Before I go, I have something to say

A Death in the Family

Mr. Leo

Bob and I returned home late, one warm August night. As usual, our cat, Leo, greeted us, flopping down on the living room floor, ready for his nighttime routine. First, get brushed, rolling over on cue. Next, wait for the fistful of treats that come as the basement door closes. Finally, race downstairs to where Bob is catching the baseball scores or watching a late show. Every night, Leo would knead and circle, finally settling onto Bob’s lap. That cat could be hell on wheels at other times of the day, but as the evening drew to a close, he would let down his guard.

As always, as I began closing the door behind him, I took the base of his tail in my hand and stroked it upward. I loved the meow-purr he uttered in response to my “Goodnight, kitty.” No matter that he voiced it only at mealtimes, and never for our various cat-sitters. They were greeted with hisses even as they doled out his food. Leo knew what and whom he loved, and his circle allowed only two. (Spotting another cat outside sent him into an absolute fury. How DARE there be other cats?)

Though it was a work night, I stayed up , sorting papers and making a list for the next day. Everything was normal; everything was fine.

Fifteen minutes later, Bob came up and opened the door. I thought he must be tired from the late drive home. But he just stood there, an unreadable look on his face. Now, my husband often just stands in various rooms of the house looking at me, sometimes saying “Huh,” or “Well,”  and I’ll ask, expectantly, “What?” This time, something prompted me to ask instead, “Are you all right?” I thought surely had broadcast some terrible news, a new 9/11, and was he was deciding how to tell me.

But no. The news he had to convey was awful, but it won’t make national headlines. He said, “Leo had a seizure.” I gasped, picturing a rush to the emergency vet, but then he said, “He’s gone.” Leo had bounded down the steps as usual, jumping onto the sofa to get ready to lie down. Then came the seizure, and as Bob talked to him, he could see the life go out of Leo’s handsome, grey and white body.

Now, if you’ve never had a cat or dog or other pet for whom you had a soft spot, you may find it ridiculous that I burst into tears. No need to read further. Go back to your book, your DVD. I hope it’s Dewey, the Library Cat, or that episode of “Downton Abbey” where Robert’s beloved Isobel,  sweet Labrador retriever – well, never mind. (My daughter and I joke darkly about never reading books about pets because they always – always – die in the end.)

We sat in the living room for a while, talking about all the goofy and annoying and surprising things Leo had done in the twelve years we’d had him. When he was new, he would pick up his toys and carefully deposit them in our shoes. When we talked to him, he answered. But he was no sweet, run-of-the-mill cat. He had no patience for humans who walked too many times past him, giving us a good whap when he’d had it. This habit, no doubt, was key to his champion-level mousing.

He had a presence, and the reason I chose him from the Humane Society was the way he followed me with his eyes, as if to say, “Stop looking. I’m the one you want.” He might not have been welcome in another family, once his moodiness became apparent. I was glad we had chosen each other.

We walked down the stairs together to see him one last time. I began to cry again. It’s such a shocking thing, seeing the body of someone you love who has died, all the animation gone. I don’t know if he had a soul, but he had a spirit, and it had vanished. We had said “Goodnight.” Now we had to say “Farewell.”

It was a good death. He was at home. He was neither old nor visibly sick. No scary trip to the vet.

Bob buried him the next morning, under the mulberry bush. He did it early, before the neighborhood kids were out. It’s been several weeks now, yet I still look for him, still think he’s in the next room. I hadn’t realized how much I talked to him, calling out, “Hey kitty!” when I got home from work; asking how he felt about that chipmunk he was watching through the window, taunting him by running back and forth.

This was made more sad because my son and his wife had lost their beloved dog, Bianca, much the same way just a few weeks before. A stocky bulldog-boxer mix, Bianca loved everyone she met, her tail going constantly, her teeth bared in a big smile. They were expecting twins, and we all looked forward to the way she would greet and protect them.

My friend Eden, who has lived her whole life with dogs and cats, wrote me this beautiful sympathy note: “Of all the losses that accumulate over the course of a lifetime, losing a member of the family – human, canine, or feline – is always the worst. I can remember what I was doing for ever one of those losses, feeling at that moment like a hot-air balloon losing loft. It may be that we eventually learn to live without them, but all the aspects of our days shaped by and around their presence no longer have a home.”

Rest in peace, Leo. Good boy.

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