Perhaps it’s the weather, so completely like the weather on June 11 and June 12 in 1999, perhaps some art I’m working on, perhaps it is that they never truly leave me, and come to me when it’s time to share something. I had another article planned for today but couldn’t focus on it last night or this morning. I know today is an anniversary. What more of a sign could I have that I should write this one?
When visitations happen around the loss of an animal companion it’s difficult not to dwell on the loss itself, though that misses the point of the visit. They’ve returned to tell you not to dwell on their loss, and to know of their peace and happiness. I’ve yet to hear of a single visit where the pet was unhappy.
But some visitations happen before the loss, or just at the time of the loss where you may sense another presence and understand it’s somehow related to your animal companion. This experience for me was such a joy.
Adopted for her looks
Very early in my rescue career I lived with only three cats, believe it or not: my first cat, gray and white Bootsie, and my first cat adopted as an adult, solid black Kublai, and my roommate’s cat, another black cat named Puck. In June of 1983 I met a tiny bit of white fluff, and though she didn’t come to live with me until later, Sally eventually became cat number three for my personal feline family.
A “pet quality” Angora kitten, Sally had been adopted from a “backyard breeder” for her looks, the perennial kitten face, silky white fur, petite size. Not all white cats are deaf but many Turkish Angora cats turn out to be, though they are born with hearing and lose it in their first few months. The person who “bred” her didn’t warn the adopting party of this possibility.
The person who adopted her was my boss at my first job out of college and I met her the day he adopted her and she came to the office before going home. He loved cats and truly loved her, but between her high activity level and eventual deafness, and his schedule of being out most of every day, she became a little wild child, unaccustomed to being handled in any way. I heard later that Angora kitties are known for being physically combative and don’t necessarily like to be touched, but when I adopted Sally I thought it was just her youth and kittenhood that had influenced her personality.
A little wild child, indeed
As the months moved along I heard more and more often how she literally bounced off the walls, knocking plenty of things around in the process, sometimes you could pet her, sometimes she’d bite you. He had her spayed, but even after that her wild personality only grew wilder and he decided to surrender her to a shelter because nothing seemed to calm her down.
At that time, the early 80s, I was all about keeping cats out of the shelter, seeing the shelters of those days and, even before today’s closer scrutiny, understanding how many cats went in and how few came out. I agreed to adopt her, actually I kind of begged to adopt her, in part to make sure she didn’t go to a shelter or to someone who might not understand her, and also because she was so incredibly beautiful. At one year old her silky coat glowed and her perfect little face with pink nose and pea green eyes made me want to cry they were so perfect. I didn’t know much at all about cats then, but I wanted to give her a chance, and give me a try at just settling her down. On May 22, 1984, Sally rode home with me after work.
She had a limitless amount of energy and could not be handled. Worst, she attacked my older cat, Bootsie, causing her to suffer asthmatic attacks. Sally’s time out room was the bathroom, which wasn’t large enough for too much movement so she’d quiet down without the stimulation of the other cats. It was all I knew to do at the time.
I credit Kublai with taming her though. He would watch her fly around and literally catch her in mid-air in his paws, pin her down and sit on her while she struggled and squealed, and he looked at me telling me someone needed to do something about this little Tasmanian devil. Eventually he would let her go and she would pop out from underneath him and run off to some high spot to think about things—she never sulked or bore grudges—and eventually she quit the aeronautic adventures and began to play with toys. Best of all, she began to watch Kublai, who literally hung all over me, draped around my neck over my shoulders or with his arms around my neck and his face buried in my hair, and I could see she began to wonder about this affection thing. Before long, she was sleeping on my bed; later, she curled up on my lap one day as if she’d always been there.
We were devoted
She became the cat who spent all day in the window watching and waiting for me to come home and bestowing upon me her fervent greeting when I arrived, who slept on me every single night, who always found me for some lap time when I sat down…She was a real free spirit, absolutely fearless, totally in the moment, unconcerned about her looks as truly beautiful creatures can afford to be, and usually off in some alternate reality, but we had a very deep and trusting connection.
Because she was deaf her 22 hours of sleep were undisturbed but when she was awake she was fully engaged; she had two settings, “off” and “high”. I sometimes lost her curled up in some cozy spot because she couldn’t hear when I called, but I would rap my heel sharply twice on the floor, and she would usually awaken and come to me from wherever she was. If that didn’t work, an open can of tuna would eventually waft to wherever she was and she’d come strolling into the room following her nose.
