“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

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Part II, Day 16: Bark and Soul

Descartes believed that animals had no souls.  He also thought they felt no pain, so when a creature we had wounded cried out it was only a mechanical response, like the way we kick, mildly, when the doctor taps that spot beneath the knee.

Animals didn’t have souls because they didn’t speak in a language we could hear.  Language was what set us apart from other creatures.  Thus, they lacked the ability to reason, and to worship our god.

Our souls, Descartes also believed, was located in the pineal gland.  It was the place where the intellect joined with the body.

You could extract it, and off it would go.  But where would it fly to, and how much did it weigh?

In Tudor England, philosophers and theologians also believed that woman lacked souls.  It was because we can breed and incubate and feed our young like animals.  People of color, indigenous humans, the poor and the mad also lacked souls because they were too much like beasts—the way they could be yoked, or not—and the way they sang and danced their prayers. And then there were the incomprehensible things they cried when the sky went black. 

This morning the sky is bright already at 6 when my dog and I find a spot for her to do her morning meditation.  She stares at the river and trees and birds waking up.  Maybe the great blue heron will return soon.  We’re on his route.  Maybe the neighbor’s cat will deign to prowl here again.  I try to imagine what she sees out there, what shape her brain waves make as she lets the mild ripples of the river flowing past carry her thoughts.

I sit in my meditation corner and read this poem by Mary Oliver:

Some Questions You might Ask

Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?
Who has it, and who doesn’t?
I keep looking around me.
The face of the moose is as sad
as the face of Jesus.
The swan opens her white wings slowly.
In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.
One question leads to another.
Does it have a shape?  Like an iceberg?
Like the eye of a hummingbird?
Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?
Why should I have it, and not the anteater
who loves her children?
Why should I have it, and not the camel?
Come to think of it, what about the maple trees?
What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?

I meditate for 15 minutes, then go outside to look at Zoe.

She doesn’t see me at first.  Her face, rapt, follows a nuthatch as it skitters beneath the feeder, the two young squirrels somersaulting over each other, around and around on the poplar bark.  Venus and the moon’s thumbprint slip beneath a curtain of blue and gray.

Does she know what’s happening inside her body?

Does she know what’s going to happen today?

Does she understand the words, “later” or “soon”?

We cross the river and she finds a spot away from the human path to leave her mound.  Since chemo started, her excrement has changed.  The drugs soften everything inside except maybe her desires.

Palladia has taken her whiskers and turned her mug from black with a trail of white to a brown-black and gray with soot in the snow.

But she is my Zoe, with all her appetites in tact.  And I am her person.  In those woods she surprises a grouse.  A flash of brown and black and white lifts and runs, then alights on another bush, and Zoe’s brown and black and gray snout is on the trail.

It’s just a chase. That fierce pull like a compass needle.  I’m glad she doesn’t catch wild game but I’m thrilled she has so much game in her.

Later, after I drop her off at the animal hospital for her check-up, I sit in a coffee shop pushing eggs around.  Is it just me, or do they taste like chemicals? 

The eggs came from a hen’s warm body, but probably not from the kind of farm I like where the beaked ones and hoofed ones have names.


I wait now at a Starbucks in a bookstore called Chapters.  The woman in the next table has decided to enter the next chapter of her life with more color.  Her hair would be white, I think, but it’s striped pale lemon and carnelian orange.  She wears a long wrap skirt with blue flower appliqués, a lovely fabric that looks French.  Her silk tie-dyed scarf in blues and greens and a shock of scarlet say that she will not disappear, she will not, even though women of a certain age do, it is said.  

I'm grateful for the visual feast of so much color on a day of worry.

Outside, people lead handsome young golden retrievers from one store with knock-off goods to another, this shop selling leather, then men’s wear, then women’s.  People are training guide dogs for the blind, and this busy shopping center is an excellent place for the dogs to practice.

“I’m completely bilingual,” the striped woman tells her companion. 

The dogs here are too, I think.  They speak dog, of course, and they understand English, and probably some French. 

I wonder if the souls of the dogs, if they had them, would look different after they spent some time caring for the blind.


At the animal hospital, I wait to find out what Zoe’s chest looks like today.  Last time the biggest tumor was 1.45 centimeters.  The Palladia, like any cancer-fighting drug, is a bouncer at the door.  Ruffians still get in, but if the bouncer is good, only the little guys slip through. If the bouncer isn’t sufficiently badass, the riffraff gets bigger, stronger, and eventually becomes a mob.

There is no point in rehearsing my response to all the hypotheticals, because it’s never exactly what I fear or hope. 

Next to me, a small Labrador goes into the cardiologist’s office with her people.  The dog wears a collar that says “The One” but she doesn’t understand English.  She doesn’t understand French either, it turns out, because she and her people say, “vamos,” to her when the cardiologist wants to take her around the corner to examine her.  The dog understands “vamos” perfectly well, but she wiggles out of her collar and runs back to the woman and jumps up to kiss her face.

Finally the dog is willing to go to the cardiologist, and the man and woman sit back down to wait.  The cardiologist is French.  I’ve met him before.  He took a picture of Zoe’s heart 10 weeks ago, when we were trying to decide if she could handle a fifth dose of doxorubicin, which, as a bouncer, worked better than anything we have tried so far.

