A timely reminder

by jillst


I made a firm promise to myself at the beginning of the year that I would post on my blog every week. This promise has been stretched a few times, but never broken as thoroughly as in this last fortnight. I was sort of too sad to write, or too happy. In both, I was too much a part of the world – but here I am, back again, not with something funny or topical but with a long, rambling post about my life, so good luck with that.

The week before last I waited until the last possible moment to take lunch.

My stomach was rumbling as I clattered my way down the stairs that lie in the very belly of the big newspaper office where I work.

Many days I curse these stairs, the office and the impulses that brought me here. I used to be a magazine editor, a job I loved, but I traded it in when I was “headhunted” into a reporting role. I resent the job – which I don’t find as rewarding or as professionally impressive – and I resent the kind minds that inspired me to take it. “It’s a bigger company,” they said “more stable.” Ironically, it’s now in the middle of massive redundancies – but even before then, it didn’t feel good enough. I could no longer count myself the singled-out one, the young boss lady, with the impressive business card. I’m just one of many, and hardly the most impressive of the bunch.

But I don’t think of my career that day, as I trudge down the stairs. I think of the reason I am leaving the office for such a late lunch, to walk the ten or so minutes it will take to get to the nice salad place, a pleasant culinary retreat from my woes.

The reason is a phone call, which will come from my husband, about our little dog, Sunny.

Sunny was my choice – we have two dogs, and we both chose one. My husband chose beautiful Bruno, a show dog, a blue-blood blue. Both of our choices had to adopted, desexed and from a rescue we supported – but he picked the one closest to pure bred. Bruno looks like a dog prince, a quarterback, bouncy and confident; popular, cheeky and beloved.

When I first saw Sunny, even I thought she was too odd-looking to adopt – and who am I trying to impress? Me, a chubby, stressed-out average-looker, who already had one pitbull? But Sunny was truly odd looking, with a big comb-like mound of loose skin under her chin, a saggy belly with droopy teats attached, her trademark self-possession and sass on firm display even through the camera. She was burly and odd.

I almost didn’t take a second look – but I noticed, halfway down her adoption listing, the one fact that was absolutely key, the one non-negotiable. Sunny loved to wrestle.

Bruno, of course, loves to wrestle – most boys who look like him do, whether human or canine. It was essential his new companion, who we were adopting in large part to keep him company, feel the same.

I put Sunny on my mental shortlist, and went back to flicking through adoption profiles on the websites of my favourite shelters. But she wouldn’t leave my mind.

She wriggled herself in there so completely, that eventually, we went and met her in person. She didn’t make a great impression.

Shortly after being brought out to see us in the little pen-like verandah at the front of the shelter, Sunny dug herself a little hole in the dirt of an adjacent garden and lay herself across it, like a flower that had grown wrong. She didn’t want to say hello to us, and in a brief moment of play, she bit Bruno and he bled a little.

My husband was giving me the look – the “are you sure about this?” look – and the shelter lady seemed equally uncertain. I don’t know why I chose to take her home – or, not even home, but to the vet. We paid our money, and we drove there straight away.

It was supposed to be a check up, but Sunny ended up staying there overnight. She’d been desexed while in heat, and something had gone wrong.

It would be the first of a long line of medical problems. First, the time she got an abscess on her ear that required an expensive operation – during which they also removed several teeth, which she had ground down in her past life.

“Probably chewing on a cage,” the vet said.

There was the time she and Bruno got into a fight, and he tore a little hole in her ear, which bled and bled all over my sister as she held piece after piece of toilet paper over tissue-like skin and velvety fur. Sunny has a scar now – it’s one of many that mars her sweet little face. Proof of time spent as a stray, or maybe even as a puppy farm or bait dog.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising Sunny spends so much time at the vet.

In fact, she’d headed off to the dog doctor, basically her second home, a week or so prior to this day – this day when I am headed out to lunch. She’d been feeling a little under the weather, we told the vet, who said she would need antibiotics and a second visit on Monday.

“I’m like 90% not worried,” he said, “but I’m like 10% worried.”

The next time Sunny went to the vet, they told my husband to take her straight to animal hospital.

They told us him weren’t sure what was wrong. But they were testing for cancer.

I’d been worried about her, that morning my husband took her in. He’d had to call and let me know, and later, at home, reassure me.

“Everyone loves her at the vet,” my husband said, in comfort.

I feel the tears begin to slide down my face as I lean forward to place my head in his chest.

“Everyone loves Sunny,” I mumble.

Then the test, the big needle that must have gone right down, past skin, past bone, to her liver and lymph nodes. They needed to be checked, to see if anything was growing there that wasn’t meant to grow.

This is why my husband was going to call. To tell me, in the middle of my work day, if my dog had cancer. If she was going to die.

I was sure that she did. That she was.

The other treatment wasn’t working like it should have been – not for the liver infection she was supposed to have had. The latest antibiotics they were considering were for dogs on death’s door, they said.

So, I was leaving work for a moment. I was leaving to take a phone call, to hear my dog had cancer. My adult dog. Not the kind where I could palm off difficult decisions about cost or care or lethal injections to my parents – the real kind, where I was in charge.

I know some people will roll their eyes. “A dog is not a person,” they will say. Of course a dog is not a person – a dog is better than a person. It is not as important, but better is different to important.  Important makes money to pay the mortgage and talks to you about your many problems. A dog eats your most beloved possessions, but knows about your personal problems without you having to tell them.