Sally was one of my original garden cats, and was also the subject of the “my first piece of real artwork”, “Sleeping Beauty”, below. “My little princess” became one of my greatest inspirations for artwork, and it was not just her luxurious looks but her emotional freedom as well which have made her the subject of several works.
14 years later
One October day, Sally quit eating, no drama, she just stopped eating and went for nearly two weeks eating only a bit now and then and drinking water. My perceptions were in their elemental stages at that time, and I had a sense that she was leaving but I could see nothing wrong with her so I was puzzled, then panicked. Exams and tests showed nothing wrong. It was obvious this was her choice, that she couldn’t live like this and wouldn’t live long. I tempted her with everything I could think of to no avail. One day I picked her up and cried, she let me hold her, and I asked her to tell me why, tell me anything, just not to leave me without knowing or just not to leave me.
That afternoon she began to eat again—cooked linguini only for a few days, then she was back on cat food. I was overjoyed, though I had no idea why she had done this. But she recovered without any issue.
In November, Fawn was diagnosed with lymphoma, but we’d gotten it into remission with steroids in a few weeks, and Fawn, too, was back to normal.
The following January I was petting Sally and felt a small flat bump on her lower jaw. As much as she would let me I explored the shape. I knew it was not normal, yet nothing seemed dangerous about it, so I decided to observe it and see if it changed.
In March, Fawn’s cancer came out of remission and we lost her quickly.
The flat shape on Sally’s jaw had seemed to grow a little larger. I thought that might have been my imagination, though at the same time I knew it wasn’t. One of the times I’d called about Fawn in March I mentioned it to my veterinarian. After I had Fawn put to sleep and I had had some time to grieve we examined Sally. Without diagnostics she could not be sure, but the innocent little shape could only be a few things, and none of them were good for Sally’s future. One possibility, the most likely, was an osteosarcoma or bony tumor. Osteosarcomas often grow very slowly but can be very painful, and my veterinarian let me know what I might expect, sparing me no details. The only recourse would be to remove her lower jaw, and that, of course, was not an option.
I understood in that moment that Sally felt the beginnings of that cancer the previous autumn and decided she didn’t want to live with the condition, so she chose to just leave before it grew enough to be painful. I remembered the previous October and knew she was aware of the growth before any human could detect it, and knowing she could not win this one had decided just to let go, but for my sake she decided to stay. She changed her mind for me, endured the pain so that I would have my explanation of her decision, and live with her just a few months longer. I would also learn a lesson about the process of death with awareness, and letting go.
I was hoping that unseen shape would continue to grow imperceptibly slowly. I knew the signs of pain in a cat from previous cancers and other illnesses, and my veterinarian had outlined what to expect and was always available if I had questions. After a month I knew it was spreading. Sally paid no attention to it, but continued on as the free spirit she was.
In his last days Kublai had taught me that sometimes my inner voice was actually one of my felines communicating with me. By the time it became Sally’s time to begin saying goodbye, I had learned to recognize it.
I came home from work one day about a month before she died, and she let the younger ones—at that time Namir, Kelly and Cookie were in the front of the line—shuffle for my attention, then strolled down the “catwalk” of a table I had by the door. She stopped in front of me and looked right up into my eyes with her bright expression in those pea green eyes of hers, reached out her paw and pulled my hand to her face, licked the back of my hand twice and looked back up at me. “I love you,” I heard as clearly as if someone in the room had said it. No, her lips didn’t move, nor did anyone else’s, it was the inner voice which I’d learned from Kublai that was how they would sometimes communicate with me, when they really needed for me to know something. Sally really needed for me to know this.
Tears welled in my eyes but I blinked them back as we held our gaze—I didn’t want to miss a moment in any sort of blur—and my unspoken response was automatic, “I love you, Sally”. I saw that sparkle in her eyes and I knew this moment was eternal. She let go of my hand, we broke our gaze and she very practically headed for the kitchen for dinner along with everyone else.
Sally was filled with the joy of being alive—she awoke every morning, gathered all her abundant energy and made every moment of the day the best it could possibly be, never spending time on what she didn’t have or couldn’t do. As all of my feline companions have taught me lessons in life and love, so Sally taught me this lesson, reinforced especially in her last days: even when her life was far from comfortable and she could barely carry out simple daily activities, she simply didn’t do what she could no longer do, and awoke and gathered what energy she had left and did what she could to make every moment, until her last, lived to the fullest.
