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Columnist Peter Leo: Sometimes, grief comes unexpectedly

Wednesday, March 04, 1998

By Peter Leo, Post-Gazette Columnist

It was a quiet Saturday afternoon, the weather lackluster enough to keep me indoors writing letters. I hadn't noticed our beloved senior cat on the floor nearby until she exploded into the air with a horrific yowl, writhing in mid-leap. Within seconds, she was on her side, immobile, drawing long, heavy breaths. I knelt over her, thinking how good she looked with her shiny black coat and clear eyes as I realized this was it. In less than a minute, she was dead.

Almost 13, she was old enough to die, but still playful and curious enough for us not to expect it. There had been no warning. Something akin to a heart attack, would be the vet's phone diagnosis.

As my wife Sylvia and son Steve gathered round, we broke into deep sobs. My reaction stunned me. This was, after all, a cat. I hadn't cried as much when my mother and father died. True, my parents had died of lingering illnesses in old age, and grief had plenty of time to gather and disperse, or hide altogether. And there had been distance between us. Still, I was bothered that I could feel more for a cat.

A professional might say my sadness was a sadness I had never expressed, or even acknowledged, for losses accumulated over a lifetime. I'm sure that's true. I'm also sure it had a lot to do with the death of a cat, a standard-issue tabby named Rafiki.

People who don't have pets might find these lamentations inappropriate, puzzling, even ludicrous. Not so long ago, I would have thought as much myself.

My upbringing was aggressively anti-pet. My father had unerring radar that told him when a cat was encroaching on Leo space; he would shoot out of his chair to dispatch the clueless feline with a strange guttural noise. Dogs were remarkable only for the calling cards they deposited on lawns. Their owners were ridiculed for having screwed up priorities.

A dozen years back, I was in a mom-and-pop store in London as a frayed older woman was leaving with a supply of dog food. The Indian shopkeeper fixed on me as the only available audience.

"These people!" He spat out the words with anger and disdain. "They care more about their pets than human beings." Under indictment were the pet-loving British. But how could any pet owner argue the point with a man who had no doubt witnessed human deprivation in the extreme?

And yet . . .

When Steven was 5 or 6, his last gerbil died, the venerable Wilver, named in honor of Steven's favorite Pirate, Wilver "Willie" Stargell. We had a backyard burial, the solemnity shattered by a one-liner from a neighbor who thought the occasion right for making fun. Steven was learning that loss is part of life. But the jerk neighbor had taught another lesson. Right there, the case was made for preferring animals over humans.

As for Rafiki, the truth is, she was quiet, easy to take for granted. Perhaps because I saw too much of myself in her timid ways, I was drawn more to our two brash, attention-demanding male cats, imagining them as comics, embellishing their antics, concocting elaborate, colorful pasts.

Sylvia, Steven and Jane, my daughter, were better able to appreciate the power of restraint and reserve, which Rafiki seemed to embody, her gentle manner, the welcoming feel of her fur and pacifist paws. The male cats never gave her peace, so she and her failed brothers mostly lived their lives on separate shifts. But she made do, relishing the good that came her way, enduring hardships with grace.

Jane was her passionate advocate countering the undue attention accorded the rowdy males. Steve would always make a special place for her amid the chaos of his room. And it was Sylvia who had saved her from certain early death, seeing something in this cat cowering in a back corner of her rescue league cage.

I can say I gave her her name. Rafiki means "friend" in Swahili, a vestige of Peace Corps days in Kenya. She lived up to her name, a quiet, dignified presence ready at any moment to accept love and give it in return, no reward or prior notice required. There were none of the complications that come from being a father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife. Just a friend, pure and simple. Just a pet, really.

You can reach Peter Leo at 412-263-1561 or

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