Once, when Colton was just learning to read he was given an assignment by his teacher to write something about one of his grandparents. He brought me a piece of paper, which still hangs on the fridge to this day. Penciled in little boy hand it said, “Grandma Ellie was my mom’s mom. She loved dogs. She is in heaven.” Boy did she.
Scout claimed me. I had been trolling on the SPCA website pulling up pictures of available dogs and to be honest, I was really looking for a Basset Hound as that was all I had owned for years. Amelia, who was only about 3 at the time, stood next to me as I scrolled through the pictures. When the picture of this white fluffy dog flashed up on the screen she blurted, “Oh! Look how cute that one is!”
The next day I went to the pound determined to get the Basset, and there in the first kennel to the right, was that cute white fluffy puppy. He was sitting calmly looking at me as though he knew he just had to be patient and I would figure it out. He knew what his charge here on Earth was, and that I just had to find him. Scout waited.
I played with the Basset puppy and tried really hard to like it, but it just wasn’t happening, so I decided to go home. As I walked out, I passed that first kennel again and on a whim asked to see that “really really cute fluffy white dog,” of course just to rule him out and all. I was still not sure how something other than a Basset fit into my life. But there was something about this dog. Yes, his cuteness chewed at me just like puppies like to do, but there was something more I swear like a chemistry. It was magic. I took him out to the play yard and he did not leave my side…and he has not left my side since that day. Scout still follows me faithfully wherever and whenever I go; leaving a full bowl of dog food behind if I go upstairs to shower, leaving a warm quiet nap if I go downstairs to work. Scout found me and has never once has lost me.
Amelia likes to say that Scout is “The Best Dog Ever Made at the Dog Factory,” and I agree. But sometimes too I like to imagine Grandma Ellie picking him out in heaven for me (just as she did each of my kids.) I envision her asking for a dog with the cutest of faces, a gentle yet silly disposition to make us laugh and for just plain the best dog ever. I imagine that when she saw Scout she blurted, “Oh! Look how cute that one is!” Perhaps God and she had chatted on a bench one day about what was to come for me in the next five years with divorce and cancer and job loss, and God asked her what one thing she could think of to give me that would see me through. I know for sure her first thought would have been, “a dog.” Grandma Ellie knew firsthand how dogs see you through just about anything. He is the kind of dog she would have found overwhelmingly cute, the best dog made at the dog factory for sure. And although I don’t like to think about it, I know one day she will take good care of Scout for me until I get there.
Scout did see me through. In divorce and job loss, Scout made me still believe that I was in fact, lovable and valuable no matter what, and deserving of licks. He believed in me still when I had lost belief in myself, and he waited with me through many a dark night, when the tears would not stop. And in cancer, Scout didn’t need my hair to recognize me. Scout sat beside me in the bathroom as I gave myself shots during chemo and as I was bent over sick, he gave me smoochie smooches to tell me he loved me and was sorry. He went without walks at regular times on the days when chemo ruled and unlike other dogs who might whine and cry, I heard not a peep and saw not an accident. He seemed to trust that when I had the energy, we would go. (Sometimes I really think he said he had to pee when he didn’t, just to get me outside.) But mostly, Scout waited.
It was a long 5 years of divorce and cancer, 35 in dog years. And he never left my side. Not once. He probably didn’t get all the back scratches he wished for or all the playtime he might have liked, but despite all that he only loved me more. I think Grandma Ellie must have told him he had a very special job to do; he seemed to understand the importance of just being there, waiting for the nausea to pass and waiting for the tears to stop, especially during those quiet moments in the day and those dark moments at night when it seemed no one else was there to wait with me.
Scout waited for all of us. He used to love the days when the school bus came with the kids spilling out the windows. He would be sitting by the front door at three o’ clock and do bouncy cartwheels as we went off to the bus. The bus was more often than not late, but Scout waited.
It was after those years of proving himself to be The Best Dog Ever Made at the Dog Factory that it happened.
We didn’t know it when we got him, but Scout had a small birth defect in his left elbow. When he was a baby dog it wasn’t noticeable but during the five years of waiting as he grew up, it got worse. The limp became pronounced, the elbow swollen; he became lame as they say with animals.
I was told it was severe elbow dysplasia and that there are no elbow replacements in dogs, so the choice was to amputate the leg or send him to Grandma Ellie. Although I knew she would most certainly make sure he had Milkbones galore and no pain, I couldn’t begin to think about losing him after losing so much in the last years.
