Now, I respect modern science, but it has yet to really nail the robot cat. Kitty’s unfortunate taxidermic quality derives from its complex mechanical innards, which allow it to twist over on its back so you can pet its abnormally firm tummy. It meows, but unlike with a real cat, the message always seems clear: a baldfaced, come-hither demand for petting. It purrs thanks to something the instruction manual refers to as the VibraPurr, as if to distinguish it from a wider world of fake purring technology. There are four sensors on its body that respond differently to touch; a light sensor that will send it to sleep; and an unsettling on-off switch accessible by a hatch in its fur.
As bizarre as the Joy for All is, it served as a bridge between me and my grandmother during my visit. The gap between her reality and real reality is so vast that our conversations have become disorienting drives through the English language, with the road eventually disappearing behind us. The truth of loving someone with dementia is that the further you drift from each other, the less you are able to express that yearning in words. Our sentences tend to be bookended with long silences and little fits of anger and resignation.
But when my grandmother ran her hand along Kitty’s faux fur, and I saw that smile overtake her face, something changed. Our relationship is burdened by her lack of memory, but hers with Kitty is freed by it. It is simple and without friction, just four sensors and some proprietary purring technology. This cat stuffed full of wires, this stupid animatronic doll, this unnerving simulation came into her life to mimic memory, not to create new ones. But somehow this thing allows her to glide into the present like a debutant. She was finally there with me, laughing, enjoying herself; the grandmother I hadn’t seen in years had arrived in order to care for the robot cat. Her happiness filled the room, and I stood in awe, subordinate to synthetic love.