The past week or so has been a rough patch. And even though the outcome is mostly positive (at least in the short term), I’m still reeling a bit, figuring out, healing up, and considering the meaning of everything. Mostly, I’m still thinking about how powerful acceptance really is. Because it’s much more simple to find acceptance when things are just ducky. The un-ducky times are more of a challenge.
Our story begins a week ago Sunday. It was a mostly relaxing day and I was catching up with some correspondence with an old friend. In talking about old times and the stuff from in between, we shared stories of our losses. And we talked about our pets. I am blessed with a border collie/Samoyed mix who is the light of my world. While I was writing about him, he lay underneath my curtains, with his head mostly hidden except his eyes were always on me. Border collies are like that: attentive, aware, insightful. There has never been a time when I was sad, whether I showed any signs of emotion or not, when my Darby hasn’t been right there, trying to make everything better.
By the way, he hates my first book, because a sad event in the book always makes me cry. Every time. Reading it. Editing it. Thinking about it. Sobfest. Decidedly not border collie approved.
So, I was writing about Darby and the fact that he’s getting older, an event that is decidedly not me approved. And in that moment, I knew something was wrong with Darby. Tears fluttered out, and then Darby knew there was something wrong with me. The rest of the day, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad was coming. On Monday morning, I scheduled an appointment with my vet for that evening and I went there knowing I might be insane, but I wanted Darby checked out. His heart sounded good. Temp was fine. Lungs sounded great. They couldn’t find anything wrong. He’d had a cough a few weeks before that had been treated and had only coughed once or twice since, so maybe it was allergies. Nothing really wrong.
I admitted that I’d been putting off his dental visit because I was worried about him being anesthetized. The vet suggested we get that done and he would check for anything that might be wrong with Darby’s throat that might have caused the coughing. Okay. Blood work performed. Appointment set. And then the vet came back in wanting to take an x-ray, just to be sure that nothing was wrong before putting him under. I approved. Darby disappeared into the back, and a few minutes later, the vet returned wanting to take more films because it wasn’t looking good.
I didn’t panic, because I knew... I just didn’t know the specs of the badness.
I heard the vet clearing out all extraneous employees from the back, leaving only himself and a couple vet students, and Darby. They invited me back to look at x-rays that showed a very large mass in Darby’s right lung lobe. I love words, but I don’t remember many that were said, but I do remember Darby, right up in my space, his head forcing my hand to pet him, keeping me focused.
I had options, surgery amongst them. I do remember the vet complimenting me for bringing Darby in when he was alert, active, and symptom free. For that, I thank intuition.
The week that followed is a bit of a blur, but acceptance was the spice of every day. I couldn’t whine about this. I couldn’t rage against the world. Because that would negate the beauty, the absolute gift that Darby is in my life. For all the time I’ve been alone, I never really have been because Darby has always been with me. Acceptance, even of the bad things, is the only way to be truly grateful for what has been. And I can only feel gratitude every time I look at my pup.
Acceptance doesn’t mean there wasn’t sadness, but I really tried to keep the crying to a minimum, which meant only talking about all of this with a few people, and only when Darby was outside. I didn’t want him to think anything was wrong. He had a job to do, and border collies always do their best. And I had a job to do, give him every fighting chance of pulling through, with the best vets and a border collie approved positive attitude.
So, a week later on Wednesday, surgery happened. But not until I’d played with him, taken him to his favorite park, taken pictures of him and some video (in which his sister, a not terribly bright Ridgeback, showed off her inability to play ball, something that vexes Darby greatly), and hugged him and thanked him for every good day. Watching him walk out of my reach and into the back of the vet hospital, knowing there was a chance I wouldn’t see him again, was a struggle, but I did it... and then I cried and went to work.
Wednesday was the longest day of my life. All day, I thought about people who are parents whose children get sick. I can’t imagine what that is like. I love my dog, but I never expected him to go away to college, find a nice girl, settle down, and have a long life. I always knew the realities of puppy life spans. That doesn’t diminish the love, because love is love, but the expectations are so very different. The hurting and the loss are so much greater when children are involved. I still can’t even imagine what an old friend of mine is going through, having lost her twenty-two year-old son. The day, in some ways, was a lesson in compassion, with more than a tinge of empathy.
It was also a day of feeling very alone. I got tripped up on some expectations (I know, I rail against them constantly but still fall prey). I expected the friends I’d told about the surgery to do something, say something, text, email, something, just so I’d know they were with me in this fight, that I wasn’t alone. And other than one friend’s text, there was only silence from the other three. Nothing... from some of the people closest to me in my life, two of whom had known Darby as long as I had. Expectations are things to be fought. I know life is busy. I know people don’t always know what to say and when to say it. It took me over three months to find the words to say to my old friend who lost her son, and I felt like a coward for that fact. And one day doesn’t diminish the extreme value of these friendships. I will accept them for who they are and what they have to give, but in being honest about the day, I needed to admit that silence wasn’t easy company.
And then the call came in: the tumor was too large to get out laparoscopically, and they were going to need to go in through his ribs. I’d get a call in fifteen or twenty minutes. An hour and a half of stomach-clenching lock down followed. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d accepted that I might not see him again, but the not knowing was agony.
Another call: he was awake and raising his head, but everything sounded wrong. His stats had gone all wonky under anesthesia and they’d almost lost him. His temperature was too low. He’d lost blood. And a bunch of other things leading to the words: critical condition. I was supposed to be there in an hour and a half to see him, and I wondered if he’d still be there when I got there. Driving to the clinic felt like one of those movies where they need to cut the blue wire before the seconds wind down and everybody dies.
The vet talked to me, but his words faded after he said that Darby was doing well. After asking me if I was the squeamish type, the vet excitedly showed me his big score: the tumor. I’m not the squeamish type and found the show and tell to be pretty fascinating, as were the before and after x-rays. Now you see a tumor; now you don’t.
The vet said that Darby didn’t know I was there. Darby’s whining proved otherwise. The vet clinic staff had put a chair next to Darby’s recovery cage, but I shoved that out of the way and asked if I could just get on the floor. Darby was so excited to see me, his tail went slightly drugged-out crazy and he tried to stand, which I quickly advised against. Getting to rub his ears (my absolute favorite of his many charming attributes) was one of the best moments of my life. I knew we had a long way to go, but I accepted that and just lived in the glory of this good outcome.
Now, he’s home, wrapped up in bandages, still waging his tail every time I talk to him. He waits for me to carry him down the stairs, eats a little when I ask him to, and rests a lot (a very un-border collie thing to do). We go today to get his bandages changed.
I still don’t know what the lab work will say about the tumor and what the months ahead look like, or how many more days I get with my Darby, but I’m grateful to get to rub his ears as much as I like today. I’m grateful that my parents helped out with some of the vet bills (I did mention to the office staff at the vet clinic that I was going to have to tattoo my parents' names on Darby’s behind, like the sponsors on a car in NASCAR). And I'm grateful that a week after discovery, a team of seven trained professionals worked hard to keep Darby alive and make him tumor free (what human patient could ever dream of such a quick turnaround within our medical system?).
And more than anything else, I’m glad I was able to keep the sense of acceptance, even when the bad things came. Life is a beautiful thing, and hardships inspire gratitude and appreciation for all that is, even when the is nots lurk nearby. A battle or a blessing, life is the thing we all share, and thanks for letting me share this story.
Quote for the Day from me and my vet
Me: “There’s my gladiator puppy.”
Vet: “Yes, he is a gladiator.”