And thus began one of the most drawn out mental wrestling matches my little head has ever known, of such epic proportions it will go down in history likely with not a lot of good stuff said about it by me or my friends or family, or any veterinarian in North Carolina…and Maryland… and online and well in Pennsylvania and Colorado too. Over the course of the next year I sought out every opinion I could find on elbow dysplasia, amputations and holistic treatments. The vet biopsied it just to rule out wicked stuff but that only bought me more time to stew. I bugged the bejeebers out of people for a cure and for insight into what the right choice was. Although he was in pain which was managed somewhat, Scout was patient while I figured it out. Scout waited for me to figure it out. He knew when it was time I would make the best choice for him.
I battered myself with the question, “Who’s needs am I meeting here?” Amelia who was the most attached I’ve ever seen a child to a dog, cried when I told her what had to happen to save him. Her tears and the look on her face alone punctuated how it seemed so wrong; too awful and grotesque to imagine. It seemed selfish to amputate a dog’s leg just for my need to keep him around, yet I trumped that logic by rationalizing that too that it was also about my kid’s needs, as they too had suffered so much loss and trauma over the last years. I just couldn’t see losing Scout too. And in all of this I wondered, how much more rain could possibly come down on us.
Finally, after a year of everything from acupuncture to a non inflammatory diet to massage it was undeniably worse. I still had no answer and Scout waited. I sat in the vet’s office in a puddle on the floor with Scout waiting next to me and asked her for the umpteenth time, “What do I do, what do I do?” She said that although she couldn’t tell me what to do, she could tell me that clearly it was time to do something. I asked if she would make the guy at the front desk drive him to amputation for me as I couldn’t bear to do it…she thought I was kidding. I was starting to make a decision.
As I normally do, I approached the congress of girlfriends and got everything from “You don’t want a three legged dog,” to “Really, you’d do that?” to the opinion of a fellow breast cancer survivor, who had had her own double mastectomy done that year, who firmly and confidently said, “Take the leg off and rename him Trooper.” In the end, it was little Amelia who not only made the decision about “what” but “when.” As I whined for the hundredth time, “It’s so hard because he has good days and bad days,” she quietly and simply said in her tiny voice, “Yes but mommy, after the surgery all of his days will be good days.” She had come around to it, and then led me to it. Scout had waited long enough.
The morning of surgery he woke me up early by doing something he had never done, jumping up on the bed; he had something to tell me. He laid there shaking, very painful as I remember. He looked into my eyes and gave me permission; he told me he could wait no longer. I sobbed driving to the vet and felt like a selfish traitor. Leaving me just a teary mess in the waiting room (which must have been hard for him) off Scout went, trusting me and following my order as I firmly told him to go with the nurse when he wanted to stay with me by my side. I felt like I had tricked him… it still makes me cry to remember those few moments.
Several hours later it was done. The surgeon called to tell me Scout had done well and could come home in a day or two. Then I was asked a curious question, what I wanted done with the leg, pathology or cremation. I think more because I didn’t want to have to ‘go there’ with Amelia, I said pathology, just so I could tell her honestly it went to a lab with scientists to help other animals.
The day I picked him up, Scout came walking out like he had been a tripawd forever. Truth was he had limped so long he really had it down and a good muscle base built. He came home, walked up the few front steps easily and laid down. And over the next few weeks, Scout came to life. This part of his personality we had never seen emerged that was astounding, the best dog in the world was even better. He became what I can only describe as pain free for the first time likely in his life and so happy. He was telling me his leg didn’t hurt anymore and that he was glad I had waited no longer.
I don’t know that Scout noticed the leg was gone. He just went with it. He figured out how to form a tripod to poop and how to lean on trees to pee and how to hop along and how to dig holes and bury a bone with one front leg. I was advised that dogs don’t think like humans do, they don’t have all the emotional stuff attached to limb loss. I’m not sure how vets know that but it seemed spot on, on both accounts. One day several weeks later, I looked out my window and saw Scout take off after a squirrel, enjoying every minute of the chase. Scout had waited to give me this profound and deeply personal lesson on that sunny afternoon: that we don’t have to be whole to be whole.
We often joke in our “Scout voice” that he says, “Hey, my leg doesn’t hurt anymore!” and tells people, “Whatever you do, don’t complain that your leg hurts around her.” We call him “Scout the Wonderdog” as he wonders all the time about things like why people sit on his water bowl and about where his leg went and well because he is both wonder-full and wonderful.
