WTF just happened???

Usually when people ask me what breed Argos is, I feel a frisson of pride as I tell them, “He’s a Belgian Malinois.” It’s hard to escape that feeling that if I have something exceptional in my life (and Maligators truly are exceptional) then I must be exceptional too, right? Yeah, I know it’s not logical – but go ask any guy with a Ferrari about his Ferrari, ask any kid about their new shoes with sparkles, and you’ll see they feel exactly the same way. We display the things we love in part to tell the world who we are.

Sometimes – but less and less often, thanks mainly to that damn movie – I have to explain what a Malinois is. That they’re completely amazing, but not really pets. That the dog who jumped out of a helicopter to help take down Bin Laden was a Malinois. That the only reason I have him, because this is not an ideal breed for a slow-moving fat girl, is that he was a rescue and I meant to rehome him, but we fell in love.

Bumpy or calm, he’s my shipmate on life’s ocean

More often, these days, the response goes, “Ooh, I so want one! And look – people say they’re dangerous, but he’s such a sweetheart!” Because he is. Argos is a total schmooze. When we’re out and about – and he goes everywhere with me – his reward for good behavior is to get to “say hello” to whatever random stranger asks, “May I pet your dog?” He walks up close to them and stretches his neck so that his nose is pointing up against their body, and he leans in for loving as though he never gets any at home. And I have to explain that this is not typical behavior for a Mal; they can be unpredictable, even dangerous. That they tend to be too hyper-focused on whatever stimulating smell-sound-spook captures their attention to be much interested in casually benevolent strangers. That they’re not family dogs, and you’d better not try to live with one unless you have a lot of time and energy, and are willing to spend almost all of it on training and just keeping them occupied.

Whatever the project, he’s always available to help.

Somehow all this makes me look like something special, as opposed to merely a slave to my dog.

Only not today.

Today, when the emergency room tech asked, “What kind of dog was it?” I flinched away from the question. “Malinois,” I muttered, adding defensively, “But he’s not typical of the breed! He’s never done anything like this! And he adores her!”

These statements can be rated True As Far As It Goes, Somewhat True, and Totally True.

He is typical in some ways. I mean, his real name isn’t Argos. I named him for Ulysses’ faithful hound, because that’s what I wanted him to be. I gave him that name because, when he came into my life, I was in burnout after about six years of 24/7 dog rescue. And in fact he and Destra did faithfully haul me through the flames – one driving away the Black Dog that wanted to see me burn, while the other dragged me out into the fresh air. Nonetheless, his real name is GODDAMMIT YOU ASSHOLE (always written in full caps), because he’s a Malinois, and – full disclosure – with rescue I’ve been too busy dealing with other people’s canine catastrophes to give my own dogs all the attention and training they need.

What’s not typical is how much he loves making friends with new humans. Just one example of many: one hot evening last summer the Hubbit and I were sitting at a table outside an ice cream shop, slurping coolness and feeding a small vanilla ice cream cone to Argos. This enchanted a not-well-socialized, possibly “challenged” small boy. I describe him this way because he squealed a lot and moved in a jerky, uncoordinated manner, which is relevant only because most dogs would have found it disturbing. Argos allowed the child to tickle his ears and tug on his tail, and planted a vanilla smooch on his cheek … and ever since then I’ve been playing with the idea of training him as a therapy dog and taking him to cheer up kids in hospitals.

That idea pretty much blew up today. From here on out he’ll be wearing a muzzle when he’s around other people, and he won’t be hearing me tell him to “Say hello”, and when people ask if they can pet him I’ll say, “Yeah … better not. I’m sorry.”

Actually, I’m more than sorry. I’m heartbroken. I have so loved watching him loving to schmooze, and it’s just going to hurt to not let him do that anymore.

He’s never even hinted that he might bite a human – apart from a few occasions when he’s suggested via a lifted lip that I should back off and let him do what he wants, and I’ve explained that things don’t work that way around here, and then he’s put his lip back in place and that’s been the end of it. He’s always been a tad unpredictable with the other dogs – not that he damages them; after eight years of constantly biting down on bones and tractor tires, and carrying large pieces of lumber from one area of our property to another, his teeth are worn down to nubs. But he snarls and grabs hold and scares them, and when I yell and banish him he sulks and refuses to be sorry.

Today, when I screamed at him, “For fucksake what have you done?” he seemed as shocked and upset as I was. When I left him alone in the car to rush Nikkola into the ER he was scared. After I left her with a nurse and went back out to park my car properly, he was worried and tentative, needing reassurance.

Nikkola is one of his favorite people in the whole world. She doesn’t drive and she’s currently needing to visit a lot of doctors, so Argos and I pick her up often. He starts his happy dance as we turn into the parking lot at her apartment complex, and when she gets into the car it’s all I can do to keep him in the backseat and out of her lap. He shoves his big old head over her shoulder, and she pets him and he kisses her neck and cheek, and they carry on like a couple of teenagers for the first few blocks of our drive.

That’s basically what they were doing this afternoon. Argos and I had swung by a coffee shop drive-thru after dropping her off at the doctor, to pick up my usual 16-ounce single-shot hot soy latte and his usual puppy whip. Then we’d returned to the doctor’s rooms and hung out in the parking lot, Argos chewing on something in the backseat while I sipped my latte and listened to a This American Life podcast about how covid has killed school as we used to know it. Then Nikkola texted that she was done and we picked her up, and Argos tried to climb into her lap but I stuck out my arm and blocked him. I found a shady spot and opened the calendar on my phone to enter the dates of her next appointments, while she giggled and petted him and he smooched up and down her neck.

And then he snarled and BIT and she screamed and clutched her face, and humans have thin skin, unprotected by fur, that even blunt teeth can pierce.

Blood was running through her fingers, drenching the crocheted shawl she was wearing and the blouse beneath it. I thought he’d taken out her eye.

What have you done?” I screamed at him, and he leapt away, cowering against the backseat.

We were just two blocks from the ER. I slammed up to the curb, rushed around the car to open her door. The blood continued to pour, dripping onto the sidewalk. I remembered the hoard of tissues and napkins the Hubbit keeps in the console, grabbed a handful, and told her to hold them against the wound. She staggered as I helped her to the entrance, and I yanked a wheelchair out of the array set out there and pushed her into it.

