catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 18 :: 2010.10.08 — 2010.10.21


An affectionate soul

We found Leo lying on Lover’s Lane. His head was a twisted like he was listening for something. There was a smear of blood on the road. He had been crushed. His upward-facing eye was sunken so deeply that the socket looked vacant. The eye facing the road bulged, a stark white line visible below the golden-green iris. His flank facing up was clean, the fur, perfect. Rob scooped him up with a shovel. His body was mostly stiff. We petted his unspoiled flank, talked to him, wrote notes to him, buried him, and wept. I keep thinking about him and crying, wondering what it is about a cat’s death that has affected me so deeply.

We found one cat and her four kittens in a bush by our house on May 15. The kittens were mere days old; they were one squirming mass, eyes closed. My daughter, Madelyn, named the mother May, and we did everything we knew to give the scrawny stray cat enough comfort so she would stay around, but not so much attention as to make her nervous. Like most visitors of new mothers, we were especially keen on the babies. As days and weeks ticked past, I tentatively let the kids and myself touch, then hold, then play with the kittens. One day in early June, May brought the kittens out of the bush and into a basement window well. By the next day, they were strong enough to jump out, and our backyard became (joyfully) infested with cats.

Although I grew up with cats and adore them, I gave up the idea of having any a dozen years ago. My husband Rob is severely allergic to cats. The kids and I had to temper our enthusiasm for petting and holding them with the reality that a single cat hair can make Rob react. There have been more hand washings in our house than in any flu season and many clothes changes purely because we wanted to wallow in the fur but not make Daddy sick. Rob even showed affection for cats that I had never seen. He would walk the yard, inspecting the garden, and put out a hand for them, knowing he’d have to scrub up immediately. The allure of their affection was more powerful than perfect health.

Something that is claimed needs a name. May got her name the day we found her, when it was clear that she was starving and had no options other than scavenging. Once the kittens were waddling around in the shade of their hiding bush — at last separate from one another — we were naming them. One had white feet. He became “White Socks” to the kids and “Hanes” to me. The other three were so similar that only subtle nuance separated them. They were all grey and black tigers. One’s belly and ears were more tawny-orange, making him more like a tiger. He became Tyghee (hard “g”).

One had a thicker black stripe down his back, so I named him Nero, which means “black” in Italian. Then there was Leo. We couldn’t figure out how to name him. He looked so similar to his brother, Nero, that for a several weeks, I studied them, trying to find some discerning detail. Leo’s incarnations were “Zach” and “Buddy” and one day of “Charlie.” Then I noticed how Leo was a bit spottier and a smidge less stripy than his darker brother. Spots equaled leopard equaled “Leo.” It took. We had near-twins with similar names to match their similar coats.

Leo’s temperament was different in that he sought affection more than his brothers. He climbed up the screen door with his front claws to rub his head on my daughter’s leg. He jumped into our laps if we sat down and rolled his body against a leg if the kids were sitting on the ground. When we stroked and petted Leo, his purr would rise in pitch, lilting at the end: a song of pleasure.

Sometime in mid-summer, wanting to relish his attention, I picked up Leo. He pushed his head into my neck and chest like he was trying to become part of my skin. I sat down to see what he would do. On my lap, he curled himself into a ball over and over, rubbing him body across my legs, rubbing his whiskers against my arms and belly, crawling up my chest and inserting his head under my ear.  His purr lifted into a squeak. It was so funny and tickly and unexpected. I loved it.

After discovering what a tactile cat he was, we all sought out Leo. Even Rob sat in a lawn chair one day and let Leo jump on his lap. It was a picture I can’t forget — him sitting in the shade with Leo doing contortions on his lap, and Rob trying to find a place to lay his hands to keep the cat from falling off. (Rob had to come inside and scrub up to the elbow afterward.)

When Tyghee was hit by a car and came home with a broken leg in mid-August, we knew the cats were wandering too far. They had learned to duck under the fence gate, so we blocked it with boards. Then we watched them climb up and over the fence to run across Lover’s Lane, a heavily traveled road with a 45 mph speed limit. Leo would not go so often, though. On many mornings he was still in the backyard, the first to get fed while his brothers and mother noticed from afar and came running. Leo was apt to stay nearby on warm afternoons, when the others had hidden or fled. Often, I went outside just to sit with Leo, to bask in the moment of light coming through trees, to listen to his purr, to feel his delight in being kept company. I sat with him and rehearsed what I read about and teach others: the practice of presence. He was my teacher in enjoying the now.

He was a companion cat, destined to be a lap cat. Just days before he died, I came home and heard him at the patio door, meowing. There was food and water, but he wanted company. I went outside, sat with him, and then decided to clean the outside litter box. I picked up the hand tools and walked toward the back fence; he followed me. I raked through the litter; he looked on intently. I dug a hole in the soil to bury the clumps; when I pulled the spade away, he reached in and scooped dirt out of the hole. Once I dropped in a load, he began to cover it before I could. What I don’t understand is how one brother is kind of stingy and scrappy (Tyghee), one is adventurous and aloof (Hanes), one is somewhat affectionate but would rather play-fight (Nero), and one loved nothing better than a long sit and rub. We raised them the same; we fed them the same; we loved them the same. Leo loved us back in a way we could understand. He was content just to be in contact.

Early on a Sunday morning, I looked out the kitchen window. There was a lump of brown on the road.  The eastern light was angled low, sherbet orange beams pooling on blacktop. Rob ran out, jumped the fence, and yelled back, “It’s a tiger.” I got closer and saw the creamy-golden fur of the belly so often turned up to my hand. I knew it was Leo. It broke me open. I cried and moped for days. People could see something wasn’t right, but it sounded inadequate to say, “Our cat died.” I wanted to say, “A soul who loved me completely is gone, and I don’t know anyone else who will love me that way again.” He was just a cat who followed me around, sat in my lap, and waited by the door for when I came home. He was an affectionate soul who sought me in a way his brothers don’t do, in a way most cats don’t do, in a way almost no person does: with unabashed love and delight in finding someone to return that love.

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