Several weeks after surgery the phone rang and the caller ID said it was the vet hospital. I thought it was a recheck call and couldn’t wait to tell the surgeon how well he had done. Yet something was really wrong, the surgeon was almost in tears saying the pathology was “very bad Lauren.. synovial cell carcinoma.” I was devastated on more levels than I could grasp and I couldn’t breathe; the rain pounded down on me, drowning me. They had missed my own cancer on biopsy and now they had missed his? What the hell was cancer doing knocking at my door again? Was there something in my house that was a carcinogen? Why had we become the house of cancer? Lastly I agonized over this truth; I would have never amputated if I had known …my God, what had I done?
All that time I made him wait while I was neurotically paralyzed in indecision, did I lose my chance to save his life?
So, a vet friend Kevin told me to come over to the hospital and he promised, “We will figure this out.” He sat with me as Scout went for a chest x-ray to search for metastases. In that wait, the grief and flashbacks poured over me. There I was again, in the oncologist’s office waiting for those first bone scan and chest x-ray results after they had missed my cancer for so long; knowing that life would be infinitely changed the moment the door knob turned. It had seemed impossible with the length of time I knew that tumor was in me that cancer hadn’t taken hold elsewhere, and with Scout it too seemed impossible that as long as I had made him wait that cancer hadn’t invaded his lungs. In the agony of the wait in that room for Scout’s results, my friend (despite not treating humans) seemed to get how the complexity and interwoven nature of this instant replay in my life had dismantled me. He sat with me for a very long time and waited until I could breathe again. And for the second time in my life, the doorknob turned, and a miracle walked in.
Although it had not spread and amputation was in fact the solution to this type of cancer, they recommended chemo “to get any strays.” Although they didn’t say it, I screamed in my head, “Strays that like exist because you waited so god-damned long to make up your freaking mind!” For the second time in three years I was offered chemo as a cure to what ailed me. It seemed crazy and surreal that this could be happening, I mean my hair was only inches long. How could I do this to him now, after already putting him through so much?
Later that afternoon, I walked down the street to the home of one of my wise elders, the women who, absent my mother, encircle me like lionesses. She is the one of the pride who I have come to love for her very, very direct wisdom. She opened the door and I just melted and wept. She gathered me inside of her grandma like home and let me cry until it was all out because she knew how immense and tangled the grief was, and that it was not just about Scout but was so much bigger; it was about me and cancer and fatigue and divorce and the roller coaster and part of my breast being gone and again, and my kids and amputations and MRI’s and why and how much more and chemo and this can’t be happening and cancer. In the still of her peaceful home as only her hands shook with Parkinson’s, she waited with me for it to pass. When she finally spoke, she said, “Well of course you get chemo, what else would you do?” She knew that was the only answer I had come for, for the permission I needed to go forward. She could have offered more, but her wisdom told her why I was there and what I needed: to be told it was okay to want to save someone who was indeed, a gift from God.
So chemo started and Scout got these bald spots on the side of his head and I loved him and told him he looked handsome. And Scout was tired and I tiptoed around him as he napped so as not to disturb him. I waited to do noisy chores till later. Sometimes, (not so truthfully,) I told Scout that we needed to run an errand in the car, just to get him outside in a way that wouldn’t tire him more. Scout threw up and I sat beside him and I kissed him and told him it was okay and not be embarrassed as I cleaned it up. I waited with Scout through his infusions and carried him into the house afterwards. I scratched his back and massaged where his leg had been and told him how very much I loved him and how sorry I was as I smooched him on the nose. Everything he did took longer, and I waited.
When Scout lost both his appetite and weight, we tried everything to see if he could stomach it until I found he could manage tuna. Then, we healed from this fresh trauma, one can of Chicken of the Sea at a time.
When it was all over and his fur had grown back, I faced the very question I still struggled with myself; How do we really know if it’s gone? What if it comes back? I had double willies for recurrance. Every time I saw something I thought might be a sign in either of us, it pushed me into a death spiral. One day, I saw he was in pain from something. I just knew it was back and I took him to the vet and anxiously told her my concerns. She said “He just hurt his back Lauren.” As I apologized for crying in her office yet again she said, “Lauren, it’s okay, you two have been through a lot together.” And we have.
