“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Day 57: The Purple Heart Meditation

Yesterday morning before I took Zoe to Alta Vista hospital in Ottawa for another session and consultation, we went for a short walk along the river on the campus near our house.  As I watched her find a place to pee, I studied her profile, noting again the purple heart the oncologist and vet techs gave her in September when she started chemotherapy for bone cancer.  To my astonishment, she was crouching near another purple heart.  Someone had painted it on the trunk of a tree.  Perhaps some romantic soul was honoring the place where he or she had been kissed, or maybe a student was near this tree when the text came that her brother or sister was shipping out to Afghanistan or had been wounded there or in Iraq.

Or maybe the painter just liked purple and wanted to see how it looked against the charcoal gray bark.

photo by Karen Strauss

Just before I'd left the house I'd put up the day's post and found a Facebook message from my student who served two tours of duty in Iraq.  He wished us well at the oncologist's.  As I looked at the purple heart on the tree, I remembered when he had visited me not long before he shipped out for the first time.  He wanted my husband and me to meet his new girlfriend.  I had thought for sure I would love her, but early in the conversation she said, "It would be nice if he brought home a purple heart" and I stared at her with what must have been visible contempt.  It took great restraint not to throw her out of our house.  How could this woman care more about the prestige attached to dating someone who had earned a medal for courage under fire than for his actual safety?  I was secretly glad when they broke up, although the circumstances were heartbreaking.  (He asked her to attend the funeral of his lieutenant in his place because he was still in Iraq, and she took up with another soldier that she met at the slain man's grave.)  I thought he deserved someone with depth and integrity who would love him with a brave, true heart.

But I digress.

Zoe did not ask for this purple heart.  All she has ever asked for are her two bowls of dog food a day, supplemented by her favorite treats, and the bits of meat we slip her under the table.   Plus, of course, the dinner dishes she cleans with her tongue before they go in the dishwasher.  She likes her beef marrow bones.  She wants some snuggling and attention, but not too much: she is a dog who needs her space.  She loves her routines, her two long walks a day, and her meditation on the balcony and in the yard facing the river.

photo by Tara Freeman

Zoe never asked to travel in France.  (See Posts 44-46, An American Dog in France, An American Dog in the City of Light, and American Dog in the City of Light, Part II.)  She did not want to gawk at the Eiffel Tower lit up at night, or to ride the metro.  She did not ask to roam the hexagon for seven months, but she adapted so beautifully, loved her Carrefour food and the trails through Corsica and the Alps, that it took all the self-restraint I had not to buy her a beret.

And of course, she did not ask to get osteosarcoma at age eight and a half: this dog who has walked two hours every day and has not a lick of arthritis in her bones, not a trace of hip dysplasia, whose perfect ligaments and skeletal structure astonished her vet in Canton when she first x-rayed her to see why Zoe was limping.  This dog who was born to herd sheep, who can do figure eights as she chases her charges, is nimble enough to turn and stop on a dime: she didn't ask to herd students into the woods instead, although she fell in love with all of them, and walks with at least one of them and her person every week.

She definitely didn't ask to lose one of those lovely, nimble legs, and to spend a night in an animal hospital across the border, high on hard drugs, and to have to learn to walk again.  But once she recovered and regained her strength, she awed her person day after day as the two explored winter together as though it were a new country for them, negotiating steps and hills and ice and snow drifts and slush without hesitation.

And she definitely didn't ask for chemotherapy, of having to miss her food and her walks on Alta Vista days to ride 90 minutes each way to Canada and back to be put under so that the vet can see what's happening in her lungs and bronchial tubes, the signs of cancer migrating there, enemies crossing the green zone and settling in not far from the heart of this gorgeous, occupied country.  She did not ask to become a fighter, not just a lover.  She did not ask to summon inside herself so much courage and stoicism and patience.

She is a dog who, like most dogs, loves her routines.  She does her happy dog dance in the morning just before her walk, making the stuffed fox and beaver squeak, or flipping her human brother's teddy bear around until it's on her head.  She likes to run to the back yard and find a beef marrow bone she buried under snow.  She likes to lean against the people she loves and trusts absolutely.  She likes to pose with her head on its side on the floor, half-covering her eyes with outstretched paws.  It's her, I know I'm cute pose.  Reward me please.  She is half cute dog commercial, half Princess Di.

photo by Karen Strauss

photo by Tara Freeman

photo by Tara Freeman

Like all creatures on this earth, including the enemy invaders in her body, she wants to live.  She loves her life.  And except for those moments before the diagnosis when she limped around in pain, she has been energetic, hungry, playful, regal, happy, and entirely herself all these months we have lived in this way.

I wrote all of the above in the coffee shop yesterday while I waited for Dr. Bravo's call.

I returned to Alta Vista and talked to her, then to Donna and Willow, the vet techs who have been working with Zoe since September.

"It's really remarkable," they all said.  "We haven't seen anything like this, really."

Once the cancer hits the lungs, usually the nodules just "blow up," as Donna said.  "They grow so fast."

But Zoe continues to fight.  Tiny nodules first showed up in her lungs in early December, but the drug she's been taking, doxorubicon, is working.  It won't cure her, but it keeps everything in check.  Three weeks ago the three "little guys" we'd seen for two visits running looked like trouble.  Now they are gone.  But another spot showed up somewhere else.

"She's doing so well, we think we should continue with this drug," Dr. Bravo said.

But normally, after four treatments of this drug, a cardiologist has to be consulted.  It's not common, but the drug can weaken the muscles around her heart.

"The cardiologist isn't here on Wednesdays," she explained.  "So it's complicated."

I could have taken a chance and just gone ahead with another chemo.  She's doing so well.  She's strong.  The drug is helping.

But I decided to book in with the cardiologist on Friday and return.  And then we'll see if she's robust enough to continue this treatment one or two more times, before we start her on an oral cocktail of drugs that treats the lungs, specifically, as well as blood vessels to stop cancer cell migration.

Donna never sugar-coats anything.  She has been known to say things like, "this is the worst cancer there is," and "it's a nasty, nasty disease."  She has never once allowed me to leave the hospital with false hope.  But she told me when we were heading out that Zoe's health, and the pictures we are seeing of her lungs, are truly "remarkable."  She has never seen a dog do this well.

Zoe and Willow

Zoe was just happy because she got to leave Alta Vista early yesterday.  We had a long walk in the woods and revisited the purple heart in the trees.

So I'll go back with her tomorrow, and we'll take a picture of Zoe's heart.  That brave heart.  I'll post about what happens this weekend.

photo by Tara Freeman
I trust that I'll know when it's time to stop.  When the purple heart Zoe carries has earned its weight and its shimmer, and then some.  I will never let her suffer, and I know that she will tell me what I need to know.  And until then, we will walk together every day at the edge of the river, two beings linked by love and by time to this small corner of the earth.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad. And I've got my hankie out now too. Hearts beating, here and there.