Remembering Leo

After ten years together, my beloved cat Leo has gone on one last adventure. Even though he belonged to me, you let me share him with all of you. This is our story.

Leo’s story begins not with Leo, but with my first cat, Max. I adopted Max from the Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago in October of 2008, still mentally and emotionally recovering from the death of my best friend from cancer earlier that year. Max was a big, majestic boy, tabby and white, named Chili Nelson by the ACS. I promptly renamed him Maximus, after the character from Gladiator, or Max for short. Max was a delightfully strange 16-pound floof that spread his legs behind him when he sat, loved to nap in the sink, slept on my head when I went to bed, and found his way onto just about any surface he could reach. We used to play a game where I would put my hand and arm under the comforter on my bed and he would attack it. A week after I adopted Max I got fired, and six months later with my tail firmly between my legs I moved home to Indianapolis to my mom’s house. Growing up, all our cats had been indoor/outdoor, and other than the occasional scratch they had always been fine, so Max had the run of the neighborhood, and promptly made friends with all the neighbors. One night he jumped up on my lap for pets, purred, jumped down, and let himself out of the cat door in the basement. When he didn’t come home after a day I got worried and enlisted my mom and sister to form a search party. After a few hours of scouring the neighborhood, we found his body by the creek near the house. I was devastated, having now lost two best friends in two years. We buried Max in the backyard in a lovely service with my best friend, his girlfriend (now wife), and my family, and I spent the next week sitting shiva, trying to process a loss so unexpected. Max was with me for only a year, but I still miss him a decade later.

After a week, my mom and sister convinced me to get off the couch and come with them to the Humane Society of Indianapolis, “just to look”. Truthfully, I wasn’t ready for a new cat and wasn’t over Max’s death yet, but I went anyway just to get out of the house.

Wandering around the Humane Society, the terrible sense of loss I felt only became more acute, and after an hour I was ready to go. As we were walking out, there was one more room near the front we hadn’t checked out. As I looked around, I noticed the big black and white cat in the cage right next to me. He looked at me, I looked at him, so I gave him the “Max test”. I put my hand underneath the blanket he was resting on and he immediately went for it the same way Max did. Somehow I knew that he was the one. We filled out the paperwork, and came back the next day to pick him up.

We took him home and quarantined him in a room in the basement to keep any of his Humane Society germs from affecting my mom’s cats (both older at the time). Being unemployed at the time, I spent all my time with him. He was standoffish at first, hiding under anything and everything, and would try to run out the door every chance he got. After a week, he was still hiding under furniture and just being generally cold, and I was worried that maybe I had adopted a dud. I even talked to my mom about taking him back. I was at a loss for a name, and didn’t know what to do. My mom convinced me to give it another week and see what happened.

Well, a few days later I was sitting on the couch in the room we now shared, and he crawled out, jumped up, and took a nap next to me. Still racking my brain for names, my eyes fell on a box of old toys from my childhood and on top was a Leonardo action figure from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Leonardo, Leo for short. Leo the lion. I leaned over and asked him what he thought about that and he looked up, meowed, and went back to sleep. As I would discover in the years to come, when Leo wanted something, he would let me know.

After that we let him roam the house and meet Lynx and Katie, my mom’s cats, and start settling into a routine.

A few days later, we started discovering small, rice-like things on the pillow where Leo had taken up residence. We trapped a few between tape and took it to the vet along with Leo for a post-adoption checkup, and sure enough, Leo had a tapeworm. A quick trip to Petco for anti-worm pills, a very unhappy kitty, and a few days later, Leo was officially worm free.

The next few months were mostly uneventful, save the one time Leo escaped while my mom was letting our other cats out, and promptly found himself sharing the backyard with a deer. Had I not grabbed him when I did, I’m pretty sure he would have had some fresh venison that evening. Leo was always fearless.

Leo and I moved out of my mom’s house not long after that to an apartment in Indy. He liked to sit in the windowsills, either in the bedroom on a strategically placed hammock or by the door when I came home from work. Every now and then he would escape, desperate to explore the courtyard and apartments beyond, but for the most part he had the run of the place.

After a year, we left that apartment and moved in with a friend from college who had a house nearby, along with his friend from high school that had gone to a rival college of ours. The place was great – I had the entire attic to myself, which meant Leo had tons of space, and eventually he had the run of that place as well.

That, of course, takes us to possibly the most famous of all the Leo stories – the story of how Leo went from just being my cat to an internet meme, Leo The Explorer, thanks to all of you.

For the last decade Leo has been my constant companion. Anyone that’s spent any time with me knows I love to show off photos and videos of him doing whatever he does. Whether it’s just napping on the bed or the couch, trying to steal my lunch, or just generally being himself, he is and will always be my beautiful and handsome boy.

In late November last year, Leo was diagnosed with feline leukemia. After the diagnosis, I knew that my time with him would be short. The vet said that without treatment, he’d last an average of three months. Average was not Leo’s style, so he made it five.

The last five months have been challenging, but Leo held on like the trooper he was. Even at the end he went out on his own terms.

It’s impossible to quantify the effect Leo has had on my life. He came to me at a time in my life when I wasn’t sure I wanted another companion and worked his way into my heart. Now I can’t imagine a world without him.

The days ahead will be dark, but Leo taught me that even in darkness there is always hope. When I reach the end of my own days, I hope that Leo is waiting for me, and can tell me all the adventures he’s been on.

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