In the fall of 2001, our beloved family cat, Normandy, passed away at age 20. Seeing that in writing makes me realize how much “life” happened in those 20 years.

I adopted Normandy from a farmhouse shortly after a friend had died. Of the batch of kittens running around on that farmer’s kitchen floor, this tiny, orange girl was the only one who would sit in my lap. She looked at home there … so I brought her home, and we all fell in love with her.

Colleen Dougherty

At the time of her passing, dad was in year three of Alzheimer’s, still at home, with mom as his caregiver. As the holidays drew nearer, my brother decided that mom needed another cat.

“I don’t know,” I told him, “she’s got so much on her plate with dad … and I’m not sure she’s ready for another cat.”

But he had decided, and there was no talking him out of it.

Like Normandy, Tyco came from a farm. But this little girl was far from a lap cat — she had a wild streak! For weeks she ran around Tim’s house and he was the only one who could catch her.

We gathered as usual on Christmas Eve, with dad dressed as Santa. Every holiday season of my life, dad had played Santa for schools, youth centers and even at people’s homes.

On Christmas Eve, we’d drive through town visiting nursing homes and the hospital, singing carols and delivering gifts. So, even in the throes of his disease, Dad was still Santa.

I’ll never forget the look on my mom’s face when Santa Dad handed her the wriggling tabby-calico kitten. I could almost feel her stomach tighten, and if I could have read her mind, it might have said, “I don’t want to do this.”

She smiled politely, but looked like she wanted to run away and cry. Back at home, however, the story quickly changed to one of delight. As animals often do, Tyco bonded with dad in his time of need, and with her lively kitten energy, brought new life into the house.

In late January, a month before dad died, Gracie arrived. We found her on the front porch swing, and when mom opened the door, this little gray cat waltzed in as if to say, “I’m here!”

In no time, Gracie bonded with both Tyco and dad. Their presence was soothing for him, and kept mom busy and full of stories that followed us into our grieving.

My college-bound niece’s Lab/Chow mix, Pooh Bear, an 8-year-old, 95 pound gentle giant with soulful, brown eyes, arrived next. Pooh quickly became not only mom’s best friend, but Tyco and Gracie’s as well.

Mom’s elderly sister moved in next, and a strange thing happened. Aunt Mary adored all the animals, but one day, Gracie disappeared. It’s said that a lady always knows when to leave. To this day, we believe Gracie had come on a mission, and when the house was again full of beings needing care, Gracie gracefully made her exit.

These days it’s just mom and Tyco, and when we talk on the phone, her “little fur ball,” now 18, lies curled up in mom’s lap.

Friendships are built upon shared experiences, woven together through time like a beautiful tapestry. We may surely count ourselves blessed whose tapestries include the animals.

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portrait of Colleen Dougherty animal welfare guest columnist
Colleen Dougherty, guest columnist