I ask them how old their Labrador is.  They speak Spanish and French, but no English, so we communicate in French about the air trip from Columbia, where they are from, to Canada, with the dog flying too, and how she had an infection in her blood (could this be heartworm?) but six months on, is doing well.  She is nine.  The same age as Zoe.

The man has a cap that says, “Espagna.”  He and his wife love their dog and are willing to pay a canine cardiologist whatever it takes to keep that tail wagging.

This dog, I can see, is the heart and soul of this family that traveled so far to start a new life.

Dr. Bravo says the Palladia is not resisting the disease.  The biggest tumor is now 1.75 centimeters.  I ask her to show me this with a ruler.  Zoe has been on the drug for 7 weeks, but nothing is shrinking.  She’s had three acupuncture sessions, and Chinese herbs, and she feels great, eats well, runs and plays with vigor, but the tumors are bigger.

“How long before she would feel these tumors, and start coughing?” I ask.

“They would have to be several times as big as they are now,” she says.

“And we don’t know if they’d be growing much faster, were it not for the Palladia,” I say.  Or she says.  This is something one of us always says.  It is somehow reassuring to have it said again, just to know that all the effort isn’t a waste, because after all, my beautiful dog is alive now, and she chases grouse in the morning and watches the river and tonight she will eat her dinner, and beg for more. 

We agree that we’ll have the cardiologist take another picture, to see if there’s any damage to the muscle around her heart, and then we’ll maybe go back to doxorubicin with a heart protector drug as a chaser.  All of this costs money.

I say, “Would you ask the cardiologist if he’d give us a discount?  This is a second picture, after all.  If I promise to speak only French to him?  I will be très charmant!”

She smiles.

When she returns she says he is charging me only half-price.  The re-check price.  So today’s adventure of blood work, chest x-ray, EKG, chemotherapy drip, and heart-protecting drug-drip might cost the same or less than a trip to Columbia.

Less than it would cost to fly Zoe and me back to Paris. 

And so for now, I push more words around and wait in another coffee shop, and hope with all my heart and soul that I will always know what to do for my dog, how to make things right for her, and how to ask for the right things in English, or in French, or in a fine mélange of languages that always starts with dog.

This was the first time I ever tried to take a picture of Zoe barking her head off.  Another dog was across the river, barking back.  What do you suppose they were saying to each other?  Get off my island?  I like your smell?  Come here now? Vamos?


  1. Thank you, Mirabee. And for sharing. Zoe is busy watching the house today. Looking very dignified. xx

  2. so moving. i am moved, my heart hurts a bit for her, for you, tears in my eyes, throat a bit tight but also a smile on my fact at the eloquence, not only of your writing but of the relationship that resounds from it. had to hug Rose hard before I wrote. keep fighting, both of you. bisous.

  3. Big bisous to you and Rose back. I'm so grateful for this kind message.

  4. Wow. I am moved in so many ways. "Do dogs have souls?" It seems obvious to me, an atheist, that every living thing has a spark of self awareness that religious people would call a soul. A bacterium has a tiny bit. A human has a lot. I believe some dogs have more soul than some humans. Sounds like you and Zoe each have an ample portion.

    Regarding dogs and human-style healthcare, ask yourself: Is this what you would want for you own life? I have watched more than my share of family and friends succumb to cancer. Given my family history, I am likely to find myself there too. My thoughts about slow death slightly prolonged by chemo? I wouldn't wish it on a dog. American style life prolongation through technology is a scam. Unless you are fabulously wealthy or willing to spend your retirement savings to eek a few more weeks out of your dog's suffering life, please, please, just say I love you, and put her down when the suffering gets to be too much. Believe me, that's what I would want for myself. We are all mortal. Do it for Zoe's soul.

  5. Beautifully said. My greatest hope is that the moment Zoe begins to suffer, I will know. She will tell me, or won't need to. Thank you for this.

  6. Oh Natalia. Another achingly beautiful, heartbreaking read of you and your Zoe.

  7. You are so attunted to Zoe that you will know when she has had enough.
    When Splinter was first diagnosed at the local vet, the advice was to enjoy him for the month that he potentially had left. This seemed too harsh to accept at the time. In the 2 years since his treatment finished, the time with him has been a gift, and treating him thin was the right thing to do. I've made the decision though, if any of the fatty old dog lumps on his little body turn malignant, I'm not going down the treatment path again. He has aged a lot in the last 2 years, is more fragile, and I don't think either of us would want that experience again. He is a treasure, takes great joy in his life, and whatever time he has left with me is a gift.
    Zoe sounds like she is still having all the fun a dog can have, barring some inconvenient trips to the vets. That is a bittersweet sort of comfort, when you get the burden of the anxiety from the illness and Zoe gets to be herself. She is in good hands, and at least you know what is happening to her as she goes through different stages in her illness. She will let you know when it is all a bit too much.

  8. Dear Rhonda, I am so grateful for this message. And hello and thank you to Anne above.

    Your story about Splinter has inspired me from the very beginning, and you have no idea how consoling it is to hear about your relationship with Splinter again, after this week's trip to the animal hospital.

    I know Zoe loves her life very much now just as it is, and I trust that I'll know--that she'll tell me--when it's time to say good-bye. But it is very easy to second-guess oneself on a voyage into the unknown like this one, and I can't thank you enough for your kind words. Your timing could not be better.

    Wishing you and Splinter (and Gayle and Bella) great walks in the woods down under!