Fall leaves in Dottie’s backyard

I just met a cat named Serena
And suddenly the name
will never be the same to me.

I’ve known more than a few kitties in my life, falling hard for them as a kid when my family acquired our first sweet kitten named Fluffy. She grew up to have many litters of kittens in the days before my mother decided that spaying a cat was a good idea. Consequently, my sister and I, as well as our next door neighbor, Sue (who grew up to be a veterinarian), got lots of lessons in “taming” kittens, as we called it. That amounted to a lot of girl-handling and saying as their tiny needle-sharp talons pierced us, “No claws! No claws!” Sometimes that worked.

I grew up to care for ferals at the college where I’ve taught for three decades, going to school daily to leave fresh food and water, even during the pandemic. I’ve trapped and hauled cats in big wire cages to vets to be tested, spayed, neutered and sometimes euthanized. I’ve hand raised brand new kittens, even toting a cat carrier bearing a pair of pale orange twins to school where some of my students kindly bottle fed those babies as I taught. Dick and I spent many a night rising every few hours to feed them, too.

All this is to say I have some cat experience under my belt, as well as my share of mistakes. So when Dick’s sister-in-law Dottie this summer fell and broke her hip, she was away from home for a good couple of months. Dick, his niece Rebecca and I joined the team of Dottie’s neighbors to do in-home care for Serena, a sweet calico tabby with only one ear. She had the other one amputated because of skin cancer, and she’s now a happy indoor cat with Dottie, who lives alone since the death of her husband Steev, Dick’s brother.

Serena was easy to care for—delighted to be introduced to cat treats (aka kitty crack) and quick to jump on a lap for a pat. We brought her cardboard scratchers and, with the help of Dottie’s neighbors Barbara and Mary, made sure she was fed and visited twice a day. When Serena developed breathing difficulties and had what looked like an ear infection, I took her to the vet, followed by a 10-day stretch of applying various medications to her eyes, ears, nose and mouth. It’s been a great team effort.

I typically sing to cats when I feed them. The smart ones realize that dinner is about to be served, and they usually come from wherever they’re sleeping or hiding to sit politely in the kitchen before the chow-down. I’ve made up kitty songs for years, often spontaneously. I’m fond of this variation on “Wooly Bully”:

Catty o’ catty
It’s just the catty and me
There’s the catty
And she’s ready to eat

Catty, catty. Ooooo!
Catty, catty.

Catty, catty. Catty, catty. Catty, catty.

(Bump, bump, bump, bump, bump, bump)

With Serena, a take on “Maria” seemed appropriate. And she responded, coming from wherever she was to sit and watch, even if she wasn’t hungry. I’d sometimes put the food down, and she wasn’t interested, but she’d follow me as I sang:

I just hugged a cat named Serena
and suddenly I’ve found
how wonderful a sound can be.

Dottie with caregiver Iyona

Dottie finally made it home to Serena in October, and in mid-November she had her hip replaced. She came home the day after the surgery (amazing!) already feeling much better with home health care people on duty all day and night. Things were going well until the Sunday night before Thanksgiving when a new care worker left the front door open when he went out to his car, and Serena scooted out.

Dottie alerted neighbors Barbara and Mary, who immediately went out to search for Serena—to no avail. Dottie texted Rebecca and me, and we both said we’d be over the next day.

Rebecca, who lived with me for a time when she was attending Sac State, is the master cat finder. She discovered my old cat, Noodles, who, in his dotage, had lost more than a few kitty marbles. Though I was trying to keep him inside and safe, he’d still sneak out sometimes, and I’d find him lounging in the sun on the driveway, which was better than his former habit of sometimes sleeping in the middle of the street. On a hot day. (Noodles never was the smartest thing on four paws, I’m afraid. Lesson learned: Don’t name a cat something that calls his intelligence into question. The cat will live down to his name.)

One day Noodles disappeared, and Rebecca and I traversed the neighborhood calling and looking under bushes. Nada Noodles. A week later, Rebecca was driving down the street and saw Noodles on a neighbor’s porch about a block away. She parked the car, got out and walked toward him saying, “Noodles, ya moron! Where’ve you been?” He seemed content, she said, not eager to go with her, though she scooped him up and brought him home. The neighbor, Rebecca reported, had been feeding Noodles and even let him in her house.

“Did you just forget where you live or find a better place?” Rebecca asked as Noodles gave us his Noodle-y look.

So R. (as we call her) did a morning look-around for Serena, and we joined forces later in the afternoon to search farther and wider. We put out dry cat food in a few places, hoping she was close enough to find it. Barbara and Mary had been looking, too, talking to the neighbors. The neighbor to the east of Dottie said that his dog was growling at something underneath the back porch. But when the neighbor looked, he couldn’t see anything. I even went to the vacant lot at the end of the street and searched all the way to a slough. No Serena.

