On August 28th, 2001, I brought Leo home from the ASPCA on 91st St in NYC. He was a year and four months old. I carried him in a cardboard pet carrier supplied by the shelter. In layman’s terms, it was a box with handles. We traveled by subway. The poor thing must have been terrified. When I finally set the box down in the living room and opened the top, Leo took one look, jumped out, and ran. He very quickly found his way under the bed and took up residence there.
Over the next couple of weeks, he would venture out for food and the litter box–Leo was never one to miss a meal–but little else. Sometimes he would poke his head around the corner, but the slightest unexpected motion or loud sound sent him scurrying back to his lair under the bed. I’m sure he must have explored the rest of his domain while I was out, but when I was home, he either kept his eye on me, perhaps wondering if I were real, or nestled in the safety of the shadows. In the dictionary, under the definition of scaredy-cat, there was a picture of Leo.
Two weeks later was September 11th. I was teaching in Manhattan, but far from the site. No one had smart phones back then, at least not Catholic school teachers. Access to the Internet was not as ubiquitous as it is today. There were no working TVs in our classrooms. Information came in dribs and drabs. I heard that a plane flew into the World Trade Center, and I thought it was a Cessna. This was not that long after JFK Jr’s crash. Then I went to teach, or rather to test. That day, the second full day of the school year, was the day for the summer reading test. I was in my classroom for the next three hours. Only when I went down for lunch did I hear about the second plane and the towers falling.
Soon enough an announcement was made for everyone to go home. For some of us that meant staying until all the students had figured out how to get home. One girl, a ninth grader on her second full day of high school, didn’t know what to do, but luckily she lived not too far from me and one of the guidance counselors. We walked with her over the Queensborough Bridge to where her father was waiting. He then drove the two of us home also.
I don’t know what time I got home. I think it was around 6pm. I hadn’t talked to anyone in my family yet. I had not yet seen any footage. My mind knew the information, but I could not process it. It was out of the realm of my existence and imagination. I came home, sat down on the couch, and turned on the TV. As the first images of the horror of that day filtered through my eyes, Leo jumped into my lap, laid down, and started purring. He stayed there all night. I have a large family, but at that time, I lived alone. Or, I should say with no other humans. Leo made sure I was not alone. I am sure that Leo was God’s gift to me, making sure I had a true companion that night.
For the rest of his life, Leo was my baby, purring like a Harley, claiming my lap as his personal space, and just offering his unconditional love. And he’s been my inspiration for poetry, photography, and drawing. In the near future he may become the subject of a painting. I lost my Leo to cancer on August 19th, just 9 days short of his 15th Gotcha Day, but he will always live in my heart.