and Mom being the one cared for.
Dolly sat through card games and lectures from speakers and she especially liked it when someone would play the piano. Then she would sit on the top of their baby grand seeming to thoroughly enjoy the vibrations and flow of notes even more than the humans themselves. Everyone agreed, the Blue Danube waltz was her favorite. When someone played the Blue Danube, she’d settle down, fold her paws, close her eyes and purr as if she were humming along. Her only weakness was the petals of the white roses they grew in the garden. If a bouquet came in, it wasn’t long before one of the roses was dangling askew from the vase with the petals having been delicately nibbled….. something, fortunately, the gardener and Ruth thought was adorable and a sign of Dolly’s good taste.
Mom was a solid, healthy woman. But when she began to deteriorate, it happened very quickly. She passed away in May after a complication from a stroke. She was in a coma state for almost a day ahead of time and of course Dolly was right at her side, purring in her reassuring way, as if to let Mom know that she was there. It was what happened when Mom actually passed that is so hard to explain. My wife and I were both there. At first, Mom rallied, opened her eyes for a moment and greeted us with a weak smile. She seemed completely lucid, raised a hand to pet Dolly and to say she felt better. Then just as suddenly she closed her eyes again and slipped away.
Dolly still by her side, suddenly stood up, looked at Mom and meowed as if to call her before suddenly shifting her attention up toward a corner of the ceiling. At once Dolly became agitated, crouching as if to jump up into the corner and making the same chirping sound she made when Mom was about to run into something. She crouched and chirped and then, seeming desperate, jumped almost up to the ceiling, before dropping back and jumping again, all the time continuing to chirp.
Honestly it was as if she could see Mom’s spirit rise out of her body and was warning Mom not to hit the ceiling. We tried to hold her, to talk to her, to comfort her as we tried to comfort ourselves. But Dolly did not want to be restricted. We turned her loose and she paced for awhile, ignoring Mom now and only looking toward the ceiling corner. She made a few more leaps then just stopped and looked, occasionally meowing quizzically at us as if we should open a door for her, but continuing to focus on the ceiling and never going to the actual door.
Watching her bewilderment and pain was almost worse than having our own. One of the worst things with animals or small children is that you really have no way to explain.
We took Dolly home with us that day and offered her treats that we knew we shouldn’t and she didn’t want anyway. By the next morning, she was just quiet and slept all day. At nineteen years old, Dolly had already begun to lose weight, though she was still in exceptional physical shape. But it was clear that depression quickly set in. We gave her nearly constant attention, but nothing seemed to bring her out of it. Then one day Ruth from the senior facility called. She wanted to know how we were faring and especially how Dolly was. Ruth said how much everyone missed Dolly and wanted to know if we’d consider bringing her for a visit.
We realized that a visit might bring Dolly out of her mourning, or at least would give her a change of scenery. So I wasn’t too surprised to see Dolly perk up as she strolled up and down the halls for a time, renewing acquaintances with some of the staff and residents and accepting their attention. Both my wife and I thought she seemed completely at home with the seniors and more engaged than she’d been so, when later in the week Ruth called again and asked if Dolly could come to live with them, we accepted at once.
When I talked to you last, this is where things were. I wanted you to know though that Dolly spent her last days very happily, passing herself from one lap to another. The residents sometimes even bickered about who she preferred and whose lap she should occupy. Dolly’s favorite continued to be piano concerts, and especially waltzes. When they found her Wednesday morning, they thought she had been on the piano. She had not been able to jump up there on her own for the previous month, so they’d made a step stool arrangement so she could get up to her beloved piano perch. It seemed she might have been disoriented and fallen or, since she’d just turned 20, she might have lost her footing and hit her head and then just never regained consciousness.
When I saw her little body with its life absent, I could only feel that she was once again with Mom. The residents were deeply saddened and decided to have a memorial service for her. She’d been a part of them, they said, and they wanted a way to say goodbye.
It was a simple ceremony, though the gardener had brought in a huge bouquet of white roses for the top of the piano and put a copy of Dolly’s photo beside them. Nearly everyone took the opportunity to tell touching, and often hilarious, stories about how Dolly had delighted them, or comforted, or surprised them, and story after story of Dolly’s devotion to Mom. When everyone fell silent, one of the residents began to play The Blue Danube. It was a moment when there was more love in the room than I’d ever felt before. It didn’t seem odd at all that it was all about a cat. Dolly was just so much more than that.
I didn’t mean to go on for so long, but ...
I just thought you’d want to know how very special she was to Mom and to so many others. Thank you for all the work you do, Diane, to bring these remarkable cats into the world. You have brought more joy to others than you can ever know.
Warmly and with great respect, Dan and Sally G.