Of all the things to be told over the phone, “Your dog has collapsed and is on the way to the hospital,” ranks up there as one of the least appealing, if not the most memorable. Especially when those words are expressed through tears and with a tone of outright despair.
“I”ll meet you there,” I told my Ex, who’d had custody of Louie last week. I pressed “End,” laced up my shoes, threw on a baseball cap, and drove down to the SPCA, all the while gently putting the idea of my dog’s mortality “on hold,” if only for the next ten minutes.
Four hours, two vet clinics, a couple of waiting rooms, no food, and one thousand dollars later, Louie had an appointment with a surgeon first thing Monday. Over time my little rugrat had apparently developed larangeal paralysis, in which the two little flaps at his voicebox, which open and close with normal breathing, had closed up and stubbornly refused to open again. Which meant he wasn’t getting enough oxygen. My poor boy had been slowly, silently suffocating while I sat slack-jawed in front of the television, watching yet another Project Runway marathon.
We left Louie with the vets for observation. At home I crashed. Sitting in the two waiting rooms, nursing a dangerously low, breakfast-free blood sugar level, had worn me out, and reminded me uncomfortably of my waiting room experiences during my mother’s illness, as did the surgeon’s too-casual mention of a tracheostomy, in the event the surgery didn’t go as planned. The odds of having two family members with holes in their throats were preposterous, and I decided not to dwell there.
Forty-four hours and two thousand dollars later, Louie came home. Getting him there was a bit of an ordeal, as my 70-pound ball of furry love was heavily sedated. The cute vet tech with the bullet plug earrings, who’d told me Louie was anxious to go home, walked him out on a leash, with a sort of padded sling holding up Louie’s wobbly back end. The leash crossed over Louie’s chest, in order to protect his throat, which was shaved and heavily bandaged. His front right leg was wrapped in a purple bandage which covered his IV incision. His back left leg was wrapped in a white bandage which covered a patch of transdermal pain medication.
“You look like a Flashdance casualty,” I told him.
He regarded me groggily from the back seat, and tried to pull himself up into a seated position.
“Lie down, you’re not missing anything” I said, and turned my attention back to the road. I took the corners at 3 mph.
My Ex, who actually works for a living, agreed that I’d be a better candidate for home nurse, what with my rather flexible schedule. I carried Louie from the car to my bed, where he promptly passed out for the rest of the day.
“How’s he doing?” The Ex asked when he called.
I described the various medications and instructions he’d been sent home with. “He’s got one of those lampshades.”
“You know, the E-collar.”
“What’s an E-collar?”
“Elizabethan. Keeps him from licking at his wounds.”
“Oh!” the Ex said. “One of those lampshades.”
“Right,” I said. “He got the ghetto version. It’s made out of floppy blue vinyl.”
“Very. I’m thinking of wearing it as a skirt. With a pair of saucy slingbacks.”
“There’s something wrong with you,” the Ex said.
But Louie, as it turned out, needed the lampshade. The next night, after I’d left him alone for a couple of hours, I came home to find that the purple bandage around his front leg was missing. As in, nowhere to be seen.
“Where did you put it?” I asked him. He gave me a blank look. “Did you eat it?”
My dog, just as sensitive as his daddy, bowed his head in shame.
“Oh, honey,” I said. “I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at your illness.”
He’d also scratched at his scar; his throat bandage hung open, and I could see for the first time the dozen staples holding his skin together. “Shit.” I sighed and looked away, surveying my room. “Oh my God,” I said. “You’ve been eating my jade plant. You’re delirious,” I sat down next to him. “And I’m a horrible father.”
The white bandage on his back leg was coming unglued as well. I searched through my closet and pulled out a roll of duct tape. “Good boy,” I said, as I gently wrapped his leg. He gave me a look of vulnerability and absolute trust, and at that moment the sense of tenderness and responsibility I felt for him nearly broke my heart. I understood then the difference between my mother’s illness and my dog’s illness. With my mother I felt no sense of control; her disease decided the course of events, and the various minor surgeries (the tracheostomy, the stomach feeding tube) were merely speed bumps on the road to the inevitable end.
Louie was different. I’d had him for eleven years, since he was twelve weeks old, and he wasn’t a puppy anymore. Someday I’d have to make a decision of enormous power; and the power felt like both a burden and a gift. I couldn’t keep him alive, but I could spare him pain: a lopsided compromise with fate.
And like every other time I’d imagined that day, I quickly put the thought out of my head. The only decision to make that night was when to fasten the lampshade around his neck, which I did before lights out.
“I know,” I said. “It’s a pain in the ass.”
He sulked while I stroked his head and murmured in his ear, “I love you, Jennifer Beals.”