In my dream, my parents said that Squiggy had been shrieking all afternoon during my absence, as if fending off invisible attackers.
But they were not invisible. I could see them—long black rats with ugly snouts and sharp claws. The claws were clamped onto my cat’s fur and he was wailing, yowling in agony and confusion. I snatched Squiggy from the basement floor and carried him up the stairs. I clutched him under one arm and pried the demons off with my free hand, slammed the basement door shut with some vain hope that we could escape them.
I didn’t put Squiggy down when we got to the kitchen. I could see the claws reaching under the door, could see the rat demons squirm into the kitchen. They circled me and still I hung on to Squiggy, who trembled as he pressed himself against me. In my arms he was out of the demons’ reach. In my arms he was safe.
I looked at my mother and asked, “What happens when I go to sleep?”
I woke up in the grey early morning light and realized it was a dream, realized Squiggy was gone. Was still gone. He’d died four months earlier, on the day I was traveling home after a three-week absence. He was old when he’d died, and had been sick for nearly two years, so his death was not unexpected, but I’d wanted to be there when it happened. Had wanted to hold onto him even if the demons had to take him.
The dream haunted me all day and into the next night, when I dreamed Squiggy was alive and more interested in cuddling than he’d ever been in real life.
The grief came hurtling back, hung on to me on my long run, pressing against my lungs and pulling at me as I tried to put one foot in front of the other to get home to cry in the privacy of my own bed. The grief tore at my face every time I took a deep breath.
Squiggy’s first illness had been a strange one, undiagnosable. He bit at his own tail, spraying blood all over our apartment. His only relief was, indeed, my arms or my lap or the dark place created when I curved my body over his in Child’s Pose. At night he slept between my legs. Later, when the vet found he had diabetes, we timed our mornings and our evenings by his insulin doses; we planned our weekends around his glucose curves and got a credit card to cover his expensive food and costly insulin.
Still, I wondered if I had done enough for him, if I’d put in enough time and energy to making sure he had the best care, the right kind of attention for his needs. As I slogged through that run I remembered a story Jen had read recently, about how dogs are human in their attachment to people, how they really do get depressed when their owners are gone for long stretches. I regretted my three-week trip for school; I longed to have taken him with me, to have sacrificed a residency in favor of caring for Squiggy right when he needed me most.
When he died very few of our friends said Squiggy was “just a cat”; most understood the grief that bloomed in our family. In fact, since Squiggy had been my constant companion from middle school into married life his death signaled the end of my childhood and the beginning of my growing old—growing older without the stalwart presence of this black cat. The dream was a reminder of his absence but also a measure of the time that had passed.