If you don’t believe, I don’t expect this essay to convince you.
On the night my father died, the ghost of my dead cat came to comfort me.
If you don’t believe in survival, or spirits, I know that sentence will have you rolling your eyes, or even laughing derisively. To me, however, it is simple, verifiable fact; undeniable personal experience. Bella, who was always my comfort cat—“The more you pet me, the better you’ll feel”–came to care for me as I grieved, reminding me that her continued existence proved that my father, too, survived.
My brother had called me with the sad news at about 9:30 that Sunday night. I was shocked; we’d been preparing to initiate hospice care for our Dad the very next day. I’d anticipated more time—weeks, at least, maybe months. But Dad had, after chatting amiably with the aide at his assisted living facility, indicated that he was going to go to sleep. Twenty minutes later, that same aide found him gone.
A relative who had also been involved in Dad’s care hurried to my home to spend the night. I was indescribably grateful for her presence: grief shared is grief halved. Finally, around midnight, we went to our beds. I did not anticipate sleeping much, if at all, but I turned out the light and pulled the covers up, sliding onto my left side as I usually do when preparing for sleep.
Now, I’m well acquainted with that “almost like being touched” feeling when the bedcovers, pulled just so over one’s back, move eerily, usually in sequence with one’s breathing. It’s a familiar, if unnerving experience. But it is distinct from the feeling (well-known to any cat owner) of a cat who, wanting attention, begins to pick at the blankets: “Pet me!” Since Bella’s passing only one of my three cats, Zoe, was in this habit—and I really preferred it to her other habit, that of getting in my face and howling like a lost soul crying to Heaven from the Gates of Hell! So when the “pick-pick-pick” began, I wearily reached my hand backwards toward the small of my back to stroke Zoe and get her to stop.
My hand touched nothing. There was no cat there. I reached further around, all over that side of the bed, in fact, but could not find her. Puzzled, I sat up and switched on the light.
There were no cats in the room. The bedside lamp cast its light into the hallway, also. None of my cats were in the hall.
And then I understood.
“Bella,” I said quietly, “Mommy’s okay. She’s sad, but she’s okay. But thank you for taking care of me.”
Then, turning out the light, I slid back beneath the blankets and, surprisingly, slept for an hour. Waking, though, I knew sleep would not easily return. So I plumped the pillows and turned onto my back, staring at a ceiling faintly illuminated by ambient light seeping through the curtains from the distant interstate highway.
And then I felt it again. Impossibly (because my bed has an iron bedstead against which my pillow and head butted up, leaving only a smidgen of room, certainly not enough for a four-legged animal to stand), I felt it: “pushy paws” kneading the top of my head, rustling through my hair. As if a full-grown cat, perched in a spot not large enough for a newborn kitten, was kneading against my scalp. Wide awake, I lay there, feeling that comforting, uncanny massage for several minutes, before, once again, reaching up a hand to touch…nothingness. No kitty. No kneading paws. Only the cold iron headboard and the top of my pillow.
And I smiled again. “Bella,” I whispered again, “it’s okay. Mommy’s going to be all right. But thank you for taking such good care of me.”
In the difficult days and nights that followed—making arrangements for my father’s funeral; going to his assisted living facility to pack and remove his things; and lying, wakeful, night after night, I wondered if my best beloved, lost little cat would come to me again. But she, having done her job and done it well, did not return, instead going on to whatever busied her there in Bubastis, the great citadel of the cats in the Egyptian afterlife of Amenti, where she was worshipped and adored.
As I say, for anyone who does not believe, this epistle will be something to mock; to laugh at long and scornfully. But for me, just as on the night my grandmother died and came, impossibly, to surround me with love in a space and at a time when no one could have been there—to me, it was just one more brick on the wall of proof that we do, indeed, go on; that we continue; and that love will not, does not, could not ever die.
The title of this essay is drawn from an earlier post, the poem “Ghost Kitty Walks”, October 30, 2017, about the little ghost cat who has always lived in my home, and with whom all my other cats play. You can find that post in the archives.