For the past 18 years, our Christmas trees have had two ornaments that have extra special meaning: a stuffed cat and the angel topper. They honor my parents.
Both suffered dementia in their last years. At that stage in life, it’s next to impossible to know what to gift a person but cards and comfort items. My mother already had a cherished stuffed cat that she named “Jake.” I had run out of gift ideas when I came upon a bisque angel with an ivory taffeta gown. She was part of a display in a Pinehurst gift shop, and the year was 1996.
My mother’s room in her extended care unit needed sprucing up, which the angel did nicely. I don’t remember if she said much about the angel, but I’m sure she quickly forgot who had given it to her.
Dad followed into the wilderness of dementia less than two years later. He had been a lifelong cat lover, and here’s where the real story begins.
Unusual news travels fast. As I checked out of the local motel the day after Dad’s funeral in 1999, the desk clerk asked, “Is it true that your dad was buried with his cat?”
The day before, less than an hour before Dad’s funeral was to begin, my Cousin Gary discovered Kee Too, my Dad’s favorite cat, had died during the night. Gary called my brother, who called the undertaker and yes, there was time to bury the cat with my Dad and so the kitty was brought to the funeral home and he was placed inside the casket, next to my father’s feet.
My parents had always liked cats. By the time I left for college, they began to collect strays. Dad befriended two tortoise-shell cats, Jim Olson and Mrs. Olson, another named Louie Hoo Hoo, and years later, Kee Kee, a cat that commanded a $500 reward when he went missing one winter. Dad’s newspaper ad for the missing tabby drew attention from local reporters and eventually the Associated Press that put the story on the wire: “Illinois Man Willing to Pay $500 for Lost Cat.”
After weeks and months of false sightings and calls from charlatans wishing to claim the reward for any old feline, the real Kee Kee was returned by a boy my father actually knew. The cat had somehow wandered a few miles to a farmhouse down a busy, snowy highway. Dad paid the promised reward.
When Kee Kee passed, another tabby, “Kee Too” came along to fill the void. As Dad slipped into failing health, Kee Too continued to live at Dad’s place of business, staying inside every night except the night before my father’s funeral.
When my mother passed in 2002, we followed suit and placed Jake, a stuffed toy that dementia had told her was a real cat, inside her casket. And so, like ancient Egyptians, my parents were laid to rest with cats who had blessed in their coming in and their going out.