This essay originally appeared on my first blog, Boys, Dogs and Chaos four years ago. Every New Year’s Eve I am reminded of the horrible phone call we received…
On the night before New Year’s Eve my husband, Jeff, sat down on the couch with a heavy sigh. His lips parted, about to speak, then closed. He stared at me with such a look of anguish on his face that I dropped the holiday cards that I was addressing and whispered, “What? What is it?” The scene reeked of drama – reminded me of every woman wronged movie I’d ever seen. The husband sits down, unable to get out the words as his wife stares at him. Then, he breaks down crying and admits that he’s having an affair, is in love with someone else or perhaps that he slept with someone just once and wants to repent. Jeff glanced sideways at me then back down at his lap. It was truly unlikely, but I couldn’t help but wonder, Was he about to come clean? Did he have a new year’s resolution to be honest driving him to admit an indiscretion? ” Are you having an affair?” I asked accusingly.
He shook his head no, looked like he was about to cry. Then, it hit me – a punch in the gut. “It’s Sadie, isn’t it?”
He nodded. Sadie, our beloved shih tzu whom we rescued almost three and a half years ago, had surgery a week earlier – as you may know, if you read my last post. “It’s…” he paused. “Well, it’s not good. She has a very aggressive form of melanoma – it has a high rate of recurrence and metastasis.”
I didn’t say anything. Just sucked in my breath. He continued, “The vet said we can set up a consult with a dog oncologist and talk about chemo and she can do a deeper resection to get the rest of the cancer cells. Or, we can do nothing and take care of new lesions as they pop up. But, she said that it’s just not good.”
I turned this over in my mind, attempted to process it. Of course, I couldn’t. I burst into tears and blurted out the only thing that came into my mind, “No offence, but I would rather it be that you were having an affair.” Not that I would trade my marriage for my dog, but if Jeff were having an affair, he would still be alive, because I probably wouldn’t kill him. I’m sure I’d want to, but I am too law abiding to commit homicide. So, yes – it would have been less painful for him to admit he was having an affair, than for me to find out that I’m losing Sadie. And, the thought of her being in pain was just too much to bear. All I really could do was cry.
At about midnight I went upstairs and sat down next to Sadie, sleeping on my son, Joshua’s, bed. (She starts her night in my son, Aidan’s, bed, then moves to Joshua’s. Sometime after midnight, when she knows everyone is asleep and safe, she comes into our room and scratches on our bed until I kick Jeff to pick her up. I will never, ever be annoyed by her scratching again.) I kissed her on the forehead and she turned her tiny face to mine, covering me with kisses. She must have wondered why my face was suddenly salty – the tears were just streaming down.
This was not the first time I have dealt with a cancer diagnosis of a loved one (and yes, my dog is a loved one), but oddly I never cried when I found out my father had cancer, my sister had cancer and my mother had cancer. I don’t think I even cried at first when I found out that my grandmother had cancer and had only days to live, her diagnosis was that late. I was stoic – dealing with it and trying to remain positive for everyone. I pointed this out to Jeff and asked, “What does that say about me – I didn’t cry when I found out my family members had cancer, but I’m crying buckets about my dog?”
He simply answered, “You’re her caretaker.” I knew he was right. She is, unequivocally, my dog. From the moment we brought her home from the shelter, she has stuck to me like glue, following me everywhere. A montage of our first moments together danced before my eyes, like a cheesy Lifetime movie. It seemed like yesterday that my oldest son, Drew, Joshua and I went to the Town of Oyster Bay Shelter to drop off the donations that we had collected at Drew’s 8th birthday party in August 2006.
Drew had come home from school in June proudly clutching an essay in which he wrote, “This summer my mom and dad are getting me a dog!” When Drew was four years old I told him we would get a dog when he turned eight years old. Almost four years later, he still remembered. In an effort to keep our word, we began visiting shelters as soon as school ended. By the time we brought those donations to the shelter though, we had given up our search – we needed a small, hypoallergenic dog – few and far between at shelters. But as we dropped the garbage bags full of blankets, pillows and towels Drew’s birthday guests contributed, there she was – just arrived that morning. Her name was Star and she cowered in her cage, crying. As soon as I knelt down though, she came right over, stuck her tiny snout through the bar and licked me. It was love at first sight, even though she was dirty and smelly – very, very smelly.
We were informed by the shelter that she was between seven and eight years old, but after we adopted her, two vets assured us that she was only between two and three years old. We were thrilled. Our bond was instant – she was a nursing mother (I had finished nursing my twenty two month old less than a year before), her puppies cruelly ripped from her before they were weaned. We gave her a fleece puppy that first night, which she “nursed,” squirting milk on it. She quickly became the boys’ second mother – checking on them at night and even sitting in the bathroom with us during Aidan’s frequent croup episodes, steam filling the room and Sadie at my feet, waiting until Aidan’s breathing returned to normal. She seemed to know when they were sick before we did – once she spent all night right next to Aidan before he woke up with strep the next day.
