It all started Thanksgiving week. My husband, Alan, was still in California where he’d gone to be with members of his immediate family during a death and stayed afterward to help out. Here at home things were within shouting distance of normal. One afternoon I was taking Scout, the yellow Lab, for his annual physical. This is not on Scout’s list of favorite activities, so an hour ahead I went in the yard with him to throw his tennis ball, hoping that if I did this until my arm went limp and my feet and eyeballs froze, he might be slightly tired. Enough so that I could encourage him in the vet’s door by leaving a heavy trail of cooked chicken. You get the picture, I hope.
Maybe I brought it on myself. Remember that saying, “Be careful what you wish for because you might get it?” Well, clearly I should have been far more specific when I wished I knew how to introduce the first theme of my new novel, The Language of Kin, to you. I didn’t think of that when I launched my first pitch. Scout rocketed after it, as always. He hit nothing, nothing hit him, he was on flat grass with no ground holes or impediments, but suddenly, his back legs were on the ground, his front legs flapping wildly for purchase, and he was yelping and crying in obvious excruciating pain. I ran to him and tried to get him to lie down. Tried to calm him. Trembling violently, he kept up a terrifying screech, frantically trying to get up.
I’m strong and healthy but definitely not able to dead lift a sixty-five pound dog, especially one writhing in pain. I yelled repeatedly for help, which made no sense. (It’s winter, people have their windows closed and we’re surrounded by trees anyway, but I guess one always does that first?) Then I thought to check my back pocket–yes, I had my phone. But Scout was moving, struggling, crying while I tried to hold and comfort him and use the phone one-handed. Getting a screen up and scrolling through contacts did not go well.
I’ll cut to the chase: finally a neighbor came with her husband and he carried Scout to my car, to our vet, who said it was his spine and he’d need an MRI. (Yes, he also gave Scout a shot of painkiller and a sedative to make the trip endurable.) Right then, too, help from another friend who got me to Cincinnati, where my vet had sent us directly to a neurological specialist at an emergency vet clinic there, over an hour away. They took Scout to the back while I waited, pacing, with no word for hours. And hours. The ER vet (the neurology department was now closed for the day), after first telling me they had no spots open for an MRI the next day and I’d have to take him somewhere else (my vet had called ahead to alert them and arrange it), then another two hours later, after she read the notes, let me see him for less than a minute and agreed that my vet had indeed set it up so, yes, he’d have the MRI the next day.
He spent the night in the emergency hospital, and had the MRI and spent another night until the next morning when Alan was there, thanks to a red eye flight, and we brought him back to our own vet, where there’s been another three nights total in the local hospital. And finally, he’s home.
What happened? We’re told it can happen to any vigorous, athletic dog, any age: a disc in his spine extruded and bruised his spinal cord. His back legs are paralyzed, but as the cord heals, the prognosis is for full recovery. With two more weeks on a catheter and four to six weeks confined to a pen at home. We are doing intensive nursing, moving him side to side, carrying him outside as instructed. Physical therapy in his bed to work the muscles and joints. Already there’s muscle atrophy, so we’ll need to do a lot more active therapy with him as he recovers movement. Still, he’s fully himself other than what should be a four to eight week condition–alert, curious, barking to protect us when he hears anything he considers an imminent terrorist threat (bird visible through window, car on road, god help the UPS guy), giving his kisses and wanting our company on the floor by the pen we had to get him. And we love him.
Why am I telling you this? To start talking about the human/animal connection, one of the themes of The Language of Kin. I know everyone doesn’t experience this, but I think many people feel a deep bond with their animals. And many animals return the love with astonishing loyalty and unwavering affection. We develop ways of communicating with them using our bodies, our faces, our words and tone, our hands. And they develop ways of telling us what they want. Communication between animals and humans–and humans among themselves–can either work brilliantly or derail terribly. For example, as we care for Scout, Alan and I work to stay patient with each other as we struggle to interpret what Scout needs when he whines (company? water? food? switch positions?) and try to agree on exactly what the vet said to do…because the written instructions don’t answer every question.
For now, though, let’s set people aside. We’ll deal with them later. I’m hoping we can talk about communicating with an animal. Have you had a strong bond with an animal? What is or was it like for you? Please write in the comment section below and know I try to respond to every comment. If you think of it, maybe check back in later to see if someone else has responded to what you’ve said. And thank you so much for being here.