As the spring continued, Sally weathered the tumor’s steady growth without complaint, adjusting as it affected her tongue, her jaw, her eye, and the whole side of her face as I fed her pureed food with more and more water added, finally feeding with a syringe, syringing her crushed medications into her mouth and coating her eye with a salve as it would not close. This was my wild child, the deaf kitty who would not be handled in any way, yet we had been partners in this from the previous autumn; when she had changed her mind to stay to the end, I had promised to do all I could to help her. As the summer came we visited the garden as frequently as possible.
One evening in June she was finally in such discomfort that she walked over to me at my desk and gave me one direct look and I heard, in that manner of communication that is a transfer of thought but as clearly as if she’d said it, “I can’t take this any more,” and settled uncomfortably on a cardboard scratcher on the floor. I called my veterinarian the next morning but she had gone out of town. It was Friday and I was desperate to at least have something set up, and really preferred it be a house call. We were very spoiled with that, but the last thing I wanted to do would be to take Sally to strangers to both of us in a strange place. I found a veterinarian who had just started her house call practice and though I was far for her we scheduled an appointment for euthanasia for the early afternoon of Saturday, June 12.
We had just lost Fawn in March of that year, and she was still on my mind. Two years previous, we had lost Kublai, my first black cat, the household leader and prince to Sally’s princess and my best friend, and Allegro, our gentle, silly orange boy, two weeks apart. They were my first rescues and the first of the group who had moved in this house with me to leave us, and as Sally neared her end I thought of them more and more.
The day came but did not feel heavy or sad, it was instead a beautiful day, feeling strangely full of promise. I thought perhaps I had prepared myself for this well enough, I knew that Sally was ready, but I had no idea why I wasn’t on the verge of tears, thinking it would hit me all at once at some point in the day.
On that lovely, sparkling June morning, Sally and I took our last walk around the garden she had loved, then sat on the deck while the day was still cool. Butterflies were not unusual, but I had noticed a certain black butterfly with blue spots on its wings that kept flying around Sally as we walked, and now that we were on the deck it was visiting all the flowers in the planters and even flying around on the deck. Now and then it would land and slowly spread its wings wide then fold them, and fly off again. It was a black phase tiger swallowtail, not at all uncommon, and I see them pretty frequently, but this one was persistently staying with us.
Sally soon tired and the summer heat began to build on the deck, so we went inside the house.
An exchanged identity
As we walked in I saw Namir on the kitchen table, and as most of us probably do in greeting our cats I simply said, “Hello, Allegro,” as I gave him a quick pat on the head and walked on behind Sally for a few steps before I realized I had called him by the wrong name. They looked nothing alike except that I had seen Allegro in him as I looked at him and felt Allegro’s presence and even then was ready to call him “Allegro” again.
Namir was a foster who’d arrived two years before, and one year to the day after Allegro had died, and I had always emotionally connected him with Allegro for that coincidence and because he kind of reminded me of Allegro with his quiet silliness and amiable sociability. I had never in two years called him by Allegro’s name, though, and no one would confuse them physically with Allegro’s large rangy build and rich red tabby fur with white patches compared to Namir’s slighter, slender build, dark gray tabby fur with white patches.
While I stood there petting Namir I caught sight of movement outside the door and saw the black butterfly flitting around on the flowers once again.
Sally went to lie down on the scratcher next to my desk which she’d been inhabiting for the past few days. I headed for the second floor for a clip to pin up my hair in the increasing heat.
The joy of sunshine
The sun was shining brilliantly through the tall narrow casement facing east, filling the small landing and the stairwell with a cascade of sunlight. Even though it was heating up the house I still found it beautiful and welcoming, and was that a cat I saw playing in the sunbeams and dust motes? Moses perhaps? no, she was downstairs.
As I walked up the stairs looking into the sunshine I remembered how Fawn had loved just this, the sunlight on the landing, how she would dance around in it, roll around in it, talk about it and call for me, which she always did when she found something she liked. And I realized the kitty I’d seen in the sunlight was Fawn; no, I had not actually seen her, only sensed her in the colors and the dancing light.
And then it all came together—Fawn was there, and Allegro and Kublai too. They were here to welcome Sally and escort her on.
