Some days, I almost forget.
I never actually forget. There are too many reminders: the morning and evening medication rituals, the vet appointments and special prescription diet, the drained savings and loaded credit card bills, the lump in my throat anytime she seems the slightest bit off.
Because most days she’s not off. Most days she’s just Belle, the same Corgi-Golden Retriever we’ve had for the last ten years. Her face is a little whiter, her steps a little slower, but she’s still our loyal, adventurous, quirky, protective, intuitive, affectionate little weirdo, obsessive about her routines and deeply suspicious of the cat.
She still eats, hikes, naps, kisses, hugs, swims, demands belly rubs, scratches her back on the grass, and wags her tail gregariously at the sight of a friend.
She still loves being a dog.
As best I can tell, Belle loves being my dog. I think she knows I love being her human, too.
But in the back of my mind, no matter how normal everything seems, no matter how much I tell myself not to think about it, I always know.
Belle has cancer.
Belle is dying.
We found out ten months and two weeks ago.
As it turns out, we caught a lucky break. If you ask my mother, who does not believe in coincidence, it was a sign from God, or maybe our dog trying to signal us that something was amiss.
Whatever the cause, the story goes like this: Belle ate something she shouldn’t have. We don’t know what.
My wife, Adri, had taken her and her brother, Sebastian, on an early-morning walk. Belle got into the bushes and found a snack—a discarded chicken bone, perhaps, or maybe a rock. It was dark and happened quickly.
To be clear, this was entirely out of character. Save for her tendency to chase the cat, her inclinations to herd small, rambunctious children—she is half-Corgi, after all—and one incident with the bunny next door, Belle has always been the good dog. Sebastian, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, is the household troublemaker, the furry vacuum cleaner, the one responsible for our emergency vet visits.
Belle became ill—lethargic and visibly uncomfortable. After a few days, we took her to her vet, Dr. Rachel Germain of the Banfield Pet Hospital in Southpoint.
She spotted something on the X-ray, in Belle’s abdominal cavity near her kidney. A blockage of some sort. Maybe a mass. Probably not. Hard to tell. Just to be sure, Dr. Germain told me the next morning, she wanted Belle to get an ultrasound.
I wasn’t eager to drop $400 to be told everything was fine, I replied. Besides, Belle was already doing better.
Dr. Germain told me she understood. “But if it were my dog, I would do it.”
That line got to me.
I scheduled the ultrasound, at Triangle Veterinary Referral Clinic, for the following Thursday, September 20.
It was cancer, a woman informed me that afternoon. I say informed because she delivered this information with cold, emotionless remove, like she wasn’t ripping my guts out.
Maybe she wasn’t really emotionless. The conversation is a blur, existing in fragments of memory. I don’t remember her face. I’m not even sure who she was—a vet? A tech? Who do they send to tell you that your dog is dying, that the prognosis is months and not years, that treatments will be expensive but ultimately fail? I recall the room being dry and sterile. I’m pretty sure Belle was in the back somewhere, sleeping off a sedative. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more alone.
They needed a biopsy to be sure, she continued, steady and monotone, but the tumor was probably hemangiosarcoma, an aggressive cancer that originates in the cells that line the blood vessels. It’s common in Golden Retrievers. It’s always fatal.
I absorbed this news in silence, nodding along to indicate that I understood what my brain hadn’t begun to process. Then I drove home, collapsed on the floor, and cried.
More accurately, I bawled. I sobbed. I shook. I screamed at the walls. I don’t know how long I sat there. Five minutes? Twenty? It felt like hours. It was crushingly unfair—to me, selfishly, but also to her. In dog years, I calculated, Belle was in her mid-to-late fifties.
I tried to make sense of it, as if there were something to make sense of. I tried to bargain with it, as if there were someone to bargain with, as if I had anything to offer. I hated feeling powerless. And irrational as it was, I hated myself for letting Belle down.
I don’t have children. I have Belle and Sebastian—named for the band, not the Disney characters—as well as our mercurial cat, Rita. I love them more than most things and most people. They love without reservation and forgive without hesitation (not so much the cat). They’re so often the best parts of my day.
I know we’re supposed to outlive them. I knew they were getting older. But until that afternoon, the inevitability of time had never felt entirely real.
Now it did. I knew what the future held. I knew how my little girl’s story ended—and the decision we’d eventually have to make.
How the fuck was I supposed to deal with that?
I could tell you a thousand stories about Belle.
