My delight turned to sadness when I opened an email from Dan and Lydie Colonello, our former next door neighbors in California, the other day. They told me that their cat Vilula had developed cancer and that, as the disease progressed, they had to make the compassionate, but heart-rending decision to have her euthanized. Vilula's death was not only was a great personal loss for Dan and Lydie, but was also the last chapter of a bittersweet feline life.
Vilula's bitter part of life came at the beginning. She was adopted by a couple who lived on our street and we always wondered why. They didn't feed her. They didn't train her to use a litter box. They didn't love her. The only thing they ever gave her was her name.
She was a wild, but sweet little kitten --hungry for food and for affection. I first noticed her when she dashed into our open garage and fell on the food dish I kept there for our cat Freddie. She was so tiny, so thin and ravenous. At first I thought she was a stray. Then I heard that she actually had owners who thought that she should be able to sustain herself by catching birds and other small wildlife in the neighborhood. Those of us who knew better fed her and talked to that clueless couple many times. They simply shrugged and said she'd have to learn to fend for herself. And, when Vilula was about a year old, they moved -- and left her behind with the rationale that "She's the neighborhood cat. She'll survive."
And then the sweet part of Vilula's life began. The person who bought Vilula's first family's house -- Ruth Newhall, a wealthy matriarch of a famous local family, who was in need of a true one-story house due to her advancing age -- was pleased to welcome Vilula in a new way into her old home. She became a cherished companion, curled up on a plush towel covering Ruth's antique sofa.
And Dan and Lydie, who lived across the street, helped with Vilula's daily care and feeding. When Ruth's health began a final decline and she moved into an assisted living facility, Dan and Lydie welcomed Vilula, a cat they had loved since her hardscrabble kittenhood, into their home. As the years passed, this sweet, wild, loving cat became very much a part of their family -- and a friend of ours. Every day, she came over to greet us -- first thing in the morning and then in the evening when we returned from work. Through the years, her gait became slower, but her enthusiasm never wavered. Even after we moved away last year, she continued her morning and evening vigils-- hopeful and a bit confused. But our former neighbors told us that she never missed a day.
Dan and Lydie treasured every day they had with Vilula, accepting her limitations -- she never was able to be litter trained -- and celebrating her uniqueness: her sweet and loving nature despite the hardships of her youth, her independent spirit and her loyalty to those she loved. They were so thankful to be sharing their lives with such a wonderful cat -- a cat that some people thought was disposable.
While Bob and I used to say Vilula really got lucky when Dan and Lydie took her in, I'm sure they would argue that they were the lucky ones.
The number of throwaway animals in this country is astonishing -- and heartbreaking. Visit any animal shelter, any Pet Smart, look at Petfinder,com and see all the beautiful, special animals who need forever homes. Each one has a uniquely painful backstory.
All of our own cats have been shelter or rescue animals. My two much loved therapy cats -- Timmy and Marina -- had typically unpromising beginnings.
When he was only three weeks old, Timmy, along with his four littermates, was put in a a cardboard box and thrown into a junkyard. A passing postal carrier heard their weak cries, picked up the box and rushed the kittens to Dr. Tracy McFarland aka "The Cat Doctor" in Santa Clarita, CA. Dr. Tracy spent a month nursing them back to health, then displayed them in her waiting room, offering them for adoption. When Bob and I went into Dr. Tracy's office to get medication for our aging, ailing Freddie, we saw 7-week-old Timmy curled up with his brother Gus. It was love at first sight and we adopted them both. Timmy, who was wonderfully outgoing and affectionate became my first therapy cat, helping a select group of patients who were depressed or anxious and who requested animal-assisted therapy. Timmy loved everyone he met. No one was a stranger to him. He was wonderfully complex, bright and communicative -- probably the most special of all the special cats with whom we've shared our lives. Timmy, unfortunately, died of melamine poisoning from tainted cat food in 2007. His loss is incredibly painful to this day.
I first spotted Marina when I went to Pet Smart for cat grass. She was a beautiful flame-point Siamese, not quite two years old and had already been relinquished not once but twice. Her first family said their baby had allergies. Her second family found her too emotionally needy. I looked into her bright blue eyes and saw so much love and longing, I couldn't leave her behind. She turned out to be a wonderfully loving feline companion who slept on my pillow and showered me with kisses and face rubs morning and night. She also turned out to be a talented therapy cat with an uncanny ability to calm families and couples in conflict. She filled our home with joy and with her unique, happy little trills. Not long after I closed my practice and Bob and I -- with Gus, Maggie and Marina -- moved to Arizona, Marina died of leukemia which had been undetected until shortly before her death. I will miss her forever.
What treasures some people so carelessly throw away! And, despite the sadness and hardship of their earlier lives, what unconditional love these wonderful animals bring to our lives. My life is infinitely richer for having known and loved Timmy, Marina -- and Vilula. For those who knew them well, the warm memories and the love are forever.
I received another email from Dan Colonello this morning. "We picked up Vilula's ashes last night," he told me. "Now she will always be at home."