Two years ago, on Good Friday 2013, I lost my sweet Roscoe kitty. Roscoe, a tuxedo tomcat, was fifteen when he died: fourteen years after I brought him home from the shelter, thirteen months beyond the vets’ predictions for his lifespan, and one month and five days after I met my now-fiancé Steve.
The timing, I’ve long felt, was no accident.
Roscoe had been my buddy since January 1998, when he adopted me at Cat Welfare, a no-kill cat shelter in Columbus, Ohio. I’d lost my cat Tiko to mouth cancer in December, and though I was buoyed through the holidays by travel and the presence of family, when I returned to the Midwest winter and an empty apartment, the loneliness was all-encompassing. I’d thought I might wait a while longer to find a new feline, but I was bereft.
Tiko had been solid black, and I knew it would be too hard to have another black cat; he’d been older when I took him in, too, and losing him after only six years broke my heart. So the plan was to find a kitten, black-and-white. When I arrived at Cat Welfare, they didn’t have any kittens. Some cats there roamed freely, having earned their floor privileges, while the newer additions resided in cages. I visited with most every black-and-white cat I saw, but I really wanted a kitten. As I readied to leave, thinking I’d try the Humane Society, the woman at the front desk asked if I’d seen the tuxedo cat in the second room. I hadn’t—he was sound asleep, curled up in the back of his cage. Oh, he’s a sweetheart, she said, and only about a year or year-and-half old. He’d been caught in one of their traps—sometimes, when the shelter was full, people dropped animals off outside anyway, hoping the shelter would find and take them in. This tuxedo kitty had been so lucky.
She pulled the sleepy cat from his cage and put him in my arms. Almost immediately, he rolled back into the crook of my left elbow so that I held him like a baby. He wore a slightly askew black mask and had a soft white belly, his clear green eyes framed by white whiskers. The pads of his paws were multi-toned, some gray, some pink. He began purring and gave me a long, slow blink, then reached his chin up and rubbed my chin with his.
But I wanted a kitten, I thought. Shouldn’t I at least check the Humane Society first? What if they don’t have kittens either, and this guy gets adopted in the meantime? I’d lingered so long at Cat Welfare I wouldn’t be able to go and come back that same day; my teaching schedule ensured it would be several days, in fact, before I could return.
I reluctantly returned Tuxedo Kitty to his cage, pushing the door closed, debating. As I gazed at him, he stood up on his back feet and pressed his front paws against the wire. The door popped open.
Luckily for both of us, I knew a sign when I saw it.
It took me a little over a week to name Roscoe, about as long as it took for him to stop hiding first under the bed and then beneath the dining room table. One morning I woke up, and the name was just in my head. Soon he was sleeping on the bed at night, cradled in my arms whenever I watched television.
I have many silly Roscoe stories. There was the time I lit a plate full of votive candles on the dining room table and briefly left the room. When I came back, he was hunched over them, sniffing, and when he looked up, all his eyebrow whiskers were corkscrewed from the heat. There was the time he figured out he could knock over my bedside water glass at just the right angle to splash me, getting me up—and feeding him breakfast—in a flash. And there was the time the plastic Easter eggs I’d displayed in a basket kept disappearing. I found them in a bunch behind the stereo speaker, where he appeared to have hidden them deliberately. When I questioned his Easter bunny behavior aloud, he just gave me another of those long, slow blinks.
But there was much more to Roscoe than just cute cat tales. He was an old soul, a genuinely special cat who made a substantial impression on most everyone who met him. Adopted during grad school, Roscoe saw me through finishing my degree, writing the dissertation, and moving to Georgia to start my first academic job. He came along to Virginia when I accepted my current position, and traveled to Florida for a month when I did research there. With me, he logged over 3000 miles in four cars, lived in five houses in four states, endured three feline additions to the family, and persisted through a long list of boyfriends and break-ups, the precise numbers of which I decline to specify. For better or worse, for fourteen years he was the most loyal, constant companion of my adult life.
In early 2011, Roscoe was diagnosed with an intestinal tumor and had surgery to remove the cancer that February. The vet warned me that if he survived the surgery, it would likely buy him at most a year. When I visited him at the animal hospital, his poor belly shaved bare and lined with stitches, he sat up and moved to the front of the cage, purring loudly, head-butting my hands, so happy and alert he surprised all the staff in the room. Roscoe’s courage in the face of adversity was more inspiring than any Hallmark special. He endured x-rays and blood draws, took pills without incident, and through it all, remained a model of almost Zen-like acceptance. And he never lost his joy: starting from our first months together, when I brought home a small stuffed bunny toy, for the rest of his life, Roscoe would “kill” the bunny as often as once a day, then twitter and trill his way through the house, bringing me the prize. Up to the last he liked to roll in the sunshine and nibble catnip in the garden, then sleep it off under the lilies.
He passed the one-year mark still going strong, but even he seemed to know time was short. In the last year of his life, he took to crawling under the blankets with me at night, stretching out longwise against my torso, resting his chin on my shoulder. It was almost unbearably adorable. Acutely aware our time was finite, I treasured every moment, understanding each was an opportunity to make a memory I’d want, someday, to recall.
As we approached the two-year anniversary of his surgery, Roscoe began losing weight again. A few weeks after that benchmark, I met Steve. About a month later, Roscoe suffered a stroke on Good Friday. He survived, but it was clearly time to let him go.
The Wisdom of Animals
However crazy-cat-lady it sounds, I believe the timing was no accident. Wise in a way that’s hard to describe, Roscoe, I think, chose to leave me only once he knew it was okay for him to go. In terms of immediate support, my parents were up visiting for Easter that weekend. In a larger sense, Roscoe had hung on—well past when he was expected to live—until Steve came in to my life. It was almost as if, after watching me make so many unsuitable matches over the years, Roscoe waited until he could be sure that, since he couldn’t stick around, at least he could trust this guy.
Strange as it may sound to say about a cat: Roscoe was one of the great loves of my life. Sometimes I even think maybe I had to wait for Steve because it would have been unfair for the universe to grant me a second such love, until my time with the first was done.
When I’d gone to pick Roscoe up after his surgery, I spoke with the vet who’d performed the procedure. He came in to the exam room with the same amazed, almost besotted look I’d seen on the faces of so many who’d met my buddy over the years. “He really is just the best cat ever, isn’t he?” the doctor said.
Oh, yes, he was. And I’m a better human for having shared in his life.