After five years (after three years for Scout) we are well and happy and neither of us worry much more about cancer, well, he never did. It has been the best years of our life as a family I think. Scout is loved by so many people. He is a tripawd ambassador, going into Amelia’s school for show and tell. He lets kids ask him all kinds of questions and look under him for the other leg all they want, until they are satisfied. People often ask what happened to him and we say, “They said he had a career ending injury, but we disagreed.” When we go to pick the kids up in carpool (as the school bus days are long gone,) he sticks his head out the window and all the kids yell “Hey Scout!” Scout writes letters to Santa every year, asking for all the dogs at the SPCA to get adopted, and surely those three extra years of wishes from a very very good dog have found homes for oodles of dogs. Scout has his own facebook page, where anyone can friend him, and where he shares his philosophical views of the world on how the dog food bowl is always half full.
All Scout knows is this; my leg doesn’t hurt anymore.
This, I have learned.
That missing parts don’t matter if you can still bury a bone and chase a squirrel.
That the world unfolds as it is supposed to; that cancer gets found when it is supposed to. I don’t know that I would have made the decision to amputate had I known of the cancer before and he wouldn’t be here now living this large and happy life, chasing squirrels through the snow today as I write. I have realized that the protocol that came into place just weeks before I got diagnosed seems to be what saved me and it would not have been there had they found it earlier.
I have learned that some times when you don’t know what to do, you just have to do something. Being paralyzed is good for no one. You don’t breathe well and it just perpetuates pain.
I have come to understand that it’s not about what is gone, but what remains. That is really all it’s about despite how complex we want to make it; that the cancer is gone and your leg doesn’t hurt anymore. We don’t have to be whole to be whole, and sometimes, despite our very human emotional stuff, we are more whole when we get rid of the part of us that hurts. This big beautiful joyful side of us emerges when the pain is gone; one that is even better than before. We don’t have to wait for it to come.
I have learned that God gives every dog his milkbone but he doesn’t throw it in the dog house. You have to actively find your happiness in the context of the life you were given; you have to go down the deck stairs even though you are scared and you have dig around for buried treasure. We can whine or we can move and find our happiness again. I’ve learned that often we are stronger than we know, having built a good muscle base for years despite ourselves because God always prepares us with what we need for what is to come.
Scout shows me that we all have something imperfect, yet we are still lovable. We are beautiful no matter how much hair or fur we have and after all, it is by our insides that those who love us know us by heart. Scout and I have learned that sometimes people say awkward things to us, but usually they mean well and deserve a lick no matter what fell out of their mouth.
I have learned that is doesn’t matter if it is chicken or tuna, what matters is that we find what will nourish us and get us well.
He taught me that we don’t have to cry out when we are in pain because when people or dogs love us, they just know. They will take us into their living room or lay beside us in the night and let us cry. They will sit beside us, understanding our journey more than we know and they will wait with us for as long as we need. Having someone, dog or human, wait with us as we struggle and grieve is truly a gift from God (and Grandma Ellie).
Scout made me think less about my own cancer for a year. Sometimes when we give of ourselves and focus on others, our own pain diminishes; taking our eyes off of our own pain allows it to make it’s escape from us. For it is in giving that we receive.
Life moves along here at the ranch,…the garbage men still steal our trash every Thursday, the dog food elves come fill your bowl when you go out back to pee in the morning. We have learned that while we can control some things in life like making the mailman leave the porch everyday by barking, there are some things we just have to go with cause they are bigger than us. But we can always be happy. Happiness never has to wait.
In his puppy dream Scout runs. Tired from the squirrel chase, he snuggles and fits into the curve of my hip here on the couch as I write. I touch this sweet boy and thank god for him. I know indeed, that the best lesson Scout has brought me (heaven sent I’m sure) is that the very things we didn’t think would fit in our lives sometimes are the perfect fit. And we must always remain open to that grace finding us.
Every night at bedtime, he and I have a moment when he settles in for sleep and I go to his bed to say goodnight to him. I look into Scout’s eyes as I give him smooches and he looks into mine, I hold the gaze and wait until he is done, telling him all the while he is such a good dog and how he is so loved. In my mind, I hear him say, “Thank you for loving me,” and I say, “Oh no Scout thank you for loving me.”
And just as Amelia promised, all of our days are good days.
Someday (I hope far far away) there will be another note penciled in a teenager’s hand on my fridge, right next to the one that says, “Grandma Ellie was my mom’s mom. She loved dogs. She is in heaven.”
It will say, “Scout was the best dog ever made at the dog factory. He loved people. He is in heaven too.”