“Even the smallest feline is a masterpiece of nature.” – Leo(nardo) da Vinci
By Bob Socci
Throughout our first dozen years of marriage, I drew a pretty big distinction between my wife and me.
“I’m a dog person,” I clarified, whenever the subject of pets came up in conversation with other couples. “Monique is the cat person.”
Truth is, I wasn’t being honest with them. Or myself.
This I’ve realized, more and more in recent days, since bringing our elderly cat Leo, a part of our lives as long as I’ve lived in the Boston area, to the vet’s three times in less than a week.
When Mo and I moved here in 2008, still months away from our wedding day and a couple of years away from the birth of our first child, we were eager to start a family.
At the time our apartment building was feline-friendly. But unfortunately, canines were unwelcome. So when Mo eventually stopped by the Quincy Animal Shelter, she stuck to the cats’ section only.
That’s where she found Leo wearing a gray-and-white tuxedo of smooth, soft shorthair. Mo was told that Leo had been brought there by some teenagers. They’d been outside a convenience store when a car pulled into the parking lot and a stranger randomly handed them a cat before driving away. Thankfully, they thought enough to take Leo to the shelter.
Whatever life he’d led to that point and however unsettling his experience had been, Leo was remarkably chill. Instantly, he and Mo bonded.
Before leaving, she asked about another kitten being caged separately nearby. It was an enormous and fluffy, black-and-white Maine Coon. Shelter staff cautioned her that this one failed to get along with others. Well, except for the little guy several years his elder; Leo.
Instead of one rescue, we ended up with two.
Raffy immediately became our constant source of alternating angst and comic relief, as a clumsy bundle of rambunctiousness. Leo was his dainty complement, still playful but always with aplomb; a Bud Abbott to Raf’s Lou Costello.
For me, having gone from stages of childhood through adolescence living with Sandy the Collie, Jed the Doberman-Shepherd mix and Chelsea the Shorthaired Pointer, my new roommates took getting used to.
Camping out on my desk as I tried to work, often resting their heads on my keyboard. Planting themselves between my coffee and me, right in the middle of the Sunday sports section. Chasing one another in the dark of night, converting our two-bedroom apartment into the Calgary Stampede.
That was the relatively easy stuff to deal with. Then there were the incidents I barely got over.
Like the time Raf somehow knocked a framed poster of Miles Davis off the wall, crashing it to the floor amid shards of broken glass. And the times — emphasis on the plural — both cats ignored the scratching posts we bought and instead dug their claws into our leather furniture. Years later, albeit under slip covers, those scars remain.
But so too do amazing memories. Especially of the kitties and our kids.
In July 2009 we moved into our first house. Less than a year later, we welcomed our baby boy. Eighteen months after his birth, a sister was born.
In each case, I was charged with the advance work before mother and child came home, grabbing a swaddle cloth from the hospital and allowing Leo and Raffy to sniff it, so they’d know the scent of our new addition.
Kids and cats became inseparable. Today as I look back, every photo or video seems to feature either one or both cats and either of one or both kids from those formative years when our house became our home.
While little Leo remained his savvy, steady self, big Raf exerted his mischievous influence. As if it were yesterday, I still laugh at the look of guilty pleasure on el gato grande and our little boy when I found them rummaging through some bedroom clothing bins. Both sitting atop piles of socks and underwear on the floor.
Sadly, within a few more years, Raffy’s huge heart gave out. We lost him while rushing him on a Sunday morning to the animal hospital in Weymouth. As much as the kids hurt, having Leo to hold and hug helped to ease their pain.
Before long, Mo revisited the QAS and adopted another kitten. With the kids unable to agree on a name, we simply called her, ‘Little Kitty.’ Unfortunately, she would need time to overcome her skittishness from a prior life as a stray on the street. Little Kitty didn’t quite yet know how to give back the affection she was getting.
Therefore, the kids grew more strongly and deeply attached to Leo. Particularly our son. Especially upon moving into a new home in the summer of 2019.
By then our eldest learned of his diagnosis on the autism spectrum, while struggling daily to socialize with peers. Occasional bullying episodes in school and summer camp only added to his stress. Always and unfailingly, he found comfort in Leo by his side.
Really, both kids did as they tried to adapt to our new surroundings. They started sleeping together in our guest room. And every night, our bunny-like Leo nestled between them to make it three’s company.