The next day I was busy with school stuff, though R. went back to search and post flyers, as did the neighbors. Finally early Wednesday morning, after Serena had been missing for three nights, Dottie’s overnight caretaker saw a one-eared kitty peering in the front window. I said I’d go over mid-afternoon and resume the search.

As I’d roamed the neighborhood a couple of days before, I’d called Serena’s name, but now, the day before Thanksgiving, I sang my way through Dottie’s yard and the neighbors’:

Serena! Serena, Serena!

Unfortunately, the yard guy with his blower had arrived, taking care of three yards the day before the holiday, so I gave up for a while and went in the house with Dottie and Kanisha, the daytime caretaker. Dottie was in tears. “I just want my kitty,” she sobbed.

When the yard guy was finally done, 4 p.m.ish, the sun was beginning its descent. Mary came over from across the street with a cardboard cat carrier. She and I walked to the fence between Dottie’s driveway and the neighbor with the dog. Mary called and I sang through the tall pickets:

Say it loud and there’s music playing.
Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.
I’ll never stop saying

Suddenly Mary, peering through the fence, said, “There she is!” I caught a sliver of Serena emerging from under the porch coming toward us. There’s no way into the neighbor’s yard from there, so I sprinted around the front of the house, hoping I could find a way into his back yard. It turned out that there was no fence on that side, so I jogged into the yard, singing:

Serena! Serena, Serena!

Jan and Serena / photo by Mary Larson

And there she was, emerging from under the porch, the little one-eared calico tabby with the white chest and tummy, walking toward me, crying. I stopped, kept singing, and she walked right up to me. I bent over and patted her. “Is this where’ve you been?” She let me pick her up and began to purr. I cuddled her, but she didn’t try to wiggle away, as she often does.

Mary met me in the front yard, both of us flushed with delight. She took our photo. I walked Serena up the new ramp to Dottie’s front door that Mary’s husband George had built just before Dottie came home. As I got inside the small front hallway, Serena leapt out of my arms and plonked on the floor. She walked over to one of her scratchers and immediately dug her front claws into the cardboard. It took Dottie, sitting on the sofa, a minute to realize that Serena was back, and as I went for the box of kitty treats on the cat tree by the window, Dottie gasped and said, “My kitty!”

I put some treats down on the scratcher and then on the cat tree, so Serena would follow me and Dottie could see her. Mary took photos. Kanisha shook her head in amazement, and Serena looked, well, serene, as if it had all been no big deal.

Dottie kept saying again and again, “Thankyouthankyouthankyou… my kittymykitty mykitty.” I lifted Serena onto Dottie’s lap, and she continued up to the arm of the sofa. I stood there grinning and a little teary myself, my heart rising at the sight of a woman who has been through so much this year so joyful at the return of one who was lost.

We’ve all been there, especially over the last eight months—so much lost. But then we are grateful for what’s been gained, too—the recovering body, the friendship and assistance of the kindest neighbors and pitching-in family, the gift of a new hip and kind strangers-turned-caretakers, the joy of arrival, whether in a wheelchair or carried in by someone who loves you, and the feeling of putting your paws down again in the place you call home.

Serena and her mom / Photo: Dick Schmidt

About janishaag

Writer, writing coach, editor
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10 Responses to Serena

  1. Carol Savoie says:

    surely you must know about “ tiny kittens” in fort langely BC…and shelly the woman who has developed such skill at nurturing ferals injured or ill.?

  2. janishaag says:

    I didn’t know, Carol. I’m in Sacramento, California. But I just looked them up online, and I’m interested to learn more about the tiny kittens people. Thank you!

  3. buzzardnotes says:

    Love Serena’s story. I’m so happy that she was found and that Dottie is a happy camper again. many thanks to you and your buddies for finding her. I’m sure the singing coaxed her out of hiding and wanting to go back to her safe place. HUGS to all!

  4. Dick Tracy says:

    There’s a place in Paradise for people like you. But delay your departure, OKJ? Dick

  5. Connie Raub says:

    It’s quite a story of love and commitment! Thanks for all the details, Jan. What is better than a cat whisperer? A cat singer, of course! Glad that Serena is safe and well cared for. ~Connie

  6. Kathy says:

    Wonderful story, especially the happy ending! 💕

  7. Connie says:

    Honestly, Jan. I always loved Noodles. He was a good, if short-duration, listener when writing group met at your house. But this Serena story chokes me up. One of your best yet! 😊. Cats. You gotta love ‘em. Stay well.

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