She is an amazing, miraculous dog and even though we have a new dog now – Coco, a sweet one year old poodle mix rescued from a beach in Puerto Rico – she is still unlike any other animal I have ever encountered. While Coco is a bundle of energy – jumping on everyone, chewing up toys and ripping into the garbage bag, Sadie is all zen calm, except when Coco plays with the boys – then she is right on top of Coco, growling – a mama making sure her babies are safe.
I kissed Sadie once more, checked on the boys and eventually fell into a restless sleep, awaking every couple of hours. Fresh tears fell as soon as I greeted the day and they didn’t stop. Right after breakfast, the vet’s receptionist faxed us Sadie’s oncology report, which painted such a grim picture, Jeff tried to hide it from me. Sadie had only an 8% chance of surviving more than a few months. I was just so thankful that my kids are completely imperceptive of my emotional state. As long as their needs are met, they really don’t notice how I am feeling – which, is exactly how it should be. None of them noticed that my eyes and nose were red, that I was uncharacteristically quiet. I did hide out in my bedroom for a bit, folding laundry, but for most of the day I took care of everyone and everything, while the tears rolled silently down my cheeks.
I did not want to go out for New Year’s Eve. I didn’t want to see people – I just wanted to stay home and hold Sadie. But, knowing I couldn’t force my kids to stay home, I pulled on blingy jeans and a sparkly silver sweater and bundled the boys up. We went to three different parties, but the veil of sadness remained. I knew that I had to cheer up quickly for my son’s birthday the next day. I couldn’t risk any of them realizing that I was so upset and why.
I did manage to put on a cheerful facade at my son’s birthday brunch on New Year’s Day, but when my my sister mentioned her friend who was depressed about the weather, I snapped, “At least she didn’t get terrible news. She should be happy.” Luckily, the kids were in the living room, completely oblivious to our conversation.
My mother chastised me, “You know, it’s terrible, but she’s not human. You have to remember that. Look at it this way,” she continued. “God had to make a choice between you and her.” She held her palms up, as if weighing the two options. “He chose you. She’s your saviour.” Two days before I found out Sadie needed surgery, I had my own cancer scare. If you read my last blog post, you know how harrowing it was for me lying on the sonogram table and learning that there was something big and partially solid “hanging off of my ovary.” You also know that as soon as I learned about Sadie, I pretty much stopped worrying about myself. Well, I went back for a follow up sonogram and had gotten a fantastic, reassuring call from my doctor on the same day that I found out that Sadie has cancer. Same day. The doctor informed me that the growth was indeed a hemorrhagic cyst and was shrinking. I simply needed to go for a follow up sonogram in three months. “You know they like to follow these things,” the doctor explained, almost apologetically.
“It’s fine,” I assured him. “It’s great. I’d rather make sure it’s gone.” I was so happy, so light. It seemed like everything would be OK. I called the vet a couple of hours later, looking for a sweep. Good news for Sadie too. The receptionist told me she would call the lab and call me back to let me know if the report was ready or not. I should have known when I didn’t hear back – not even that it wasn’t ready – that it was a call the receptionist couldn’t make. I just wasn’t expecting the vet to call at 9:30 at night, while I was putting the kids to bed. I didn’t even hear the phone ring. That’s why it was such a shock when Jeff told me. That’s why I was blindsided, ripped apart. Would it have been easier if I was expecting it? Probably not, as much as I think that expecting the worst and hoping for the best is a practical way to live, in reality, nothing soothes the pain of learning that someone that you love is so ill.
I know – I said, “someone,” not “something.” And yes, I know my mother’s assertion that Sadie is not human and that I need to put it in perspective. Jeff felt the same way – he had hugged me close and said, “At least you got good news.” I know it’s tearing him up too, he’s just the practical one in our union. I know no one can really understand, but to me Sadie may as well be human. She is my salve, my balm, my Prozac. With three bouncing off the wall boys, she is my calm in the storm, my oasis. I can’t stick my nose in the impossibly soft fur on her neck, breathing in her doggy essence and not feel peaceful. When she covers my face with her tiny kisses, all is right with the world. No slobbery dog kisses. She kisses daintily, starting at the tip of my nose and working up and across my forehead. This is how I start my day, getting kisses and how I end it. She simply gives love – doesn’t talk back, doesn’t whine, doesn’t complain.