They didn’t make us wait – not even to test for covid.

I filled out a form and left her with a nurse and hurried out to park the car across the road. I sat for a few minutes with Argos, just crying into the thick, soft fur on his neck. Then I stuck my finger into his ears, first one and then the other, and he flinched and whined.

Could he have earache? Maybe a broken tooth, way back? There has to be a reason for this! He hasn’t acted as though he was hurting … but I’ve been distracted lately. Did he tell me and I didn’t get it? Or has he just been too busy being a Malinois, and he didn’t bother to notice something hurt until Nikkola tweaked it in mid-snuggle?

I went back into the ER. They’d moved Nikkola to a room and cleaned her up. Her eyes were swollen from crying, but whole. She had one puncture wound and some abrasions up above her hairline, and a bruised graze on her cheek. She had to get one staple, a hefty dose of Tylenol, and precautionary antibiotics. I had to fill out a Health & Human Services form about the Bite Incident.

I called the vet and made an appointment to have Argos checked out tomorrow. He’ll be muzzled until he’s sedated.

I called a friend who is an animal control officer, to ask how I can protect him from a most horrible possible consequence. She reassured me, but I’m still afraid.

Back in the car he kept trying to love on Nikkola. He sniffed her hair, wanting to clean away the blood. I made him lie down. We stopped at a pizzeria to pick up dinner for her, and there we hit a snag. Legally, based on the paper I’d signed at the hospital, he wasn’t supposed to be out without both a leash and a muzzle, but he couldn’t come into the pizzeria, and Nikkola is afraid of him now so he couldn’t wait in the car with her, and she was too sick and shaky to fetch the pizza herself. I put him in a sit-stay and made him wait outside the door, and he was just so good, so calm and polite. All the people passing him to come inside smiled at him and at me, and many complimented me on what a good dog he was.

He is a good dog. I mean, sure, he’s an asshole. But he really is a good boy.

He’s never found a stick that he didn’t want to bring home.

Errands

I didn’t get a whole lot done today. I’d planned to spend the day working on a project – I’m designing a website for a friend. This is a new challenge for me, and I’m loving the way it stretches my brain, even though I feel useless and pitiful and old for finding it so dang hard!

But first I had to bitch at my doctor’s office over a prescription snafu, and that led – by a convoluted trail – to a fight over who in the practice was actually my doctor, and then I had to write an impassioned email to the practice manager insisting that they assign me to the doctor I actually like and trust instead of the one who, on the one occasion I saw her, clearly considered me an imbecile who doesn’t know my own body. I wrote it on my phone, held two inches from my nose with one eye screwed shut because all this erupted while I was still in bed and before I’d put my contact lenses in, and then for some reason it was necessary to read the email, compulsively, over and over again, until they called me back and said it was okay, I could have the doctor I wanted.

So then I got up and got dressed and fed the dogs / horses / chickens / and while I was fixing toast and eggs for myself and the Hubbit I had a call from a snotty young asshole at our mortgage company demanding a payment that we’d been told we didn’t need to make, so we’d spent the money on other stuff, like Equine Senior pellets and chemotherapy. He and I circled the conversational drain a few times before he went away and I flung myself (and my eggs and toast) at my computer and wrote my second impassioned email of the day, this time to the person at the mortgage company who had told me we were skipping the payment. (Synopsis: we refinanced. Shit happened.) There followed more obsessive/compulsive rereading, but this time at least I was dressed and able to see.

Roary. I want so much to give this dog a safe place for Christmas.

At last I yanked myself out of that vortex, determined to focus on the website, but first I detoured through my pet rescue’s email inbox, and was emotionally bludgeoned by a desperate appeal for help from someone who has a dog – a middle-aged male pit / mastiff mix – that her daughter rescued after he was left to starve in an abandoned house and then passed along to her when she (the daughter) landed in jail. This woman rescues cats – ferals, which she rehabilitates and rehomes. So far the dog has killed two of them, so the dog is now also in jail. Right now, cats are not being rescued, the dog has lost 15 pounds and has developed an array of stress-related health problems, and the woman is on the verge of a breakdown. She’s tried everyone she knows, she tells me, and no one will help. This is not a surprise; rescues are all in overload. Christmas is when people get a new puppy (and dump the old dog) or go skiing or to Hawaii (and dump the inconvenient dog), and of course this year there are all the covid-companions that are also being dumped because people are going back to work and “don’t have time to give him the attention he deserves.”

Side note: For fuck’s sake, people. If your name isn’t Musk or Bezos, never mind your dog, you’re probably not getting what you “deserve”. You’re quite possibly not even getting what you need. Suck it up, and if you have a dog, figure out how to suck that up too! The single most important thing a dog – or anyone – needs is a place to be, and if you don’t provide that, and the rescues can’t, he has to stop being. It’s that simple.

To stop being – to absorb a few CCs of blue magic and fall asleep: this might be all Roary gets, in the end. I can’t take him; I told her that a week ago, the first time she emailed me. I would if I could, but I have a kitty in my bedroom, and feral cats in the workshop, and chickens. I’m also getting too old and gimpy to cope with an unsocialized, out-of-control 100 lb dog, no matter how sweet he is deep down. And Argos is making it increasingly clear that he is over this rescue schtick of mine.

I called Cujo, who is my rescue partner, to ask if she had any ideas, and she said she couldn’t deal with it, couldn’t think of it – and of course she couldn’t. She’s grieving her sweet, bouncy, wilful, neurotic, beloved pit bull Jilly Bean. Little Bean came to us several years ago when the Animal Control director called to ask for help. She was just a baby – maybe six months old – and already broken and scary. Cujo took her home to rehabilitate her, and when that wasn’t possible she simply loved her and gave her a place to be for as long as possible. But the legacy of bad breeding, apart from behavioral problems, is bad health. She itched, all over and all the time, and after a while medication, special food and baths stopped working. And then her joints began to crumble. She was young and wanted to run and play but her body just couldn’t do it. She was stoical and joyous but life wasn’t good, and the pain began to make her dangerous. Cujo took her to the vet for the last time just a little while ago. I was there, and it was loving and peaceful and terrible, and now Cujo needs time to heal. She cannot be thinking about other people’s dogs.

