A Joyful Story About a Caring Cat

Oscar, Caregiver for Terminal Dementia Patients

Oscar, Caregiver for Terminal Dementia Patients

Have you ever thought your cat had a sixth sense about your mood? Sometimes understood you better than you understood yourself? Or maybe, on occasion, you’ve noticed your cat staring at something (or someone!) you could not see? If so, you will love Oscar.

I had heard about this cat with the uncanny ability to sense when a terminal patient was very near to death, but did not know his name or story until I picked up Dr. David Dosa’s book. It was first published in 2012, and this trade paperback edition followed in 2014, so I assume Oscar is still at work in the Alzheimer’s unit of the nursing home in Rhode Island where he has lived since he was a kitten. Apparently, Oscar is not anybody’s little cuddle buddy. Normally, he prefers to dash around the unit, playing with his kitty sister, who lives there, too. The nurses were the first to notice Oscar going into the rooms of dying patients, snuggling up next to them, purring, and remaining until they passed away.

Dr. David Dosa is the geriatrician who takes care of Oscar’s dementia patients, and he shares his own journey over time from skepticism to wonder as he observed Oscar’s behavior over and over again. He reports the opinions of the nurses and staff who see Oscar every day, and he’s also interviewed the family members who got to know Oscar well as their loved ones drew close to death. Dr. Dosa posits several interesting causes for Oscar’s behavior, some scientific and some not, but in the end, he’s still open to the mystery of this ordinary cat’s unusual ability to sense who needs his companionship.

I enjoyed Oscar’s story and learned more about Alzheimer’s disease as well. Dr. Dosa’s book is easy to read, and each chapter begins with a observation about cats, such as Ernest Hemingway’s: “One cat leads to another.” Included is an anonymous misquote of T. S. Eliot’s humorous remark about The Rum Tum Tugger: “He’s always on the wrong side of every door…” (from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats). Cat lover or not, I think you’ll be fascinated by Oscar.

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Stolen Bones And A Stolen Baby : Two Fascinating Books for St. Patrick’s Day

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Glendalough, where King Cormac pleaded with Sister Deirdre to marry him

The man who has come down to us through Irish history and legend as St. Patrick, the holy Christian bishop and teacher, lived in Ireland during the later part of the 5th century. It was a place of warring tyrant kings and their slaves; solitary groups of monks and nuns; wandering druid bards; and fearsome, terrorist pirates beholden to neither God nor man. I have found two engaging mystery novels that do a marvelous job of pulling the reader back into those misty times: St. Brigid’s Bones by Philip Freeman, and The Leper’s Bell by Peter Tremayne. Both have strong female protagonists and vivid historical settings in Ancient Ireland.

St. Brigid’s Bones was just published last fall. It features Sister Deirdre, who was born into a family of famed druid bards, but left that life behind after the death of her little son, to become a nun in a monastery founded by a holy woman, Brigid, in Kildare in the late 5th century. St. Brigid was a real person, St. Patrick’s contemporary, and was revered during her lifetime for many wondrous miracles. In the story, her bones are kept in the monastery where the fictional Sister Deidre lives. Pilgrims come on St. Brigid’s feast day, February 1st, to seek the saint’s intercession with God for cures and favors. They bring offerings for the religious community, and these extra provisions enable the nuns and their brother monks to survive.

When Brigid’s bones are stolen, Sister Deirdre is assigned to find them–and quickly, for February 1st is fast approaching and food supplies are dwindling. Her adventures roaming about the island, visiting contentious kings, the selfish Bishop of Armagh, and best of all, the murderous pirate Lorcan, are by turns romantic, haranguing, and in the last case, hair-raising. In the end, the bones turn out to be in an expected place, and all is well, at least for the time being. Philip Freeman, a fine storyteller, is apparently working on a second book about the inimitable Sister Deirdre.

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The Rock of Cashel, where Sister Fidelma’s brother is King

The Leper’s Bell, by Peter Tremayne, was published in 2006 and is 14th in a series of 24 mystery novels about Sister Fidelma of Cashel. This story takes place about 150 years after St. Brigid’s Bones. Sister Fidelma is the sister of the King of Cashel, and so, like Sister Deirdre the former druid, she is educated and held in high esteem. Fidelma is an advocate of the Breton courts–a lawyer of her day–and is married to one of the Brothers, who is a monk. I was surprised to read that monks and nuns married in 7th century Ireland, but an Irish friend has assured me that, indeed, this was not an uncommon practice at the time.