I love my children more than anything on earth, but sometimes one just needs the unconditional love a dog gives. They are like infants – they love you, just because you are you. My husband, my kids – they love me as much as I love them, but they all have their moments when they don’t like me very much. Those times when I’ve done something – I don’t always even know what it is – to just tick them off. With a dog, they just love. This is why I am willing to do anything to save Sadie. I don’t care if we run ourselves into debt, I just want to save her. However, as I mentioned, I am married to an extremely practical man and wisely, I’m sure, he won’t let us run ourselves into debt. “We can’t spend $10,000 or $15,000 to save her,” he informed me. “There’s just no way.” The only thing worse than Sadie’s disease being too far gone for us to do anything, would be if we could do something to save her, but couldn’t afford it.
This was my fear as we sat in the waiting room of the Veterinary Medical Center of Long Island in West Islip, NY, on pins and needles until Sadie emerged from her ultrasound. Dr. John Fondacaro had just examined her and offered us something no one else had – hope. He said that the oncology report really didn’t mean anything – it just meant that 92% of dogs didn’t make it, but 8% did and there was always that hope that she would be one of those 8%. “It would be unrealistic to expect a miracle, but you can always hope for one,” he advised us. Sadie’s liver levels were high and he feared the cancer had metastasized there. If that were the case, we really could only offer her palliative care and try to make her last few months as peaceful and happy as possible. If it hadn’t metastasized yet, she was a candidate for a new vaccine that treats oral melanoma in dogs by injecting human DNA into the melanoma tumor site. Dogs given only months to live have been surviving at least two or more years cancer free after receiving the vaccine. With this treatment, Sadie could be one of the 8%. Better yet, if that was the only treatment Sadie required, the tally would be far below the $10,000 we feared.
Jeff and I held hands as we waited for Dr. Fondacaro to come through the swinging door and share Sadie’s fate. Hope or no hope. “I think it’s going to be bad,” I whispered. “How are we going to tell the kids?” I so wanted to give my children the gift of hope.
Before Sadie’s exam, a woman sitting next to us admired her. When I told her that Sadie has cancer, she replied sadly, “I have cancer too. Ovarian.” I looked into her eyes and told her about my sister and my mother – their stories of survival. “My sister was diagnosed thirteen years ago with stage three ovarian cancer and she’s just fine now,” I offered. “My mother had uterine cancer, but an ovarian cancer cell and she is just fine too – almost four years out from chemo now.”
“That’s so good to hear,” she said. “You don’t hear that often. I’m stage three, had it now for two and a half years – been in chemo on and off since then. It’s so hard. I didn’t know if anyone could survive late stage. Good to hear.” She sat back in her seat, hands across her stomach and smiled, a small smile, but a smile. I thought about her as we waited to learn Sadie’s fate. Had I given her the gift of hope, had I made her journey a bit easier, knowing that someone who had gone before survived, despite the odds? I squeezed Jeff’s hand, just as the waiting room door swung open and Dr. Fondacaro greeted us with a big grin and a thumbs up. “Yes,” I shouted, fists pumping. I didn’t care how ridiculous I looked – we had hope and that, was a true gift.
Epilogue (January 2010): Four days later, Sadie saw Dr. Edwin Brodsky, a dog oncologist at The Center for Specialized Veterinary Care in Westbury, NY. He declared her cancer stage one. She received her first dose of oral melanoma vaccine and will require three more doses – every other week – and then one dose every six months. She is not completely out of the woods – she needs one more surgery to remove her parotid gland, as well as a large section of her cheek, since microscopic cancer cells remained behind after her first surgery. That surgery is on Tuesday, January 19th. Although I am extremely nervous about it and I feel terrible that she has to go under the knife again, it is really our only choice. It will be a long recovery, but it is her best chance – her only chance – to survive and even thrive, cancer free.
Epilogue Two (December 2013): After a long, brave battle with cancer, Sadie passed away on November 16, 2011. We had almost two years with her after her diagnosis – more than we could have hoped for, but far, far from enough. Dr. Edwin Brodsky (who moved to the Veterinary Medical Center of Long Island during Sadie’s treatment) gave us those precious two years. The vaccine worked perfectly at first when she was getting it more often. She was a new dog – happy, with an appetite and energy. Once it switched to an every six month dose, we had to add in chemotherapy. Even then, after the first few days Sadie was happy. When the chemo stopped working and the cancer metastasized into Sadie’s lungs, her breathing becoming labored, we knew it was time to let her go. She went peacefully in my arms, humanely euthanized at her regular vet’s office. It was still the most difficult decision I have ever made, but when every breath became a struggle, I knew it was selfish to keep her alive (luckily she deteriorated very quickly and truly didn’t suffer for long). I still miss her every day, but know that we did all that we could for her (and yes, we broke our budget – and no, I have no regrets) and for those five short years we had her, she knew she was loved.