Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Death, dogs and decisions

When we woke up yesterday morning the Bear's little dog had crossed the finish line. At 14, she was blind, nearly deaf and starting to lose interest in her food- well down the slippery slope to the moment when the Bear would have to bite the bullet and take her to the vet for the last time.

She spared us all that by slipping quietly away from us in her sleep. It was a merciful outcome for her, but a moment that I'd been dreading. We'd been struggling with her decline from well before I was diagnosed, and it was always going to be a hard moment for a man whose dogs have been his only children. She was the last of her tribe, the sole survivor of his little 'family' of four. And her manner of passing echoed that of his previous partner, taking her leave quite alone in her bed in the early hours of the morning.

So I watched last night as an angular figure struggled away in the twilight, digging a resting place for her amongst the tall trees near our lagoon, sweat and tears dripping from his face as he broke through the tough soil laced with massive roots from the flooded gums.

"Is there anything I can do?" I asked softly, feeling so helpless standing there with my useless arm and my wounded chest.

He looked up, silent for a moment. Then,

"It's enough that you're here."

And went on digging.

This morning he was up before I woke to bury her, choosing to say his last goodbyes in private. And that was okay with me. I came late into the Bear's relationship with his dogs, always aware of the meaning they held for him beyond any normal human-animal relationship. They were his saviours at a time when he'd been abandoned by the blackbirds in his life, left to hold his grief as best he could all alone.

It was his dogs who got him through that terrible time, his dogs who ensured he got up in the morning and who lay by his side at night. He had no-one else. When I met him, he wanted no-one else.

We were friends long, long before we were lovers, and our friendship was grounded not only on our knowledge of pain and suffering, the knowledge of how cancer could turn your world inside out and shake every last breath of joy from your body, but on our knowledge of the redeeming power of the love of our animals.


My own dog, Jack, is sitting at the bottom of the bed as I write. He knows that something is amiss here; he's known it all along. He's what you might call a Velcro dog, sticking to me obsessively from the moment I rescued him from a concrete cage at the RSPCA six years ago.

He isn't my dog; he's My Dog. Ask him. And I am His Person.

Since my diagnosis, he's been by my side every moment he can. If I'm on the bed, he's on the bed; if I'm at the table, he's at my feet; if I'm taking a walk in the garden- you get the idea.

But he's not the only hound on the block, and he has to take turns with our working dog for his freedom. Left off together, pack mentality takes over and they decide to go down the back to chase wallabies, which we can't abide. So on the chain he goes, for half the day.

If he's on the chain over at the shed and I'm inside the house, he'll start out with a soft whimper.



Then he'll start to sing quietly, reasoning with us as best he can; if only, I often think, if only I could understand Dog as well as he understands English.


"Mmmahhhhhh? Aaaaaah!"

It's such a persuasive language.

If ignored, he resorts to the small bark first.



"I'm being so reasonable," he seems to say. "Surely you know what I want?"

But once the bark appears, his patience fades quickly.

"Let me OFF!" he shouts. (But in Dog, that's just one syllable. OFF.)


He repeats this mantra at regular intervals, about ten seconds apart and loud enough to be intrusive, until we cave in. (We always cave in.)

And then he's by my side again, on the bed with me while I write or read, in the kitchen if I'm cooking, running rings around me and leaping up at my arms in excitement if I'm going for a walk. He will love me best till the day he dies- or till I do.

There is nothing so comforting as a good dog when you're sad, sick or sulking. Nothing.


The community nurse came around yesterday and, with a little persuasion from Vi and me, removed the drains. They put these long tubes with bags on the end into me after the operation to stop me swelling up like a blimp, as my body rushed all its liquid defences to the area attacked by the scalpel. Totally necessary- and I was totally over it.

I can't begin to explain how much better I feel without them. It's not just the constant dragging, the pain when you move suddenly (and the bags don't), the itching of the dressings (to which I seem to be universally allergic)- it's the constant reminder that you're sick.