I could tell you about Cole, her beagle boyfriend in Philadelphia, and how she loved that dog. (Seven years after we moved, she still lights up at the mention of his name.) I could tell you about her first trip to the beach and how terrified she was of, well, everything, or the time she dragged a bewildered toddler by her diaper across a living room—in fairness, the kid probably shouldn’t have been in the kitchen—then kissed her forehead profusely. I could tell you about when she stole bread from a fisherman, or how she spent hours stalking squirrels at the dog park.
I could tell you her so proudly climbing that massive oak tree, forty or fifty feet in the air, or how she outran a Greyhound mix in pursuit of a rabbit, or how she quivers with excitement when she sees a horse. I could tell you about her peculiar style of play, which involves crouching low, eyeing an unsuspecting dog from about twenty yards away, sprinting at it full force and slamming into it, then prancing away as if nothing happened.
I told you she’s a weirdo. In a way, I think that’s why we’ve bonded.
I read somewhere that dogs take on their humans’ personalities as they age. For better or worse, she has, at least in some ways. She’s fiercely devoted to those in her pack, skeptical of those outside of it. (It takes three encounters to move from the latter camp to the former.) She fixates on the task at hand. She finds comfort in consistency and long naps on a Saturday afternoon. Those she chooses to love, she loves deeply.
Those lucky enough to be in that group find it impossible not to love her back. (There, I suppose, she and I differ.)
I picked her up from some rednecks in an Orlando mall parking lot after seeing her picture on Craigslist. She probably cost a hundred bucks. I never got the full story: Did a Golden jump the fence, or was this combination planned? I probably should have gone to the shelter, but you should’ve seen her: eight weeks old, a little ball of fluff, fuzzy hair and no legs, her stubby paws jutting out from a belly that almost scraped the ground, always pointed ever-so-slightly outward.
We got her because Sebastian needed a companion. He was five months old, big eyes and bigger heart, but in want of constant attention. I put her on my lap to drive her back to our apartment. She shook the entire time.
When we got home, Sebastian was not amused at the prospect of another puppy competing for Adri’s affection. (He’s very much a mommy’s boy.) He shot me a look: What the hell is that?
It took him three days to decide to keep her. They’ve been inseparable ever since: They eat together, they sleep together, they walk side by side. She uses him as a pillow when they’re in the backseat. When Belle goes to the doctor, Sebastian insists on going with her. When Sebastian begs for food, Belle waits patiently beside him, knowing she’ll split the fruits of his labor.
She’s a smart girl.
The insidious thing about hemangiosarcoma is its stealth. It most often forms in the spleen. It’s asymptomatic until the tumor swells and ruptures—a painful, life-threatening condition that requires emergency surgery to staunch massive internal bleeding. Even if the surgery is successful, the rupture spreads microscopic cancer cells all over the body, which reform into other fast-growing tumors.
In weeks or months, the cancer wins.
That’s why Belle’s upset stomach was a tender mercy. We caught the cancer early, before it ruptured and spread throughout her abdomen, before it attached itself to other vital organs. So maybe, I tell myself, we got lucky enough to beat impossible odds—that Belle, an exceedingly unusual dog, got an exceedingly unusual tumor.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The day after the ultrasound, we met with Belle’s oncologist, Dr. Jennifer Arthur, who told us this would the “the second-worst day of this process.”
I suspect it will actually be the third. It was better than the day we learned of the diagnosis. At least she gave us a thin reed of hope. She gave us options.
We could do nothing except keep Belle comfortable, she said. Belle would pass away within a few months. We could do the surgery to remove the tumor (and the kidney to which it was attached) but skip the chemotherapy. She might live six months. Or we try everyth—
“That’s what we’re doing,” Adri said before Dr. Arthur finished the sentence.
Everything. Surgery. Chemo. More chemo. Chinese mushrooms. Chinese anticoagulants. Fight like hell or go broke trying. Among her many qualities, Belle is stubborn, resilient, and brave. We would be, too.
The surgery was risky; blood-based tumors can cause hemorrhages. After that, she’d get six doses of intense chemotherapy, spaced three weeks apart, to kill as many of the remaining cancer cells as possible. Then, for the rest of her life (or as long as she could tolerate it), another form of chemo called Palladia given every other day—with latex gloves, as touching it is toxic—to prevent lingering cancer cells from reforming into tumors. On top of that, four pills a day containing a powdered form of the Coriolus versicolor mushroom, used in Chinese medicine to boost the immune system, and one daily pill of Yunnan Baiyao, a proprietary Chinese medicine said to keep blood from clotting.
It’s as expensive as it sounds. All told, we were staring down between $4,000 and $5,000 for the surgery and $450 and $550 a month for the medications.
If all goes well, that might give us a year, Dr. Arthur told us.
