I once got in a tense argument about whether a stuffed cat was a real cat. For the record, it was a stuffed cat but really it was a real cat.
About ten years ago, I was visiting with a hospice patient on a weekly basis. Linda-not her real name-had vascular dementia (as well as multiple other health conditions) and lived at an assisted living. She was reserved when I first started stopping by, and I had trouble connecting with her.
One day, I notice a stuffed cat sitting on her bed. She sees me looking at it and asks if I like cats. I tell her that I do. She smiles.
“Well,” she says. “You’ll love my Tiger. He is quite a cat.”
I’m not sure if she thinks Tiger was a real cat or not, so I walk over to pet him.
“Be careful,” she warns. “Tiger still has his claws.”
Yep. Linda thinks Tiger is a real cat. I shift gears and start interacting with Tiger as if he is a real cat. In other words, I step into her reality. Linda perks up some, and suddenly we have a connection. I figure out that Tiger is the key to engaging her.
Every time I stop by, I ask about Tiger right after I come in. He’s usually on her bed. Sometimes I pick him up and put him on the windowsill so he can watch the birds. A few times we find a nice sun puddle on the floor for him. One day she mentions that Tiger looks chunkier and accuses me of sneaking him tuna. I confess, and she smiles. I even buy Tiger a toy. Yes, I spend $5 on a toy for a stuffed cat. And Linda is beside herself with excitement, and I’ve forgotten that Tiger isn’t a real, living, breathing feline.
I come by one summer day while her son is visiting. When I ask Linda about Tiger, he rolls his eyes.
He tells me, “I’ve told her time and time again that Tiger has been dead for five years. He got hit by a car on the highway.” Linda looks at him, and then at me. I’m really not sure what to say.
“Actually, Tiger’s okay. He’s right here,” I say tentatively. The son takes a long look at me as I pet Tiger. I’m pretty sure he’s wondering if I’m the biggest idiot he’s ever met.
“You are petting a stuffed cat,” he says. “That’s not a live cat. It’s stuffed.” Let’s just say Linda’s son and I are not on the same page here, and I’m not about to let him break his mother’s heart.
“No, Tiger is a real. Alive and well,” I say. This is awkward. The son is not going to relent, and neither am I. I have now decided I am not going to admit to the son that the cat is stuffed. And once I pick a battle, I’m all in. He glares at me.
“Do you really not know this cat is stuffed? We bought him at Walmart,” he responds. “This is a stuffed cat.” At this point I should take this guy out in the hallway and explain why I am set on insisting Tiger is a real cat, but I don’t think of that at the time.
“Well, Linda knows that Tiger is real, so Tiger is real,” I say. At this point, I have Tiger cradled in my arms. I’m squeezing him tighter and tighter as I get more and more frustrated. If Tiger were alive, I might have suffocated him.
The son stares me down. It’s intense. Linda looks at me, and then at her son. He sighs and walks into the other room. I consider it a victory.