“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

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Day 59: The Heart of the Matter: a Two-Part Day

Part I: Destiny
I had put February 2 on my calendar months ago.  Jaimy Gordon, who won the National Book Award in 2010 for her novel, Lord of Misrule, was reading from her work at St. Lawrence University.  I am new to her work but I'm in love.  Her voice is at once sparkling and earthy and odd and distinct: it's just pure music and genius.  It has sphagnum moss in it, and the blues, red dirt and black clay, the ululations of mourning, and a child's freshness and wonder.  It is unflinching in its honesty and acceptance of life at every cadence, in every pitch.

And there are dogs here and there as well.

I really can't do justice to her work in this short, two-part post.  But just to start, take a look at how a character named Two-Tie in Lord of Misrule, which takes us inside the world of small-time horse racing in West Virginia, reflects on his dog's life in the context of other dog's lives at the track:
 On the racetrack may be found any number of doggy types, Two-Tie observed to himself as he surveyed his rooms over the Ritzy Lunch in the graying dark to see what his all-night card game had dragged in. . . . Deucey Gifford was an old broad-browed retriever dog, faithful to the death, who had some dignity with her size.  The doggish part was how she never let go.  Once she thought something belonged to her, or didn't, her jaw clamped down and her gaze flattened out and she could get stupid, very stupid.  . . . It was a known fact that dogs sleep two-thirds of the time.  These four, like sixty-seven percent of the other dogs on the planet, were asleep.
 Of course the whole notion was an insult to dogs, which included some of the noblest individuals that Two-Tie had ever known in his life, like his Elizabeth.  But as with humans it was a question of how the dog had been raised and what had been asked of it whilst it was still young.  Early on, you had to show a intelligent dog what to do.  A dog like that thought good of herself and pretty soon she ran the whole show, better than what you could.  On the other hand, if nutting was asked of it, a dog would expect its dog food every night and morning every day of its life and spend the rest of its time looking for that bonus hamburger that fell on the floor, never noticing how good it was taken care of already, for the nutting it contributed to society.  The dog got led around like a ponyride by that nose for a free hamburger, and the rest of its brain went dead.
His Elizabeth, however, was a herd dog, hustled by some ancient sense of responsibility not to let her sheep--whoever she decided her sheep were--out of her sight.  As for Two-Tie she wouldn't let him take a dump in privacy but curled up with a groan on the little wrinkled rug between the tub and the sink for the duration.  

I got invited to the dinner in her honor, but it took place during the second of only three meditation classes I just signed up for, so I reluctantly declined.  I was definitely going to go the reading, to hear what that rich voice sounds like out loud, but then I had this extra unexpected visit to Alta Vista with Zoe on Friday, and readings get me over-stimulated, so I knew I would have to miss it if wanted to be focused and strong for Zoe on Friday, especially with those long winter drives.

And then a miracle happened.  I was driving Zoe to Alta Vista yesterday morning, when suddenly I realized (I still hadn't had enough sleep) that I would never make it without an extra coffee.  I found a place on the right, just before the bridge to Canada, a coffee/gas/fast food place I'd never noticed before on all my many drives, and I pulled into the parking lot.

When I got out of the car, I saw my college, Pedro, who was once Jaimy's student in graduate school at Western Michigan, and he waved.  He said, "Jaimy's right in the car with me, if you want to meet her."  They were driving to the Ottawa airport so she could go home.  Her check-in time must have been around the time Zoe's was at the hospital, and he must have seen me when he stopped to get gas.   It's a ninety-minute drive from our village in Upstate New York, across the border in Ogdensburg, and then up Route 416 to the airport.  Alta Vista is a few streets past the airport.  I have never run into someone I knew while en route to Ottawa.  It was an incredible coincidence.

She wanted to meet Zoe.  I led her over to my car, across some treacherous ice, and Zoe hopped out to say hello.  Meanwhile, Jaimy told me a little about her dogs.  She was very nice to Zoe.

