Today I learned that my dog, my friend, my companion, has cancer.
It’s a “good” cancer, Mast cell, and this can frequently be managed by removal of the lumps, and sometimes some additional chemo and/ or radiation therapy. She has not yet been biopsied, and so we don’t know if it’s low or high grade, and much will be determined by the outcome of the labs. But it’s still cancer, nonetheless, and it still leaves a wide, dark threshold for us to cross.
Well, actually, for *me* to cross. Addie, my dog, is lying contentedly in the front hall, having just splashed and gulped her way through a big bowl of ice water on this hot summer day after a few pieces of cheese stick for a few minutes of training tricks.
I know a lot about Addie. I know that she loves to train, loves to walk, huge smile and tongue sticking out rakishly as she heels beside me. I know she likes finding metal scent articles but not leather ones, that she thinks toys are useless and cheese is fabulous. I know that she doesn’t like ring gates or sitting in a row right next to other dogs, but that she’ll happily tolerate training centers if it means she gets to play with me, running and dropping and staying and zooming up in a slightly crooked front, barely able to wait for me to tell her to finish so she can loop to the side, sit beside me and look up proudly, sure she’s done a good job.
l know Addie fancies herself an oft-thwarted huntress who, but for an annoyingly strict human, would easily catch her dinner each night. This was proven one afternoon when she actually caught a squirrel. Hunted it, chased it, shook it, sent it to squirrel Valhalla, and then bumped it with her nose a few times politely to see if it would please get up and join in the fun again. I did not tell her that the squirrel, a weak, tiny, almost hairless, clearly ailing thing that had been lying on the ground when Addie had first seen it, was anything but a mighty buffalo that only a skilled predator could have bagged. The euphoric, slightly glazed look of thrill and joy in her eyes said it all: “Man, I haven’t had that much fun since I caught the back end of a hawk who had landed in the yard to eat a snack.” The pissed off hawk had screeched down at her for quite some time that day, furious at its missing feathers now lying on the ground and protruding from my dog’s mouth. The G-rated nature channel, as seen through my kitchen window.
I know that above all Addie loves her humans, perhaps especially her now teenaged boys. We have never been able to convince her that she’s not one of them, and the frustrated “Wooo” she mutters when locked out of a room or kept from a party speaks volumes. How unfair! All is quickly forgiven, though, and so each morning she makes her Chewbacca noise of another excellent day greeted. She then runs into each boy’s room, doorknobs being no challenge for such a clever girl, jumps on their beds and makes sure they’re really up and getting ready for school. It’s her job, and she takes great delight in it.
I know that she has what might be a partial seizure disorder, and suffers from compulsive licking of her front legs and any surface between them when she’s lying down. I know this has cost me endless, completely worth it hours and dollars and sleepless nights trying to find a comfortable, good-enough way to live with this for both of us. I know she is extremely sensitive to drugs, does not respond to them normally or as expected, and is therefore very hard to medicate or anesthetize without great risk, which makes treatment for cancer a more daunting and dubious prospect. More, I know that it takes her three weeks or more to recover from every bout of anesthesia while her unusual and complicated brain sorts itself out. So she sees things and is afraid and ducks and cuddles for comfort, and barks and startles and hides in dark rooms as she slowly comes back to her level of understanding. And I know that every time this has happened we’ve lost a little piece of her that couldn’t make the return trip home with her from the vet’s.
And so I’m staring into a crystal ball, looking for clues, wondering and worrying about what will happen next. In my mind I see all that can go wrong, all that she’ll have to endure in the best and worst case scenarios. I see my dog, sick and sore and then, inevitably, slipping away, and all the decision I’ll have to make about when that will be. Maybe a few months, maybe a few years but inevitable nonetheless.
Addie sees none of this. As she sleeps she enjoys the feel of the cool tile on her side. If I move she lifts her head; could I be on my way to the kitchen? How about going out somewhere that dogs can come too? How boring if I come back with a glass of water, how hopeful if I’ve got a plate with something on it!
Tomorrow morning she’ll Baroo! her way into the day, greet the possibilities that lie ahead, help me in the kitchen by closing all the fridge and cabinet doors as I make breakfast, and stare expectantly at her leash, wondering if it makes more sense to wait for it or go back to bed for a while. She doesn’t think about possibilities beyond a dropped piece of toast, perhaps, or the chance of a good run, and if she had a crystal ball she’d see through it, to the other side, to the colorful prism that could be anything.
She has a lot left to teach me, this wonderful, complex and heartbreaking dog. She has taught me so much already in our life together. It is uniquely human to dread, and gloriously canine to live in the here and now. And so perhaps the most important lessons are yet to come as I try and learn, with Addie as my guide, how to look into a crystal ball and see the light that shines through.