This post is hard for me to write because like so many things in my life, once I put the words to the paper, it becomes real – no longer something I can avoid or ignore, giving it a presence and life on the great wide internet. On Tuesday we lost our precious cat Leo. He was hit by a car in the early evening hours, and my husband found him as he went out jogging. He was only three houses down, and even in his death, I remember thinking how magnificently beautiful he looked lying there under the golden light of the street lamp. He was in perfect condition other than an injury to his head – no doubt a blessing, if there can be a blessing in this tragedy, because his death was instant. His collar was tossed to the side, a cruel reminder that this sadly was our baby and not just a Leo-look-alike.
I want to write about Leo today because his life is worth remembering, and it’s worth celebrating. We decided to get a second cat six months after we got our lovely Lucia, because we felt guilty leaving a spunky and playful kitty home alone every day. I spent weeks scouring Craigslist, looking for the right companion for my sweet tabby girl. I didn’t find one online, so we visited a local Petco on an adoption day. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Leo – he was perched inside of a black wire cage on a puffy cotton bed. Two young boys were petting him through the cage with their fingers, and with his majestic hair spread around him, he looked like a royal cat, one fit for the queen of England on a pillow of velvet. I instantly loved him, but knew there was no way my husband would go for a MALE, LONG HAIRED, ORANGE cat. (He had a cat from Hell as child named Dingus who was an orange male – and Dingus was bad enough to scar him for life!) I called Matt over and as I suspected, he was hesitant because of his color, gender and hair type. The woman overseeing the adoption must have known something about this cat though, because she scooped him up, walked my husband over to a little visiting area, and closed the door. I wasn’t in there with them, but what I saw was magical. Leo pushed his body into my husband’s hands, demanding attention. He purred like a motorboat, rubbing his sweet orange cheeks against my husband’s palms. We didn’t choose Leo that day. He chose us.
He arrived to our apartment in a dramatic display (as usual for such a sassy little guy), as our current cat had to be carried up the stairs hissing, growling and swatting at my face in rage. Leo had to sleep in the bathroom that night, our only room with a door (We lived in a loft apartment), and my husband eventually moved a thin mattress pad into the bathroom with him to settle his cries. They fell asleep together, Leo nestled into Matt’s arms. Leo was meek and tender the first few days we had him, respectfully trying to show Lucia that he accepted that he was the underdog. After a few more days of Lucia’s bitchiness, Leo had had enough and decided HE would be top-cat.
Leo and I didn’t have the best start in life – because he and Lucia didn’t get along and he spent hours biting her butt or humping her, I felt a tiny bit of resentment for the angst he was causing my Lucia. Sometimes in the middle of the night, he would whack my forehead with his tiny orange paw, an action I felt was surely to spite me. Something magical happened when I started to work from home – Leo and I grew to understand each other. His annoying habits, like knocking my pens off my desk, or intertwining himself around my feet, were finally revealed to me as LOVE. Leo just wanted attention. He wasn’t trying to be meddlesome, or irritating – he just wanted to be with me. That’s all. He wanted to be loved.
Eventually, Lucia and Leo grew to tolerate each other, and our lives became delightfully full with the addition of this spirited little boy. He was constantly grooming himself, showing fastidious pride in his silky, long coat. His hair was an amazing orange blonde, and he truly looked like a little lion, exactly like the animal that inspired his perfect name. He and Matt were inseparable, sleeping together, watching TV, playing with feathered cat toys and harassing Lucia.
Leo had a spunk I’ve never seen in an animal – I was trying to train him to stay off the counters and read a trick about putting a cookie sheet full of water on the counter. The point was the water would deter the cat and they would learn to avoid the counter thinking of the association with water. I put the cookie sheet on the counter – and came back to Leo delightfully splish-splashing in the water, droplets all around him, his feet soaking wet and a cheerful look on his mischievous face. He was spunky, all right. I was so glad to see so much joy in him, because Leo never had much luck. We found out when we adopted him that he had been rescued from underneath a dumpster behind a restaurant, where the owners threw glass bottles at him and his brothers. He had frequent eye infections and upper-respiratory illnesses, and up until the day he died, I lovingly cleaned his weeping eyes with warm water and cotton.
