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Travel Trauma

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As the summer travel season approaches once again, I find myself thumbing through guidebooks like Nova Scotia for Dummies and reflecting on how much easier vacation will be this year.  Last summer, Kevin and I traveled through northern Portugal and Spain, where we hiked, swam, ate the freshest fish, and drank local port wines.  But we were also really worried about what we'd left behind, an elderly ailing cat.
As most pet owners know, it can be heartbreaking to leave even a healthy animal.  That's why some people pay outrageous amounts for sitters or pet hotels.  Or why one friend of mine flew her puppy from Chicago to her parents in Des Moines each time she went on vacation.

I used to pride myself on not being that kind of pet owner.  When I went away, a neighborhood teenager fed and played with my two cats.  I reasoned that they would sleep through most of my absence.  But with age comes illness, no matter the species, and eventually my older cat received what is becoming a common diagnosis: feline diabetes.

Hobbes was an orange tiger cat, long and tall, and after years of eating only prescription food, he still weighed 22 pounds.  He had cataracts, arthritis, and a bum front paw whose claws wouldn't retract, so his limp carried an audible “tick.”  Above all, he was cranky and quick to bite.  When I found out he needed daily shots of insulin, more than one friend commented that the cat had had a good life and I should feel free to end it. 

But I loved Hobbes and, bizarrely, Hobbes loved his insulin shots.  Each time I prepared a syringe, he circled my feet as if expecting a plate of caviar.  When I squatted down and took hold of the scruff of his neck, he sunk to the floor, purring insanely, and never flinched when the needle went in.  Where diabetes was concerned, Hobbes was a pussycat.
The only real problem came when we needed – or wanted – to travel.  Two visits a day by someone trained to give shots was expensive, but it was the mental worry that cost me most.  I feared something would go wrong in our absence, that Hobbes would fade quickly and we wouldn't be there to comfort him.  When he finally died, from a tumor unrelated to his diabetes, Kevin and I were devastated.  But we couldn't deny that our daily lives – and especially our travels – were much easier once he was gone.
Then, not long after Hobbes passed away, our second cat got the same diagnosis.  Because indoor cats live longer and exercise less than their outdoor counterparts, they're more prone to diseases like diabetes.  And unlike Hobbes, who lived in relative comfort for six diabetic years, the blood sugar of most cats is very hard to regulate. 

That was the case with Montse, a calico sweetheart, the animal love of my life.  At the time of her diagnosis, we'd been together for thirteen years, twice as long as I'd been with Kevin.  Watching her decline because of diabetes was excruciating.  Her back legs weakened, she grew lethargic, and on several occasions she reacted so poorly to the insulin that we had to rush her to the emergency room.  When we left for Portugal last summer, even knowing that a veterinary assistant would be taking care of her, the worry was nauseating. 
This year will be different.  After a terrible summer and fall, and after the vet changed her food to a new formula, Montse's diabetes went into remission.  I'd heard that was possible, but I never imagined that we – who have had two diabetic cats – would be among the lucky ones.  Despite all the stories you hear of cats living into their twenties, the average lifespan of indoor felines is fourteen years.  Montse is now fifteen.  Her back legs are strong again, and although she moves more slowly than she used to, she seems happy. 

We have staved off the inevitable for a short time.  There will be difficult days ahead, I know.  New diagnoses, painful decisions, and ultimately, a deep sense of loss I can already feel.  But for now, with summer approaching, Kevin and I are living in the present.  We're reading up on Nova Scotia and planning to travel lightly, on a vacation that feels like a gift.

Michele Morano is an assistant professor of English at DePaul University, and the author of Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain.

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