Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat

CHAPTER ONE

“Animals are such agreeable friends—

they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.”

GEORGE ELIOT

IF YOU LOVE YOUR JOB, ON THE BEST DAYS YOUR WORKPLACE can seem beautiful, no matter how it might look to the rest of the world. An oilman looks at a flat, dusty plain and sees the potential for untapped fuel. A firefighter sees a burning building and runs into it, adrenaline surging, eager to be of use. A trucker’s love affair is with the open road, the time alone with his thoughts—the journey and the destination.

I’m a geriatrician and I work on the third floor of the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in downtown Providence. People tell me they would find my job depressing, but I’m always a little puzzled by that. Looking at my patients and their families, I have a remarkable view not just of lives well lived, but of deep commitment and love. I wouldn’t trade that for the world. Sure, sometimes I’m caring for people at their worst, but I’m also blessed to be with them at their best.

My parents, both doctors, thought I was crazy for going into geriatrics. The family business has always been pediatrics—my mother and uncle are pediatricians, as was my grandfather. I think there was always this sense that I was choosing the wrong end of the life continuum to stake out my career. “Aren’t children so much cuter?” my mother would say.

I thought of going into pediatrics. I love children and babies, and have two little ones of my own. The difference for me has always been the stories. Children are a blank canvas, portraits waiting to be drawn. When we look at them, their lives just beginning, we feel a sense of renewal and an expanse of infinite possibility.

My older patients, on the other hand, are like rich paintings and boy, do they have stories to tell. On my best days I can look at them and see all the way back to their childhood. I think of their parents (long gone now), the places they’ve been, the things they’ve seen. To me it’s like looking through the other end of a telescope, back to the beginning.

That’s why Steere House looks beautiful to me—that and the fact that it’s a pretty nice place, as nursing homes go. The large, atrium-like windows flood each floor with light on sunny days, and on most days there’s music coming from the piano in the lobby. And then there’s Oscar…. I’d like to say I was the first one to notice his peculiar abilities—but I wasn’t. Thankfully there were others who were more astute.

THE UNIT had been empty that summer morning back in 2006, except for a pair of eyes that glared at me from atop the nurse’s desk. Like a warden cautiously evaluating a visitor to her facility, the questioning eyes sized me up to determine if I’d pose a risk.

“Hello, Maya. How are you?”

The pretty white cat made no move to greet me; she was consumed by the act of licking her front paws.

“Where is everyone, Maya?”

Aside from the cat, the third floor was strangely quiet. The hardwood-tiled corridors were vacant; the only signs of life were a few randomly placed walkers parked next to patients’ doors. Empty now, these four-sided walkers seemed strange and unwieldy, like an imaginative child’s Tinkertoy creation abandoned after play. At the far end of the east corridor, the morning light shone through the large picture windows, illuminating a broad swatch of the hallway.

I was looking for Mary Miranda, the day shift nurse. Mary is the source of all knowledge on the unit, a central intelligence agent who knows not just the story of every patient, but of Steere House itself. Though she’s not technically in charge, there’s little doubt among the physicians and staff as to who actually runs the floor. Mary is the maternal figure for each resident and she is fiercely protective of her children. Nothing happens on the unit without her knowing about it. Even her supervisors have been known to defer to her.

The doors to the residents’ rooms are generally closed this early in the morning, and room 322, where Mary was performing AM care on her patient, was no exception.

I knocked on the door and heard a muffled voice telling me to hold on. As I waited in the hallway, I studied the corkboard display of family pictures attached to the wall outside Brenda Smith’s room.

Mrs. Smith’s full name, gertrude brenda smith, and her date of