The black butterfly was Kublai’s lustrous black fur, the light blue spots like his light blue-green eyes, hovering around Sally, leading her around the garden they’d shared then continuing to flutter around her favorite spots when we’d gone inside.
I had called Namir “Allegro” several more times, even when I consciously tried to remember not to. Namir had simply become Allegro for the time.
And the sunshine at the top of the stairs was Fawn, just as surely as anything tangible I knew she was there.
For the first time in a very long time my household felt full again, though counting Sally I had eight cats in the house in a physical sense and it should have felt full already. But it felt complete that I could sense the presences of the three who had passed as if they were just in the next room and that wonderful group who had moved here with me were once again together.
The veterinarian soon arrived and we followed the procedure there on my office floor. Sally, who had always been a very free spirit and resisted being touched or handled willingly submitted to the first shot and quickly fell into a deep sleep, seeming to welcome the relief it would give her.
I sat with her for a while after the veterinarian had left, listening to music I will always associate with her, quietly stroking her lovely silky white fur, hardly believing our time had come to an end. The other cats wandered in and out and took in the experience in their own ways, and I thought about the butterfly, Namir’s identity sharing, and the sunshine, which I could see was waning in the stairwell as the sun moved. I sensed Kublai, Allegro and Fawn in the room and Sally too, then as suddenly as the sun in the stairwell faded with the movement of the sun over the house they seemed to all sweep up the stairs together and leave. No inkling of them was left. My house felt empty again, Namir was Namir, and I was aware of the quiet of a hot afternoon.
Had I really experienced these visits? Was it just the product of wishful thinking, of deeply remembering those recently lost and the comfort of that particular group of cats who were my first teachers? Reality can be a fluid thing in the midst of strong emotions and a certain amount of denial as we tend to be at the time when we accompany one of our beloved animal companions in their transition from this world to the next.
But from that point little visitations continued to happen, reinforcing what I had experienced. Why wouldn’t the bond we had all shared, they with me and, more importantly, they with each other, continue after death? The idea that Kublai, Allegro and Fawn were still around in some form, and that they had come for Sally in forms so joyful and free, was such a comfort to me that I can hardly help but believe it.
As got into my car after work a few days after I had had Sally put to sleep, a thistle seed borne on the wind by its long white down flew past my face, circled around in my car, then flew out the passenger window, and I had the strongest sense of Sally being near me. She was on her way to another life, still the beautiful free spirit she’d been with me, carried where life took her. I still love you, Sally, and I enjoy your occasional visits, borne on the wind.
“There she slept, and looked like a sleeping angel still.”—from The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood by Charles Perrault
MEDIUM: Pencil; SIZE: 18″ x 16″; 1987
This drawing is very special to me for several reasons, and not only because the subject is Sally. It was a turning point in my career as an artist; it was the first time I looked at a scene, took in all the necessary details, visualized the finished work, and actually created what I had visualized. This is what has to happen for anything I render, whether it’s a commissioned portrait from photographs or a drawing “en plein air”. Before this drawing, although I had created some works that had merit, it was all child’s play.
And of course the fact that Sally was the subject was one of the things that made it a success, which is one of the reasons I always say that my cats are the reason I am an artist today. Before that drawing, my visualization and interest had been almost entirely technical, concerned more with medium and technique. But her peaceful, relaxed posture, especially knowing what she was like when she was awake and fully engaged, made me weak with love. And as I worked I actually began to choose details that made the scene meaningful and conveyed what I felt, instead of trying to draw everything and convey only what I saw. From that experience I realized that what made good art for me was the inspiration of love, not intellect, so now, be it a cat, a flower or a sunset, I ride that swell of love as I create, and there is no art for me without it.
You may recognize parts of this story from my article “Little Visits” or an earlier version of “Taking Sally Home”. I have added the rest of the tale to this one. You can read more stories of visitations in “Little Visits” as well.
If you like any of the art or photos in this article, many are available as prints and greeting cards. Images that are available will be linked to their post on on Portraits of Animals, so click the image you are interested in.
Read more in Pet Loss on The Creative Cat.
All images and text used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission, although links to your site are more than welcome and are shared. Please ask if you are interested in using and image or story in a print or internet publication. If you are interested in purchasing a print of an image or a product including it, check my animal and nature website Portraits of Animals to see if I have it available already. If you don’t find it there, visit Ordering Custom Artwork for more information on a custom greeting card, print or other item.
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