In a small study at the University of Pennsylvania a few years ago, dogs with hemangiosarcoma who were given Coriolus versicolor, sold under the brand name I’m-Yunity, lived several months longer than those who weren’t. And in a case study I found in a veterinary journal, a twelve-year-old dog with hemangiosarcoma lived for two years on Palladia, then died of suspected brain cancer that may or may not have been linked to the hemangiosarcoma.
We’d do both and hope for the best.
That was a Friday. Her surgery was on Tuesday. That weekend was all about her. We invited her best human and dog friends over. We grilled steak and gave it to her. We took her to Duke Gardens and let her decide where we should go (we ended up staring at the koi pond a lot). We told her how special she was. We snuggled her until she got annoyed with us. We prepared ourselves for the worst.
And then, after a long, sleepless night, we took her in early in the morning, dropped her off, went to work, and waited for a phone call. By noon, I’d gotten tired of waiting, so I went to the vet’s office to wait, as if the proximity would speed things along. Adri soon joined me.
About two, the vet finally had news. Good news, relatively speaking.
The tumor was neatly contained to Belle’s kidney. (Dr. Germain later told me they’d never seen that before with hemangiosarcoma.) They took the kidney out; she has two, and with a prescription diet, losing one doesn’t affect her quality of life.
Belle responded well to the chemo, too. Dogs handle it better than humans. They usually don’t get sick or lose their hair. Belle maintained her strength and energy, as much as you can expect from a ten-year-old, anyway. She’s had a few bad days, and she’s gone stretches in which she gets finicky about her food, but I’m told that’s normal. A few months ago, she had another ultrasound. It came back clean. To look at her, you’d never think anything’s wrong.
Some days, I almost forget.
The day of Belle’s surgery, as we sat alone in a room during that brief period of tranquility between when we heard the surgery went well and when Dr. Arthur gave us details, Adri spotted a familiar face through the closed door’s small window. We went into the hall to say hello.
Our friend was here to see Dr. Arthur, too. Her dog, a Frenchie, had been diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma four months earlier. They’d done the surgery, the chemo, the mushrooms. They’d spent the money. (“It’s not like they need a college fund,” she quipped.) He was there for a check-up.
“Dr. Arthur is the best,” she assured us.
Last week, she posted a photo to Facebook of the Frenchie spooning his sister, another Frenchie, on the couch. It’s been fourteen months since his diagnosis—only 10 percent of dogs make it a year—and he’s still here, though they’ve stepped back his Palladia from once every two days to once every three because it was making him ill.
“Sometimes I’m like, was he misdiagnosed, and am I pumping poison into him for no reason?” she told me. “And then there are times where I look at him and all I see is a little ticking time bomb.”
So much rests on things beyond our control. But there’s one thing I can control.
The day after the surgery, we brought Belle home, woozy from the meds. As she lay on the couch, and I sat next to her, stroking her head and her back, choking back tears, I told myself to remember this feeling—this gnawing ache, this pit of sadness—to never forget it.
Belle had been my companion, my dog, my little girl, for ten years, in different cities, in different jobs, in good times and bad. She’d been a constant presence—always there. I realized that I’d taken that, taken her, for granted.
I’d never do it again. Whether this reprieve lasts a month or a year, I swore to make every second of it count.
We’ve mostly lived up to that promise. We’ve filled her days with friends and loved ones, Saturday hikes and Sunday morning dog church (if you don’t know, I can’t tell you), dog-park afternoons and a steady supply of treats and snuggles.
As far as we know, she’s a happy dog.
She’s been happier since she figured out how to manipulate us.
I don’t know if Belle understands that she’s sick. But she’s most definitely intuited that we’re attuned to her every whim, and she uses it. So if we try to leave the house without her, she’ll stare at us, eyes wide, almost in disbelief, then give a quick, sharp, accusatory high-pitched bark, as if to ask: How could you? Don’t you know?
She knows what she’s doing. And we mostly oblige. She tells us when she wants to go to the park, or when she wants to see her bestie Junebug, or when it’s eight o’clock and she wants us to tuck her in. (She’s an oddly punctual animal.)
Belle is spoiled, of course. Sebastian is, too. But aren’t they supposed to be?
We give these magnificent creatures, who have formed a unique bond with humanity over thirty thousand years, mere pieces of ourselves. We work and travel and have marriages and friends. But they have only us. And, for the short time they’re on this planet, they give us their everything.
Don’t they deserve to be spoiled?
September 20 will mark one year since Belle’s diagnosis. At that point, by Dr. Arthur’s calendar, we’ll be on borrowed time. I don’t know how much time we’ll get to borrow.
However long it is, we’ll make it count. My little girl deserves that.
Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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