Montpelier, VT. April 10, 2018
It’s Harold’s birthday. I have classes all day long. Therefore Harold – and Rosie- come to class. Jess laughs as the two dogs walk into the classroom ahead of me, tags jingling, tails wagging, off leash and free in an unfamiliar room. Kay, Riah, Lauren, Lindsey and Lindsay, Laura and Christa all call out the dogs’ names, wanting attention, giving attention. Happy dogs.
“He looks great,” they all say.
And he does. My ten-year-old boy looks great. Healthy skin, happy smiles, perky ears, tail wagging high and proud, that’s my boy. A collie and Husky mix by the looks of it. I’m here at grad school and it’s his birthday. I couldn’t leave them at home alone, not this birthday. I have to focus though, time to study and talk about writing so I plonk down my bag and pull out the water bowl and my notebook.
First though, Harold gets a bone. I’ve brought them both bones and they settle down in class, slurping and burping with tongues in the marrowbones, tails thumping softly on the floor.
And he has cancer.
Yes, pets get cancer. I lost a cat, Kristie, to cancer a few years ago and it was hell. She took over my world and all I could do was lay around the home with her on me, wherever or whenever I stopped moving, she lay on me. And I’d truly stop. Pet her, read, or just daydream with her soft sad purrs rumbling through my body and hers.
Yes, Harold looks great. Harold has cancer.
Now what? Now what. I don’t know.
Okay, backtrack. He’d been into the vets for a sore bum, antibiotics, and a return in ten days. “What’s this?” the vet had asked. She held his mouth open to show a red growth in his front teeth, behind his teeth really, soft tissue, bulbous, and new. I shook my head. She touched it but he didn’t flinch at all.
“Let’s keep an eye on it. That was too fast for my liking.”
A month later, I drop him off at the vet for the lump to be removed, a biopsy performed. The vet was worried; it had grown more in the weeks. I was terrified. My car was broken down, and I had to get a friend from college to take us there. I took both dogs, Rosie the happy youngster, and Harold, quieter than usual. Kerry made jokes, kept me distracted and stayed with Rosie when I took Harold inside.
“I’ll need to you to sign a waiver.”
“If something should happen under anesthetic, do you want us to perform CPR or is it a DNR?”
“CPR,” I blurted and burst into tears.
I wanted to throw up. Harold was brave but confused when I walked away.
He’s not been kenneled, or left at a vet, or really, away from me. We’re together most days, and this broke me to leave him there. An unfamiliar vet in a town we’d moved to only months before.
A week later, the phone call comes early one morning. It’s cancer. The kind that doesn’t spread to other places in his body. It’s not likely to, that’s what I heard the vet say. Also that the biopsy didn’t have clean edges, so that means it’s still in his mouth, in his jaw, and is likely to come back.
“We’ll take care of it then, a more aggressive surgery if you like. But let’s wait and see.”
And that is all I know. I’ve tried looking up this cancer online but get overwhelmed so quickly. I can’t look.
I’ve told my friends here, at home in New Mexico, and in England.
“He looks great.”
And I feel guilty, as if I’ve made it up. Or that he should look and act a certain way. And it breaks my heart and I love my boy so much. Ten years together. Through the death of my own mum, the death of Gran, Viv, of so many friends, and he’s been there. My boy. We’ve done so much together over the last ten years.
Santa Fe, NM, May 2008
“What’s his name?” I pointed at the shy little black and white pup in the far corner. The one with his head turned away from his siblings, all running and barking and demanding attention. The one fluffy little bugger hid, half covered in puppy poop and ears flopped, tail tucked, a small little seven week old Collie mix.
“Harold,” said the adoption counselor. “He’s not so friendly. Too shy for his own good. Sensitive.”
“Can I meet him?”
She shrugged and climbed into the pen to grab the fella. I remember grinning. I remember holding him and how we looked into each others’ eyes. I remember holding him in my arms, there in the corridor, and how he nestled his nose into my armpit, whimpered, sniffed deeply, and fell asleep.
I remember you, Harold. You’re still such a sensitive soul.
Montpelier,Vermont, April, 2018
I race out of class. Every moment I’m not busy, I want to be near my boy. I pack up my books, don’t linger, and powerwalk down the hill back home. I will load him up in the truck and with Rosie, we will go for a walk in the trees. Is there anything else but trees? He’s a happy boy when I show up, jingle keys, and the three of us race down the stairs and into the Toyota. The sun’s out, rare here, and I have to make the most of it. Compulsion. Focus.
There’s nothing like a health scare to change a focus.
At school, everyone now asks about Harold. He’s a dog, I say, a happy begging dog. And that makes me happy. I’m so touched that everyone cares and asks after him. Rosie and Harold come to the library together and hang out with me, easy and welcome as they behave so well in there. I’m blessed.
And now it’s time for another walk in the rain. My pups. My heart.
Cape Cod, April 2018.
Thanks to Airbnb, I had a chance to get out of town. Five hours drive to Cape Cod but it was so worth it. My happy place is either on the empty coast or in the desert mountains. Both give that sense of space, openess, I’m a speck of sand and the world carries on without me: perfect.
We stopped at a beach. Doors open. Dogs run. Rosie hides in the sand dunes. Harold flies full speed along the beach, chasing birds with tail and tongue flapping. Full pelt. Unlike anything in Vermont, we’re free. No leash required, at least not right now in April. The beach is empty, they are all were. We went to so many, I can’t remember the names, and we were only there for a few days. The coast nearest Boston had the most signs saying, NO DOGS but Rosie peed on the posts and carried on. I took photos.
Harold tired out earlier than he used to, I’m putting it down to age not the c-word. We’ve not been staying fit in Montpelier, we can’t. Too contained. I can’t bitch about it there as my friends get defensive, protective of their chosen homes, and so I shut up.
This though, a beach, small villages, friendly people, open skies, running free, sun and rain, this is home to me. I could live here. Probably not in July and August but if I could be there during the off-season, I’d love it. The solitude. Space. My eyes relax. Body energised. Dogs happy. I’m happy.
Madrid, NM. October 2018.
Six Months later, the tumor comes back. I have to think about what kind of person I am. Will I do anything to prolong his life? At any cost to me or to him? No. Will I do what I can? Yes. But the choices I have to make, or probably have to make, are dragging me down, overwhelming me. It’s not the kind of thing you can ask others to make for you, the life and death decisions.
I’m online, on forums, support groups, wrestling with the options, and listening to strangers talk about their own processes.
Yesterday, Harold went in for another biopsy. The vet took as much of the tumor as she could see. The hope is for clear margins. A benign cancer diagnosis.
In the meantime, I have to accept that mortality is waking us up. Me up. Make every day count. That’s been the best advice so far. There are practical suggestions that I’m taking on board. Changing his diet to cut out carbs as cancer feeds off sugar – apparently. So if his food can slow down their regrowth, I’ll do it. CBD oil? I’m looking into it. Radiation and chemo? Aggressive surgery? No, we won’t go there. Quality of life is more important.
With this in mind, I feed him and Rosie a breakfast of ground beef, red cabbage, and green beans in a broth. They love it. Tails wag. Eyes beg for more. The fire flickers in the stove. Rain and snow beats against the window. The local radio plays in the background. The pups nap.