One foggy, rainy October day in 1992, I was walking along a beach road near my house and enjoying the crisp autumn air. Many of the summer vacation homes were closed for the season. With no other activity to draw my attention, I began to watch a black cat who seemed to be trying to keep her baby from running into the road. While she was herding her kitten, the mother cat was also chasing a bird. I chuckled at what this mother cat had in common with all human mothers I know. It is quite a task to protect your young while carrying out family responsibilities.

When I came closer to the cats, I realized by seeing their scruffy coats and thin bodies that they were in trouble. I asked neighbors about them. People told me these cats had been in the vicinity for a few days. All the while, the nursing mother cat had been desperately attempting to provide food for her baby.

I looked for more of this mother’s kittens, but I didn’t see any. Sensing that the creatures wouldn’t survive much longer under these conditions, I scooped up the two orphans and brought them home with me. Little did I know that they would someday return the favor and contribute a crucial element to my health and well-being.

I named the cats Molly and Miss Minnie. After I fed Mother Molly, who was only about six months old, she was able to better care for both her daughter and herself. This mother and daughter had a special relationship, yet they also had distinct personalities. From the moment when I first picked her up, Molly started to purr. Miss Minnie, tiny enough to fit into my shoe, didn’t learn to purr for several months. The two cats seemed happy to be together. They played together often, and Molly washed Miss Minnie and herself for a good part of the day.

A few years after Molly and Miss Minnie had come to live with me, Molly started a strange new routine: Each night, she awakened me from a sound sleep. When I awoke, I’d notice that my heart was racing and my blood pressure and pulse were soaring.

I decided to see a doctor about my health, but even with prescribed medication I continued to feel poorly. On a few occasions, I passed out during the day; upon returning to consciousness, I found Molly licking my nose to awaken me. Molly continued to nurse me in this way as I went on with my busy life.

At one point, I noticed that Molly began to sleep closer to my head at night. I was sometimes awakened by her whiskers tickling my face as she brushed my cheeks and listened to my breathing. I’d roll over and go back to sleep, only to have Molly awaken me with her whiskers again. Around then, I began to take a new medication. When it began to help with my heart condition, Molly stopped waking me up at night, and I slept peacefully for many years.

Miss Minnie grew into a lovely, bushy-tailed, gray-and-black-striped coon cat with big paws. She looked much like her mother, although Molly was mostly black with a little white. Miss Minnie was not the kind of cat who would cuddle with me. In fact, after she was spayed she became aloof and self-centered.

I was surprised, then, when Miss Minnie started to change her standoffish ways. In the fall of 1997, when she was about five years old, Miss Minnie started to awaken me during the night. Just as the naturally loving and caring Molly had done years before, Miss Minnie began the strange ritual of walking up and down on top of my body to wake me up. At first I would check to see if she needed anything. It was perplexing to me that she never left my bed all night. If she woke me with her body walk and I didn’t get up, Miss Minnie would sit on my chest and lick my face. It was as if Molly had taught her this routine.

There was an additional perplexing issue. Harold, an orange four-month-old male cat, had joined us in March of 1994. He was not healthy, physically or emotionally, and Miss Minnie resented it when Molly gave Harold her motherly attention. After all, Miss Minnie had been an only child. She didn’t like the fact that Harold slept with me, and she usually jumped down when the intruder came onto the bed. But during the fall of 1997, Miss Minnie stayed by my side and continued to fulfill her mission, despite her resentment of Harold’s presence on my bed.

My heart condition still seemed to be controlled by the newest medication, so I continued to work long hours at my job. Then one day, when I went for my usual beach walk, my heart began to race and beat irregularly. I managed to get back home and call a nurse friend. She checked on me and quickly whisked me to the emergency room.

After being admitted to the hospital, I was hooked up to a heart monitor. All that night, the nurses came in repeatedly to awaken me. I realized that this was what Molly and Miss Minnie had been doing for me over the years; my cat nurses must have known when my heart beat too rapidly or stopped beating during the night, and that was why they’d awakened me. Now that I was ill and had time to reflect, I realized that I had two cats who were angels. I thanked God that they had come into my life on that damp day in October years before.

In the summer of 2003, Miss Minnie started to sit on my chest again. It was uncomfortable. Even though I pushed her down, she always returned.

I changed doctors in September of 2003. After a visit to my new doctor, he called to say that the monitor I’d been wearing over the weekend showed that my heart was stopping for eight seconds at a time, several times each night. “You need surgery to-day,” he said. I suddenly realized that this was what Molly and Miss Minnie had been trying to tell me by waking me up during the night and walking or sitting on my chest. After I explained to my cardiologist what these cats had done over the years, he said, “Your cats were pacemakers.” I really believe that these wonderful animals served as my heart monitors. Until the doctor put an implant in my chest to monitor my heartbeat, my cats kept me alive.

Molly and Miss Minnie both remained my primary caregivers throughout their lives. Over time, I’ve learned to listen to my kitty heart specialists more carefully. I discovered that they were far smarter about my health than I was. I also slowed down the hectic pace of my life. Molly and Miss Minnie seemed to know that I had started taking better care of myself, and they eventually showed less concern.

As it turned out, Molly also had a heart condition. She died in her sleep — a loss that is still painful to me. Sometimes it makes me sad to think that, had it been possible, an implant might have helped Molly, since she died with the same condition I had.

I am also thankful that Harold found his way into our lives. The doctors’ treatments and Molly’s love healed him, and now Miss Minnie and Harold have each other as companions. They both miss Molly very much. They consoled each other after her death, and for months Harold continued to call out for Molly. As for my heart today, I know I’m doing better. Since my last surgery and the implant, Miss Minnie has not sat on my chest once.

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