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Brian McGrory

Creature comforts

Cynthia and Grant Schaumberg are mourning the death of their daughter, Alexa. The healing of their wounds involves their late daughter's cats Bertie and Timmy. (Suzanne Kreiter / Globe staff) Cynthia and Grant Schaumberg are mourning the death of their daughter, Alexa. The healing of their wounds involves their late daughter's cats Bertie and Timmy.
By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / June 9, 2010

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They play all day as the strains of Bach and Beethoven fill the condominium around them. Bertie and Timmy like to catapult themselves off a desk in the back bedroom, thunder down the hallway into the living room, and wrestle on the Oriental rug that lies among the antique furniture.

When the cats nap on a table in the bay window, passersby tap the glass and speak to them as old friends. What those people see is utter contentment. What they hear are soothing chords of classical music. What they don’t realize is the human heartbreak that led these two creatures to their current home — and the vital role they play in helping a dignified couple overcome it.

They are more than pets, these felines. They are a connection, a connection between life and death, grief and recovery, between parents and the daughter they no longer have. And in all of that, they have been given extraordinary privileges for a couple of once-frightened kittens found in the woods of rural Massachusetts. For the past two years, they’ve lived in a city apartment of their very own.

The cats reside in a renovated 850-square-foot condominium in a stunning building on the river side of Beacon Street in the Back Bay. They have lived there since their savior and owner, a vibrant 46-year-old woman named Alexa Charles, drew her final breath on the last day of March in 2008 after a seven-year fight with cancer.

Alexa had done much in a life too short. She attended drama school in London. She traveled across Europe. She earned her MBA, worked for scrappy startups and white-shoe consulting firms, lived in New York, San Francisco, and Boston. In her final months she acquired a pair of feral kittens that were more than just companions; they were a message to the world that she had no plans to surrender anytime soon.

But cancer defeats even the strongest of wills, this time in the form of unbearable headaches that forced Alexa — and her cats — to move from her house in North Grafton into a condominium in her parents’ building that they had bought for guests, especially their daughter. It was there, after she was diagnosed with advanced brain cancer, that she asked her mother and stepfather to take care of Bertie and Timmy when she was gone.

That only begins to describe what Cynthia and Grant Schaumburg have done.

Sitting on the couch one recent afternoon, Cynthia explained the unusual situation. They’ve kept the apartment largely untouched since their daughter’s death, right down to the radiation mask in the closet that Cynthia can’t bring herself to throw away. “It has Alexa’s name on it,’’ she explained.

Two years later, their grief is still deep, though no longer raw. Every morning, Grant, a retired money manager, comes down from their 10th-floor apartment to visit the cats and cavort with them on the floor. Bertie and Timmy tear at a potted plant, climb all over the furniture, and play with soft toys from a basket. They bask in the window for hours at a stretch.

Every afternoon, Cynthia ends up in a comical race with Bertie for their favorite spot on the couch, which happens to be the same spot. As opera or classical music plays, she immerses herself in great literature, perhaps Dickens or Henry James or Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.’’

“It’s a tremendous place to read,’’ said Cynthia, in her typically soft-spoken way. “I’ve watched the seasons change outside these windows. It was terribly sad at first. But the more I thought about it, Alexa was living through these two cats. It’s been a gift, really.’’

They were close when Alexa was alive, mother and daughter, traveling together to London and the West Coast, sharing dinners at Hamersley’s Bistro, walking down the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.

Now, as the world rumbles by, it’s a dignified woman with a pair of uncommonly lucky cats and a connection that she refuses to let die.

“It is,’’ she said, “my time with my daughter’s spirit.’’

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. His e-mail is mcgrory@globe.com.

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