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Lessons from a Dog #231

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Trevor Silvester
Spring 2018

Lessons from a Dog #231



There are many things I could and should be doing. But Betty has cancer, so everything keeps stopping in my head. It’s Monday. We’ve known since Friday, and her op is tomorrow. Like a fiendish roulette, her cancer has three degrees of severity, and anything more than a one means we’ll lose her. Maybe not tomorrow, but the future we took for granted will be replaced by the worst kind of limbo. If I’m honest, limbo doesn’t suit me.

One of my favourite characters in fiction is a man called Logan Ninefingers, who appears in some of Joe Abercrombie’s great novels. He has a maxim that I live by: “Once you’ve got a task to do, it’s better to do it than live with the fear of it.” I often give it to my clients as, “Better to get the shit behind you than keep it in front.” Betty being terminal will test that. Because she’s well. As I watched her chase squirrels and revel in tracking invisible trails through the Autumn leaves today, it seemed so unreal. She’s a magnificent dog in her prime. And if she’s terminal, I’d like it to be over quickly – for me. But she deserves every moment of good life she has left, so Bex and I would just have to endure our knowledge of the outcome, and try to enjoy her in the moments left. We both feel that if you take a dog into your life, it deserves the best you can give it, and we often twist our life into inconvenient shapes to not inconvenience Fred and Betty. And we have no regrets.

Dogs bring magic into your life, a connection that is almost daemon-like. So this feels shit.  And unfair.

Life isn’t fair

When we lost our previous Schnauzer, Wilma, six years ago to a degenerative brain disease at the age of one, it felt as if that bad luck should do us. That somehow such bad luck would bring its reward through long-lived healthy dogs in the future. Yin and Yang should prevail. But, of course, life doesn’t work that way. Just as doing good doesn’t store up credit, so bad luck doesn’t entitle you to any of the good stuff. We just have to suck it up and take one step at a time through the shit-storm. And I know you could say it’s just a dog, and point out all the many, larger, worse tragedies being played out in the world. And I’d agree, and still tell you to go forth because if you don’t get it, you don’t get it. And I don’t need you to. Love is love.

Betty just came over while I was typing this and tapped my leg with her paw, which she always does when she wants my attention. She acquiesced to being lifted onto my lap for some love. She’s worried about me. She sniffs my breath to find out what’s making me feel so down, gently licks my nose, and lets me stroke her – which always feels like a privilege because she’s a Princess. But she’s also our nurse. The thought we could lose her terrifies me. At times like this, I have to wonder if love is worth it.

My mind keeps trying to spin off into the future. Like, if we lose Betty, what will happen to Fred? Betty is his older sister, wing woman and rock. It’s impossible to imagine how this scared little boy will navigate life without her. We’d have to find him a new sister, but the very thought repels itself away as I think it. I don’t want another dog. I want Betty. I feel ten, just wanting to scream the world down to give me what I want. But I’m 58, so did something else just as irrational. We tied a wish to the Wytch Elm at Elen’s Spring this morning. Old Gods, please let her be healthy…

Three months later…

Betty had her operation, and she had four tumours removed. They all came back as malignant. We brought her home, heavily sedated still. She came into the living room, sat down, and lifted her paw to reveal her scar. I burst into tears. It looked like a pie crust carved into her by Zorro, stretching from her armpit to her belly. A smaller one is on her shaved back. She cried that first evening – she never cries. She slept in her crate in our bedroom so we could be there if she needed us. None of us had a good night. How can she possibly recover from that horrific wound?

She did. Amazingly quickly. Within three days we’d given up trying to stop her jumping up onto the settee for a cuddle. Within a week she was back on lead walks. She even adapted to the inflatable collar (so much better than the old buckets of shame). Three weeks later the stitches came out, and the lift to her spirits was immediate. And to ours.

Day by day the scar has relaxed and is already fading. And Betty has bounced back. About 2 years ago she seemed to ‘grow up’ and stopped fighting with Fred. We assumed it was maturity – Bex and I don’t wrestle as much as we used to either.

But now she’s back chasing him around the sofa in the evenings. She’s actively looking for a walk. She’s sleeping less. We think cancer has been in her system for that long and gradually dragging her energy down – the small lump on her back that turned out to be a mast cell tumour was thought by the vet to be a scar from an old flea bite, and has been there for about that length of time. A drop in her energy will be something to look out for in the future because they’ll probably re-occur. But we had news just before Christmas that the tumours had been as low grade as we could hope for. The margins were clear, the proliferation rate minimal. Betty is as free of cancer as we could hope for.

Lessons from Betty

So, what’s the value in this outpouring for you? To be honest, I bashed out the first part with no thought of publishing. It was just my way of emptying my head. Maybe if you’re in a crisis, doing something similar might help you too. But, beyond that, with the worst over for now, of course, I return for what I can learn from it. And it’s this – none of which is a revelation:

  • Going through something bad doesn’t inoculate yourself from future bad. Things just happen, and you have to deal with life as it is, not as it’s supposed to be (or how you feel you deserve it to be). Doing good isn’t like a bank account, it doesn’t give you any credit to draw against. Suck it up, and keep moving (but do good anyway).
  • Dogs are given to us as teachers. Day by day Betty responded to what was happening. Only what was happening, not what might. It was us who tortured ourselves with the what-ifs of the future. She just focused on finding a way around the pesky collar to scratch the stitches, on having a fuss, on getting a treat. She went back to looking for the good in the day within the limitations of her health. And how she felt yesterday never seemed a factor in how she behaved the next day. “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” It seems to me that pain is at least mediated if you remain in the present with it.
  • Dogs have a cool way of not bearing a grudge against circumstances. She still tolerates our lovely vet and let him probe her wounds. Be more dog.
  • Love is worth it. We know we have a loss ahead of us, but that’s always been true. It’s only the increased probability of us being closer to it that makes it loom larger. And the gift it brings is making us love her the more each day. If you focus on love, it seems to replenish. It’s only when you take it for granted that its lustre fades.
  • And, finally, the Stoics are right. If it’s out of your control, worry is a waste of time. If it’s not happening now and it’s out of your control, that’s even truer. It’s just no easier a state to achieve than it was when they first spoke it. But what things like this teach me is that when life is tough, the best chance to learn about yourself and do the work of training your mind, comes with it. It isn’t easy to retain control of your thoughts, and probably impossible to manage it all the time, but the daily practice of it does reward you with a greater sense of control; over yourself, if not the situation. And isn’t that all we can control anyway?