Committing to a Dog After Cancer

1Steven and Billie, 1998

Leap Year Day, 1986: I drove up to a ramshackle house in Berkeley to pick out my first dog. It was a month before my two-year cancer anniversary, at which point I would be considered “cured,” and I was ready to make a commitment – to life, longevity and a puppy.

In a local paper I had seen an ad for a litter of cocker spaniels; among the nine pups I watched the runt get trampled over and pushed aside from the kibble. Too small for the forces stacked against her, but determined to stay in the game, the little female struck a chord in me. “That’s my dog,” I said as I paid two Benjamins for her. I know it sounds treacly, but it truly was “puppy love” at first sight.

It didn’t matter a bit to me that she was fully accredited by the American Kennel Club (which I figure is akin to being a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution). I was much more enthralled by her political lineage. Her “mother” and “father” had joined many Vietnam-era protests. Soon enough, this little dog would make her debut in San Francisco’s Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade.

For 13 years, “Billie” was the four-legged love of my life. She was fearless: On hot days, she would leap into our backyard pool and then paddle to the steps, climb out, and do it all over again. She was peripatetic: Over her lifetime she obtained elite status on United, having flown miles and miles in the airline’s friendly skies. And she was smart: able to open doors with a single paw.

Billie was also ahead of her time, with two dads long before that became downright cool. Still trend-setting in her middle years, she became a poster pup for joint custody when I moved to the East Coast for a new job. When the New York gig fizzled, Billie and I moved back to the Bay Area.

Then, one night I noticed that she was rubbing her right eye with her paw, as though she had a bad headache. A quick look showed something was terribly amiss; the eye had clouded over. An emergency call to the vet only heightened my anxiety. “Bring her in first thing,” he told me. After a cursory exam the next morning, he delivered the bleak news: “Glaucoma.” The pressure in her eye had already destroyed her optic nerve.

Within the year, the retina in her good eye detached and she went completely blind just as I was moving into a new apartment. It pained me to see her crash into unfamiliar walls and furniture. But Billie remained fearless — and proved resilient — and she soon figured out how to maneuver her way around these new obstacle courses.

Just before holidays that year I happened to kick an old tennis ball across the living room. Billie took off after it and wandered back to me with it in her mouth. I repeated the experiment and then called the vet, who told me I was suffering from “wishful thinking.” I brought her in for an exam and he put her through her paces in his office – including the ball toss. When he had finished, he came to me, tears in his eyes, saying, “This really is a Christmas miracle.” The retina had spontaneously reattached.

A year later, I took Billie back to the dog hospital one last time. Days earlier they had found a mass in her belly, and I knew it was time to bid farewell.

Thirteen years together. During that time, our thrice-daily walking routine helped me come out of my cancer fog. Day-by-day, walk-by-walk, I came to realize I would likely achieve a normal life expectancy. My commitment to this four-legged HAD led to a happy marriage with a two-legged.

After Billie was gone I never thought I would have another dog, much less one I could love so completely. Then, suddenly, it turned out I was single again; I thought I would remain that way for years to come.

2Steven and Max, 2009

But five months later, I found myself making the trek to a small house surrounded by a white picket fence with a heart-shaped wreath on the front gate. There, a 5-year-old cocker named Max who needed a new home, overjoyed by my attention but seemingly terrified of his own clipped tail, jumped all over me. Unlike Billie, this big lug of a cocker had no particular lineage and struck me as kind of low-I.Q. It was not love at first sight.

I told the owner I would think about it and drove away, expecting to forget about Max.

Within hours came an insistent call from Max’s owner: “If you don’t take him by the morning we’re going to put him down.” Well, when he puts it like that, what can I do? I said out loud to myself. Despite my misgivings I went back to pick him up.

Max soon confirmed that he wasn’t “gifted.” On a hike, he watched a horse trot by from right to left. Once off the leash, he tore off in pursuit – in the completely wrong direction. City life didn’t prove much easier. Barely a month later I came home to find Max breathing rapidly as though his heart was ready to explode. The one-pound box of dark chocolates, now empty, gave him away. At the E.R., I sat vigil through a touch-and-go night. A mere $2,000 later we came home, and what did Max do? He went directly to the trash bin and to pull out the chocolate box. My little genius.

However, I was finding that Max needed me in a way Billie never had. And through our various trials I came to love Max, too – not like Billie; in some ways it felt like a betrayal of Billie. But about this time I remembered an old folk song, with old folk wisdom, called “Magic Penny”:

Love is something if you give it away, give it away, give it away
Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.

Indeed, in giving my love to Billie, it had opened me up to having more.

Toward the end of Max’s days, I took him to an alternative medicine vet in search of help for a bulging disk, since he was now too old for back surgery. Silently, I watched her place each of the two dozen needles into his head, back and legs. Within moments, my frightened old fella had calmed down and lay quietly on the soft bed in the exam room. I did, too, ostensibly to make sure he didn’t jump up and shake out all the needles. But really, I wanted to hold him, to protect him – indeed, to love him – every moment that I could. I thought to myself with amazement as we lay there in the dark: “I love him completely, and completely differently.”

And when he died not long after, I thought how lucky I was to have loved twice like that. Different loves, yes. Each one complete in its own way. Time may have its limits, but love apparently doesn’t. Oh, and along the way I found another spouse. Years later we are still together, with photos of Billie and Max in the house – along with a crazy but brilliant Jack Russell terrier. But that’s another story.

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