So I wrote the kindest, most empathetic email I could to the woman, explaining for the second time – but in more detail – why we couldn’t help. I offered to pay for the euthanasia, since even her vet thinks that’s the route she should take if he isn’t placed in a new home soon. I offered to go with her to have him put to sleep, because I know – how well I know! – that it’s a terrible thing to face alone. It’s one thing to euthanize an animal that’s sick and suffering. It’s entirely another when the creature is eager to love and still greedy for life. And then I thought some more about it, and I wrote to our vet just in case she knew of someone who might take him, and I posted the appeal on Facebook with his picture … but I don’t expect anything to come of any of that. People will wring their hands and say how sad it is, but actually do anything? No, not too likely.

After that, I cried for a while, and by the time that was done it was too late to be thinking about websites. It was getting dark. I had errands to run, some of them urgent. I called Argos, and we took off together.

We went to the post office, where I picked up boxes to mail Christmas cakes – two to friends, and one to the guy who rescued me a few weeks ago. Dropped off a Christmas cake, newly baptized in brandy, with friends who foster a litter or two of puppies for us every year, thereby keeping our little rescue solvent. Went to the feed store, where I picked up several bags of the special old-horse-pellets we give Vos and Garcia, because Vos is now 30 years old and can’t chew enough hay to keep nourished, and Garcia is getting to the age where he needs a bit of nutritional support come winter.

From there we headed across town to Petco. I went into autopilot and turned right, to the dog toy section, and stopped for a while and stared at all the toys. Rubber ones, and fabric ones. Ones that you can tug and shake. Bouncy ones. Fluffy ones. The kind she loved best – squeaky ones.

I realized I could buy any I wanted and be confident that they’d last. Because the small, bright-eyed, prick-eared, black-and-white person who used to dismantle every fluffy or squeaky toy I ever brought home, no matter how careful I was to keep them out of her reach, isn’t here any more.

I didn’t want to cry in Petco.

Boudicca. In winter, my personal nighttime neckwarmer. In summer, the terror of small wild furry things.

I backed away from the toys. Took Argos to his favorite area – where the animals are. It wasn’t too interesting; the chinchilla was hiding and the ferrets were asleep, and he was kinda meh about the mice and birds, although he clacked his teeth at the parrot and the parrot snapped its beak back at him, so I guess there was some sort of inter-species communication there. Anyway, we went and got the cat litter we were there for – the clumping kind for the barn cats, and the pellets made of recycled newsprint for Boudicca.

I loaded it onto the front passenger seat, on top of the soft, bright blanket that’s been there since her last ride to the vet. I ignored the blanket, and also the box of canned dog food in the footwell in front of the seat, as I have every time I’ve used the car in the past week. We went to Yokes, a grocery store, where I picked up veggies, and a random assortment of suppery things from the deli counter, and chocolate chips so I can make a batch of brownies as a thank you for the neighbor who is coming over tomorrow with his backhoe.

I so very badly do not want to think about this! Forgive me, please, for sneaking it in under a to-do list of errands and other nonsense. I needed to bury it somehow.

But … she deserves better. So here it is: a short In Memoriam for a small dog who has left the most enormous hole.

Patchee

Patchee came to us about ten years ago. She was only a year old, if that, when the local animal control director called and asked the Hubbit and me to take her in, because the dog rescue we’d started was becoming known as a place to take dogs with behavioral issues. “There really isn’t anything wrong with this dog,” the director told us, “But legally I can’t rehome her. I have to euthanize her unless a rescue agrees to rehabilitate her. And it wouldn’t be right to put her down. She’s a perfectly normal dog, and she’s too young!”

She’d been adopted from the pound by someone who wanted a cute puppy, and who thought a heeler mix would do just fine cooped up in an apartment while the woman – a lawyer – was at work twelve hours a day. The woman was most put out when her sweet little puppy took to dismantling cushions, the couch, and anything else she could get her teeth into. Then the woman invited her friends over, and – so disconcerting – the Heeler nipped at their heels, herding them around and then out of the apartment. So the woman took her back to the pound, and in an effort to excuse herself she said the words that amounted to a death warrant: “She tries to bite my friends. I think she’s potentially dangerous.”

Well, of course we took her in, and she was with us for quite a while – at least a year. People applied to adopt her, but while other dogs came and went she stayed. She had attached herself to the Hubbit, and she disdained anyone else’s overtures. Eventually a family came to meet her – an older couple and the four teenage grandsons they were raising. To our great surprise, Patchee welcomed them. The grandsons threw balls, and she loved fetching balls, and that was really all it took. So they took her away, and as they rolled down the driveway Jim broke down and said, “I think I’ve just made a huge mistake.”

Mistake or not, we had to live with it, and so he did – but he set her picture as the wallpaper on his cell phone and carried her next to his heart, and a couple times when we were near the town she had moved to he drove past the house, hoping to see her. We never did.

Eighteen months later they called us. They told us they’d adopted another dog, from a shelter in a different town. They’d chosen that dog because it looked like Patchee and they’d thought it would be cute to have a matching pair, but they weren’t working out. Patchee had started having accidents in the house, and was scared to go outside. Frankly, it all sounded a little weird. So we told them to bring her back.

“No, no!” they said. “We love Patchee – we want to keep her. But we don’t want to take the other dog back to the shelter. We were hoping you’d take her and find her a home.”

“Nope,” I said. “Sounds like Patchee has a problem. We’re responsible for fixing it. Please bring her back.” So, reluctantly, they did. They completed paperwork to transfer her to us. Just before they signed they started to pull back and I thrust it at them. “This is the right decision,” I said, and stared them down. I was implacable. Looking back, I can’t remember why … I just knew something wasn’t okay and we needed to take our girl back. I don’t know what had really happened to her while she was with them. I don’t know what happened to the other dog. Maybe they kept her, maybe not. Maybe she was okay. They’d said she was fine.