A year after we had him, we faced our first tragedy with Leo. After a move to our current home, he wasn’t eating and was very lethargic. We took him to the emergency vet one night when his eye crusted shut, and we found out his liver had jaundice. We had one very sick and very yellow cat. After a heartbreaking round of tests, we were told he immediately had to have a feeding tube inserted or he would die in the night. As young college kids, the $1,400 price tag was excruciating. We sacrificed an exotic Australian honeymoon to save our cat and it was worth every penny. Each night, we set alarm clocks to wake up to feed our sick baby. It was devastating to see how sick he was, but somehow, we prayed and hoped he would make it through.
It was the week that he had a feeding tube that we started to bring him outside, as it was the only thing that made him show signs of life. His ears would perk up at the myriad of sounds around him, the shrill chirping of birds, the gentle lull of the grass in the breeze. He became alive again when he was outside. As he healed, we were faced with a hard decision. Leo LOVED the outdoors. We tried to avoid letting him out, knowing the dangers that faced cats, but he quickly learned how to position himself at our front door, catapulting his tiny body out the door as soon as we opened it. No matter how many times he escaped and we carried him back in, protesting with whiny meows, he always sat by the door crying, looking at us as if we had delivered the biggest injustice in the world. Eventually, we softened, and started letting him into the backyard. This cat LIVED for the outside world.
He started to bring us “gifts” of giant grasshoppers, and even taught our shy little Lucia cat how to meow. He had a loud, obnoxious meow that ranged in tone depending on his moods – from annoyance at the door, waiting to be let out into his world, to utter affection if we were arriving home for the day. He was the floppiest, cuddliest cat I had ever seen, sitting in Matt’s lap on his back, legs splayed like a little human.
In the past few months, Leo and I had grown closer that I knew possible. While we didn’t have the same connection that he and Matt did, I now understood and truly loved this little cat. We spent time curled around each other, and I often woke up with his long hair forming a warm cascade around my feet. We loved each other. There was no doubt. I never thought it was possible to love an animal this much. I had dogs my whole life; Lucia and Leo were the first cats I had ever had.
Now that Leo is gone, we realized we didn’t fully appreciate the presence he brought to our daily lives. This picture of him on the birdbath captures his spirit – playful, mischievous, curious, always making us laugh. I didn’t think about how when he sat in the sink right before I brushed my teeth, he wasn’t plotting to give me cavities – he just wanted to be by me. We often saw a tiny pink tongue snaking into the shower curtains, and it was always just Leo trying to lap up a little morning drink. He loved playing with jingle balls, always in the wee morning hours, making us think “LEO! You drive us crazy!” He was painfully shy around new people, but with us, he was constantly preening and posing, showing off his extravagant tail and how it flamed around him like a velveteen feather. He was extraordinary.
My heart is so heavy, but in writing this I feel some lightness. I’m asking you today, if you have a pet, to squeeze him a little tighter, stroke their ears one more time, or give them a smooch on their forehead. Some people might say Leo was just a cat. And sure, he was just a cat. But he was also a member of our family. He was our little boy, and he taught us so much about life; the delight that can be found in the afternoon sun, the simplicity of a walk through the grass. He gave us so much love, so much joy, and so much entertainment. I still can’t believe he’s gone. The hardest part is knowing how sudden it all was – when Leo first got sick with his liver disease and he lived, we thought surely we would have him forever. That our kids would pull at his tail and that he would wrap his soft body in a toddler’s arms. That he would experience us eventually getting a dog, and moving into our first home, a new backyard to battle the neighborhood cats. He’s not with us here now. He’s in the backyard, laid to rest between two 60-year-old orange trees, a perfect spot with afternoon sun and wild clover. My husband and I have been crushed with grief the past few days, but in it I find something to smile about. I read this quote today, and along with the compassion and kindness of our friends, I have felt a little bit better.
““When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
― Kahlil Gibran
Goodbye my sweet Leo. We’ll love you forever. You’re always in our hearts.