Farewell Dear Leo

When Mercy the Dog arrived in this household late in 2018, Leo the Cat commented (as recorded on his blog at the time): “This is what I need in my 90’s? Really? I want no more than a clean litter box and a full plate of food. Oh yes, and a soft place to sleep 85% of the time. Is this too much for a cat of my dignity to expect? A puppy threatens all of these. Really? Do humans think at all? We felines would never let it come to this. Just sayin’.”

Leo the Lion (2000-2020)

And I couldn’t disagree. But Leo, well into his supposed dotage, responded well to the challenge. Within a few months, as Mercy the Dog (hereafter MtD) would work off excess puppy energy by running wild circles back and forth across the first floor of the rectory at Shoreham NY, Leo would (apparently casually) station himself along MtD’s racetrack, stand on his haunches, and wait. Each time the D passed by at great speed, Leo nonchalantly – at the precisely perfect instant – would stretch out a paw and hit the Dog across the snout. Mercy never learned any better. And Leo never stopped enjoying the game.

Living with arthritis, kidney dysfunction, and high blood pressure, Leo had slowed during 2020. In this he has been something of an emblem of the whole world this year. Compromised, tired, a little off the mark, but in Leo’s case rising each day to keep on keeping on.

Early this afternoon in Natick, Massachusetts, at an animal emergency hospital run by people of knowledge, experience, and compassion, Leo the Lion completed his own race. And I think he was victorious.

Most of God’s good creation, as wiser heads and gentler hearts than I have noted, know more than enough simply by nature to be who and what they were created to be. This, for reasons not germane here, gets tricky for us crazed humans. But Leo. Leo knew perfectly well how to be a cat. And he did so, perfectly well, for over twenty years.

From the days when he could effectively disappear for 3 days at a time at the matriarchal home in Hudson, New Hampshire to avoid being used as a stuffed-animal stand-in by the grandchildren when they were small, to his days living in quiet splendor in semi-retirement in Suffolk County, New York, Leo knew how to live ‘cat’ to the hilt. And he did.

These last six years, given the opportunity to share his everyday life as I was, I saw Leo in action. This meant for many hours to see Leo in splendid inaction, regally at rest, rising only to stroll the borders of his kingdom and to make sure the human was preparing his felinely fine meal.

Early this afternoon, beset by failing kidneys, a murmuring heart, painful limbs and heightened blood pressure, a kind and skilled stranger placed Leo in my lap, wrapped in a comforter, an IV line in his leg.

Boss to the end, Leo’s great great heart had commenced to fail as the doctor and friends had prepared him. They ran with him into the room, telling me he was coding, and then beginning the administration of whatever that terrible liquid is.

Somehow I had avoided this particular moment with a beloved pet all my life until today. To feel so deeply needed and so deeply helpless at one and the same time and circumstance is a most-powerful experience. I looked at that quiet, well-known face, into those open eyes. I rubbed his ears. I repeated his name, “Leo,” and as the IV line did its work I thanked this good creature of the good Creator, gently, again and again, for doing his work so well, and for so long.

And, I don’t mind telling you, I cried. I sobbed. And I’ve done so more than once again throughout the day. There and then I saw Leo, and in him I saw all our family throughout those last twenty years, from his arrival only months after my Dad’s death. I saw grandchildren being born and growing. I saw siblings in their marriages, in their careers, in their joy and sorrow. I saw Mom and myself in conversations in her front room in Hudson, with Leo sauntering through when he deemed it helpful, or lounging across the room. All of it in its ordinariness and its vital beauty I saw as this little creature breathed his last and I whispered into his ear, “Thank you Leo, dear friend, thank you.”

Even in the moment there, I could wonder why it hurt so much, why it is so breathtaking to say farewell. Why some might ask me ‘why so upset here when there’s real trouble easily found elsewhere.’

Immediately I remember what became obvious to me long ago, though not everyone might see it this way: There is only one grief. There are not many griefs. There is one deep underground river of grief which runs far beneath the everyday of life. Into it pour all the sorrows of all the sentient beings. Every deep regret. Every lasting hurt. Every moment of loss. Especially every moment of loss. All the spontaneous tears of refugee families, of mothers of stillborn infants, of human beings in poverty and hunger throughout the centuries, of innocents suffering a million injustices, of good people suffering a pandemic in their bodies tonight: all the tears of all those countless circumstances run together to make up that underground hidden but roaring river of grief.

Including even a man in his 60’s, sitting alone in a strange room lamenting intensely as a simple domestic cat – one of how many? – leaves this life.

What I don’t yet see clearly, though I believe it with full heart and mind, is the way in which that river of grief is transmuted into something else, something more. How it becomes, as only the benevolent divine power could accomplish, a water that does not only lament death, but also brings life.

When I think of my dear Dad, of grandparents long dead, of friends gone so early, and of all the people of God whose lives I have been unworthily privileged to bless at their deaths as priest, I know in the depths of heart and in the heights of hope that the shared grief of our human family is not the end of our story. It is a dramatic truth that invites a turning point of eternal significance.

I think of that again as I write these words this evening, thinking of one little cat who is not here tonight, though his bed is here on the floor, his litter box in the laundry room, his dish from this morning in the fridge. And his mark on our family’s heart.

Leo is worth crying over for a time. This death too is worth taking the time to bid farewell. Especially in this world where we often fail to do so for each other, I’m glad, through tears, that I was there today just to say it. Just to say thank you. Thank you Leo. Well done.

December 7, 2020

3 thoughts on “Farewell Dear Leo

  1. John this is exactly how anyone that has ever known you. When I think back on your days in Lynn – be comforted to know that you are still dearly missed and loved. If only one word was allowed to describe you – that word is “compassionate”.

    “Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” Anatole France

    Leo was fortunate to have been loved so much and sadly like all of us – it was his time. ❤️

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