Sister Fidelma’s baby son is kidnapped after the gruesome murder of his nurse, and the anguished search that she and her husband undertake to find him is the heart of this story. The title comes from the occasional sighting in the area of a mysterious stranger in monk-like robes, ringing a leper’s bell. This was how lepers of the time signaled the community that they were diseased, so they knew to keep their distance. Is the baby eventually found? Well, I won’t spoil the ending for you.

Both of these Irish women are well-developed, interesting characters, and I loved reading what history and legend have to say about life during this harsh and unforgiving time in Irish history. The lawless cruelty and power of bandits and pirates was especially sad. These men were the outcasts and sociopaths of their day. Both of these books encourage readers to consider the human condition–how men and women, no matter their time, place, or station, strive to discover the path they feel compelled to follow, and then find others of like mind and heart to create working communities, no matter how dysfunctional they may appear to outside eyes. Happy Reading, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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The Three Questions

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The Three Questions, based on a 1903 short story written by the Russian moral philosopher, social reformer, and renowned novelist Count Leo Tolstoy, was written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth and published by Scholastic Press in 2002. It’s my favorite story, except for The Fourth Wise Man. 

Remember the story of The Fourth Wise Man? He sets out with the other three astrologer kings to follow the Star wherever it leads, to do homage to a newborn king they think is greater than any other, and will bring peace to humankind. However, the fourth wise man gets left behind because he keeps stopping to help first one person in crisis, then another in dire straits, and of course, then another with a serious problem. Meanwhile, he continues on his quest to find this wonderful king, whom he hears more and more about through the years. At last, old and ill, he laments that he didn’t hurry. Now he will die, and he’s given away all his money along the way, and he’s never met the wonderful king he set out to find. He learns, in the end, that he did meet the king, for Jesus Christ was there in the face and heart of every needy person he helped in his life.

The child in The Three Questions  reminds me of the fourth wise man: both set off on a quest for answers; both are interrupted by unimagined events requiring an immediate decision from them; and both realize in the end that they had their answers in hand all the time.

I won’t relate the story of the boy’s journey and the creatures and problems he meets along the way. However, I’ll put the answers to the Three Questions beneath this picture of them, in case you just can’t wait. Click on the picture, and you’ll be able to read the questions. Knowing the answers–they are very simple–won’t  spoil your experience of reading the story with your children, and I hope you will.

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1. When is the best time to do things?

           This answer never varies, as it’s the only time we have: Now.

2. Who is the most important one?

           The one you are with.

3. What is the right thing to do?

           Something good for the one who is standing at your side.

The second and third answers are an interesting lesson in relativity for children, who often have a hard time accepting any but the Absolute, All-time, One Hundred Percent Right Answer.

Kids can understand, though, that The Most Important One changes in their own lives, sometimes every other minute of the day.

The Right Thing To Do is both absolute and relative. The spirit of Goodness is absolute, but the way it plays out is relative to who you are, and depends upon who that person is, “standing by your side.” I hope you will enjoy this peaceful, calming story as much as I do. Please let me know what you think of it.

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On the Road to Summer Joy

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To exist in the fleet joy of becoming,

to be a channel for life as it flashes by in its gaiety and courage,

cool water glittering in the sunlight–

in a world of sloth, anxiety, and aggression.

To exist for the future of others without being suffocated by their present.

—from Markings by Dag Hammarskjöld, 1951

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A January 31st Good Guy You May Never Have Heard Of

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This gentle-eyed, mild-mannered man was born Giovanni Melchiorre Bosco, in a tiny hillside hamlet not far from Turin, Italy, in the summer of 1815. His parents were uneducated farm workers. Today, he’s known all over the world as St. John Bosco, a man who looked into his heart at an early age, and by the shine of his own personal light, saw his purpose in life. As a little boy, he once greeted a passing priest and was ignored. He promptly announced to his astonished mother, “I’m going to be a priest when I grow up, and I’ll talk to children all the time.” It was impossible, of course, for his father had died when he was 2 years old, which effectively locked him into a future as a penniless farmhand. And at the time, entry to the priesthood in Italy was, by and large, limited to the upper classes.

But here was a boy who wouldn’t let “No” stop him. John quietly set out to lift up the neglected poor children around him. He turned a keen eye on itinerant street performers, and by the age of 10 was performing himself as a magician, juggler, and acrobat. Admission was 2 prayers–1 before the show and 1 after. As uneducated as the children who came to see him, John taught himself to read, and became even more determined to follow his heart after he had a dream about a rabble of poor children. In the dream, an elegantly dressed man turned to him, extended his hand toward the children and told him to help them through reason, love, and kindness. At 12, John Bosco left home alone and made his way to Turin, where after many trials and setbacks, he finally met a retired priest who helped him learn what he needed to know to gain entrance to the seminary.