I don't feel sick. My entire being is rebelling against being categorised as somehow impaired by this disease. Yes, I had cancer. (Look, it's past tense. Yeah, yeah, radiation, chemo, blah blah, I'm doing it. Now shoosh.)

Yes, I had an amputation as a result.


(And get those bloody tubes out of my side.)

With perfect timing, shortly afterwards a large squishy parcel arrived in the day's post. It turned out to be a bag of boobs, a joke I've been dining out on ever since. Vi and I spent some amusing moments with My First Prosthesis (surely there's a children's toy idea in there somewhere) as I ventured into a bra for the first time since the mastectomy and discovered the ups and downs (literally) of trying to match a real boob to a bit of stretchy fabric filled with teddy bear stuffing.

Just call me Wun Hung Lo.

Armed with this face-saving device, I dressed myself up to the nines this morning for My First Trip to Town with one boob MIA. I had a date with The Lone Power Ranger and his offsider Tonto at the local nuclear plant.

Oh o-KAY. I went to see the radiotherapist.

Thank heavens for the homework I've done, or the list of possible side effects of radiotherapy may have had me heading for the hills. (Home, Bear, and don't spare the horses.) When solicitors force them to list 'sudden death' as a side effect for legal reasons, do they understand the effect that has on already-terrified patients? FFS, guys. Enough. I actually need this therapy, so please don't make me wear the corduroy trousers as well as the fluffy floating boob.

On a more serious note (if sudden death isn't serious enough), I do have to make a decision about my armpit. I'm resigned to them nuking my chest, where the whole thing started, and the nodes in my neck, which can't be removed during breast surgery; to me it seems obvious that those two things have to happen.

But wait- there's more. (God, how I hate decisions.) Because so many of the axillary nodes were cancer-positive, indications are that I should have my armpit irradiated to within an inch of its life in case of outlying Freeloader deposits there, which could cause a recurrence.

OH and by the way, that carries a 30% chance of lymphodoema.

Great. So I have a 3 in 10 chance that my left arm will swell up like a buck's night condom, permanently, and I'll have to wear an elastic sleeve, permanently, and I'll be somewhat incapacitated, permanently.

I play the piano.

I pick up children at work.

I work on a farm at home.

I don't want to stop doing those things.

And as I explained to him, "An elastic sleeve, in summer, where live? I live in a wetland. It's like living in a sauna for part of the year. It's hard work wearing any clothes at all in February, let alone a full-length elastic sleeve."

Which made them both laugh, of course, but they got the message.

"Look at it like this," said the Lone Power Ranger. (That's Professor Power Ranger to you.) "There's a 30% chance you'll get some level of lymphoedema. But there's only a 10% chance that it'll be severe. So you have a 90% chance of not being incapacitated."

When he put it that way, I decided to sign the form, on the understanding that I could tear it up at any time. (Did you know that you own your own paperwork? I didn't know that. Thanks, Prof PR.) He's going to get a second and third opinion from some colleagues, because he could see that I was less than enthusiastic about having a Michelin arm for the rest of my life.

We talked about the dosage, too. Sadly, there's no such thing as a lesser dose of nuclear fallout. You have to get the nuking to a certain critical level before anything much happens, or you really needn't bother doing it at all.

"I can give you the lower end of the successful level, rather than the upper end," he offered.

That sounded appealing.

See, it's not really the being burned alive that bothers me now. It's the thought of maybe not being fit to work with little kids any more, not being able to play the piano any more.

And, maybe, constantly having to protect my arm from my dog's loving advances. He's a boisterous fellow, is my Jack. All of that is part of my healing too. I have to balance the medical therapies with the things that I know will keep my spirit afloat.

I know I'll have to watch the Bear's spirit even more closely, too, since little Daisy moved on. But I have help. I watched this morning as our working dog Fletcher, well aware of our departed friend in the garden, crept onto the bed and put his paw gently on the Bear's arm.

"Will I do?", he seemed to say.

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