Months later, COVID-19 came along. Schooling switched on-line, we rarely left home and the relationship between children and pets became more important than ever.
That’s when and why Mo and I decided to add a pandemic pup to the family. Our search eventually led us to Hartford to pick up an adorable rescue from Alabama. The kids named him, Obi; short for Obi Wan Kenobi.
Meanwhile, our Yoda-like Leo, a sage 16-year old, was slowing down considerably. The grace in his gait was gone. He climbed stairs more slowly and seemed to rest more regularly.
Not surprisingly, Leo rarely had the energy or desire to engage our playful pup. Still, he managed to out alpha the younger, bigger, stronger mix of Husky and a handful of other breeds that turned up in Obi’s ‘doggy DNA’ test. Leo quickly commandeered the dog’s crate and accompanying bed, announcing himself king of the KONG©.
And as long as he got his cream in the morning and wet food in the afternoon, Leo was content. At night, he was happiest when cuddling — sometimes even burrowing under the comforter — with his buddy, our boy.
Our daughter was always around to fill any gaps in affection. She took over daily cat feeding duties, clung to Leo while reading a favorite book and stroked his fur as he crouched atop a bedroom radiator cover.
Leo never lacked love. Giving it, or receiving it.
But increasingly of late, he lacked his once hearty appetite.
About two weeks ago, just as a fully-vaccinated Monique and the kids left home during school vacation to visit relatives in Guatemala, Leo’s condition changed considerably.
His thirst was unquenchable, no matter how long he licked water from a bowl, sink or bathtub. His weight dropped drastically, as he repeatedly rejected any morsel of tuna or other Temptation.
Up until then, Mo, the doctor in our house, handled calls to the vet. Now it was on me. I got Leo an appointment and drove him to the VCA Quincy. They kept him for the day to run tests and I picked him up around 8 p.m.
The next afternoon, the doctor called. Leo was in kidney failure. His prognosis was dire.
With few options to weigh, I worried mainly about keeping Leo alive long enough for Mo and the kids to return, but not at the expense of him suffering. The vet suggested administering fluids subcutaneously for a few days and gauging Leo’s response.
I returned to the VCA, where very caring nurses demonstrated the treatment Leo would need at home.
“Pinch the fur with your thumb and index finger to create a ‘little tent’ in which to insert the needle,” they said. “Open the flow of saline solution and give him 100 milliliters at a time. Twice daily. Twelve hours apart.”
With that, they handed me a full IV bag and a bag full of needles.
The next afternoon, there were some small signs of encouragement. Leo seemed to be moving better. He even took a few bites of food. It was Thursday and Mo and the kids were due back late Saturday. I was confident they’d get to see him. But understood it might be long enough only to say goodbye.
After they returned, everyone doted on Leo all day Sunday; looking, praying for signs of progress. By nightfall, our only choice was pretty obvious to Mo and me. We had to do what was best for Leo.
On Monday morning, I called the vet’s office at 9 a.m., sharp. We set an appointment for 3:40 in the afternoon. The vet would evaluate Leo at least one more time and let us know where we could go from there.
When the time came, the kids loaded into my car. I placed Leo in his carrier on the seat between them. Our son asked if he could take Leo out, and hold him during the ride.
“Of course,” I said, swallowing my short reply.
Upon arrival, an assistant met us at the car to bring Leo inside for his exam. Minutes later, the vet called with news of a worst fear realized. He kindly and compassionately talked me through the process to soon follow.
The side door of the building opened and the kids and I walked inside a small exam room. The vet then gently lifted Leo onto a table, which was covered by a New York Yankees blanket, of all things. I tried to crack a light-hearted line about it, if only to momentarily delay a dad’s heaviest duty — consoling his children as they confront the heartache of lasting loss.
The next two minutes will stay with the kids and me. Suffice to say, it was hard.
It’s only gotten harder. And it’s been hardest on our son.
As we’ve talked the past couple of days, I’ve discussed my own similar loss as a teenager, when my dog Jed had to be put down.
In sorrow, I stress, we can also find joy. The thought of losing Jed still makes me sad decades later. But the years’ worth of memories of my life with Jed always makes me happy.
Someday soon, as far off as it seems right now, we will all feel that way about Leo.
We gave him a wonderful life, and he gave us the same.