The eyes are what draw you in, really. They are large and blue…morning-glory blue…and they call to you out of the grayish Siamese-cross face. It’s such an intensely alive face, it’s hard to remember that what you’re looking at is simply a drawing on a book cover.
That drawing is of Tatianna, the cat who was writer Linda Mohr’s companion for 16 years. And the book Tatianna: Tales and Teachings of My Feline Friend (iUniverse) is the chronicle of their long, loving friendship. It’s a book that deals with loss, both human and feline, and yet it’s not a sad book. Far from it. “The book has an underlying theme of hope,” reflects Mohr, who teaches at Northwood University in Florida. “It’s also a love story. The human and feline connections make up my circle of life. Some got to stay in the circle longer than others.” To her, there is no question about those bonds transcending time and death: Tatianna “has never really left my side. She is simply in another dimension that I cannot see.”
The book has earned an impressive number of awards along the way: the 2008 Merial Human-Animal Bond Award, the 2008 National Best Books Awards (Animals/Pets), the 2008 National Indie Excellence Award (Animals/Pets), the 2008 Beach Book Award (Spirituality), and the 2008 Reader Views Award (Memoir & Spirituality). A chapter from the book also appeared in Candida Baker’s The Amazing Life of Cats anthology. And the wonderful cover portrait by artist Drew Strouble won a Muse Medallion from the Cat Writers’ Association (CWA) in 2008.
But the readers’ responses are the real prizes here. “You write and I felt as if I was there,” one told Mohr. “A spirited and spiritual read,” another observed. The most touching response, as far as Mohr was concerned, came from a woman who had been “a lifelong dog person before she read the Tatianna manuscript. She was so moved by the story that she adopted a shelter cat four months later. I think she has adopted a total of five cats.. To think that Tatianna helped create a forever home for multiple unwanted cats brings tears of joy.”
Tatianna herself came to Mohr as a kitten when the latter was “in the midst of the traumatic letting go of Noelle," her marmalade cat who was dying of mouth cancer. When Noelle succumbed to the disease a few months later, the young newcomer displayed “an incredible ability to connect with my sorrow and mend my broken heart. She did so with her light-hearted games like playing musical chairs or dancing around her food bowl.” Mohr in turn learned about grief from a cat’s perspective. Tatianna “cried continuously. I carried her to my bedroom the first evening she was alone, and that started a lifelong routine of her sleeping with me.” Later, when another cat, Taittinger, died of feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), Tatianna wandered through the room where her buddy had been quarantined, “hunt[ing] under every piece of furniture and search[ing] every nook and cranny.” The bereft cat then camped out on the bed and refused to leave the room for the next three days.
Watching her, Mohr began to understand that with animals, as with humans, grief is a process -– that they “miss their fur friends as much as we do….Some animals are restless or listless. They may experience eating and sleeping disorders or be anxious.” She learned that it was possible to “help ease their pain by just being near them, holding them, and talking to them.” Sometimes, she adds, “we just have to back off for awhile,” same as we would with a person who’s in mourning.
But that wasn’t all that her blue-eyed familiar taught Mohr. When Tatianna was diagnosed with kidney disease at age 12, the latter got a hands-on heart-open-wide lesson in being a caregiver. Mohr set out to learn as much as she could about special diets, administering subcutaneous fluids, herbal therapy, and acupuncture. She altered “my life to accommodate her eating and fluid therapy schedules. Sometimes I canceled social events so she would not be alone.”
There’s a saying about coming to “the edge of all the light you have known” and having faith that “one of two things will happen…there will be something to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.” In the years that followed, Mohr definitely earned her frequent flier miles. She knew that there was no cure for the disease, so she prayed for good days and believed that somehow she “would be given the strength to handle” whatever it threw at them.
Above all else, she learned to take joy in the present moment…a hard thing to do “because you are fast-forwarding life and you are imagining all the worst endings.” But Mohr managed to push past all that. She recalls the “many blessed joyful moments with Tatianna: her winks, cradling her in my arms and singing to her, gazing into her incredible blue eyes and our souls connecting, preparing her favorite food, giving her fluid therapy, making a comfy area for her to retreat to during the last phase of her life, sleeping on the floor beside her, finding the perfect spot for her to be during her last morning with me.” Facing the ordeal that way brought an unforeseen gift. “God blessed us with serenity and calm,” she says simply. “I would not trade any of our experiences because the joy far outweighed the pain.”
The kidney disease finally won. In one sense, that is. Even though Tatianna’s body gives out at the end of the book, we are left with the sense that her battle has been a triumph – a triumph of heart and spirit. For both of them. To keep a cat in renal failure going for a little over three years is no little thing.
Nowadays, Mohr shares her life with three cats. Lexie Lee “literally blew into my yard during the 2004 hurricane season,” she tells me. “I’ve always thought Lexie Lee found me for a reason. She was healing from trauma, and I was grieving Katarina’s loss (Tatianna’s companion). We needed each other, but it took time for the relationship to develop.” Chauncey and Grace were born of a stray cat who showed up on the family farm back in Missouri in December 2009. (Their mom, Rose, and four siblings still live at the farm with Mohr’s brother.) She has, the writer says, learned lessons from them, too: bravery and tenacity from Lexie Lee, playfulness from Chauncey, and “how to balance being reserved and taking risks” from Grace, aka Princess Grace. They follow her everywhere. In fact, right now, as she’s sitting in her office, Lexie Lee is hanging out by their human’s computer, Grace is under her chair, and Chauncey has commandeered the windowsill by her desk. It’s a new family, so to speak.
And there are new projects. Tatianna was “a multi-year project,” so Mohr has been writing shorter pieces, such as a story that appeared in Thin Threads – Women and Friendship. And she is exploring a new field: photography. She recently took part in her first juried art exhibit and has already compiled a cat calendar for her family: she hopes to do a line of cards and a more commercial calendar for 2013. The subject? “Cats, of course!” she laughs.
But she’s “still keeping the Tatianna book alive by speaking at libraries and marketing in specialty shops.” Because Tatianna is still with her in so many ways. Or, as Mohr puts it in the last chapter, “Tatianna was neither here nor there. She just was. She was wherever I was, just as she was always in my heart.”
Now, that’s a love story.