Cheltenham only loved one person in his entire life. He was not cuddly, he did not greet strangers warmly, and he was the only cat I’ve ever known who could convey an incredibly expressive indignance in his frown. This may not seem unusual to you, who probably knows similar cats, but you were not the only person he ever loved. I, and only I, had that incredible privilege.
There were caveats, of course. This love required a sharing of all my meals, a willingness to transform my apartment into a playground of boxes, and a commitment to bringing him outside to sniff whatever happened to be most sniffable that day. These were, of course, my pleasures too. And for my undying commitment I received one of the greatest gifts a cat lover can receive: his compliance with being dressed up.
I was living on my own for the first time in a new city when the tradition started. Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays, but given that I had only moved to Minneapolis a few months prior, I barely knew anyone. Loneliness was a common feeling in those early days and Cheltenham was the only friend I had. He was an adaptable cat, another uncommon trait in his kind, and the way he made a new home out of any place I took him set the example I needed. We would celebrate Halloween with what we had.
I grabbed my scissors and rummaged through my craft bin. Among the detritus I found black fringe, a ripped pair of fishnets, a handful of brightly colored feathers, several scraps of black sequin fabric, and a handful of pink plastic gemstones. When you are thinking about a costume for your cat that involves fishnets, there is truly only one option, and inspiration struck immediately.
I began by cutting six tiny circles, and attached six tiny fringe tassels. I arranged the feathers and gems and glued them in place, and cut tiny holes in the fishnets. With pasties, stockings, a magnificent headdress, Cheltenham was ready to be transformed into Claude Scratches, revolutionary feline burlesque superstar!
He, unaware of my plans for his stardom, was curled up on our couch in a fat little ball. I knew I’d need leverage, so I went to the kitchen and grabbed a bag of treats. He was right at my side as soon as he heard the sounds of the package, so I sat on the floor and explained my plan to him. “I know you won’t like this,” I said, “But it is going to be amazing, and I will give you more treats than you can stand if you participate for five minutes and five minutes only. After that, I will leave you alone and not dress you up again until next year.” You may think I was being silly, entering a verbal negotiation with a cat, but again, you didn’t know Cheltenham. From that point on, every Halloween, he honored our agreement.
A picture of the resulting hilarity were met with unanimous approval; but it would not have been nearly as priceless without his tolerant-yet-murderous glare. Through his newfound celebrity, I became closer to newer friends in the area, and began establishing Minneapolis as my home.
Luckily, Cheltenham’s grumpy yet loveable personality was an endless well of inspiration. Costumes in the following years included a Mouseketeer; Keyboard Cat, the internet meme; a sushi chef; Meowfred from the Ham-maid's Tail, a Pumpkin Spice Latte, and an OctoPuss. We were limited only by supplies and patience; our creativity was boundless. In 2016, I had moved to Pennsylvania for graduate school, and was again beginning new relationships. I was also dating a woman for the first time. Joi was tall, athletic, and extremely thoughtful- and though I didn’t know it yet- highly crafty herself. We had only been dating a month when I asked her a very important question: Would she help me dress up my cat for Halloween?
It was a moment that tested our relationship. Would she think I was ridiculous and play along out of obligation, or would she fully embrace the uniquely joyful experience of squeezing an 18-pound orange tabby into a sequined jacket? Luckily, it was the latter. Not only did she agree to participate, she insisted that we create a homage to the late Prince, and ransacked her own collection of fabrics and embellishments to find white lace for his collar and glitter foam to craft a tiny guitar. We gave him a goatee with mascara and pinned some black curls to his head, and with an ample treat supply as a reward for his obedience, fully recreated a presentation that was second only to Prince’s Superbowl Halftime performance of Purple Rain. loved sharing that moment with her and Cheltenham, and knowing the lengths they’d go to to make me smile.
Joi and I fostered kittens together, including a very special feral kitten that became especially fond of Cheltenham. She watched him from a distance, imitating his movements, learning how to cat. She ate his food, snuggled in his chair, and followed him around the house. Ever patient and kind, he tolerated her love, occasionally grooming her; as a feral, she had not held her hygiene to his dignified standards. Since we called Cheltenham “Ham” for short, there was no better choice in a name for his tiny shadow than Cheese.
Time moved on and so did we, and I eventually returned to Minneapolis. Our costume game was reaching new heights, and had yet to inspire even the slightest tantrum in him, which was remarkable given that I have more than a few scars from other attempts to hold or groom him. His next celebrity impression was a sequined gown and rhinestone collar with a platinum blonde wig: The Legendary RuPaw. The following year, he led our apartment to independence as the revolutionary CheltenHamilton.
It was shortly thereafter that I got the news I had been dreading since his adoption. Cheltenham had lymphoma. The prognosis in cats is 1-2 years with treatment, and I was told that he would not last two weeks without it. Devastation is an understatement; everything in my world darkened. This cat had been my best friend, my family, since we embarked on my independent adulthood together. He had seen me through lonely times, fickle partners, and the constant ebb and flow of mistakes and discoveries that punctuated my 20s and early 30s. He was my shadow, and I could not imagine my life without him.
Our work together shifted from fashion to comfort. I grabbed my scissors again, but instead of capes and wigs, I began to create soft, warm places for him to rest. I cut up a soft sweater of mine to serve as a cover for a mini couch under a heat lamp. Boxes were stacked in intricately planned tunnels so that he would have a warm, dark place to hide after his treatments. Mini yoga mats turned hard floors into forgiving surfaces for an old cat’s bones. Once again, I put my anxiety, my fear, and my love into these creations for him; they were all I could do to show my love for him.
His life was lavish until the very end, with his last day spent eating chicken tenders, duck, shrimp, tuna, whitefish, rabbit, and beef. As we said goodbye, I cut a small, cat-sized piece of the blanket for his sendoff. I held him close and thanked him for the most wonderful companionship that I could imagine, but truly this is where words fail. My heart broke into a million pieces as I wrapped him in his blanket and kissed him, and told him he was a good boy. I have never more acutely felt such an intense love.
I kept the rest for myself, and sometimes at night I swear it still smells like him. There was one more craft to be made, though.
A few days later, I laid his blanket on the floor, smoothing it flat and remembering how he loved to knead its surface. Slowly and precisely, I cut a rectangle, 3 inches by 9 inches, keeping the fuzzy lining of the underside aligned. I turned it inside out, sewed the edges, and stuffed it with fiberfill and catnip. I added tassels, and lovingly packed it away to mail it to his little sister, Cheese.
Losing Cheltenham was the deepest loss of my life, but having him was an experience more wonderful than I could have asked for. Love that deep was unfamiliar to me until I had the honor of caring for him. I am so deeply grateful for the love and companionship he gave me, and the begrudging patience with which he allowed his personal humiliation when he could have slashed my face open at any time. And if there’s anything to ease that loss, it’s the way that Cheese so aggressively purred and snuggled that blanket, and kicks the shit out of a toy made from something he loved so dearly. He will never stop bringing me joy.