For the days prior to the Feast of All Hallowed, Samhain, the Day of the Dead and other celebrations of the dimming of the veil between this world and the next, I am sharing a trilogy of stories of visitations, the mysterious returns of my cats after they’d transitioned. None are scary, unless you’re afraid of something that isn’t physically there, but all include elements I can’t explain and only accept…and am glad to have experienced. Typically I run these on individual days but thought it would be a nice feature to run them together under the title of one of the stories. I hope you enjoy, and have your own little visits to remember.
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One night in early April, 1988, still with patches of snow on the frozen earth, a very small, very pregnant cat politely but confidently asked me if she could come into my home to give birth to her kittens. Of course I said yes, and I witnessed the entrance to this life of four independent and individualistic progeny. The last one born stayed with me after the others were adopted; the “runt of the litter”, the little cat with the big attitude, a torbie, my Fawn.
Ten years later, a friend sent balloons to my workplace for my birthday. The whole bunch was too big to take home, so I took one home and tied it to a lamp in my studio.
My birthday was also, sadly, the day an exam definitively diagnosed that Fawn’s cancer had come out of remission, and the chances of it responding to treatment a second time were slim.
On the morning I had Fawn put to sleep at home, my veterinarian brought her one-year-old daughter, not having day care accommodations that early in the day, and a friend agreed to babysit the little girl down in the studio while my veterinarian and I were upstairs. They untied the balloon from the lamp and played with it all during that time, then let it float freely around the studio. My other cats didn’t respond to the balloon aside from a few swats at the string, and it came to rest in a corner of the room.
Eight days later, I awoke once again with the daily dread of remembering that my little girl was gone and had not let go very easily, but I didn’t feel the deep sadness which had been with me all that time, especially upon waking. By habit looking over at the jewelry box on top of the chest of drawers where Fawn had spent many sleeping hours during our time in this house, and most of her last few weeks, I noticed the balloon hovering over that spot. Either it had been carried upstairs by one of the other cats or it had made quite a circuitous journey on its own because it was roughly exactly above where it had been hovering on the first floor.
This meant it traveled about ten feet along a wall to the foot of the steps, dipped down a foot to get through the archway, made a u-turn into the stairway and floated up the steps, made a right turn and moved about a foot in that direction while not floating up to the full ten-foot ceiling height so that it could make a jog through my bedroom doorway, turned left and floated about three feet to a spot where there was nothing to hold it in place. Yes, very complicated.
My heart was in my throat, and a little tingle of joy in my heart. I had a sense of what it meant but was not fully awakened to its meaning.
When I came home from work that day the balloon was still in its spot. I replaced the photograph of Fawn, which I had been carrying back and forth to work, on the sewing machine across the room where I kept photos of family and all the cats I’d lost. Instead of the sadness I had felt in that room I felt a capricious and happy spirit; that had been Fawn’s room since the day we had moved here, and my “yittle girl” always waited for me under the bed as in the portrait I’d painted of her, above, when she was just a kitten, pouncing out when she thought I least expected it and prancing around the room, playing hard to get.
I returned to the room later that evening to find that the balloon had moved across the room and was hovering over Fawn’s picture with the ribbon touching it, where it stayed, on its own, for two weeks until it was completely out of air, lasting much longer than all the others in the original bunch. None of the other cats ever touched the ribbon or the balloon, though they’d normally at least take a swat.
When Fawn discovered “up” as a kitten, she got “up” on everything as often as possible—narrow shelves on the wall, inside open transoms, on the top edge of an open door, she even had her eye on the ceiling fans. Balancing in place she would call for me to come and see her and gaze down smugly as I praised her, even if she needed my help in getting down.
Fawn was not ready to leave, and I wasn’t ready for her to go. She was only ten years old. For those eight days I felt her unsettled unhappiness and my own grief would not ease. Fawn chose to return to me in a form I would clearly understand, and as a symbol of cheerful celebration, an object which freely floats as high up in its space as it can, and I can only be reassured that the bond we had when she was here carried on to the next existence, that she loved me enough to let me know she had finally accepted and was enjoying the same antics she always had while here. How else would I be sure it was her, silly human that I am?
Until just a few years ago when I began blogging, I designed cards in remembrance of my cats, writing a story and sharing images, printing and folding them myself at home, purchasing special envelopes and postage; they were quite a production sometimes. I wrote this story and gathered the images all those years ago, after the encounter with the balloon, and my amazement has not decreased in the least.
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Taking Sally Home
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.
In October 1998 Sally had simply stopped eating one day and went for nearly two weeks with a completely normal routine while drinking water, but only eating the occasional treat she could not refuse. Exams and tests showed nothing and she looked no different, yet she would surely die if she persisted. One day I simply held her and cried, begging her to either begin eating or let me know what was wrong. An hour or so later she ate a few threads of cooked linguini, and from that began to eat normally again.
