His Name Was Leo

Have you ever experienced firsthand the kindness of God? I don’t mean simply hearing about it or knowing someone who did (though great blessings these accounts can be!). But rather, have you personally received a direct, intimate gift from the One who knows deeply your needs? I wonder if we are receivers more often than we realize. Perhaps we overlook these moments or call them luck or coincidence. Maybe we even attribute them to other people—or, worse yet, ourselves. I didn’t used to often stop to meet God amid the day-to-day humming of city living, or to see His small acts of kindness between the necessities of errands, emails, and chores. I’m still not perfect about it, but I’ve gotten a lot better since the spring of 2016. In that season, God gave me a great and gracious gift. But it wasn’t just the receiving that changed my perception of His fatherhood. It was rather the great smallness of the thing—deeply personal and deeply kind.

       There’s another character you’ll need to know. His name was Leo. Leo was adventurous, energetic, and affectionate, and he was hugely involved in my life through elementary school, middle school, high school, college, graduate school, and even my first year in the workforce. I’d known Leo longer than anyone outside of my biological family. He loved being outdoors, and I have thousands of photos of us together. It might help to understand how we met. I was nine years old, an only child home for summer break before trudging through one final year in elementary school, and I had hatched a brilliant plan. I’d planted the seed days earlier by dropping subtle and repeated suggestions. Now came part two of my scheme: I proposed a short exploratory trip, nothing more—and to my delight, my patient planning was successful, and my mother agreed.

       So we set off in our beige Toyota minivan on a fine, late June afternoon. As soon as we parked, I raced from our minivan through the door under a bright, colorful sign that read “Pet Store.” Keep in mind, we were just there to look. Through the automatic doors, past the blue seas of colorful (but not very interactive) fish, I made a beeline for the kitten room with my mom trailing close behind. A sign said something about a new box of kittens having been brought in from a nearby farm. An employee told me it was okay to step inside, and I entered my fantasy world: kittens sleeping in the corner, kittens batting toys through tunnels, kittens wrestling in open spaces across the small room. If this wasn’t happiness, I didn’t want it! I busied myself with a curled-up, striped kitten in a cat tree, stroking his fur and plotting my next move. My mom, though, had become particularly taken by a tuxedo kitten. As restless as me, he hopped back and forth across the room on his hind legs, looking us in the eyes and practically screaming, “Pick me!” After a few minutes, my mom pulled me away from the cat room, and I stood outside the glass door, gazing back inside. I knelt down, and the playful tuxedo kitten trotted to the door and pressed his paw to the glass before me. My mom and I exchanged silent eye contact. She strolled away with a hushed comment that she needed to “think about it,” but we both knew what needed to happen next. A short while later, we were standing at the checkout counter with the tuxedo kitten crated up. The attendant asked me, “What would you like to name him?” I replied, “His name is Leo.”

The rest of Leo’s life was special to us, but unremarkable as pet memoirs go. He was a sweet and gentle companion, a fierce warrior, a brave explorer. He saw me through many seasons of life. I consider myself blessed to have known him. I still love Leo. When I left for college, I drove the two hours home frequently—to do laundry, of course, but also to see Leo. He was growing older right alongside me, his interests and appearance changing with age, and I didn’t want to miss his life. Sometime in Leo’s fourteenth year, his health began to decline. His adventures became briefer. His stamina diminished. Then, one day in April 2016, he couldn't breathe easily. I’d entered my first year in the workforce, and I was working seven days a week at a consulting firm just outside of Washington, D.C., nearly 500 miles away from Leo and my mom in the Carolinas. The news, my mom told me over the phone, wasn’t good. The vet had drained fluid from a sack around Leo’s heart, but even so, Leo probably had only a few months to live. I implored my mom to keep me updated, but I felt like there was nothing else I could do. My job was brutal—the typical excessive hours of consulting. I’d been in the office 12 hours a day, every day, since I’d started the summer before. I’d missed family events, forgotten to send birthday messages, and had forgone any efforts at staying in shape. I hadn’t traveled home to visit my mom or Leo for the better part of a year. Perhaps, I told my mom, I could come home in a few months’ time see Leo. But in the meantime, I was drowning.

Something happened that month that had never happened before and never happened again. I was asked if I wanted to travel to the Carolinas to lead a training seminar. Travel wasn't common on my project, and I’m not normally one for work travel anyway, but I decided to accept this time. My boss pressured me to fly, as gas mileage reimbursements cost more money. But I felt within me quite strongly that I should drive. The training was chaotic and difficult. On the afternoon it concluded, I received a message from my mom: Leo was struggling again. The vet once more had drained away fluids impeding his breathing—probably for the last time, because this was no way for Leo to live. Still, the vet estimated he still had a few more weeks, maybe even months. Rather than returning to D.C. that evening, I trekked two hours farther south to see Leo. We spent the weekend together. I remember lying silently with him on the floor in the entryway, just past our front door, as afternoon light filtered through beveled glass windows and rested in patches around us. I remember looking in his eyes and knowing how far he’d come, how good his life had been. I remember whispering my thanks for the ways and the years that he had loved me well. I hoped to see him again soon, but I looked into his eyes, and I told him goodbye, just in case.

“God gave me a great and gracious gift. But it wasn’t just the receiving that changed my perception of His fatherhood. It was rather the great smallness of the thing—deeply personal and deeply kind.”

Leo died five days later. I got the news at work on the afternoon of April 22, 2016. I was glad Leo’s suffering was over. I was thankful his life had been gifted to my family and me to steward well. But mostly, I was in awe of God’s great mercy, that He would bring me home to say goodbye. As I thought back to the events of that last week—the mysterious and unprecedented work trip to an out-of-the-way location, the quicker-than-expected decline in Leo’s health, the timing and redistribution of my work efforts—I saw how precious my needs were to my Father. Song lyrics from a ministry retreat years earlier came to mind: Who am I that You are mindful of me? God’s gift to me in that moment was my presence with Leo in that situation. His lasting message, though, was a poignant reminder of His presence with me in all my situations. Never will I again hear the words “merciful loving-kindness” and not understand them personally.

I used to think that Leo’s life was about Leo, in the same way that, before I knew the Lord’s saving grace, I once thought my life was about me. But now I know that Leo’s life, just like all of creation, is a testament to God and His goodness. The intricacies of Leo’s design, the gift of Leo’s life, and the grand, merciful grace exhibited in Leo’s death served not Leo, nor me, but the exaltation of God and His glory. In God’s provision of Leo, I was given a loyal companion. In God’s taking of Leo, I was given something much more lasting: a firsthand experience of the Lord’s merciful loving-kindness; a gift of abundant grace from a Father who knew how to love me perfectly, and to whom I am precious. Today, a polaroid I took of Leo when I was nine years old sits framed on my mantle—a reminder of a beautiful, sweet life, entrusted to me by God, and a reminder of His personal, constant presence in the details of my life. How rich, how deep, and how wide is God’s love for us.

Michelle Chapman is a business consulting professional in the Washington, D.C. metro area and studies part-time at Westminster Theological Seminary.

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