Patchee was not fine. For several days she was utterly shut down – barely eating, barely sleeping, just curled in a tight ball, refusing to make eye contact. Then one day the Hubbit and I were sitting quietly near her and chatting, and he … I don’t know what he did. Maybe he laughed, or maybe he used a phrase that triggered a memory. I just remember that suddenly she raised her head and looked at him. Stood up, went to him, and “Oh!” she said, with her whole body. “There you are!” And she began to heal.

She started following him around the farm. Curling up close by in his study. Playing fetch. Dismantling toys to find the squeak. Sleeping between us on the bed. She changed toward me too – decided I was maybe a little more than the person who fed her and threw the ball; I began to get my small allotment of snuggles and “Good morning” rrroooo-rrahhhs. She even decided she liked a few of our friends.

And that was pretty much the sum total of her life until a few months ago. She didn’t do anything extraordinary … She rolled in cow manure in spring and turned green. She chased the ball. She went down to the river a few times, and sometimes rode along when the Hubbit went out on errands. She found the squeaker in every squeaky toy, and pulled stuffing out of anything stuffed. She hung out with the Hubbit. She was happy.

A few months ago I took her to the vet for her senior wellness exam, and after a couple of tests they diagnosed early stage kidney failure and an inoperable tumor in her bladder. This was our second case of kidney failure this year … the Hubbit’s other little princess, Ntombi, died last April barely two months after her diagnosis. And when she got sick we were sad and worried, and I turned myself inside-out trying to feed her home-cooked meals suitable for failing kidneys, and when we had to let her go because she was simply fading away we were sad – of course we were.

Ntombi – our first death row rescue. She was just a puppy in 2007, scheduled to die because there was no room at the pound.

But she was an old dog, and old dogs die. It’s what you expect. One of the things that may carry them off is kidney failure. So when we got Patchee’s diagnosis I was sad, but she was eleven – not old old, but old enough. The tumor worried me, but I figured we’d just keep things going as long as we could and help her go when we had to.

The Hubbit didn’t react that way. “We need to fight this. I’m not ready to lose her,” he said. So we went back to the vet to discuss our options, and the vet suggested we take her to the oncology department at Washington State University vet school.

The thing about refinancing a mortgage is, you get a month, or occasionally two months, of grace during which you don’t have to make a payment. There’s the final payment to your original mortgage holder, and then you get whatever is left in your escrow account, and a month (or two) of no mortgage payment before payments to the new mortgage holder kick in.

The vet at WSU said a course of chemo might help her. It wouldn’t cure the cancer, she warned, but it might give her some time – quality time, with just a few tough days after each treatment. We would have to take her in every three weeks, and she’d need to have a blood test done at our local vet a week after each treatment, and sometimes other tests. She’d have to stay on the special kidney diet as well, and she’d be on daily medications. All this added up to a wild number of dollars. But … we could do it. So we did.

The first treatment was amazing. She could pee again! She’d squat and pee would come out – a bit reddish, but they told us that was a normal side-effect of the chemo – and in no time she’d be done and bouncing off to do something more interesting. Her appetite recovered a few days after the treatment, her tail went up, her rrroooo-rrahhhs came at full volume. She fetched the ball and hung out with the Hubbit and life was good.

By the time the second treatment rolled around, peeing was difficult again. It was slow, and she sometimes had to walk around a while to get herself into exactly the right position to make anything come out. We looked forward to another improvement after that treatment, but there was none, and there was no improvement after the third treatment either, and by then it was difficult to get her to eat even after she’d had time to recover from the chemo. We abandoned the special kidney diet – it was becoming clear that she wouldn’t be around long enough to die of kidney failure – and I spent hours picking at chicken breast, breaking the flesh into fragments, mashing them into rice that had been cooked in chicken broth. I bought canned dog food that smelled so yummy it drove the rest of the pack crazy with envy, and the Hubbit tempted her with bits and pieces off his plate. She developed a bladder infection and was on an antibiotic, so I loaded up a large syringe with Greek yogurt twice a day and forced her to take it. She developed diarrhea, so I made her eat canned pumpkin, pushing it far back into her mouth with my thumb and holding her muzzle so she couldn’t spit it out. The rest of the time – when she wasn’t peeing one tiny drip at a time, or grimacing at the thought of food, she was as she always had been – watching over the Hubbit out in the pasture, in his workshop, while he was at his computer. She loved him, and she loved her life.

Three weeks ago I took her for her fourth treatment. It’s a two-and-a-half hour drive to WSU, and I welcomed the respite from everyday life. I left around dawn to be there in time for her 9.00AM appointment, listening to Stephen King’s “It” on an audiobook, on time for once, no need to rush, loving the easy highway through the unfurling hills of the Palouse. I was in our new pickup, Argos on the back seat and Patchee, snug in the colorful fleece jacket Cujo made her, curled up on her blanket on the passenger seat beside me. The sun had been up for a while as I rounded a curve, loving the sparkle of the thin layer of ice on the roadway, taking it slow.

The quiet beauty of the Palouse

And then I was spinning and time shifted into slow-motion. I checked the dogs, and they were fine. I remembered not to slam the brakes because that would make the skid harder to control. I checked the road and was relieved to see no traffic. I steered into the spin. My foot hovering over the brake, I waited to regain control, but that didn’t happen. I looked at the barricade as I was carried inexorably toward it – it looked just so flimsy, and I studied the way the hillside sloped down into the valley below the road, and I wondered whether I’d be able to keep the pickup upright when we smashed through the barricade and slammed downward. I figured the truck was probably going to roll, and I thought, “Okay, so maybe this is how death happens for me. I hope it doesn’t hurt too much.” I hoped the dogs would be okay, and not run off and be lost and starve in those lonely hills. I felt the pickup slam into the barricade – a solid thump, and the barricade held and we were sliding and spinning back across into the left lane, still no oncoming traffic, and I think it was around about then that I started carefully pumping the brake, still steering into the spin as best I could, and the wheels bit into gravel at the edge of the road, and at last. We. Stopped.

I guess the whole thing took less than a minute, but it lasted half a lifetime. I guess I must have hit a puddle of black ice, not yet melted although the sun had been up for at least an hour along that stretch of roadway. I’ve since learned that because the cruise control was on, when the wheels hit ice and lost friction they automatically accelerated, and of course until I tapped the brake the cruise control kept the pickup moving. So obvious … I was waiting for it to slow down, and it couldn’t – not until I deactivated the cruise control by braking. And I hesitated to brake, because I didn’t want to make the skid worse. So … a lesson for any who don’t know: don’t use cruise control in potentially icy conditions.