In November, Fawn was diagnosed with lymphona, but we’d gotten it into remission fairly quickly.
In January as I was petting Sally I felt a flat nickel-sized shape on the back of her right lower jawbone. Sally had developed an osteosarcoma or bony tumor in that spot. Osteosarcomas often grow very slowly but can be very painful; removing her lower jaw was not an option. She paid no attention to it, yet after a month I knew it was spreading. I remembered the previous October and knew she had known about 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.
In March, Fawn’s cancer came out of remission and we lost her quickly.
As the spring continued, Sally weathered the tumor’s steady growth without complaint, adjusting as it affected her tongue, her jaw, her eye on that side of her face, 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 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.” I scheduled an appointment for euthanasia for the early afternoon of Saturday, two days later.
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 cushion 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.
My regular veterinarian was away that weekend, but I had found another who agreed to make a housecall. She 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, 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 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 summer 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.
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Working in my office/studio one evening, I heard the door of my refrigerator open—you know how you recognize these everyday noises—and I didn’t think too much of it. Until I remembered that I lived alone and I had not opened the door myself. I slowly turned my head to look into the next room where the refrigerator was plainly in view, and the door was indeed wide open, and…Kublai was standing right in front and looking over the contents.
Kublai, my first black kitty, was a real creative thinker, and between his strength and able mimicry of my movements—opening windows and doors, pulling lids off containers—and my tiny refrigerator, he just decided he’d open it one evening and help himself to the contents.
If I’d had a video camera he surely would have won a prize for the way he’d flip open the door, stand there with all the other cats ranging behind him and say, “Humph”, his message: “There’s nothing good in here to eat.” Well, I was a vegetarian, but he was also a feline garbage dispose-all and stopped at absolutely nothing. He’d eat cooked carrots as well as anything else. He’d eat the plastic they were wrapped in as well.
This was cute and funny, but also a great worry since it could be fatal if the door swung shut with him or one of the others inside. A new refrigerator was out of the question because of space, so I tilted it slightly forward so the door would not swing shut if opened, and added a bungee cord wrapped around from the side to hold the door shut for, oh, at least four years. Sometimes I would forget the bungee cord, and the door would always be open the next time I entered the room. I think he gave it a try several times a day just for the heck of it.
A few months after I’d lost Kublai I finally decided to rebalance the refrigerator, replace the seal and remove the bungee cord. None of the other cats was inventive enough to try to open it. One day soon after, I returned home to a wide-open refrigerator door and laughed, the first good laugh without a twinge of sadness, simply knowing Kublai had gotten one over on me. I’d been thinking about him all day, smiling at all the incredible things he’d done.
How did I know one of the other cats hadn’t opened it, or it hadn’t simply fallen open on its own? I didn’t. I didn’t have any proof, but I trusted my intuition, which Kublai had helped me to hone. I knew he’d been here for a visit, and he knew how hard it still was to face my home without him here.
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Taking their places again
From the time I’d moved into this house I’d had a foster cat in the spare cat room, right on the landing between the bathroom and my bedroom. I’d visit the spare cat and dole out some more food right before I went to bed. When sweet and humble Moses, serious about her food having been a few hours from death by starvation, caught on to this and for one of the very few times in her life looked right up at me, pleading, I gave in right away and gave her a few pieces of the spare kitty’s dry food.
When the rest of my household discovered Moses’s clever initiative they quickly convinced me they should all have a midnight snack, choosing places in a circle around me. Hmmm, a circle of eager, hungry cats and just me at the top of the steps…their expressions were all so dear that I quickly grew to look forward to the midnight snack. It turned out to be a great idea because they’d all come to bed and settle down for most of the night and was one of the things that brought this group of cats, and me, so close together. Initially there were six, but my household grew to nine, and often included fosters after their time of quarantine. I doled out the food on the wooden floor you see in Kublai’s portrait, above; the spare cat room doorway is to the left, Kublai’s spot was pretty much where you see him on the floor.
I actually lost Kublai and our orange boy Allegro two weeks apart. They were nearly my first losses, I had had no idea Allegro was ill, could barely mourn Kublai who’d been like my life partner, and was totally lost. I was still doling out the nightly snack though it was a constant reminder that two of the nine were missing, and the remaining seven had begun to fill in the open spots.
A few days after Allegro passed I was getting the container of food and visualizing all nine of them on the landing behind me, actually forgetting there were now only seven. I turned around to see they’d arranged themselves as they always had before any losses leaving Kublai’s and Allegro’s spaces open. I was surprised to see they weren’t there, then I remembered, then I smiled. “Thanks for stopping back, boys, I’m glad you’re still together,” I said.
