In 1986 my brother named him Elroy, this black and grey tabby kitten with the pumpkin-colored belly. Like most kittens, he moved at a skittering, tumbling, run on his sprints around the house, not entirely unlike Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch had moved on the football field. Always a rascal, always aware enough of the rules to look over at us as he flouted them, and always canny enough to not flout them when my mother was around; hearing her footsteps in the front room, he’d jump off the kitchen counter and be guilelessly licking his tail on the floor as she came into the kitchen.
For a long time, the rules said that there were to be no cats on my parents’ bed. David or I happily welcomed him to sack out with us, but Elroy learned to stay off of whatever bed my mom and step-father Gil were sleeping on. During the dog days of summer, my parents would retreat to sleeping in the basement apartment, and more than once looked up into the ductwork over the bed, alarmed by something rustling, only to find Elroy’s bright eyes peering down at them. Not technically on the bed, no, but there was no way he’d be prevented from being over it.
I’d play roughhouse games with him by padding my hand and wrist with two socks and then attempting to gently pin him. He’d respond by pretending my forearm was a rabbit he had to grab, subdue, and disembowel with his hind legs. Both of us had a ball; both of us would be a little wild-eyed afterwards. Despite the socks, I’d usually end up with a fine mesh of scratches on my hand and arm. It only took one memorable post-wrestling evening making lemon juice at the restaurant to teach me not to play this game just before immersing my hands in anything acidic.
Once both David and I were out of the house, Elroy got a little bored, and my mom started letting him roam outside (over my protestations). He’d occasionally return a little dinged and scratched, and started collecting notches on his ears, but always swaggered in with that loose-hipped sway, strongly implying that the other guy was going home bloodied, too. Not all his encounters were fights, though; many, many houses in the neighborhood (and one particular bar, oddly enough) got to know Elroy’s face, his taste for wet cat food, and our phone number very well over the years.
When my stepbrother Chris was housesitting for my parents, he had a mystery on his hands: how was Elroy, who Chris let out in the morning, waiting inside the locked house when Chris came home in the evening? All the windows were closed, and clearly whatever method he was using was one-way, since he’d be eager to duck outside… One night, weeks later, on an evening when Elroy was out later than usual, my parents startled awake as 10 pounds of lanky grey cat came thumping down onto the bed from fairly high up. Turns out that their bed was perfectly positioned for our ingenious cat to jump down onto through the open skylight, having climbed the tree next to the house, leapt onto the roof, and sauntered over to it. Even Elroy couldn’t jump the 9 feet back out of the skylight, but jumping down presented him no difficulties.
Hitting late middle age only mellowed him. When I came home for visits, Elroy was the most forward lap-cat I’d ever seen, thrilled to sit next to or on any of us, drop his eyes to half-mast, and rumble. He still loved going out, even in the dead of winter, and while I’d complain to my mom that outdoor cats just don’t live as long as indoor cats, she’d say that it was “a quality of life issue,” and that if he didn’t come home, well, he’d leave this life doing what he wanted to do rather than frustrated and cooped up inside. He always came home, though, and I’d wake up on cold Christmas mornings home from college, with a warm presence just behind my knees.
Once my folks moved out to the country, Elroy spent even more time outside. After a friend’s german shepherd severely tramautized him (and us) by making a no-holds-barred attempt to catch, kill, and eat him, he got a little more subdued for a bit… but not for too long, and not so tramautized as to not develop later relationships (ranging from a wary detente to outright affection) of his own with my folks’ two dogs, Molly and Pepper. Every visit home, his eyes were a little more rheumy, his belly a little oranger, and his joints even looser, but he’d always grin his wide grin and preen and present himself to adore and be adored. His excellent mousing skills, underutilized in the city, waxed full in the country. (Also, birding, shrewing, and voling skills.)
A couple of weeks ago, my mom sent us all some email mentioning that while his spirits were good, after 19 years, his body was starting to flag. The spot between his shoulderblades where my mom had faithfully put his anti-flea medication for years wasn’t growing any fur back, and his walk was starting to show signs of discomfort. Talking with her later that day, my mom also mentioned that his taste for wet food was undiminished, and that he still knew not to beg her for it, but only to look hopefully expectant when she had the can in her hands. (As she had with her children, my mom had managed to teach Elroy that “if you ask for it once, I’ll think about it, but if you ask for it twice, the answer is no.”)
Yesterday I got the email. “Elroy has a cancer in his throat, and it’s going to start making it hard for him to eat or breathe. We’re going to put him to sleep early in the week, and we’ll bury him by the rock outcropping. He’s been a GREAT cat. Call home.”
I’m weeping, now, a thousand miles away from this little life we’ve had to know for 19 years. We’re going to miss him fiercely. Such energy and warmth and humor, such genuine affection for the people around him… And as it turned out, I was wrong and my mother was right: letting him roam outside isn’t what’s doing him in. Just time, measured in years taller than we think when viewed from 8 inches off the floor. He’s had lots of years, for a cat, and “quality years,” as my mom would say, full of adventure and exploration and the welcoming family he grew up with, which he never stopped coming home to.
He’ll spend this weekend inside, eating all the wet food he wants, and on Monday, my parents will take him to the vet and let him out one last time, farther than he’s ever gone before.
I’m sure he’ll have a ball.