I knew and know, I promise, that my dog being sick is not the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone. But it was a real thing and it hurt. 

I prayed.

I don’t pray – not really. Well, I pray in church. And I pray sometimes, in the small hours of the night, when my mind won’t let me slip into sleep – fearful and fervent, and forgotten in the morning. Repeating soothing, old, well-trodden lines to God and myself.

I forget to pray, in my waking day. I have too many deadlines to pray. Too many things to read that must be read. Too many emails to get back to. Too many booze-fuelled catch-ups to attend.

But I prayed that day, for my little dog. I asked God to care for her, to make her well. I apologised for my smallness, her smallness, the insignificance and mountainous impossibility of my request. I looped my prayers over and over in my head, like collecting up a spool of thread, hoping that if they got big enough, they could be seen – not just by God, but by everyone. That if they got big enough, they would have to be made real.

As I walked along, praying, I saw one of the papers I write for, lying on the pavement in a doorway. It’s a small publication, often too small to even fit in the stories I write for it, meaning I grump around the office for an afternoon, muttering about wasted time and angry contacts.

On the front of the paper sat Guy Sebastian, alongside a headline. His religion was lost, it said. He believed only in himself now.

It was such an odd, shocking coincidence. I was here, at a low, praying, really praying for the first time in a while, while a newly tatted up Guy, on top of the world, lost grip on the whole conversation.

My train of thought was gone, and everything started to rush back. Sunny, small and sad in a little cage. My husband, dealing with clients and waiting for bad news he would then have to pass on to a distraught spouse. Bruno, alone, sleeping on the couch in the grumpy, sad state he comes to when he knows something is wrong or someone is unhappy.

I think about Guy as I duck into a largely abandoned bookstore, eager to take the call there. What has he gained from his success and what has he lost? I think about my own very limited rise to the measure of an adult. I own a house, I have a partner, I have a job that makes people ask more questions, that is of interest to them. I don’t spend the time with myself that I once did, or with my family. Or thinking about things, or learning about God. I am sure it could only be worse for someone who has gained more than me but seeks even more than that – wants to have more than more, to be more than more. To rise.

Right now I don’t want to rise, I just want my life to be like it was last week, and then take a different route, one without dog cancer.

The call doesn’t come in the bookstore.

A few days later I will be ushered, with my husband, into the animal hospital. It’s essential, they tell us, that Sunny eats. If she doesn’t eat, she can’t go home.

Even before she entered the hospital, neither my husband or I could get Sunny to eat – not since she’d been sick, that is. Before that, literally anybody or anything could get Sunny to eat. But for several days, nothing.

After we say hello I hug Sunny, who smells strange, like steel and dirty washing. Then the nurse brings in three plates of food. Sunny’s favourite, barbecue chicken, is present, but she only sniffs at it, refusing to eat. My husband takes some in his big hands and offers it, tenderly to the little dog. She won’t eat it. I worry for him then – his dogs are everything. What if Sunny never eats? What will it do to him?

She won’t take chicken from me either, nor will she take some of the cat biscuits the nurse has left – dogs are supposed to prefer them, she said. As I stroke Sunny’s lovely soft ears, I try for a hail mary, scooping up a little mixture from the final bowl. It’s brown, sludgey, with a little grit too it.

I coo to Sunny and hold some out to her.

She looks at it, and then at me. She sniffs it. And then she licks it from my fingers.

Tears rush to my eyes. I look to my husband, who has worked from home all week to look after this dog. He offers her some of the goop and she won’t take it, but when I hold my own fingers out again, smothered in the stuff, she laps it up gingerly, giving me careful glances.

I know that it could have been anything that made Sunny eat from my hand, but to my poor, sore heart, her favour feels rich and significant.

Sunny is my dog.

She fights so hard for herself, she is brave and ugly and misunderstood. She loves to wrestle but will attack on a whim.

Sunny is my dog, I tell the vet.  “She’s my favourite thing in the world.”

We sit there, for nearly an hour, while Bruno whines at the door, and I feed Sunny an entire bowl full of what is apparently wet food for anorexic dogs – tiny, slimy scoop by finger scoop. Watching her eat, the catharsis of it, might have been the happiest moment of my life.

Even now I can feel it slipping away – that tragic knowledge of what really matters, that surety that only comes when you’re tested. “Oh,” you think, in that dark moment, “all those other things? Jobs and reputations and followers and fake friends and fancy cocktails? Those weren’t real. I only needed them because I had all my real things.”

I have that awful knowledge, that day in the bookstore, as I wait as long as I can before I have to go and actually pick up some food I don’t want. Before I have to walk back to the office and write whatever it is I was writing that day – doubtless, it was unsatisfactory to someone.

I must have picked up my salad, and walked, daze-like, back to the building to start on it.

Perhaps – I think, when I realise I am there, climbing back up the steps to my private, tiny prison without walls – perhaps the test hasn’t come back yet. Perhaps there’s been some delay.  Maybe I have been granted a reprieve – another few days of blissful not-knowing.

But as I reach the second floor landing on my way to my third-floor desk, my phone rings.

I hear it in my husband’s voice before he speaks.

“Good news,” he says.

I thought I would cry even for good news, but I don’t.

I can’t stop smiling.