Whenever I’ve lost someone close to me, I have the same dream within a month: in this dream, they return to me, healthy and whole. We have just that moment to be in each other’s presence once more; and then they are gone. It has happened with pets, with my grandparents, and with my mother. It is comforting to think in some form, they are well.
Then I wake up with a bittersweet taste on my tongue. In that brief moment it was real, my brain fooled into thinking they were there with me: Corporeal, breathing, warm. It is the chance I am never afforded awake, because in reality it has always played out the same: they get sick, then they get more sick, then they are gone.
I know it’s not like that for everyone, that some people get a respite: that time to jet off to Europe or swim in the ocean or experience life in that especially electric way of heightened awareness. Things that seem banal without context: toes in the Pacific, petting a horse, meeting Spiderman- take on this vast significance when you know without a doubt this is it, your one and only chance to bask in the gift of our life. It is ironic that in order to truly live, you must do so under the backdrop of death to throw it into sharp relief and heightened contrast. If nothing else, it explains the allure of BASE jumping and climbing Everest.
Since I don’t want to jump off buildings, I look for those moments elsewhere, for they are all around us. When you hug someone you love, it is just a greeting, a brief moment of physical touch and affection. When you hug someone who is very ill, though, you experience it differently. You feel their warmth of their cells humming away, you notice the whisper of their breath, you inhale them. It is sometimes all you get.
At this time last week, I thought Brody would be gone before Christmas. He was that sick, and again, in my life, once you get that sick you don’t come back. We went to bed on Saturday with all well in the world, and we woke up Sunday to a dog in shock.
He was in the hospital for three days while specialists tried their hardest to ascertain the cause. He was evaluated by two emergency docs, a cardiologist, a radiologist, and an internist, all experienced and brilliant. I took the records to my other brilliant and experienced friends. All of them were stumped. It is not a failing on their part. All the stones were turned, there was simply nothing there to be seen.
He had test after test after test. It was surmised at various points that he had endocarditis, mast cell disease, lymphoma, hemangiosarcoma, all different, all terrible, none things you want as a diagnosis. Blood tests were normal, biopsies inconclusive. My husband suggested spider bite, as one does. Nothing quite fit.
When he came home, he was stable but still so weak he couldn’t stand. We lifted him to his feet like so much dead weight, sat with him on the floor where he lay quietly, too tired to do anything more than lay his head in our laps. He didn’t want to eat. This was how Emmett looked in the days before he died of lymphoma, but at least we knew he had lymphoma. Brody had….something. Nothing, but something. I said a little prayer over him, not sure what to ask for.
He slept by my side as I tossed and turned, anxious about the fact that he couldn’t stand up on his own. And at 6 am on Sunday, my eyes darted open as I heard the familiar scrabbling noise of claws on hardwood. He was standing, by himself. His tail wagged, for the first time in days. It is the first time in my life I cried because a dog wagged his tail, but that’s what happens when you get to see something you didn’t think you would get to see again. All day I followed him around, waiting for him to decompensate again, but he never did. He feels much better.
He came back to me. I didn’t think he would. Frankly, no one really did.
Dogs don’t randomly collapse and experience what he did for no reason. It will be back, whatever it is, bigger and badder, and at some point it will probably win. It is the way it works. But not today. Not, I think, this Christmas. And that is more than enough for me.
I will continue to look and ask bigger brains what they think as we search, but this week we have the grace to pause for breath. For right now, he’s here; if not healthy, whole. Today, he feels like his old self, and today, I have the gift of loving on him unreservedly. When I hug him, which I do about every 20 minutes, I notice things I never did before: that the fur on the back of his neck is especially floofy, rubbing against my cheek like silk. That his skin smells like amber. That my forehead fits perfectly into the angle of his muzzle when he presses it into me, worried about my tears. He is so loved by so many people besides me, those he comforted in very dark times with his presence and his big doe eyes, who also rejoice in his time here on earth.
It is, perhaps, the finest Christmas gift I have ever received.