This was due to the effects of frostbite on his paws. Apparently he was tossed into the snow and left to his own devices before he was rescued and taken to the Humane Society.
He was a kitten then, just a few months old. We walked in and saw his little frame, and decided we wanted to care for him.
I remember the ride home. My wife drove while I held him wrapped in a towel. We were given instructions on how to treat his paws, which we did our best to follow. Being held caused him to go into survival mode: he'd thrash and wail until we'd put him down, likely due to those earliest experiences of trauma. This never changed over the next 16 years of his life.
We introduced him to our other cat Eve, who immediately staked her place as the dominant one. At one point in those earliest days, she sat on him with no regard for his well-being.
This was part of what inspired us to rename him Nermal, after the kitten in Garfield that the titular comic character is always trying to get ride of. Fortunately, this relationship dynamic didn't last, and they'd reach a point where they'd often fall asleep together.
Nermal ended up growing to be bigger than Eve, but this didn't matter. He was always a little skittish, a little suspicious of his surroundings. But if he trusted you, he'd leap onto your lap and make himself at home.
When I was journeying through the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, Nermal was my prayer partner. He always took that as a prime opportunity to spend time with me as I journaled, prayed, and reflected. He was also fond of laying on my manuscripts when I would go over edits for my books.
Later in his life, Nermal bonded with our son. He often slept in his room, and I think both drew emotional support from the other. Whenever our son would go on overnight trips, he'd text us to request pictures of Nermal to provide comfort while being away from home.
In these later years, Nermal became more vocal. He'd loudly and repeatedly meow from the safety of our son's room or from the upstairs hallway. Sometimes this seemed to be for food, but other times there was no clear discernible reason. He just wanted to make himself heard. My wife and I often joked that he was "singing the song of his people."
This singing became more prominent the last year or two of his life. By this point, he'd been diagnosed with kidney failure and was losing weight at an alarming rate. Around the same time, he exclusively lived in our son's room, mostly to avoid the annoying dog we'd acquired by this point.
He'd "sing" at all hours of the day, for other reasons only known to him. No doubt there was an element of loneliness, since he'd taken up residence in this one room of the house and he didn't often see people. At night, when his adolescent friend was nearby, it seemed to be more just to be heard, to remind everyone that he was still around.
After several days of not eating and his energy level visibly dropping, Nermal finally decided that his song was finished. No more would he remind us of his presence even when we were downstairs preoccupied with other things. But no more would he suffer and gradually take up a smaller and smaller place in the world, either.
I can still hear that song. It was so loud and bold and constant. And even if it no longer rings out from our oldest's bedroom, it still lives on in my mind's ear, as clear as ever, reminding me of how big his love could be when you gave him space and patience. And in my heart, I'll keep giving him as much as he needs.