The Dog, Cancer, and Me: Better Than Yesterday
The old dog is dying, it’s hard to say if he knows.
He lies on the floor, in front of the glass door in the outbuilding where I work, too spent to climb up onto the leather chair where for 10 years or so he has drowsed while I peck away at the keys. It’s raining outside and a deer walks past, not 20 feet away, and the dog lifts his eyebrows, enough to cause his forehead to wrinkle into furrows, and then drops his chin back onto his paws and goes back to wherever he was. It’s strange to imagine, but inside him there is a storm.
The speed of it seems impossible. Three weeks ago—a day or two more now—he wakes me up in the night, panting. We head into the kitchen, and I offer him some fresh water. He turns it down and stands by the door, and after I let him out he drinks rainwater from Mrs. Dexter’s flowerpots. Then he lies down on the porch for half an hour, cooling off, and I sit by the door, reading, and at 2:30 or so he comes back in.
Three hours previous, back before the first time we went to bed, I’d cleaned the goop that runs out of the inside corners of his eyes, as I do every night. That was midnight. At 3 a.m., the stuff is back, two inches long and darker than before. He is a pale Lab, almost white, and in the dim light the stains are there again, running from the corners of his eyes—which are almost black—and, together with the lines of goop, look like old-fashioned keyholes.
He takes a shot at getting up on the bed and misses, scrambling at the edge of the mattress, looking for some purchase for his hind feet, and then drops hard back onto the floor. I pile pillows beside the bed and cover them with a sheet, and in the five or 10 seconds before I am back in bed myself he is snoring.
In the morning, he turns down breakfast. It takes a minute for this news to settle: Henry is turning down food. This is exactly as likely as finding him down by the river playing a harmonica.
Friday afternoon Dr. Parent takes the dog’s vital signs, as they say, and then pulls some blood for tests, and then examines the entire creature, running his hands up and down his coat. The dog pants and licks at a few drops of spilled water on the examination table. Dr. Parent does not like what he is feeling, and all there is to say about the next 10 minutes—if there is something more to this story than the end of a dog—it is that what you do when there’s nothing you can do can matter for a long time.
Henry continues not to eat. I stir-fry chicken, he can’t stomach the smell. In the morning—it’s Saturday now—I fry a reduced-for-quick-sale, 28-ounce boneless rib-eye steak, rare. Enough meat on that plate to run for president, and he turns away. A couple of hours later, I try a 3-ounce Fancy Feast Chicken Hearts & Liver Feast in Gravy Sliced Gourmet Cat Food, which comes out of the can whole, quivering like Jell-O, and which the animal has in the past swallowed in its entirety while I have turned away for the half second it takes to call the cat. But not this time. This time he can’t eat and I know about that.
Oddly enough, we have been through this before, Henry and I. Except last time I was the one who was supposed to die. I’d been bitten by a dog—not Henry, by the way—a puppy who got excited while we were playing—and the infection settled in my spine first and then spread everywhere, into joints and many of my favorite organs. Ten weeks in the hospital, most of it at what was a called a select care facility in Phoenix.
It was a bad time—hallucinations, depression, nightmares—all the connections to the regular world fading, and the world, particularly the nursing staff, was amazingly indifferent. And without going through the sorry story of that hospital, I would mention that truly horrible people reveal themselves when you are helpless and expected to die any day.
In any case, part of it, a small part, was not being able to eat, meaning I understand what the dog is feeling now. You understand but can’t actually remember, I suppose— not until it’s on you again.
Sunday night I talk him into a few bites of American cheese and a mint patty. Later—back around 3 a.m.—we move to the outbuilding where my office is and a spare bed, so as not to awaken Mrs. Dexter anymore than we already have. Mrs. Dexter has over the years developed an unfriendly response to being stirred at this hour, knowing from a lifetime of experience that good news does not come at 3 in the morning.
Meanwhile, over in the outbuilding/office, we leave the door open so the beast can come and go as he wants. The outside temperature has dropped into the low 30s and inside the temperature has also dropped into the low 30s, and this time I lift the dog into bed because without him I will freeze. On Friday, before he stopped eating, Henry weighed in at 131 pounds at Dr. Parent’s office, and whatever he weighs now, my lifting him into bed is like the stories you see now and then where Grandma lifts the Studebaker off Junior when it falls off the jack.
Monday the test results come in. Stage Four lymphoma, and you only get five stages. The vet—a different vet, a cancer specialist—says that if the chemotherapy works Henry might last another year. A good year, maybe. Chemo is easier on dogs than it is on people, at least until it comes back. And it will come back, she is pretty clear about that, and next time it won’t work as well, or for as long. And it will go on a year, maybe more if you’re lucky, and in the end the cancer is going to win.
And a week and a half goes by. Chemotherapy every Tuesday, pills every morning. Checking his temperature. Last night he was strong enough to get back up on the bed but we are still sleeping in the office.
And I am sitting here thinking of Arizona, of the afternoon I finally got out of the last hospital, and was sitting in a wheelchair waiting for Mrs. Dexter to bring the car around when instead she walks in holding Henry on a leash. He sees me and tears himself and the leash out of her hand.
He has been in a kennel 10 weeks. A hundred pounds of bone and muscle with a 20-yard head start, and I am in a wheelchair, emaciated down to not much bigger than the dog, and in that moment—equal parts relief, happiness and terror—I was back among the living.
As for Henry, I don’t know what he was thinking then—I never claimed this was the smartest animal in the world—or what he’s thinking now. He’s better today than yesterday, though, and was better yesterday than the day before, and according to the vet that is how it will probably go, day after day, until it doesn’t.