Then she went right to the heart of the matter.

She asked me, "Is there any chance at all she can have a complete recovery?"  I thought about this.  "Probably not, but I think maybe 10% recover."  That was a number Kerry and I had found somewhere about dogs living--I don't remember, exactly--maybe two or three years after the diagnosis.  I don't think that's the answer to the question she asked.

Pedro came over, and Zoe ran to him and did her usual lean-in hug.  "Don't you hate how they always like the boys better?" Jaimy said.  "It's just not fair."

I laughed.  We were both running late for our appointments--Zoe's drop-off, and her flight--so we said a hasty good-bye.

"I was so sorry I didn't get to meet you, and here you were.  It's a miracle," I said.

"It is," she said.  I had sent her a fan letter, via Pedro, so she knew how much I like her work.

"It was destiny," I said, and she agreed.  Then we drove away in our separate cars.

I was so happy then.  When something seems like it was meant to be, I get that wonderful electric feeling that I am where I should be, doing what I am meant to be doing.  Like all the universe is one pulsing, beating synchronous heart.

Part Two: The Examined Life

It must be a little disconcerting and definitely odd to discover that someone has a blog dedicated to her dog, and that particular dog is one of your patients.  I had shared the link with Willow and Donna at Alta Vista and when we came in on Wednesday they complimented me on the writing.  When I brought her today, the dark-haired guy behind the counter said he had enjoyed my blog.  Dr. Bravo, when I saw her later in the day, even complimented me on the photos.  And when I was leaving, Willow asked me about Zoe's "human brother" and I told her a little about the stepsons.

I can't tell if they are any nicer to me now that they know they are going to show up as characters in this ongoing story, but I think not.  They are their usual combination of courteous and professional and matter-of-fact.  That's all Zoe and I need, anyway.  But I'm glad they can't ever forget her name.

So I dropped Zoe off at 11, and they were going to try to fit an appointment in with the fully-booked cardiologist so he could take a picture of her heart to see if she could handle a fifth treatment of doxorubicin.  I was in good spirits when I left Alta Vista and headed out to my favorite restaurant on that part of town, Trattoria Vittoria, to have a long lunch and write quite a few letters of recommendation for my students who are applying to various abroad programs.  That was my office and snack palace for the day.

Finally, towards 3, I returned to Alta Vista.  The cardiologist had done his thing, but it was so busy there, and there were so many dogs getting chemotherapy, that he hadn't been able to consult with Dr. Bravo about the results.  I couldn't concentrate on anything else, so I camped out there in the waiting room and read about Angelina Jolie's latest weight loss. 

I can see why they suggest that the pets' people don't lurk, if they have a choice.  Watching people come in with their sick dogs made me increasingly sadder.  A woman with a French accent had brought a blanket.  Her dog was in the ICU and she wanted to spend the rest of the day and evening with him.  He had just had "le radio" (radiation) and so she would have to settle for a quick hello now, and then come back later in the evening for the extended love-in.

A family came in with a dog I loved instantly.  He reminded me of Zoe.  He was much bigger than she is, but had some of her same breeds in his mix--border collie and retriever.  A big black and white guy with white socks and a steady gaze and chocolate brown eyes and a long snout and that same kind of watchfulness--he turned his head to acknowledge every movement, every new person, every voice.  And he had her same doggy grin.  "Fred's eleven," the man with him said.  "We think he has cancer."  He explained how the dog had always had a great appetite, but he had not wanted to eat anything for the past week.  "We were here for tests, but now they want more tests.  Her bone marrow."  The woman said, "I can't say the word cancer without starting to cry."  Her eyes filled.  Mine started to as well.  But then I told them what a good life Zoe and I have had since her diagnosis.

By the time Dr. Bravo invited me to talk, I was on the verge of tears.  She said that Zoe's heart can withstand one more treatment, but not two.  There's some dilation, and she explained a few other things that went right over my head.  I was not really tracking well.  But she was quite confident that Zoe would be fine with another treatment, and since it is keeping the cancer at bay, I agreed.