It wasn’t long before a car came along and pulled over, and a young man asked if I needed help. He loaned me his cell phone to call the Hubbit (mine wasn’t picking up a signal), and then he took me and the dogs to WSU. There was another accident a little further along the highway but he said he’d grown up in the area and preferred using the more scenic back routes anyway, and took off along a dirt road that wound through the hills. It was very pretty, but I spent most of the drive thinking how ironic it would be to have survived the accident only to be done in by a serial killer, and wondering whether the Hubbit would be able to find the dogs. (Spoiler alert: I’m still here.)

And then … we were at the vet school, and back inside the painful reality of regular life. A vet student came and took Patchee to have an ultrasound. Argos and I made camp in the lobby with the pile of blankets and my Kindle and other random crap that I’d thought I needed to pull from the pickup. After a while the Cool Dude, the Hubbit’s friend who lives in a motorhome parked next to our house, arrived to take us home. He’d left the Hubbit to figure out how to get the pickup back to the farm. We hung around and waited, and eventually the vet emerged and told me that Patchee’s tumor was still growing, and she wanted to try a different chemotherapy drug, and a course of radiation therapy to start in a few weeks. I said okay to the chemo, and agreed to discuss radiation with the Hubbit. At last the day was over and we loaded up in the Cool Dude’s car and drove home.

She loved when I snuggled her up into one of the jackets Cujo made her. She didn’t like being cold! But then after a few days she’d go out and scrape it off wriggling through a pasture fence, and the Hubbit would have to go looking.

We hoped, so very much, that this new chemo drug would work – that she’d at least be able to pee easy again. But … no. Mostly she leaked. She was scheduled for her fifth chemo treatment this week.

Last week, on Wednesday morning, I noticed she was passing blood – not just bloody urine, which was somewhat normal, but actual blood. I called the vet, and they said to take her in and they’d check her out in between appointments and call when they knew something. A couple hours later they called me, and I told the Hubbit he needed to go and be with her. It was time to let her go.

We don’t know for sure without a necropsy, but we think the tumor blocked her urethra, or maybe it just got too big, and her bladder ruptured. The extraordinary thing is that she still sang a song of joy to the Hubbit that morning, and she glommed down half her breakfast a few hours later, and she was … just … happy to be alive, hanging out with the Hubbit, doing her thing. She wasn’t afraid, and she didn’t complain that she was hurting.

The Hubbit brought her home in a little cardboard coffin the vet provided, still wearing the bright jacket that can no longer warm her. He put her in the big chest freezer we keep in the workshop. He insisted that he and the Cool Dude would dig her grave, but they’re both gimped up and I need her not to be in the freezer any more, so a couple days ago he agreed to ask our neighbor for help.

Tomorrow morning I’ll get up early and make him a batch of brownies. He’s coming with his backhoe at 10:00AM, and it won’t take long.

At 11.00AM a woman is arriving with a little freaked-out Mini-Aussie who needs a place to be and someone to teach her how to stop biting and be happy.

On Sunday I’m meeting with someone who needs me to do write something for her.

On Monday I’m working on that website.

Sometimes life spins out of control, and sometimes it’s in slow-mo, and sometimes both happen at once. You have to drive into the spin, tap the brake lightly, and hope the barricade will hold. Usually it does.

Gaps in the fence

The other day I was driving home when our neighbor’s wife called to say her husband had died. We didn’t know them well. I’d only ever spoken to the wife over the telephone, though I knew him to say hello or wave. He and the Hubbit were friendly; they’d call on each other for help as needed – to borrow tools or equipment, or work together on some or other repair. For a while we took care of their pasture in return for grazing our cattle there. More than once he zipped over in his golf cart to help us chase down a runaway steer.

Somehow I never got around to inviting them over to barbecue, and we had no idea that he’d been diagnosed with throat cancer in February.  When I got home I told the Hubbit the news and he was dismayed. “Well, dang!” he said. “I’ve been thinking I should go over and visit, but…”

A few weeks ago I learned that my Aunt Marietjie had died. She was in her nineties and I knew she’d become frail, but the last time I saw her – just a few years ago at Marmeee’s memorial service – she was as I’d always known her: calm, unfalteringly kind, resolute. We weren’t close; I didn’t see her that often and in the 23 years since I moved to the US we’ve never corresponded … but when I named this blog it was with her in mind, because she was someone I kinda wanted to be like – strong, unflappable, salt-of-the-earth, a woman of strong faith and stronger Scrabble skills, a quiet source of wisdom and comfort food.

My father, the Olde Buzzard, used to refer to her as a soustannie, and it was only after I named this blog that I learned that the word didn’t mean an intelligent, powerful woman with excellent culinary skills. It’s not a compliment. It means someone who is female, fat and bossy. Well, some might say that makes it a fine name for my blog …. Oh well. [Insert shrug emoji here.]

Moment of truth: the Olde Buzzard was intimidated by strong women, and that made him mean. He had uncomplimentary nicknames for me too. He died a few years ago, and … well, all I want to say is, I’m grateful that in the end I was able to do my duty, to treat him with love and kindness, and that everything needing to be said and done between us was indeed said and done.

Getting back to Marietjie … I thought of changing the name of this blog, but decided instead to stay with the image I’d originally had in mind – an image largely inspired by this aunt, whom I am not at all like, yet who was extraordinarily kind to me at random intervals throughout my life. She was the one person I could trust to love my Girl Child when she needed it and wouldn’t accept it from me. I always meant to write to her care of my cousin, but…

Some years ago I wrote a post that won a response from a different cousin, from the other side of the family. I replied, but he never commented again. But from then on, every time I wrote about dogs, a small part of me wrote for him, because I grew up hearing stories about his extraordinary ability to connect with animals.

I grew up loving him.

I have many cousins and I’ve had crushes on several of them, but Michael was special. He was so handsome, tan and blue-eyed and blonde, with ruggedly regular features and a smile that reached out and pulled you in. When he invited me up onto his lap and taught me how to tell the time on his big wristwatch, he made my four-year-old heart flutter. I was convinced I would marry him, and I was devastated when he married someone else.

