It’s been just over a year and I can’t recall what I said. I’m sure it wasn’t profound. I’m positive it didn’t come close to expressing the wave of emotion drowning my heart. I only remember the love, as I buried my face in my cat’s chest on the last day of his life.
Just before I adopted Leo, many years before, a blizzard had pummeled the city into almost complete urban hibernation. Despite the limited subway service, my friend Cristin and I left the warmth of my Brooklyn fireplace for an animal shelter in Manhattan, to check out an orphaned Maine coon cat.
As we laughed our way through a maze of buried cars and discarded Christmas trees, I wondered why I was doing this. But my doubts dissipated in the wake of three simple truths. I was married. I was lonely. I was looking for love.
Love at first sight
Leo was huge, and his purr seemed to shake the room at the shelter. As we locked gazes, he batted his golden eyes and jack-hammered right through my concrete façade, leaving my heart a pile of grateful rubble. Leo was tough like me, but our embrace seemed to shape-shift us back into the loving source of our respective origins.
I learned from shelter volunteers that this sweet boy had been kicked out of his home after the death of his owner, and left to wander the streets alone, a cruel punishment for such a friendly fellow. As I stroked his massive head, I experienced love at first sight. But did I need this right now? I was taking a trip to California in a few days to “find myself” and my career. This cat crush was screwing it up! I tried to brush off our connection, but it was too late.
“See the way he’s looking at you,” says Cristin. “You should take him home, and you should call him Leo.”
And I did.
My husband and I fell madly and passionately in love with Leo. Unfortunately, Thom and I had fallen out of love with each other. Our marriage was lost. The match was over and no one wanted to call it. I finally left Thom four years later with some money and a ton of fear. I left with Leo. In the end, whatever anger I harbored for Thom quickly dissipated in the face of his pent-up sobs as he handed Leo and his carrier back to me. It was his last and fi nest show of valor.
My soul awakens
Anatole France said it best: “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” My friend Jon agreed, adding that, “Leo’s a person wearing a cat mask.” I believe he was right, only most of the masks were worn by me. I’m an actor and writer, shapeshifting between feeding my passions and paying my bills. Waiting for that great romance, that career break to make me matter. Waiting my whole life to become something I never became. With Leo, I didn’t need to arrive. I was always there. Leo was my eternally grateful orphan, an alchemist who dissolved my tears with the swipe of his cheek, my jester between sheets as I battled to make the bed. He was my friend and I’ll never forget him.
The earth shakes
The years passed, and Leo grew old and ill. In the end, he was barely eating. I had to hand feed him, and he eventually rejected that as well. He was only ten pounds when they weighed him…ten pounds from 18. As I held his frail body, I wondered how he had hung on for so long, retaining his sweetness of spirit despite his pain.
On the morning that would be his last, Leo stopped purring. That’s when I knew he wanted to go. They say animals hang onto life because the people who love them cannot detach. I believe Leo was detaching from me and for me, his own final act of valor.
Leo taught me that love does not only come in the form of a passionate romance. It takes many forms. It is the gentle touch of a hand feeding a friend too weak to eat on his own. It is the alchemy of love medicine, helping your beloved cross over when he’s too tired to make the trip himself.
Leo left the world on August 23, 2011. As I crawled into my tub and fi nally had my cry, the bathroom suddenly shook. I learned later that New York had experienced a 5.8 earthquake. The adult in me knows the scientific facts, but the kid in me has her own version. I imagined Saint Francis opening the gates of heaven for my gentle giant, who stepped on the holy mountain and shook my little corner of Queens.
I still have a patch of Leo’s fur from the last time I groomed him. I keep it to remind me that his love brought out the best in me. I keep it to remind me to soften my ways. I keep it to remind me that I have been loved, and can love again.