I sat down and opened my journal.  I was trying to figure out all the reasons I had to be so sad, beyond the obvious ones.  A year ago, if someone had told me I would be going to Canada every three weeks to help my dog get intravenous chemotherapy for a very harsh form of cancer, I would have thought, this was going to be an awful, nightmarish time of my life.  Dread, sorrow: those words to describe pain and loss don't ever quite really describe what it's like.  But it hasn't been nightmarish.  Of course it's tremendously sad, and hard, but Zoe and I have had such a good fall and winter together.  She hasn't suffered. Our time together each day is so rich and lovely.  And I have felt incredibly lucky--as though it were destiny--that my sabbatical, which only comes every seven years, could come now, so that I have the time and flexibility to devote myself to her completely.

Later, the cardiologist showed me Zoe's heart.  I saw the pulsing of it, the beat of Zoe now, in February of 2012, very much alive.  But where there should be red in the picture there is some pink, which means dilation.  And there are waves that should all intersect that separate instead: the hallmark of an asynchronous contraction of the heart.

But it's supposedly a subtle problem.  Not yet another thing to worry about.

As if.  As though I wouldn't worry.  I've had the irrational need for every other part of Zoe's being to be in perfect working order, to compensate for what isn't and can't be. Especially her heart.  That glorious, brave heart.

He told me that if there is any problem down the line, she can take beta blockers, but the heart will recover and the problem now is subtle.  She can walk as much as ever and do every single thing she does.

When I asked about his accent, he said he was from the Southeast of France.  When I told him Zoe had been there, he didn't seem impressed.  I suppose Alta Vista sees its share of well-traveled pets.

And then I realized something else, as I left in rush hour for the long drive home in the dark.  That having a daily post means that I am living the examined life as well.  Well, duh.  It's just that before, I had longer to process how I think and feel about everything.  When I wrote my memoir, I was analyzing and recounting events that had taken place decades before.  So now, with Zoe, and with this blog, I have to get to the heart of the matter right then and there.  That's a very zen way of living. 

And that's when I got to the ultimate reason for my sadness.  We're at the end of an era.  As long as I knew there were more of these awful-sounding, but not-truly awful chemo appointments ahead of us, it felt to me like time was still stretching out ahead of us, that we had an abundance of time, but even more so, that we had many tricks up our sleeve for keeping Zoe well.  We're on to a new phase now. New oral drugs that may or may not agree with her.  Drugs that haven't really been tested yet, because they've only been on the market for a short time and the clinical trials are going on now.

And from there it's just a matter of faith, and trust, and luck, and, I suppose, destiny.

Zoe is eager to go home after a full day at Alta-Vista
Zoe meets her male look-alike

Zoe and Willow


  1. ever onward, with Zoe. Maybe she will like to listen to this.

    Eric Whitacre has his finger on the pulse of the beating hearts of the universe. Except in his world they are all singing together. I accidentally ran into this today, via TED.
    see the “Sleep” video here: http://vimeo.com/22960177
    The 2011 Virtual Choir video features 2052 performances of 'Sleep' from 1752 singers in 58 countries, individually recorded and uploaded to YouTube between September 2010 and January 2011. Find out more about the Virtual Choir at virtualchoir.org
    It all started with one young girl sending him a fan video, singing this song.

    a bit of the poem “Sleep” by Charles Anthony Silvestri

    “With closing eyes and resting head
    I know that sleep is coming soon

    Upon my pillow, safe in bed
    A thousand pictures fill my head
    I cannot sleep, my mind’s a-flight”

  2. Nattie, great to find out that Zoe has at least another treatment in her. Sad to find out that her heart is somewhat compromised. I thought a lot about her this weekend, and thought of you of course. Yes, she is a big-hearted gal,a strong-hearted gal and we are cheering her on in New Salem. xoxoxo m.