Once ordained, John continued to help and educate poor children wherever he found them–on the streets, among the homeless, and in the prisons. He took them into his home, where, as you might guess, they acted like the ungrateful little wretches they were and stole from him time and time again. But he was relentless. Starting where he was with what he had, John developed his own system of education and his own school, using praise and kindness instead of punishment. By this time a familiar radical presence about Turin, Don Bosco, as he was popularly known, was routed out of one neighborhood after another–who wants to live near a bunch of dirty, rowdy kids?

But he persisted–even in the face of persecution by people who hated him just because he was a priest. You wouldn’t think there would be such people in Italy then, but there were. Attempts were even made on his life–one time he was shot, on another occasion stabbed, and on a third, bludgeoned. But as you probably know by now, Don Bosco was no quitter. He started his own order of priests, based on the humble spirituality and gentle philosophy of St. Francis de Sales, and soon these Salesian priests were traveling to countries all over the world to aid and teach children of the poor–and, in true Don Bosco fashion, Salesian priests and volunteers are still working there now.

You’ve probably heard that print journalism is in its death throes these days. Well, not quite. To let interested folk know what his priests were up to, Don Bosco started the Salesian Bulletin in 1875 and it has proved to be as persistent as he was. It has been in continuous circulation ever since, and today–yes, in 2015– is published in 50 different editions in 30 languages. Even if you’re a cynic, you have to give the man credit for working up some serious steam for aiding the poor.

Don Bosco died 127 years ago, on January 31, 1888 and was canonized St. John Bosco in 1934. He is widely revered as a role model by teachers and there is probably a Catholic church or school not far from you that is named for him. They may even be celebrating the advent of his 200th year this weekend. More recently his childhood talents have received recognition by the Vatican, too. This tireless champion of disadvantaged kids is also the Patron of Stage Magicians. What a guy!

When asked for advice on the best way to live your life, he replied, “Do your ordinary duties extraordinarily well.” And so I ask myself again this January 31, “Why do we always make everything so complicated?”

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Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Trying to keep my eyes on the road ahead…but thanks to him, celebrating today how  much has already been accomplished. Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Friends!

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When the Road to Joy Grows Dark and Trackless

These past few months and the beginning of the New Year have been full of tragedy for so many people in so many places around the world. Fear stalks the streets of Paris, where horrible violence has left innocent families shattered. And the guilty are gunned down and gone now, but to what avail? The murdered beloved will not come back, no more than the guilty slain. And Fear remains.

Grief came upon so many in Indonesia and Singapore, where loved ones will never return home from their journeys. In Africa, the Ebola virus overwhelmed thousands, and so many died from lack of resources available an ocean away to save them. And in our own country, over a dozen children have slipped away quietly from the flu. It seems a deeper tragedy when children die of something so common, with no outrage made about it. For we will never know what we have lost when little ones leave us.

Perhaps that is our saving grace, to be able to comprehend so little, in such a limited way, and then to be able to forget even that. Recently, in my own city, a man was sentenced to death for the murder of a baby, and the baby’s mother will be sentenced later for doing nothing to stop him during the months he abused her baby. It’s over now, and the newspaper reported that in the courtroom at the sentencing, “No one spoke for the baby.” What a tragedy in just six words: “No one spoke for the baby.” And somehow, we are all made less.

What are we to make of these tragedies, both great and small, if the death of an unknown person far away, or the death of a baby can be called “small”? I do not know. What remains is the heaviness of sorrow, the fleeting nature of joy, the great rush of life, a mystery many have expressed far better than I. Pindar wrote in 5 B.C., “We are things of a day. What are we? What are we not? The shadow of a dream is man, no more.” That’s true. Yet still, a poet I revered in my early 20’s, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, observed, “Not people die, but worlds die in them.”

Each of us is everything. Just one of us alone is everything. Then how do we keep from despair, when tragedy falls on us like a blindness? I do not know. Perhaps our recourse is to accept that we are human, and though imperfect, our finest gift is the power to adapt as life carries us and our emotions along with it.

Perhaps, too, we can find refuge in the Present Moment, for it is always with us. The Present Moment anchors us. All living things share it, yet still, it is ours alone. Perhaps somewhere in our small Right Now is the place where Joy abides.

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