My family suffered a major loss last December when my aunt passed away from cancer related to Fanconi Anemia. She was my mom’s younger sister and, in all the ways that matter, my big sister. She was one of those people who make friends instantly and she had an enthusiasm for every aspect of life. She fancied herself a matchmaker and was the one who arranged my first date—an unremarkable occasion with a boy who didn’t have much of a sense of humor but helped me out of my jacket and opened doors. (Gentlemanly acts = 10 points.) She cooked legendary spaghetti dinners and had a kitchen policy of “the more, the merrier.” She was thoughtful, vibrant, beautiful, charming, and funny. When other family members call me “Little Lynn,” I consider it the grandest of compliments.
Before she passed away, my aunt made my mom promise to take care of her two dogs, Lucy and Molly. Of course my mom wouldn’t have dreamed of saying no to her request, but we were a little concerned because we already had two dogs, Mona Lisa and Max. Besides the sheer idea of the numbers (four dogs!?), I was sure there would be some doggy politics when we merged the two households. I was predicting canine power plays and a very un-Brady atmosphere. The miracle? They all love each other! Sure, they occasionally get a little jealous or want their own space, but when they first met? Oh the tails, they were a-wagging. And if happiness is a warm puppy (and it is, according to Charlie Brown), then we’ve got four times the happy.
Lucy and Molly have made a really sad time in our lives a little easier–it’s a riot to see all four dogs together, and they are so loving and so loveable. Lucy is a clown with a big personality (you might recall that she doesn’t like chickens) and it’s easy to be drawn in by her big eyes and long tongue. Molly, however, has a special spot in all our hearts. She was Lynn’s constant companion, both before and during her illness. Towards the end, when my aunt was forced to stay in bed, Molly never left her side. She wasn’t interested in food, especially if it meant leaving her person. She wasn’t interested in going outside, and had to be forcibly carried out of the room for trips to the backyard. And when Lynn finally died, Molly wouldn’t leave her bed. The priest who came to give last rights did so while Molly looked on, strong and regal. At one point during the blessings, to our horror, she started licking Lynn’s face. We were embarrassed that Father Brady witnessed what we felt was an undignified (and a little bit yucky) scene, but he just stroked Molly. “She’s just saying goodbye.”
When times of great crisis arise, humans often fall short of being true compassionate forces of good. Neighbors may tut-tut at your misfortune, but go about their lives. Family members might fail to rally, and instead be consumed by denial or selfishness. Sometimes friends, though well-meaning, don’t know how to help and issue vague promises. “Anything I can do…” they say, leaving you to spin their helplessness into gold. “That’s so sweet of you” and “I’ll be sure to call”—this is the dance you’re forced to perform, and it requires certain expected words and strained smiles.
Dogs can’t run errands. They can’t drive to doctor appointments or call the deceased’s friends and relatives to deliver bad news and pass along funeral details. Their power is quiet and steady. Their inaction is, in fact, a monumental action. It’s amazing what a cold nose on the hand or the presence of a warm doggy body can do. When they’re needed, dogs are there—and that is everything.
Molly was sick recently. The vet performed a series of tests while she trembled and looked to me for assurances that he wasn’t evil. (The jury’s still out.) Kidney disease was the tentative verdict, and major dehydration was a side-effect and major problem. We were given bags of nutrient-rich water, needles, and instructions on how to inject Molly in the neck twice a day. That was a few weeks ago, and until now, it’s been my mom who did the actual dirty work. While I prepped our makeshift medical station and held Molly, my mom played doctor to my nurse. (Although, perhaps that should be reversed—whenever I’m in a hospital, it always seems to me that nurses are doing more than doctors…) This suited me well, since it’s a role I’m comfortable playing. In 7th grade, when it was time to dissect earthworms and frogs, I was more than happy to sit back and let my partner do the actual cutting. I took notes like a trooper and drew detailed, vivid drawings of the internal workings of Kermit and pals—but I’m fairly certain that the only time I touched the tray holding the unfortunate creature was to move it away from my notebook. (Ewww, slime.) Like a privileged noblewoman with unworked, callous-free hands, I did not deign to get involved in the dissection. My fingers were made to hold pencils, not scalpels.
My mom’s out of town right now, so it falls to me to give Molly her injections. The vet has cut it down to every other day, which is a small blessing because I’m enough of a panic-stricken mess. I’ve never minded getting shots. That’s not to say that I enjoy injections or that I like to watch the actual process, but I don’t cry or freak out or anything. Imagine my surprise to discover that the idea of giving a shot gives me the heebie-jeebies on steroids. Yesterday, I sat staring at the needle that I was supposed to stick Molly with. It’s as big as a darning needle, with a nasty point that makes me woozy. “But I’m an English Major!” I wailed. “I can’t do this!”
My grandma, who had agreed to assist me by holding Molly, rolled her eyes. “So now you’re an English Major who gives dogs shots. Hurry up.” I pinched a hunk of skin on Molly’s neck, trying to find a fleshy place to stick her. But the idea of poking that darn darning needle into her body made me let go. “I don’t even sew!” I protested, as if that’s a prerequisite for this sort of thing. “I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t.”
“Do it do it do it do it!” Grandma said.
I have to tell you, I instinctively shut my eyes as I moved the needle closer to Molly. “Are your eyes closed?” Grandma asked, appalled. “Open your eyes! For God’s sake—would you want a doctor to operate on you with his eyes closed?” So, I forced myself to watch the needle disappear into Molly’s fur and feel the icky popping resistance as it pierced her body.
We can do amazing things when it comes down to the wire. A mother can find the strength to lift a car off her trapped baby. A pilot can land a plane in emergency conditions. An English major can wield a needle and move out of her comfort zone with eyes wide open. A niece can make a small effort to pay back the miracle dog who brought peace to her dying aunt.
Molly seems to be doing much better. She’s very perky and vocal. She even played with a squeaky toy for a while last night. Still, tomorrow it will be time for another shot to the neck and the trauma will begin again. I should probably start doing deep-breathing exercises now.