My fiancé was at the house to say goodbye before I took our dog, Peter Barker (PB for short), to the vet. He knelt down next to him, whispering a stream of words in his ear while petting him. I caught, “It’s gonna be okay little buddy.” Then he gave the little pooch the tightest of hugs. I jokingly asked if I could get one too. He said, “Well I know you’re coming back.” Ah, there it was, the honest truth I had been trying so hard to avoid.
If I had known that heartworms couldn’t be detected by any test for six months, or that a dog could be diagnosed even in winter, or that heartworm rates were rising, or that the only working medication, which was derived from arsenic, was in very short supply, I would have rushed to get him on preventative medication on the day he was adopted. As it was, I did not know these things.
The shelter packet I had received when I adopted him, which was half an inch thick and covered everything from training techniques to what foods he could and couldn’t eat, had a very small footnote that he had tested negative for heartworms. Since he’d already had a full check-up, I didn’t feel an urgency to get him established with a vet right away, especially since he was so traumatized by the adoption process and clearly scared of strangers.
So, I put it on my to-do list. It was something I would ask the next time I brought him into a vet, since I needed a prescription. Before it got warmer. In March, when the air was still cool and mosquitoes were nowhere in sight, I took him to get the prescription. Because there had been a gap in treatment, he had to be re-tested. The vet called me back to the room and I could tell something was wrong. “Well, he has heartworms,” he said.
The rest was a blur, something about a series of shots that could cause anaphylaxis, having to order the medicine from Europe as it is no longer made in the US, all the things I needed to do in the meantime, that there was no guarantee he would survive, although his prognosis was relatively good. What had started as an appointment for a small box of preventative medicine turned into an almost two month waiting process to get the only working treatment from the UK, where it was back ordered, all the while taking another regimen of meds that would, at best, start the process and delay his getting worse. I called other vets in town, but none of them had the medication either. And so I had to trust what the vet said, that PB was in phase one or two and would be okay to wait a bit.
A more optimistic person might have pointed out that without getting re-tested, no one would have known that he was ill until he was too late. That he probably had heartworms when he was first adopted. That my error might have saved his life. I was not feeling optimistic. I was guilt-wracked and heart-broken. As an in-home caregiver, I had spent every day caring for others, but had failed the one being in this world whose trust I had arguably worked the hardest to earn and who arguably trusted me the most.
On the morning of his treatment, after his daddy said goodbye, I asked PB if he wanted to go in the car. He gave a deep play-growl that was incongruous with his small body size and then did a little hopping dance of excitement on his short little legs. His tail was wagging and his tongue flopped out the side of his mouth. My heart sank because I couldn’t tell him where we were going, and even if I could, I wanted him to be happy and content as long as possible. I was calm as I lead him to the vet’s door. I was calm as I said goodbye. I was calm as I gave him a small kiss for closure, just in case. But I didn’t want him to be alarmed. Then, after shutting the door and leaving my very confused dog at the vet’s by himself, I sat in my car and sobbed.
There are people, I am sure, who would think I had lost my mind to go through this whole process, to pay so much money, to make such a big deal, over a dog. To those people I would say, first and foremost, spend the day with him. Watch him hide his chewies in painfully obvious places, then trot away, self-satisfied. Watch him play fetch with himself, throwing his toys with his mouth, then chasing after them, then growling at them as he pounces. Let him snuggle with you, and know that just a few months ago, he was terrified of most people. Take him for a walk and watch him run circles around you in the grass, playing some game with you, the rules of which only he knows.
Still, even I wonder why he matters to me as much as he does. There are, surely, more important things in life than a dog. Most dogs are incredibly loving and trusting of their owners; his affection is not rare or unusual. One can argue that is what they are biologically programmed to do, being pack animals.
This is what I know. I learned, as an adolescent, that those we love are not always there for us. My mother, aunt, and grandmother all died of cancer when I was in high school. There are many reasons that our loved ones may not be able to be there for us. Sometimes it’s because of illness, or death, or a lifetime of their own hardships. Some, like a dog, only have a relatively short time on this earth regardless.
When you have experienced a lot of loss in life, there is a small part of you that wonders if you are capable of loving or being loved. There is an even smaller part that believes that you are not. Small and subtle, like a whisper in a crowded room shouting the contrary. It is just a stray thought. That doesn’t matter though, because it is there, so quiet but so relentless that you aren’t even aware of its existence until it is gone, like the hum of a refrigerator that suddenly stops, leaving a deafening quiet.
Plenty of people have let me know that I am loved, and I believe them. I love them, too. Maybe people let Peter Barker know he was loved, too, before he came into my life. Nevertheless, when I first adopted him, I spent two days sitting on the floor with him in my lap. He was trembling and crying. He was recovering from surgery. It seemed that he had never been in a house before. He was scared of people, and of men in particular. He wouldn’t go near my fiancé for a while. He would run or growl if anyone held a roll of wrapping paper or any rod-like object, and it was obvious that he had been beaten. As I sat on the floor with him, all I wanted was to let him know that he was capable of loving and being loved, beyond a shadow of a doubt.
It seemed that he wanted me to know that, too. After a few days, he started following me, everywhere. When I went to the kitchen to get a drink he would follow me. When I closed the bathroom door, he would sit right outside and cry. One time he barreled past me into the busy street when I was loading up the car for vacation because he was terrified of being left behind. After that, the baby gate was installed.
As the months wore on, it seemed that doubt stopped for him, as well as for me. This was the piece that had been missing for both of us, the bit that slowly made us complete. I don’t know why. Neither does he. And so he would lay on the bed while I took a bath, confident that I was coming back. I let someone else watch him while I went away for the weekend, confident that he was in good hands.
When I went to pick PB up from the vet after his surgery, he was groggy and in pain. He wouldn’t eat or drink and I had to force-feed him his meds and some water. He reluctantly let me, because he trusted me. I reluctantly did it, because I was so grateful that he was alive and wanted to keep him that way. He is still tired now, but eating and drinking well. Sometimes he is even perky. And though he still has two more treatments, I am starting to have hope and to think of things I would like to do with him when he is feeling better. The dog park. The Mill Mountain Trail. New toys.
So why does all of this matter so much to me? The world has at times taught both me and my dog that we can’t have love. Or that we can’t keep that love. Or that we don’t deserve it. But we simply don’t care. We just go on snuggling, playing, hiking, when we can, as much as we can.
None of us in this life love because love is dependable. Neither do we stop loving because we fear this love could leave us. We just love. Fiercely, uncontrollably, recklessly, heartbreakingly, painfully, joyfully love.