Tuesday, June 10, 2008

My Dear Watson

We didn’t intend to buy a dog that day. My then fiancé and I went to the NC Fairgrounds for the weekend flea market in hopes of finding a coffee table to add to our eclectic furniture collection that could be best described as “Early Graduate Student.” Clearly Bill did not know me well at that point because he would have anticipated that my casual suggestion of a walk through the pet section would lead inevitably to pet ownership. We wandered through the stalls and I stopped at a crate that advertised a litter of 10 from a Boxer mother and English Pointer father. Three of the ten puppies remained. One of them cried and jumped over his siblings when I reached down into the crate. He was small and white with one brown spot adorning the middle of his back. It was love at first sight. With less thought than I usually give to buying a pair of socks, I decided that I had to have him and sent Bill off to the money machine to get more cash. Forty dollars later, the puppy was mine.

We brought him home that afternoon and purchased the bare essentials: a leash, two bowls, and some puppy food. That night we put him in a box beside our bed with a towel and a stuffed toy. He cried all night long as he would every night for the next month. We awoke the next morning tired but still in love with our new addition. We called our parents to announce our latest joint endeavor; both sets told us we were crazy.

We debated names. Pablo was an early contender but it didn’t suit him. As Bill sat reading his Sherlock Holmes anthology he suggested, “What about Sherlock?”

“Sound’s too much like Shylock”

“Who’s Shylock?”

“The antagonist from the Merchant of Venice. You know Shakespeare? A pound of flesh?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“There’s that quality Notre Dame education shining through,” I joked. Then it dawned on me, “Watson! It’s perfect.” Our new puppy had a name.

When I called my parents to announce the name of my charge my dad gave me one of his usual cynical sermons. “What is wrong with you kids? Where did you ever get a name like Watson? When I was a kid if a dog had a spot we named him Spot. If he was fluffy we named him Fluffy. If he was black we named him Blackie. We were simple people. Watson …” I could see him shaking his head in dismay, but his playful tirade left me unphased. My puppy and his name were perfect.

In hindsight our decision to take on pet ownership at that particular moment was a bit shortsighted. I was trying to finish my dissertation while my husband was finishing his third year of medical school. We had no money, lived in a cramped apartment, and had no experience with dogs. More importantly I was sick with an as of then undiagnosed malady. In the six months prior to purchasing Watson I had gone from cycling or jogging on a daily basis to having difficulty physically getting out of bed in the morning. My swollen fingers made it hard to make a fist or turn a doorknob, my hands turned white in the cold morning air, I ached everywhere. I was having a hard time taking care of myself. But Watson needed me.

We lived in a third floor apartment, which made housebreaking a challenge. For weeks I went up and down the stairs twenty times a day. As he grew bigger, I began to take him for walks. At first it was more like taking him out for a drag that inevitably led to me carrying him home. But eventually he warmed to his leash and his daily walks, and I got some much-needed exercise. Caring for Watson forced me to keep moving and prevented me from yielding to my illness.

I defended my dissertation and started my post-doctoral fellowship. Watson missed my company so much that he chewed holes in the drywall while I was at work. We took to calling him “Pica Puppy” and became expert drywall patchers. One day I came home to find him lying on the futon with every pair of my shoes surrounding him; he had not chewed a single pair. I guess he was just lonely for me. He greeted me every night with more enthusiasm than I had ever witnessed. No one had ever loved me as much as Watson did.

Shortly before Watson turned one, my illness was given a name: scleroderma. Depression tugged at me daily, beckoning me to succumb to hopelessness. Its powerful seduction won me over for a time. Bill tried to talk me out of it, but Watson forced me out of it. He demanded his walks and daily playtime, he snuggled with me and gave me comfort, and he needed me. In the months following my diagnosis Watson kept me going. Our daily walks helped minimize the physical and psychological consequences of my illness. When I was warned not to have children, I sought comfort and solace in his unconditional love. And when Bill’s pediatrics residency took us to a new home in California and left me a “medical widow” during his training years, I treasured my companion.

My disease eventually stabilized enough for us to attempt a pregnancy. While I was gestating my firstborn, Watson and I continued our morning walks. I often wondered how he would welcome the baby. As much as I loved him I knew he would move down the totem pole of life’s priorities. When Amelia was born we sent home a onesie and a used diaper in hopes of somehow preparing him. Looking back this seems ridiculous but that’s what the baby books suggested, and I followed suit. The day I returned home from the hospital Watson sniffed Amelia’s skinny little legs and licked her feet. When I put her in her bassinet, he lay outside the bedroom door like a hired sentry. He accepted the addition of the stroller to our daily walks and the changes in our daily routine. He never showed an ounce of resentment. Watson didn’t even flinch when our second child, a rambunctious boy, began to ride him like horse and pull his tail on a daily basis. He seemed to love the additions to his pack.

I always say that Watson saved my life. In those early months of my illness, fighting the emotional weight of physicians’ dire predictions and the physical symptoms of my illness, that little puppy kept me going. I have always felt indebted to him. He is 11 now, old for his size, and starting to show his age. He sleeps most of the time and sometimes has trouble getting up the stairs. He has started having accidents in the house and sometimes he seems confused, just staring off into space. He asks for very little at this point in his life: his food, a little affection, and an occasional walk. He seems content to lie on my bed most of the day. I know that his time is drawing nearer, and over the last year I have often wondered if he is just waiting for me.

In some ways our lives have become so intertwined and my survival feels tethered to his. Last night I gave Watson his good night kiss. He looked at me sideways with his big brown eyes; he has never been big on eye-to-eye contact. He seems tired to me now. “You go whenever you are ready, buddy. You’ve done your job, and you don’t need to wait for me. I’ll be ok,” I told him. I hope he never feels like he needs to stay for me because he owes me nothing. He already gave me my life back.

No one wants to see a loved one suffer and, yet, when I was a nurse I witnessed many patients and their families “choose” a series of heroic measures. I am not sure what drives that compulsion to go down swinging. Is it simply the consequence of a medical care system that views death as a failure? Are we driven by regret for all the things we have let unsaid or undone? Or are we just desperately afraid of death and loss?

I keep telling myself that the transition from a mother’s womb to the outside world must seem terrifying. I suppose it is a good thing that none of us remember floating in that warm dark sea only to be literally squeezed through a small canal into the bright and cold world. And, yet, the experience brought us all here. I hope that death will be similar somehow, transiting from one place to another where I will be safe and happy.

But not just yet …

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