The Old Buzzard had adored my cousin – they were close in age – and he disliked the wife, and now I realize that she’s probably strong and intelligent as well as being “a damn liberal who thinks we aren’t good enough”. Back then, viewing her through the distorted lens of his resentment, I couldn’t warm to her. But I spent a month with them, while I was a university student with a vacation job in their city, and I remember she was kind, and their home was beautiful, and they seemed happy. (Who wouldn’t be happy with Michael?) I remember that she collected silver, so at the end of the visit I spent almost everything I’d earned on some too large and probably tacky addition to her collection because I needed to prove that I’d been raised right. I remember I fell and sprained my ankle getting off the bus, and Michael – who was a successful vet by then – bound it up. When I complained that he hurt me, he laughed at me for making more fuss than a dog with far worse injuries. But I forgave him because he still made my teenage heart flutter.

After I got that message from him on my long-ago blog post, whenever I wrote about dogs and hoped for another message I thought about making contact. I imagined going to see him on my next trip to South Africa. And then a couple months ago I heard that he’d died. Hoping for more detail I looked at his sister Midge’s Facebook page – and that’s when I learned that her daughter had just died – a beautiful, bright, happy woman that I’d never met, barely knew existed, just gone. There are wedding photos on Midge’s Facebook page, and she shines. I wept over them for several days – I don’t know why the loss felt so agonizing; I didn’t know her! And then I tried to write to Midge, but…

Then I got a message on my last post, from Michael’s wife, reaching out, and that’s when I learned that he’d actually died long before I heard about it – last January, of covid – such a horrible, horrible way to go! And I wanted to write to her, but what to say? Where to send it? We’re not even connected through Facebook – which I rarely visit anyway. It’s not that I can’t figure this out – and I will – but…

But I want a do-over. I want a neighborhood barbecue, and after that maybe conversations and coffee with a few new friends.

I want to talk to Michael and his wife, and see her with my own clear eyes. I don’t know what we’d talk about … dogs, probably, but what else? I want to know!

I want another game of Scrabble with Marietjie, with a plate of koeksisters and big mugs of rooibos tea. And I want to walk on the beach and then loll about comfortably and talk about cats with my cousin, her daughter, who is still this side of the dirt but on the far side of the planet.

I want to hug Midge, and meet her daughter, and maybe be invited to the wedding, or at least send a gift. And I want to meet her niece, my goddaughter, whose parents thought it would be cute to make 12-year-old me a godmother, since they didn’t take such things seriously, only I wish I had. And actually I’d like to see her parents again too.

And then there’s the other cousin who used to look so hot in his SA Airforce uniform, and his brother who was in a quite popular band and then became a DJ. They used to tease me, and one time I played in their mother’s cactus garden and ended up sprawled over my mother’s lap, butt exposed to the sunshine and their gleeful mockery, while I shrieked my outrage and she picked out tiny needles with a pair of tweezers. Those cousins are still alive, as far as I know, round the other side of the planet, and one day it’ll be too late for a do-over, but right now I have no idea what to do about that. We had a friendship – the DJ cousin and I did, anyway – and then it fizzled and we drifted and … truth be told, there’s probably no way back. None on my map, anyway.

I have cousins scattered all over the world, and others – nieces and a nephew, second cousins – so many people that I love or have loved or wish I’d loved. And although I know I don’t have the capacity to reconnect deeply with all of them – or even with more than a very few – being strangers just feels wrong.

And then there are friends. Like Deej. I want to sit with Deej and lay out all my questions about God and ask him how he, one of the finest and fiercest champions of Christ I ever knew, could possibly think well of Donald Trump. I actually tried to ask him that, via WhatsApp, but he didn’t answer, and over time he ghosted me. That stung, because he was my pastor more than anyone else ever was or will be, and I want to look him in the eye and ask why he wounded me. But I can’t, because he’s gone, and there are no do-overs. He died last December, a week shy of his eightieth birthday, leaving me still burdened with so many questions and no one else I’d entrust them to.

I ache every day to go on a road trip with Twiglet, the sister my heart gave me. Talking on WhatsApp doesn’t cut it, especially as her connection is so bad that usually I just listen to her voice; it’s impossible really to follow what she’s saying. I want a cream tea with Luscious. I want to talk about God and poetry with Fair Bianca. I am homesick for the friends of my young womanhood!

I want to kick back and laugh with the Kat, and talk deep talks with the Egg and Homeboy, and argue face-to-face with the Girl Child instead of getting mad and frustrated over WhatsApp. I want to laugh and talk and eat with my foster kids, and watch the granddaughters they gave me grow up, and be there to love them through it when their mothers make them angry, and go to their weddings and cuddle their babies – or not, if they choose a different road. But they’re all, all on the wrong side of the planet.

I want to find a way back to the Stranger, but I don’t think there is one, and the meeting place where I’d hope to find him might not even exist.

I remember my blessings. Here I have friends, a few anyway, some quite elderly, and a Hubbit ditto, that I love as best I can – although never enough. I have neighbors that I may invite to barbecue next summer.

I’ve been thinking that the people we touch are like fenceposts. They enclose the fields where we grow our lives.

I look at my fence, and there are gaps in it. It’s been standing a while and has reached that stage in the life of a fence that gaps form more and more frequently. Some of the timbers are broken, others are weathered and warped and working loose, and many are out of my reach. Beyond the fence I see the wilderness pressing in.

I’m not afraid of the wilderness. Often I’m drawn to it … I stand next to the fence and imagine what it would be like to push through and see what’s out there. Then I remember that I have work still to do on this side and I turn back.

But it troubles me sometimes to think that one day the gate in the fence may open, and it won’t matter because the fence itself will be down. I’ll walk through, as one must, but I wonder who will know.

Photos by Denise Karis and Foto Maak on Unsplash

Breathless

I bitched so much that they hung this on my door, and after that people tiptoed in and apologized for turning on lights even at midday. And, yes, keratoconus does mean sudden bright light hurts my eyes … but actually the spirit of my bitching was more along the lines of Proverbs 27:14 – “He that blesseth his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it shall be counted a curse to him.”

