There’s a 10 ml vial of insulin in the back of our refrigerator. The contents expired sometime in 2014, and we might have tossed it when we moved from our last apartment to this one, but instead we packed it up with the ketchup, mustard, pickles, soy sauce, and olives, and moved it two hours north, to an apartment where the diabetic patient never lived. He never lived in the last apartment either. The insulin comes with us because he can’t.
The name on vial is Squiggy “Cat” Moses, as if we ever called our black feline by his species, and as if the cat I’d grown up with had been adopted by my wife, then legally changed his last name to hers.
November is Diabetes Awareness Month. It’s a month most appropriately spent raising awareness of the experience of people living with the diabetes, and of the research that might someday make the disease obsolete. But every year in November I remember the years we spent treating a cat, first for a mysterious ailment we never found a name for, and then for a disease that caused his weight to fluctuate, his body to crave water, his glucose levels to spike and dive.
From the time I got him as a kitten Squiggy was a standoffish cat. He’d always come when I called, and when he got sick he started following me from room to room. It is important to note that until he got sick he was never a snuggly cat: he was all business, like a guard dog that never went off duty. Until he got sick he never climbed into my lap. He was companionable but not a cuddler. He became a fickle, grouchy old man who suffered from some kind of anxiety that made him shred his tail in fits of uncontrollable rage. He had the temper of a toddler, but he was a cat.
The label on the vial of Lantus says to administer “as directed.” In Squiggy’s case, there were sometimes no directions, though our vet called us on a regular basis to check on him, though he and I sat at home, every six weeks, to do a glucose curve.
I sometimes equated caring for Squiggy in the last years of his life to caring for a newborn or caring for an aging parent. At first, I would come home after a two-hour commute and sit on the couch for the rest of the night with the cat in my lap because he’d been inconsolable all day. I learned to get comfortable quick on the futon, where he and I would sit for hours, till my legs fell asleep. Sometimes I’d come home from work and learn he’d been biting his tail all day, lashing out at it and spraying blood everywhere. Those nights I’d take him upstairs and put him on the bed and crouch over him, cover him with the safety of my body—the only thing that snapped him out of the trance of whatever pre-diabetes agitation wracked his walnut-sized brain. He couldn’t tell me what he wanted so I had to work it out on my own. At night he slept between my legs and I slept motionless, trying not to disturb the tenuous peace. I took days off from work to go to the vet with him, consulted our vet neighbor, pestered a retired-vet friend with questions, concerns, the uncertainties of dealing with a pet with no known diagnosis. Later, our work, commute, and social schedules were ruled by his insulin regimen, in the ways a baby’s feeding and nap schedules governed the lives of our friends. It was an ignorant analogy, these friends would laugh: I had no idea how hard it was to care for a kid who cried and needed changing and feeding.
On curve days, I would sit at my desk and he would haul himself up next to me. I wrote for two hours with him beside me, then we’d go, with lots of difficulty, into the kitchen. I’d stick him in the ear, draw his blood, and stick the strip into the glucometer. Then we’d go back to my desk and I’d put him up next to me and I’d work and he’d nap for another two hours. I got a lot of writing done on curve days: I didn’t dare get up between data points because he would follow me, and it took so much out of him to do so. So we sat together, the two of us, holding our breath until the timer went off and it was time for us to make our way back into the kitchen, to start the process all over again.
It’s true that I have not had to care for an infant. Caring for a cat with diabetes taught me how to put another creature’s well-being before my own. Squiggy taught me about priorities, and he taught me about unconditional love. He taught me what it felt like to have your heart ripped open, to hope that you are doing your best, with limited resources and few clear answers. He taught me about fear and exhaustion, gratitude and comfort. And later, after he died, Squiggy taught me about the surprise of grief, the way it sneaks up on you, four years later, when you try to write about it without crying and find you still can’t, still can’t write your way through to making peace with the anger and the pain.