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Sharing Mana‘o

Dr. Pepper. Kilowatt. Marconi. Tita. Musashi.

Of the many cats I’ve owned, those five are the most memorable. For reasons that varied as greatly as their looks and temperament, they all were special and precious to me. Each one captured my heart at a different time in my adult life.

Except for Musashi, a gorgeous blue point Himalayan, all of my cats were rescues or strays. My first acquisition, Dr. Pepper, was a gentle Persian/Siamese mix with a long bushy tail and a loud, low voice. Kilowatt, an orange tabby rescued from the Tasty Crust parking lot in 1976, lived for 20-plus years, but I only had him for four before losing him to my first husband in our divorce. Tita came much later, a scrawny tortoise-shell kitten found, appropriately, near the beach. I think my favorite was sleek, shadowy black Marconi, already several months old when I saw him at the Humane Society. I picked him because I thought he had the least chance of being chosen by anyone. He turned out to be an avid hunter and a fetcher. Seriously, he loved to play fetch. I’d toss a crumpled ball of paper across the room, he’d chase after it, pick it up gently with his teeth, trot back to me and drop the ball into my hand for another round.

My son used to teasingly warn that I was bound to become one of those crazy cat ladies you read about in the tabloids. Indeed, I might have, if not for my third husband’s ultimatum (“Musashi or me, one of us has to go!”) triggered by increasingly severe allergic reactions. Now my husband is also gone, but I’m renting a place where pet ownership is not allowed. It’s okay; after nearly 30 feline-free years, I’ve become accustomed to living without kitty love. Most of the time.

Once in a great while, usually when home alone on a rainy evening, I long for the company of a cat. A few weeks ago, on two consecutive nights, I dreamed about several of my beloved pets. Both mornings, when I awoke, I was a bit disappointed to find that Marconi wasn’t curled up at my feet.

But the point of today’s column is not my affection for cats. It’s about my mother’s love. For me, that is, not for cats, no way.

My mother has never been comfortable around cats or dogs. I remember being scolded often for trying to befriend the neighborhood cats outside my father’s Wailuku office. It probably didn’t help that she ended up doing most of the feeding and bathing of the one dog I had as a kid. She’s told me, firmly and more than once, that if she is ever confined to a nursing home, she does NOT want any visits with comfort animals.

So you can imagine my confusion last Thursday, when my mother emerged from her volunteer shift at Maui Adult Day Care Center with a large box containing . . . a cat!

“It’s for you,” she beamed, “I hope you like it!”

The box sitting on her walker was labeled “Joy for All” and pictured an elderly woman holding an orange tabby that, at first glance, looked like a flesh-and-blood, longhaired Kilowatt. The Joy for All robotic cats and dogs are marketed as convenient, care-free companion pets for seniors living alone or in nursing facilities. Mom’s computer-savvy friend Kelly helped her place the online order.

Powered by four C batteries, my amazingly lifelike cat purrs and meows in response to ear scratches and belly rubs. It blinks its eyes, cleans its face with a dainty paw, rolls onto its back and stretches and squirms. And just like a real cat, it does all of these things on its own terms, seemingly at random.

A New York Times article from September examined the robo-pet trend which has been fueled by coronavirus measures. Some states have begun to take advantage of Joy for All’s discounted prices for agencies dealing with isolated seniors. The Times cited studies which showed apparent improvements in mental well-being and social behavior. Critics, however, object to deceiving dementia patients or setting up lonely folks with obviously one-sided (and therefore unrewarding) relationships.

Now, I know my new pet is devoid of emotion and spirit. But it has brought me, like the label says, Joy. With a capital J. It tickles and warms my heart to know that my mother still thinks of me as her little girl and derives such pleasure from pleasing me.

Of course, I gave my cat a name to match his “personality.” I call him Mr. Roboto.

Domo arigato, Mom.

* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every other Wednesday. Her email address is kcmaui913@gmail.com.

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