If you want to read his very long, mostly happy history...
Back in 1998, rollick & I had been living for two years in a one-bedroom Chicago apartment. We'd been "going out" for over nine years and living together for about seven. We'd had a ferret ("Pixel"), Rol's childhood pet, for about a year in college, until she ran away from our not-really-ferret-appropriate apartment, and then a ball python ("Midgard") for some years (along with some close-knit families of doomed mice & rats) until he died in his first Chicago winter (our drafty old Chicago apartment being a much less good place for a snake to wander and stay healthy than our generic new-construction Iowa City apartments were).
All this water being under the bridge, we were not entirely sure what to do when my Mom's friend Clarita asked her if anyone would want to take in some stray cats. Clarita had outdoor-fed a bunch but her neighbor was threatening to call animal control on them (in reprisal for neighborhood complaints about keeping his swimming pool uncovered). After some discussion, Rol & I showed up and Clarita handed Tasha a beautiful long-hair yearling tortoiseshell female cat, which she described as a perfect lap cat. Clarita then added that we needed "his & her lap cats" and so threw in a just-weaned, nervous-looking orange tabby that was the other cat's nephew. Clarita said he was very nice but shy because neighborhood kids used to put him under an upside-down bucket.
They were both small enough that Rol just made a hammock out of the front of her shirt and kept them against her while I drove the few miles home. We discussed names for them at about this time, and given their timidity, placidity, and small size I thought it would be funny to name them after big Tolkien villains, so we called her Morgoth (the spirit of darkness, for her coloration) and him Balrog (a fire demon, for his).
We got them into the apartment and Morgoth made a run behind the couch. Balrog looked around with frightened curiosity, making what we would always call "his tense face" (quoting the movie Parenthood) until Morgoth came back out to bite him on the scruff and drag him into her hiding place. He was a little too big relative to her for this, so while he went compliantly limp all four of his legs dragged along the ground. So that was the first we got of their personalities.
Somewhat surprisingly, they took to the littler box and limited space easily, and were always just excellently behaved cats except for a tendency toward plant-eating. Within a few days they were regularly sliding along our hardwood floors in response to our cat toys or possibly ghosts.
They would also tussle, generally at Bal's instigation, and generally in good fun. Morg would very willingly snuggle with us; Bal was more interested in snuggling with her, or sometimes with a pink stuffed dolphin we got somewhere that he would wrap all four limbs around and bite on the head. Bal did interact with us in endless games of chasing superballs around the house and bringing them back to our general vicinity. His favorite was a softer air-filled one that looked like a soccer ball. They also apparently liked going after crawling bugs, given that a peristent roach problem we'd had up until then cleared up immediately.
Good times don't make for good stories, so the next three years go by fast (there was a big flea infestation in there, but there's nothing much to say other than that the only solution proved to be a combo of winter arriving and of shaving the cats down to the skin, which made him look like Mr. Bigglesworth from Austin Powers and her look 1/4th her apparent size and a concentration camp survivor).
Then we moved to a two-bedroom apartment in the same building. Morgoth was taken up to the new apartment first, ran into the darkness behind a pile of furniture and cried. Balrog came in second, and with rollick's encouragement took off to wherever Morg was crying, and she settled down. Soon they were as at-home as before.
The new apartment eventually included a hand-me-down cat tower that they were quite into, and a "turboscratcher" combination track-ball game and scratch pad, which Bal and I could quite casually sit at and bat a ball back and forth like two people (or two cats) even when company was over. The big drawback was that Bal no longer had a facing apartment with cats he could keep an eye on.
The one other flaw of the new place was that that bath faucet lacked the persistent drip of the old one, which had been their favorite way of getting water. So we got them the first in a series of recirculating water fountains which were probably, in retrospect, their most dependable companions.
Fives years later we moved to our current townhouse. The early stages of the move let them indulge their love of boxes (they seemed to like anything that allowed them to fight without seeing each other, also including the undersides of doors), but we locked them in the bathroom once the furniture started moving. When we finally let them out, a very peeved Balrog evaded us and ran under the bed...or at least where the bed had been. He looked quite shocked to be confronted with an empty room with no shelter and skidded to a halt like a cartoon character.
The new place took some adjustment. They LOVED the new verticality of things, and Morg especially found just the coolest places to look down on people. The rugs required us to be more aggressive about cat nail care or else they'd get stuck. Otherwise, there was soon a new normal, and despite now having the ability to completely avoid us they were around quite a bit (as opposed to one of spreadnparanoia's cats, who during visits tended to hang out in a between-ceiling-and-floor space when not being fed).
Bal now also got to keep track of outside things from ground level, and in good weather would let passing birds and cats no whether he wanted them to come closer or go away. He also had staring contests with the cats of our friends and across-the-courtyard neighbors Chris & Pam & Sarah.