Today didn’t start well.

There was a thump at the door, the rattle of a trolley full of sharp implements, a hurting blaze of lights. I yelped and clamped a pillow over my face. With a trill of merry laughter my tormentor took my hand, stuck a needle into it, and plundered my blood, then made her galumphing departure.

I wanted to go back to sleep, but – of course – I needed to pee. I disentangled my legs from clutching sheets, hit the call button, disconnected the wires attached to my chest, and tottered all the way to the bathroom without tripping over my IV drip. I assumed the position. Released the flow into a little plastic stetson-shaped thingummy positioned at the top of the bowl, because they measure my bladderly essence. And woke abruptly to the wet and horrible realization that it hadn’t been emptied after my last visit.

The toilet hat – can you see it? When you’re being pumped full of fluids, they have to make sure what’s going in is finding its way out. But if you have a capacious bladder, you don’t want to use it twice in a row without someone emptying it out first.

By the time I’d swabbed myself down and had been tucked back into a freshly made bed by a sympathetic nurse who managed to control her laughter until after she’d left my room, I was wide awake. And I was irritable and feeling sorry for myself – in short, completely over the sense of euphoria I had been feeling for the previous few days.

I should probably tell you about those days.

They started last Tuesday, when I visited Wonder Woman and caused both of us some perturbation by almost collapsing when I reached the top of the flight of stairs leading from her garden to her living room. “Dang I’m unfit!” I wheezed, mopping my sweaty face. “I have got to quit talking about getting more exercise, and start walking! Just as soon as I buy a Fitbit!” Well, it turned out she had a Fitbit that she’d bought for herself before she realized that setting it up would take at least half an hour of technological tinkering. Wonder Woman is nearly 90; she figured she didn’t want to spend one of her last remaining half hours that way, so she gave it to me. And although that’s somewhat peripheral to this story, if I were writing actual Literature it would count as Dramatic Irony, which proves that sometimes life does indeed imitate art.

Anyway. To get back to my point.

Wednesday I was draggy. I spent it trudging through the bare minimum of chores, yawning over my news feed, and wishing the black dog would just damn well let go and let me breathe. I didn’t feel especially depressed – just so, so tired, and when I thought of all the things I wanted to do -happy things, like gardening and writing and giving the horses a bath and taking Argos to the river for some training time and baking bread and even shining my little house – I felt overwhelmed and weary. I’d felt that way for a while … but on Wednesday just breathing felt hard. And late in the afternoon, when I went outside to feed my chickens, I had to lean quite heavily on my cane, and when I came back inside I was staggering and I had to sit down and just quietly pant for a while.

While I was sitting I consulted Dr. Google about Reasons To Be Short Of Breath. His insights were disturbing.

I told myself to quit being stupid. When you’re lazy and obese, of course you’re gonna be short of breath, I said to me. This isn’t rocket science! No further research is required! I got myself up on my hind legs and moved laundry around and was going to swab down the kitchen counters, but … first I needed to take another little rest. I chatted a bit more with Dr. Google. I decided that if I didn’t feel better by Thursday morning, I should probably call my doctor.

This isn’t something I do lightly. This is America, the Land of Hell-no-it-ain’t-free, and I don’t have health insurance, because the Hubbit and I inhabit that awkward gap between people who qualify for subsidized (and therefore affordable) insurance, and those who can sniff judgmentally at the Affordable Care Act. That is, the Hubbit has Medicare and supplemental insurance, which is just as well given his penchant for dancing with heavy machinery, but I pretty much just keep chugging along and trusting God to keep me going as long as he wants me around. It’s worked for me.

I’d been looking forward to Wednesday night, because we’d been promised a spectacular show by the Perseids – no moon, clearish sky. In 20 years of trying I’ve never actually seen the Perseid shower, and it’s become a bit of an obsession – so this year was definitely going to be The One. I planned to go out into the backyard with a blanket at around 11.00PM and just lie and watch them.

Only, between an increasingly insistent Dr. Google and sheer lack of oxygen to the brain, by 11.00PM it was dawning on me that maybe this shit was real. So I texted the Hubbit from the bedroom (he was in his study) to tell him I was worried … and waited for him to come busting through, brimming over with husbandly concern (and maybe a hug or two), to insist that it was only money and drag me off to the hospital. Only he didn’t, so I sent a couple more texts phrased to make him feel like a heel, and then I went to get dressed so I could drive my own damn self to the hospital, and found his phone lying on the floor of the closet.

He does this. He scatters his phone in his wake like one-at-a-time confetti. It drives me completely insane.

Turns out you can’t stomp and shout very effectively without breathing, but I did my best, and after delivering his phone to him I went and got dressed, stopping as needed to inhale. Then the Hubbit wandered into the bedroom and said that of course he would take me to the hospital because that was his responsibility as my husband. So I came a bit unglued and broke my phone, because it doesn’t take that much breath to thump things.

On the way to the hospital we stopped so I could hang my head out of the car window and look for meteors, but I didn’t see any.

I don’t remember much about the ensuing 20-or-so hours, which is a pity, because the whole time I was blogging about it in my head, and it was hilarious. But I couldn’t write it down because I had to keep my arms straight on account of the IV drips inside my elbows, plus the persistent interruptions by people with machines that needed to interact with me, and other people who kept sticking me with needles and taking more and still more of my sluggish, unwilling blood. I remember snapshots…

Did you know that getting an MRI is almost exactly like going through a wormhole in space? You lie down and someone injects you with a magical substance that uncoils a delicious heat in unmentionable places, and the world moves and you’re inside a giant halo, and lights flicker and the voice of God tells you “Stop breathing” and then, just at the moment you absolutely have to, “You can breathe”.

I asked for water and they told me I was “nothing by mouth” while the doctors decided whether or not to do a procedure to blast the blood clots out of my lung, and I thought that was strange because I’d thought my heart was failing, but it turned out my heart was fine but one of my lungs (I’m not sure which one) was all clotted up and icky, and this was sort of a good thing, relatively speaking, because if caught in time it will heal, whereas a failing heart can only be helped, not healed. And then after a while someone brought me a menu and told me to order lunch, and that’s how I found out that they’d decided the procedure wasn’t necessary, which was also good news, especially as I was hungry enough to eat a doctor by then.