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Light as thistledown
Sally had pure white long hair, was genetically deaf and as free as the wind. 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. I lost her at 15 to cancer.
As I 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.
With all the time I spend on trails and outdoors I encounter more than my share of thistle seeds and usually they are just thistle seeds, but every once in a while I still enjoy a visit from Sally as she spins and whirls around my head, sometimes landing near me before again taking flight, borne on the wind.
And sometimes I see a white pouf drifting up to one of my windows, gently brushing against it or becoming lightly tangled in the screen, under my porch roof, on my second floor, places where it’s not easy for a thistle seed, borne on the wind, to get itself into, but she finds her way to me.
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On the Wednesday afternoon one week to the approximate hour after Namir’s death, Cookie and I went out in the yard to remember him since we three had enjoyed much time together out there. I hadn’t sensed him around at all, not seen him out of the corner of my eye, not forgotten that he had died and went looking for him, all very strange for the cat with the big personality who had monopolized so much of my time with his hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
Cookie jumped up on the picnic table before I even got down the steps from the deck. At 17 Cookie was very dignified, but not known for her speed. She knew exactly what we were doing.
As we sat there, I heard behind me familiar buzzing and slight chirping sounds, though I couldn’t place them until I turned around and saw a female hummingbird visiting the bergamot, newly blooming right next to the picnic table. I normally have groups of hummingbirds visiting my feeders and all the geraniums and other attractive flowers in my yard, but this year it was July and I hadn’t seen a single one yet.
In most cultural and spiritual traditions, the hummingbird is known to be a messenger. While it is bound to the immense needs of its body to supply enough nourishment to support its high energy activity, it still transcends this burden to find joy in each day as they always spend some time in play and even seem to play practical jokes. It has adapted to reach far into a flower to find its nourishment, and so we must learn to reach far into ourselves to fulfill our needs. These tiny birds migrate a huge distance, and so tell us that we must persevere, no matter the conditions. Their wings beat in the symbol of infinity.
I was so happy to see the little bird, admiring her olive green against the deep red of the bergamot. But it took me a minute or two to realize it was Namir visiting us, as all my other cats had done in one way or another, to let me know he was free of his limitations, that I needn’t worry about him any more. No human but me knew all the health burdens Namir carried; like the hummingbird he had transcended the weight of his body in life, and now in death.
She soon left the bergamot to hover around the yard—in all the places Namir had loved so well for observing wildlife. As I pondered the deep significance of this visit I heard a scuffle in a tree and I saw her being chased by a sparrow in the air above the yard. The hummingbird had apparently annoyed the sparrow, probably poked in her behind her as Namir had once poked Cookie and run away laughing. I laughed. How like Namir. As she sped off, the sparrow in hot pursuit, I whispered to the sky, “Bye, guy.”
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But my favorite visit is at the end of twilight, when the sun has gone down and the only natural light is that reflected from the sky back to earth, the twi-light being the mixing of day and night together. In this half-light the human eye, strong on color, can barely distinguish shapes from the dim background and the veil between day and night seems to thin as does the veil between this world and the next.
I carefully walked through my bedroom to turn on the lamp on the other side of the room, but just as I reached for the lamp I simply felt lots of cats in the room with me. This was no surprise, I’ve always had six or more, usually nine, and they often follow me as I do things and also hang out on the bed in my room.
But while I could actually see and hear the cats who’d followed me into the room, I glanced around the room to see what other cats were also there. They shifted around and I couldn’t focus clearly on a single one, though I could swear there’d been more than one on the bed…I stood there, not focusing my eyes on anything but simply sensing that I was sharing the room with a good number of my feline family, past and present, on the bed, on the windowsill, on the floor, even rubbing on my legs in the darkness near the floor.
This last light fades very quickly no matter where you are at this time of day. Full darkness came in just a minute or two, and with it all our visitors faded and left, leaving only my current family settling on the bed for a bath and acting as if nothing unusual had happened; for them it was likely a typical occurrence. I turned on the light and thought about the last few minutes, glad I’d been able to experience it.
And I have again a few other times through the years, always in the same conditions of deep twilight. While one might think I’d plan to be there at that magic time of day every day just to be with them again, it really doesn’t work that way; even when I’ve come a little early and realized the time was soon and I would wait, they don’t show up on a schedule.
But when I have no inkling of the desire, when I am emotionally ready, I sometimes find myself walking through the softened shadows of my room, and sense all around me my precious companions as if they’ve planned that I would appear at exactly that time, when the edges disappear, the veil thins, and in those few moments when day and night mingle, so does past and present and our loved ones can once again share an existence with us, however brief.
Read more in Pet Loss on The Creative Cat.
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