Five years after that, which is also about five years ago, Morgoth very rapidly got sick and lost mobility. An agonizing round of vet visits and tortuous pill deliveries later, she was diagnosed with cancer and was put to sleep. A very familiar story but hard for us.
Bal had fretted quite a bit during the illness and showed signs of being a little strange afterwards, sometimes caterwauling at nothing (which he'd always done a bit, but now more frequently). He did however get a little more snuggly with us, so while I'm sure Morg was his favorite he'd at least adopted us as substitutes on some level. We looked into getting a new cat or perhaps a pair, but put it off.
A few months later a co-worker had to get rid of his somewhat elderly cat, and we took her in indefinitely, calling her "Tip" for her love of the "tip over and show belly to get petted" maneuver. Bal hissed at her at first but was no match for her overpowering passive adorability. He snuggled with her some (though not as much as with Morg) and he seemed to go back to his version of normal.
About a year after that, Tip went very much the same way as Morgoth. Bal seemed a little more wary this time. Or perhaps I was projecting, which could apply to a lot of this.
At this point we faced a big question of whether to get Bal a new companion. A new older cat seemed too close to another bedside euthanization, and from things we'd witnessed both with guest cats and with other people's cats we guessed that adding younger cats to the mix would probably just cause Bal to withdraw and become a stranger in his house. So we decided Bal would just be a solo cat from then on.
Bal got older, and more into hanging with us. Apparently the pull of the two us in the same room would give him an irresistible urge to drop in, even if it was just to flop on the floor and sleep nearby. He slept more, couldn't chase things for long without getting tired and running off, but still seemed very much the kitten we'd first taken in. He didn't jump as much, but somehow could still get to the top "penthouse" of the cat tower so as to lie there when the sun hit it.
I felt sorry for him during the long months when the window had to be closed and he couldn't smell the outdoors, but he seemed to be doing fairly well, and would quickly bring it to my attention if the water fountain or litterbox weren't being kept to his standards.
About a week ago, I noticed he was leaving more dry food than usual. I threw away the hours-old stuff and put out fresh, and he ate some. A couple days later, he wasn't eating it at all. I put down some chicken baby food I'd had since Tip's illness, and he ate it with gusto so I figured it was a tooth problem. The next day, he got finicky about the baby food, so I bought a variety of wet foods.
The next night, while we were watching TV in our basement, Bal descended the stairs to join us, as he generally did. He would never go up them again under his own power.
That night he didn't seem to be eating, so I offered him a spoon of the wet food. He ate just a little and then ran gurgling for the littler box and then spent his time around the fountain, drinking vast amounts of water. At this point he was showing signs of diminished vision and balance, but was still getting around to wherever he wanted to go. The next morning I drained the water from a can of tuna into a bowl (his very favorite treat), and while he accepted a couple spoonfuls from me it was with that same sense that anything he ate disagreed with him and required more water, and soon he rejected it entirely.
We decided that whatever he had was almost certainly past the point of no return for a 17 year-old cat, but that we'd let him live his life for as long as it seemed like that had any meaning (and without turning his final days into the regular forcing of pills down his throat like the ones of his aunt and friend had been).
The night before last, Rol came in while I was playing a video game and pointed out that Bal was standing silently right next to me. I hadn't noticed him at all and it was the first time I'd seen him outside the litter-box / fountain / laundry room in a couple days (which seemed like forever). He accepted petting from both of us, which was never a sure thing and had become even more rare lately.
Last night, we came home from a film screening to find him lying in the basement, but during intermittent periods of consciousness he would try to walk but couldn't keep his balance, then would call and pass out again. We took him to the 24-hour cat hospital in Skokie. He protested a tiny bit at being put in the carrier but was so quiet on the way that I had to put my hand in the bag to make sure he was sill breathing. Our intention was to put him to sleep, but it never happened: When the very kind people took him away to intubate him, he died suddenly in the vet's hands.
If there's an afterlife, I picture him waking up and following Morgoth's calls in the darkness like he did the night after we changed apartments, although I suppose it's just as likely that she's again being the protective aunt and pulling him to the place she's found by the scruff of his neck. Clarita has passed on as well so the potential reunions multiply.
Pet ownership is a lot of contradictory things. Paying attention to them versus doing things your pet can't appreciate. Letting them out versus keeping them in. Getting more pets and hoping they help each other versus focusing on the ones you have. Leaving them alone when they slink off versus forcing care on them. We've been on both sides off all these things, and while I'm sure I could have been a better owner in some ways (brushing their teeth, better littlerbox maintenance, playing actively with them more) I think we got the big things right with the info we had at hand. I hope that they enjoyed knowing us somewhere near as much as we enjoyed knowing them, because if so, they were very happy cats.