brokeback: the diagnosis

Not quite three years ago, my dog became inexplicably lame. She suddenly couldn’t walk. It was December and I was at the tail end of finals as well as embroiled in endless holiday parties at the fine dining restaurant where I worked. I had left Joseph and her bff Jack at my then-boyfriend’s house when I left for work that morning, just as I always did. I would be gone for twelve hours working a double shift. He would be home in seven or eight hours from his job and he would look after the dogs in the evening. He and I took turns staying at his house or my apartment, but we always kept the dogs together no matter where we were, and even if the two of us didn’t spend the night together. He never called me when I was at work, he was much better at boundaries that way than I ever was. So when he called and called, I knew something wasn’t right. I stood outside in the dark without a coat, shivering next to a dumpster with the energy and excitement and noise of a restaurant swirling faintly around me in the crisp winter air.

Can’t walk. His words didn’t register. Won’t get up. I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying. Just laid outside in the snow. She had been fine less than eight hours before. What should I do? Are you there? What do you want me to do?

Of course I wanted him to take her to the vet. What he was telling me didn’t add up. She had been healthy, she had been happy and normal just a few hours ago. Why wouldn’t she stand up? I had to put on my game face and survive the rest of my shift, serving steaks and cocktails to strangers who were merrily celebrating a holiday I had only ever known to be shrouded in sadness.

I stood in the wine room and read my credit card number over the phone to a veterinary technician at the emergency vet while other servers rushed in and out of the cramped space, hurriedly dropping off or picking up items they needed for their tables, or attempting to hide out for a few minutes to catch their breath.

No, it’s an “s” on the card, my middle initial is an “s”, as in “Sam”. The security code? Oh! The three digits on the back? Ultimately she put my boyfriend back on the phone and we sat in pregnant silence for a minute until I assured him that I would hurry home as quickly as I could, and he promised to call me as soon as they left the emergency vet.

When I got home, Baby Jos looked at me with concern in her eyes, and what I recognized as pain. The emergency vet had told him that she’d probably swallowed something. They did a scan of her stomach and it showed nothing and I was very skeptical that my dog had eaten something, a dog who had not chewed anything since she was a young puppy and wouldn’t even touch food unless you told her it was okay. I am not a parent. But I know animals, especially my own pets. Part of being a weirdo is that you connect with critters in a way that you will never relate to adult humans, you develop a sense about how they relay information and you know how to get quiet and pick up on their cues. I recall very distinctly the look in her eyes, and I looked at my then-boyfriend and said, Then-Boyfriend, she is in pain. I think those people at the emergency vet were full of it when they told you she ate something. I don’t buy this. I will take her to my regular vet tomorrow and we will sort this out. And then neither of us slept a wink.

I took her to my regular vet the next day. My vet was a wonderful man, elderly and old-school. He walked with a cane and used hand written index cards as patient records and had cats and turtles and fish who lived in his office. He and his wife ran the whole operation and the peeling linoleum and outdated charts and pictures on the paneled walls only added to the charm of the place. They printed their bills from an antiquated computer that ran an outdated version of Windows, and the bills were always so inexpensive. He had huge inquisitive eyes and would squint a little and move his bearded jaw ever so slightly as he considered a patient.

Let me see her walk, he said. She struggled to stay on her feet. She is clearly in pain, he said. She sadly looked up at me and with her eyes she begged me to let her lie down. I’m sorry, baby, I said. He often treated problems conservatively, and he asked that we wait it out another night to see how her condition might change, and he would take x-rays the next day if she hadn’t improved. We went back to Then-Boyfriend’s house and waited on him to come home.

When he got home, the whole brood packed up and headed to my apartment where we could hole up as a little family with no noisy roommates or unexpected guests. We dragged my mattress onto my linoleum apartment floor and gently laid the pup there. Then-Boyfriend set about putting plastic on the drafty windows of my basement apartment with a hair dryer while I laid tucked into the blankets, flanked by our dogs. We let HGTV play in the background, and then reruns of The King of Queens, while we emotionally sat on the edge of our seats and waited. We watchfully anticipated any shift in her behavior, any subtle hint that she was worsening. And there it was. She tried to stand up and couldn’t. She hadn’t eaten all day but had consumed several cups of broth, and now she had to pee. She was a well trained dog, a girl who would rather die than have an accident in the house. And she was trying with everything she had in her to stand up and go outside, and Boyfriend and I had no idea what to do and so we watched helplessly as her legs collapsed underneath her and she peed on herself and the floor. We scrambled and got towels and told her it was fine and that we were not mad, the she was a good girl. She was horrified. We were scared to death and traumatized.

I grabbed my coat. I’m taking her to the University emergency vet. Something is very wrong.

He helped me get her outside and we loaded her into the back seat of my car. He and his dog stood in the driveway of my apartment, bitter cold winter wind whipping around them, and they stared helplessly at us. Just as I started to pull out, he stopped me. I’m going with you! And we both took the baby girl to the emergency vet at the University at the start of my winter break from school and on a night when he had to work the next morning.

When we arrived, they hastily asked us questions and then whisked her away on a gurney to start her workup. We sat in the darkened waiting room, crying, on pins and needles, speculating about what we would do and how we would pay for it and hoping desperately for answers. The custodian came in, a middle-aged man with forty extra pounds that he carried primarily in his midsection.

You got a pet here? He asked us.

Yes. We do. And we explained our situation to the bespectacled, overweight, middle-aged custodian as he stood in front of us with his vacuum cleaner, mindlessly fondling its cord. In our broken emotional state, we blurted every detail small and large to this stranger, sitting there in our sweatpants, our fingers laced through one another’s, our faces clammy from tears.

When we finally reached the present moment, came to the part about how we were just waiting for the doctors here at the University to tell us something and how we were completely petrified and beside ourselves and adrift in the not knowing, he paused and then grunted a little. Sorry about your dog, he said, Y’all mind if I vacuum?

His simplicity and his desire to temper practicality with a touch of humanity will probably always stay with me. Silly though our interaction may have felt in comparison with how a more emotionally evolved person might have handled themselves, there was nothing that said he had to talk to us at all. He was not required to ask our permission to vacuum. He was not obligated to ask about our story or stand there as a platform for us to feverishly work out all the new and overcoming feelings we were attempting to process. But he did. Sometimes doing the right thing and being a good human is not saving children from a burning building or delivering a baby on the side of the road or giving a stranger one of your internal organs or performing CPR on someone. In fact, most often it is none of these things and it doesn’t look anything like that. Instead, it is the quiet and fleeting moments in which we have a brief opportunity to exhibit a dash of mercy that truly test us as human beings. Funnily, one of the best ways to learn about humanity is through a pet, even if sometimes indirectly.

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