They asked me questions about my family medical history and I did sums in my head and realized that my father was about the age I am now when he had the heart attack that turned his life around, so I decided I could turn my life around too.

The tech who did the echocardiogram helped me look at the screen so I could see inside my own heart, and it was working so, so hard! It didn’t flop helplessly like the sad, sick heart of the transplant patient I told you about, and nor did it rat-a-tat like the young, new heart that patient received. My heart is like the little engine that could, and the sight of it working with such steady determination to take a too-heavy load up a too-steep hill made me weep with gratitude and shame.

Eventually – it was Thursday evening by then – they brought me up to the room where I’m writing this. It’s a spacious private room, and even has a small sitting area with a recliner and a view of the hills. They tucked me into a real bed and fussed around asking what they could do to make me comfortable, and all I could think to ask for was hospital socks.

Hospital socks – conceivably the greatest achievement of medical technology.

At some point during the ensuing days I learned the name of what had happened to me. I had a pulmonary embolism, and it probably happened because I spend too much time sitting and feeling sad instead of getting up on my hind legs and living my life. I let the black dog harry me into the Valley … but I skirted the Shadow, and I’m coming back out into the light, and as God is my witness that dog is going to learn to walk to heel.

I haven’t had much experience of hospitals. Prior to this adventure, the only times I’ve stayed overnight in a hospital were after I was born, and when I was 10 years old and had my tonsils out, and when the Girl Child was born. But I’ve heard enough about hospitals from other people to have learned that they’re dehumanizing places, where one becomes a patient rather than a person, where the food is awful, where a good night’s rest is less important than the staff routines. So my own experience has been surprising.

The fact is, I have felt cherished. Protected. Provided with a refuge where I had one job and one job only: to heal – first my body, but it’s also given me a quiet place to begin healing my soul. Little by little my breath has come easier. On Saturday I had an actual shower. Yesterday – Sunday – they said I could go home, and disconnected the IV and taught me how to inject myself.

Now I’m just waiting for my final visit with the doctor, and then I can peel off the sticky pads that keep me connected to the heart monitor, and they’ll remove my last IV port, and I can take off the hospital gown and put on my real clothes. They’ll wheel me down to the main entrance and the Hubbit will come, and we’ll go buy me a phone and swing by Yokes for a supply of fresh vegetables – because mealtimes in the Took household are getting a radical makeover. And then we’ll pick up Argos from boarding and we’ll go home.

*****

A little over a week has passed since I wrote this post. It took a while to get my computer hooked up again and download the pictures, and I’ve once again been spending way too much time just sitting. I think about getting up and moving … I think about how I’ll die if I don’t – not right away, because I’m on drugs that keep my blood safe and runny, but I’ll come off them in a two or three months, and then if I haven’t changed my habits … Well, I have to change my habits. That is all. I’m putting it in writing. And I have a Fitbit. Surely that will make a difference!

Chasing rainbows

I’ve been mulling over a couple posts I want to write during the past wickedly hot week, but I don’t like to type when I’m sweating. It makes my keyboard icky. And meanwhile I’ve had this epiphany that I want to share – so those posts are going to have to wait.

Here’s the epiphany, brought to you courtesy of my phone news feed: sad people and introverts are more likely to suffer from dementia than chirpy little extroverts.

Now when you google “introverts risk of dementia”, it becomes clear that many of the perpetrators of the articles on this subject are … well … annoyingly jolly types. One that I found equates “introvert” and “neurotic”; another said it wasn’t introversion per se that sent your marbles rolling somewhere over the rainbow so much as a tendency to focus more on rain clouds than rainbows, only (the article added) an attitude of gloom was more common among introverts anyway so …

Clash Royale Shrug GIF by Clasharama

So here is a public service announcement:

Bounce No GIF

Look, I can’t help that I’m an introvert. More than that, I don’t WANT to help it! I don’t want to go to parties and yodel “Ho Ho Ho” and clap people on the shoulder!

But …

I’m pretty sure I can be more intentional about holding the Black Dog at bay.

I googled “How to be happy” – and no, that’s absolutely not a weird thing to do! If it were, I wouldn’t have found answers – and I did – I found many long lists, drawn up by people who take the question quite seriously, of things one can do to become and be happy.

And I noticed an interesting thing. Right near the top of almost every list was one word: Gratitude.

Oh calm down. This is not going to become one of those 100-days-of-gratitude blogs. But maybe a single post on the subject wouldn’t come amiss. After all, today is Independence Day, and although I’m actively opposed to both fireworks and flag-waving, I’m grateful that we don’t have a flotilla of giant spaceships hovering over earth’s major cities, waiting to suck us all up, or blow us to oblivion, or whatever it was they did in the movie … it’s been awhile since I watched it and I may be confusing the story with V … dang, can you believe Independence Day is 25 years old already? Anyway, my point is, I’m grateful to know the Gubmint wasn’t just softening us all up for the Big Scary Reveal when they confessed to lying to us.

And here are some other things I’m grateful for:

Boudicca lives. Last week the Hubbit detected a Smell in the workshop and we thought she had died, but it turned out merely to be some of Angelo’s garbage. I was worried because I hadn’t seen her for a while – she goes a little feral in the summer – but she visited the Cool Dude the other day and she’s just fine.
Apricots. The first apricots of the summer were ready to be picked yesterday, in time for me to take a couple to Wonder Woman, who is about to have surgery, and who was cheered because she loves them.
Hummingbirds. Some of our regular visitors made it through the California fires last year, and came back for another summer.
People who adopt rescue dogs. I didn’t think I’d ever find a home for Bear, and yet I did, and they send me pictures that tell me, over and over again, that no matter what he does he is loved.
The Hubbit. Not gonna lie, he can be a curmudgeonly old poop. But I’m grateful to have him around.

Five is enough to start with. And you know what? It works! Poking through my messy picture archives in search of illustrations for this little gratitude list made me smile all the way down to my bones. So … feel free to make your own list, and share it if you like. I’ll be around, watching for rainbows and available to smile along with you.

GIFs from Giphy.com

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