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An Absence in the Family

An Absence in the Family

An Absence in the Family

by Pam Kress-Dunn

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.

Every night, 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 kibble. 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 retiring early after the late drive home. But he just stood there, an unreadable look on his face. Now, my husband often stands in various rooms of the house looking at me, sometimes saying “Huh,” or “Well,” and I’ll respond, expectantly, “What?” This time, something prompted me to ask instead, “Are you all right?” I feared the television had broadcast some terrible news, a new 9/11, and 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.” Gone? Our fierce 18-pound companion, 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 Isis, Robert’s 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 mystifying things Leo had done in the twelve years he’d lived with us. When he was new, he would pick up toys and randomly deposit them in our shoes. When we spoke to him, he answered. But he was no sweet greeting-card 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 championship-level mousing.

He had a presence. I felt it the moment he locked eyes with me at the Humane Society, 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.

That night, as we walked down the stairs to see him one last time, I began to sob again. It’s such a shocking thing, seeing the body of someone you love with all the animation gone. I don’t know if he had a soul, but he had a spirit, and it had vanished. I had said “Goodnight.” Now I 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 weeks now, yet I still look for him, still think he’s nearby. I hadn’t realized how much I talked to him, calling out, “Hey kitty!” any time I arrived home; asking how he felt about that chipmunk he was watching through the window; confessing to him, “I am sick of this snow. You’re so lucky to be an indoor cat.”

Leo’s departure was even more sad because my son and his wife had lost their beloved dog, Bianca, much the same way just a few weeks earlier. A stocky bulldogboxer 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 in California, who has lived her whole life with dogs and cats, sent me this beautiful 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 every 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.